by Christopher Hawkins
“It’s probably just a rash,” my wife said, though I could tell, even then, that she knew it wasn’t true. I could hear it in her voice, the subtle rise at the end that almost made it a question. Her eyes had gone wide, just a little, but the boy never saw it. He was looking up at me with wide eyes of his own, eyes that wanted reassurance. Below them, the tip of his nose burned an angry red, like a pale shoulder left too long in the sun, like a lobster left to boil.
“Probably, yeah,” I told him. “Just don’t scratch at it or you’ll make it worse, okay?”
The boy nodded, and his mother smoothed his hair back. It was a gentle touch, meant to calm them both, and it did, for a moment. But the troubled look returned as soon as his back was turned, and it did not go away.
Later that day, when he stepped off the school bus, I could see at a distance that the rash wasn’t a rash at all. The whole of his nose had turned bright red, and the skin had stretched taut over the swelling all the way from the bridge to down around his nostrils.
“It’s okay, dad. It doesn’t hurt.” As if to prove it, he took hold of his nose and wrenched it back and forth until his mother pulled his hand away.
“I can’t believe your teacher didn’t send you to the nurse,” she said, and when she spoke there was a tremble in her voice. “I’m going to call her and ask her why she didn’t send you to the nurse.”
I placed a hand on her shoulder and she pressed her own down on top of it, squeezing hard. “If it’s not better by tomorrow,” I said, “we’ll go see the doctor, okay?”
The boy frowned and nodded before he bounded up the stairs to his room. I watched him go. Later, when the rest of the house was asleep, I stood outside his door and listened to the soft sounds of his snoring.
At the doctor’s the boy sat on the examination table, shirtless and shivering. He seemed little more than skin and bones, knobby joints held at awkward angles. The doctor took his temperature and prodded at his nose with latex fingers. He squeezed, and when he let go it gave off a high squeal, like a balloon leaking air, like the horn on a bicycle. He left the boy sitting alone on the table while he herded us into the hallway and spoke to us in hushed tones.
We took him out of school a week later. A group of kids had thrown him to the ground and tried to pull his nose from his face. It had grown round as a plum and as red as a fire engine and they said he must be faking it. But he wasn’t faking. Already blue circles had darkened around his eyes and the skin around his mouth had gone red. The school offered apologies but ultimately did nothing. They knew it wasn’t contagious, but still they were glad to see him gone.
He found my wife’s old straw hat with the silk daisy in the band and took to wearing it wherever he went. Over the weeks he filled out some, but still not enough to fit in the threadbare checked coat that he pulled from a box in the garage. We’d try to dress him in the clothes that we had bought for him. A child’s clothes. My son’s clothes. Every time we would find him later in baggy pants held up with suspenders, in oversized shoes tied tight to too-small feet.
There was a wood across the street from where we lived then. It crouched at the edge of the blacktop, thick with brush and leafless saplings that stood like bristles between the narrow trees. On windy nights we could hear the branches clacking together like old bones, and the boy knew not to play there. And yet, he would turn his head toward that place at times when the breeze kicked up. On those nights, the sound through the trees became a low whistle, almost like music.
His skin turned pale and waxen, fading into a bleached white that felt slippery beneath my fingertips. One night I woke to find light leaking beneath the bathroom door. The boy sat sleepy in his pajamas on the edge of the tub while my wife scrubbed at his face with a washcloth. The cloth had gone white but his face would not come clean. I took her hand and held it still, and I sent him back to bed. We sat together on the tile floor, she and I, and I held her until she was finished crying.
I left my job to be with him then. Each day seemed to burn away like morning mist and no one could tell us how many we had left. I sat on the porch and watched him run across the yard in his floppy shoes, hitching up his trousers as he rolled his way through pratfalls. Sometimes he would stop at the edge of the yard to stare across the street at that thicket of trees. He did not speak any more. Every communication was in a broad and elaborate pantomime. There were times when he would look at me and I could see in his eyes that there was something he needed me to understand. It was all right, because I already knew.
He became a restless, nocturnal creature, shunning the daylight, angling lampshades in a darkened room to turn them into spotlights. The doctor had given my wife pills to help her sleep, so she did not hear him when he would sneak into the garage at night. I’d watch him, unseen, from behind the gap in the open door while he balanced, one-legged, on a bucket, juggling garden tools with the ease of a master. I’d watch him and wonder how much of my boy was left there, beneath the carrot-orange hair, behind the oversized smile. I’d watch him grow still and cock his head toward the street and the woods beyond. In those moments, I could hear the distant sounds of a calliope on the air.
