I missed Snippet Monday yesterday. Yeah, yeah. Go ahead and yell at me. I’ll send my battalion of children off to attack you (though they’ll most likely just ask for snacks and want you to watch My Little Pony with them.)
Instead, I bring you a short story (quite short, only a tad over 1200 words) from the world of The Half Killed, more specifically, a look into Dorothea Hawes’ life before the events of The Half Killed.
So without further ado (because really, I need to get started on dinner and herd the children inside for French Toast and bacon) here is A Shapeless Voice. Enjoy!
The matron’s woolen dress smelled of perpetual damp, the fumes growing stronger, transforming into a miasma that dulled the senses and brought out a headache when she stood quite near the fire or any other source of heat. The heavy skirt, darkened with dirt near the hem, swished across the scrubbed wooden floor, catching on the edges of threadbare rugs, or knocking the occasional chair off balance.
But it was when she stood over your shoulder, the rough weave of the wool scratching at your arm, that you could think of nothing but brushing it off as you would an irritating insect. Of course, you could not move as you wished, and so you remained still, with the old woman breathing down your neck, her bones creaking in time with the slow, steady cadence of your words.
And when you faltered, she only struck your back with the flat of her hand, your spine straightening, sometimes arching away from her touch. It was never a forceful hit, nothing meant to cause you considerable pain, but simply a reminder that she was there, behind you, beside you, watching, listening to the word of God as recited by your tongue. It became clear, quite soon after your arrival, that she never touched you but to hit you, that this same quirk of her personality was followed through with her treatment of all the other girls. And there were so many of them now, more than enough girls to fill every bed, crammed onto the tiny mattresses in pairs, so that you fell asleep every night to the sounds of heartbeats other than your own as your thin legs fought for a share of the blanket.
As soon as you finished with your turn, the book passed on to the next girl, and then the next, until the entire lesson had been read. One of the other matrons spoke up then, ordering the lot of you to the rooms at the top of the house, and the lights were extinguished behind you, darkness filling your wake as the footsteps of fifty girls stamped up the narrow staircase to the dormitories.
There was some light from the moon, enough to cast shadows on the wall as you stepped out of your dress and took care to hang it on the peg beside your bed. Your shift was scant protection against the cold, and you shivered as you clambered into bed, the stiff fabric sliding up your legs no matter how much you tried to keep it pulled down. The blanket you tugged up to your chin, then over your mouth, just high enough so you wouldn’t have to see the pale cloud of vapor escaping from your mouth on every exhalation.
One by one, the girls around you succumbed to sleep. Better to sleep than suffer through the cold. You were one of the few still with your own bed, and so there was no other body’s warmth to calm the trembling that shook your bones. You wished for sleep to come to you, but it never did, leastways not until the pale, sickly light of dawn brightened the tall, greasy windows. Light, then. A few minutes of rest were what you found before the bells began their ringing, another day called to life with the sound of shuffling feet, of coughings, whisperings, scratchings, all as faces and necks were scrubbed, as the previous day’s dresses were donned, as the fifty pairs of feet tramped along the corridors and down the stairs again to breakfast.
But the sleep itself was not what frightened you. No, no. It was the dreams, the visions that flashed before your eyes, always so close, yet always seemingly just beyond your reach. And the voices… the voices were louder then, because in rest you did not possess the power to fight against them, to shut them out. And knowing this, they taunted you, telling you things you never wished to know.
And come morning, every morning, when the ringing of the bells pushed that other less melodious ringing of sound from your head, there was only more exhaustion than the night before. Though you made every attempt to disguise it, still the other girls inquired if you were well. But you told them there was no reason to worry, and so you washed your face, and braided your hair, pinning it close to your head before covering it with the itchy white cap.
Another day of lessons then, of basic reading and copywork, all of it followed by hours of sewing. Or, in your case, because your stitches had never been fine, of untangling bits of thread and yarn for the others to use. The work was dull, numbing to both body and mind, and you sat with your eyes narrowed, back bent over your task until the light from the windows dimmed. A few candles would be lit, though you still had to bring the work quite near to your face. By the time the call for the evening meal came, your eyes were narrowed to slits, the red reaching in from the corners, stinging until you wiped the tears away with the back of your hand.
Night came again, overtaking you before you were aware of it. The bells rang, and you fell into step behind the other girls. Another night, your dress hanging on the peg, the exhaustion sweeping over and around you until the dreams pressed in again. The voices found you, attacking with greater precision, never pushing at the same place twice in their search for a point of greater weakness.
And when they found it, they slipped inside, all stealth and cunning. One voice in particular struck you with more familiarity than the others, yet it spoke softly to you – so softly – lulling you into a deeper slumber, one that threatened to smother you with its offer of peace and comfort.
The screaming was not enough to wake you. Your throat was already sore from it, as though you had been crying out for some time without any knowledge of it. When you finally opened your eyes, you saw the other girls in the dormitory, all of them crowding away from you, pressed against their own beds, against the walls, a few of them running out the door, falling over each other in their haste to escape.
One of the matrons appeared then, a younger woman with dark hair unbound, still in her nightdress. You remembered the expression on her face, the horror that flashed in her eyes. Then, you noticed it. The placement of the other beds and furniture in the room, all of it shoved far away from your own, as if they’d been swept towards the walls by a great hand. Only your bed, you recalled, sat untouched in its original position.
The matron staggered forward, her hands reaching out for your shoulders, gripping them, shaking shaking shaking until the screaming stopped. You gasped for breath, realizing then how close you were to fainting from lack of air. Before you could blink, before you could form a single word on the tip of your tongue, she struck you across the cheek, the wound stinging from the scrape of her bony knuckles.
A stupid girl, she called you. A monster. And as she spoke, the soft familiar voice echoed the same thought in your ear. Only you were more inclined to believe him above all others.