My wife barely spoke of him anymore, barely acknowledged his presence when he came tripping and honking into the room. Though I wanted to, I could not blame her. She had known what his changes would mean long before I did, but her mourning still loomed like a living thing. When she sat on the bed, a book of old photos in her lap, I could not join her. Not while our son was still where I could touch him. Not while I could still look into his eyes, eyes that had stayed the same when there was so much of him I no longer recognized.
On that night, that last night, I woke from a fitful sleep to find that he was no longer in the house. Panicked, I ran to the yard, the screen door banging behind me. I found him at the edge of the lawn, in the coat that was no longer mine, in the hat he had made his own. He was staring across the street, at the woods. There, between the trees, I saw them. They peeked out from behind the branches. Jangling harlequins in drooping hats. Grinning augustes with wide, red smiles. Sad Pierrots in ruffled collars. Their pale faces caught the light, gathering it up and reflecting it like little moons. All of them were watching. All of them were waiting.
My boy turned to me then, no longer my boy but something else, something that I could no longer hold. There was a question in his eyes, eyes that still held in them everything of the boy I had once known. I nodded my answer, and a smile worked its way across his face, a smile familiar and alien all at once. Then he turned to the forest, running to join his brethren there as they jangled their bells to welcome him.
I felt my wife come up behind me. She slid beneath my arm and we watched him go until we could no longer see him through the trees. Tears spilled from her eyes in the silence, but I could see that she was smiling. I realized then that I was smiling, too. We held each other in the dark, and listened to the wind blowing through the branches. On it, we could hear the fleeting sounds of laughter.
As I Wait for the Killing Blow
by M. Shaw
My first feathers came in just a few days after my granddaughter Sima was born. Black as a raven’s, but that doesn’t mean much in the beginning. I could end up black all over, or a stormy grey color, or violet with blue speckles, for all I knew. The turning never brings the exact same form twice, just as no two children need the exact same monster to help them come into adulthood.
To no one’s surprise, it was my son-in-law who had tears in his eyes when he saw them. Yermiyahu was his parents’ fifth child and never had to slay an Ancestor. His four elder siblings had taken care of them all. One by one, the children were born; one by one, their grandparents grew horns, or scales, or wings, and fled into the hillside; and one by one, the children went to hunt them down when they came of age. Until Yermiyahu. Fifth children are sometimes called pine daughters (among less favorable names) because pine is a soft wood from a tree that grows up without ever having to drop its leaves. And he was no exception, fine son-in-law though he was.
“Come on, Yeyeh,” I said to him at his daughter’s naming ceremony, when he still couldn’t look at me without his lip quivering. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion! We knew one of us would turn, and now you can look forward to the strong climber she’ll have to become to face a flying Ancestor. I’m proud of her already. There’s no reason to pity me.”
“It’s not you I’m scared for, mom,” he whispered. “It’s Sima. What if she can’t…. You know. Can’t do it?”
“Can’t slay me?” I allowed myself the smallest chuckle. “It’s not fatherly to be so afraid for your daughter’s failure, Yeyeh. You can’t protect her from the dangers of the world. Not even when they look like her grandma.” I extended my arm outward — no feathers there yet, but we both gazed up, toward my fingertips, imagining the powerful wing it would soon become.
“Promise me,” he said. “When she comes of age, you won’t fight her. Let her take you. Please, mom. I can’t stand to think of losing her.”
When my daughter, Rivkah, was five, just going to her first fencing lessons, the realization came to her that I myself might become an Ancestor one day. Every parent dreads this conversation, no matter how many books we read to prepare us. I could never forget the look in her eyes, the sound of her voice, when I answered her questions and tried to reassure her that it would not happen for a long, long time.
This talk with Yermiyahu brought those sensations back into focus, as if he were my five-year-old daughter instead of my grown child’s husband. And so I talked to him as I had talked to her, back then. “I can make you all the promises in the world,” I said. “And they will be the promises of an old woman. Whether the monster will hold herself to them is not for me to say.”
“But it’s still you,” he insisted.
I nodded, though I couldn’t stop my gaze drifting away from Yermiyahu and out the window to my right. “Yes, but only in the same way that I am still the seventeen-year-old girl who slew my grandmother. Now, I am on the other side of the equation. Time and age shift one’s perspective in ways one can never anticipate. Parenthood involves a great deal of such reversals. You’ll get used to it. This is just the final reversal for me.” I placed my hand on his cheek, covered in bristly beard but still smooth underneath. “I’m not afraid for myself or little Sima. It’s you I’m worried about, Yeyeh. Are you sure you’re ready for all this?”
He sighed. “I thought I was, but I’m not so sure, these days.”
“It was a rhetorical question.” I smiled. “You don’t have a choice in the matter anymore.”
A deep breath. “You’re right, of course,” he said. He wiped his eyes, straightened the lapels on his jacket. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Do I look composed?”
“Hardly,” I said, “but thankfully we’re here for your daughter, not you.”
He nodded and returned to Rivkah’s side.
I let my eyes return fully to the window, imagining that I could feel another pair of eyes, great orbs of midnight, each one as big as my entire frail old body, watching back. “I’m coming soon,” I whispered, then went to take in as much of my infant granddaughter’s smile as I could.
The most irritating thing about turning is that there’s no one to talk to who understands how much it hurts to feel your own bones hollowing themselves out for flight. As my full plumage comes in (tawny and sleek, like a kestrel), the floor of my home becomes littered with the little fuzzy pin feathers that preceded them. As if I were a newborn chick. I don’t bother cleaning them up.
Sometimes they throw a celebration for the grandparent, but I wouldn’t have it. They feel too much like a funeral, with polite relatives pecking at casserole and bobke, and music that alternates between nostalgic and somber. I don’t feel either of those things. I’d be more suited to battle hymns, soaring requiems, screaming arias. The younger folks wouldn’t get it.
The women in my family have always seemed oddly eager to turn, when the time comes. My parents used to tell me that, on the very day I was born, my grandma had sprouted big tufts of fur from her ears. Within a month, she had run into the hills on all fours, covered in a slick brown pelt. What she did for the next seventeen years is her business. I only know that she was still waiting when I came up there after her with a new shield and an old boar spear over my shoulder.
She was no more prepared to go down peacefully than I imagine I’ll be. She had claws like spades and could fit her whole great, hulking body into the tunnels she dug with them. The first time she went underground, I made the mistake of climbing a tree to see where she emerged. Before I knew it, the ground I watched was rushing toward me as the tree fell into the tunnel she had dug beneath it.
I was fortunate not to break a leg in the fall and smart enough to make her chase me upslope, where the ground was all rock. Those claws weren’t much good against boulders and cliffs. Then, she had nowhere to hide.
Rivkah was my only child. When she was born, it was my mother whose skin turned to scales, whose teeth and neck grew long before she skittered eastward, toward the desert. If anything, she turned even quicker than the stories I’d heard of my grandma. Rivkah never would talk about what happened out there, the week after her seventeenth birthday. I only ever knew that she came back with one less arm but nonetheless walking with her posture a bit higher — ready, at last, to learn a civilized trade.
It takes children and outsiders some time to understand that we aren’t sad when our elders become Ancestors. We are not losing them, the way it happens with a disease or an accident or a war. When it happens, our fates are intertwined. It ensures that our moment of parting will be personal, that it will be self-determined, and that it renders the child an adult, if they survive.
I lost my husband to a kick from a draft horse. I’d rather have watched him grow these feathers and sent him off into the sky with a kiss on the beak.
My house has been empty ever since, mostly. Rivkah comes by every week to help me keep the place clean. On rare occasions, I do entertain another guest, but she only visits at night and never comes into the house. I watch the trees through my window, after sunset, not for a shape so much as an absence among them. A conspicuous darkness, sometimes punctuated by the glimmer of an eye in the moonlight. My guest doesn’t talk much, and all I ever say are my little taunts. “I bet you’d like me to let you in, wouldn’t you?” Or, “A little longer. Wait just a little longer.”
Each morning, now, I get up and count the feathers that came in during the night. I take heart, knowing that I will not waste away. In my old age, I will grow strong again. And when little Sima comes for me, on the cusp of her adulthood, I know we will reach an understanding.
When Rivkah visits, now that she’s recovered enough, she finds me in my place by the window, facing the hills, waiting for the day I will disappear skyward. We talk about Sima, clean the kitchen, make the bed. When she leaves, she hugs me a long time and says, “Goodbye, mother,” as if it is the last time, because you never know. I’ve already grown enough that her arms no longer reach around my torso.
I tell her I love her, and that I’m proud, and all the things I’ve been promising to tell her in this moment, since she was small. But even she does not know what is in my thoughts. How could she? I never told her my whole story.
For I spared my grandmother, all those years ago. Upon the rocky hillside, I looked into her eyes as she waited for the killing blow, and I saw that this was not the path for me. Somehow, behind that inhuman visage, I recognized the details of the portraits I had been shown, the letters I had been allowed to read from before she changed. I couldn’t say just what it was that I saw, except that it was a resemblance much deeper than a nose or a browline or any of the other similarities between parents and their children that we often remark upon. Our people’s poems and stories are full of such sentiments, but I never imagined that the familiarity would be so complete, so exacting and inexplicable at once. When I felt that, I knew that killing her would not make me understand what it is to grow up. There was a great journey between the woman who wrote those letters and the one who lay prostrate before me then, one that was invisible to me despite all I had been taught. She had more to teach me yet. She still does.
What I told Yermiyahu was not entirely true. I am still that seventeen-year-old girl. And I always keep my promises.
We don’t really know what happens to the Ancestors who survive the coming-of-age rite. She is out there still, somewhere. Soon the turning will reach my feet, and make them talons; my arms, and make them wings; my heart, and make it hungry. I will fly back to the place in the hills I remember. I will find my grandmother. I will look into her eyes again. And I will finally give her what she has been waiting for, all this time.
Then, it will be my turn to wait. On the day Sima comes for me, I will look in her eyes as well, and we will reach an understanding of our own.
I don’t know yet what it will be, but I know that I will be so, so proud, and my talons so, so ready.
I might not have slowly turned into a clown but I did not turn out to the way my mother planned either. I grew up afraid to tell her who I really am. This created a rift between us and stories like Interlude makes me glad that my mother and I both put in the effort to battle stigma. I hope Interlude resonates with young people and their families as they discover flourishing identities.
There is a monster in the Philippines called an amalanhig, which is created when a parent aswang is unable to pass on their curse to their children. As I Wait for the Killing Blow resonated with me as a person who grew up in a colony with generations of inherited rage. Stories like As I Wait for the Killing Blow give me hope for the future as young people undo generational violence.
About the Authors
M. Shaw (they/them) is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and past organizer of the Denver Mercury Poetry Slam. They live in Arvada, Colorado, where they do most of their writing in an empty art museum after midnight. Their horror novella ‘One Hand to Hold, One Hand to Carve’ is available from Tenebrous Press, and their short fiction has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Apex Magazine, Voyage YA Journal, The Dread Machine, and other publications. They run the micro-press Trouble Department, which publishes weird, fun, intense poetry and the occasional bit of fiction. Their website is mshawesome.com, and their Twitter handle is @shawwillsuffice.
Christopher Hawkins is an award-winning dark fiction writer, with short stories appearing in over a dozen magazines and anthologies. He is a former editor of the One Buck Horror anthology series and a member of the Horror Writers Association, as well as an avid tabletop gamer and collector of curiosities. When he’s not writing, he spends his time exploring old cemeteries, lurking in museums, and searching for a decent cup of tea. For free stories and news about upcoming projects, visit his website, www.christopher-hawkins.com, or follow him on Twitter @chrishawkins.
About the Narrators
Lisa Hicks is an audiobook narrator for ACX-Audible, a voice coach and a theatre director. She also teaches theatre studies at an international school in Waterloo, Belgium. In her spare time, she loves to take long walks, buds firmly planted in ears, listening to audiobooks and podcasts.
Alex Hofelich is Co-Editor of Pseudopod and pictured here at Trader Vic’s Atlanta. You can find him at tiki bars, local bookstores, microbreweries, and family-owned eateries. Like most tigers, Alex is made up of dragonflies and katydids, but mostly chewed-up little kids. Alex started assisting PseudoPod in 2009, and was brought on as an Associate Editor in 2011. He became Assistant Editor in 2013, and joined Shawn Garrett as co-Editor in 2015. He is currently serving as President of the Atlanta Chapter of the Horror Writers Association and is a regular host of their Southern Nightmare Reading Series.