A Shapeless Voice – A Short Story

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!

*** A Shapeless Voice

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.

***

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Snippet Monday: The Death Within

Busy, busy, busy. This is the life I lead. But we seem to have tailored the daily homeschooling down to about three hours, finishing by lunch, and then a flurry of chores and other things give me leave to write while the youngest naps in the mid-afternoon.

The last two weeks I’ve shared bits of Dust and Silver, my paranormal historical mystery, but today I’m jumping over to an excerpt from The Death Within, the sequel to my book The Half Killed.

In this story, there is an illness that is infecting people in London, one that kills them in a horrible manner. Dorothea Hawes connects one of the victims to a local temperance society, and so attends a meeting in order to see if there is anything of importance to be discovered, or if the connection is merely coincidence. 800px-Accueil_scribe

***

“Pardon me, but I do not believe we have yet been introduced?”

Mrs. Newton is taller than I imagined, my original impression of her height taking into account the small stage on which she stood. But even without the aid of a platform, she stands at least a head above me. On top of that head, held to her hair with a jet-tipped pin, she wears a simple hat, adorned with only a few black silk roses tucked away in tight curls of lace.

“Miss Hawes,” I say, and hold out my hand. The other hand I slip behind my back, my handkerchief and its plunder held well out of sight.

She takes my fingers and shakes them gently, as if one of us will shatter should she attempt a more forceful maneuver. “Miss Hawes, is it?” Her fair eyebrows pinch together, then pull apart as her forehead clears and a smile pushes her cheekbones out and upwards. “Miss Dorothea Hawes? Am I correct?”

I must admit, I am stunned that she knows who I am. I am far from claiming myself as a celebrated personage, and what fame I did have when I was younger has long since dissipated, even before the loss of what gifts had plagued me. But her hand drops quickly away from my own, her fingers working inside her gloves like one brushing a few particles of dust from the tips of them.

“Yes.” A rough sound drags itself out of the back of my throat, the word sticking there before I cough behind my hand and say it again. “Yes, though I am not what I once was. I am reformed, you might say.”

“We are more enlightened now, I think. Spiritualism, seeking to commune with those departed from us…” Her lips nearly disappear between her teeth. “A perilous return to the superstitions of the Dark Ages. We are better than that. Such great scientific discoveries of the last few years have brought about a new age, don’t you think?”

“A renaissance, you mean?” I glance towards the nearest window, where the sky darkens over a city hunkered down beneath a drifting fog of smoke and sleet and the discolored fumes spewed out from the various factories and mills gathered near the river. Since the last intellectual rebirth swept across Europe, has anything about London really altered? If my history has not failed me, it was a fire and not science that brought about any change to that sea of buildings, stretching towards the horizon.

Mrs. Newton smiles, her gaze dipping down in what appears to be an affectation of shyness. Or perhaps I am being too harsh, though the lack of that smile in her eyes when she again raises her head leads me to cling to my original assumption. “And what else? The poverty, the filth, the drink and vice that infect these streets… I fear we can descend no further, Miss Hawes.”

Even lacking my ability to delve into her thoughts, to trawl through the sins of those assembled around me, snacking on their edibles while they stir cream and sugar into their tea, I wonder at the gall of this woman to make such an assertion. In all of mankind’s history, and here, at this moment, we have only now fallen to the nadir of our development? But I pull my mouth tight, an expression one could almost mistake for a smile as artificial as Mrs. Newton’s. If only I could touch on the fringes of whatever cogitations are currently spinning around beneath that silk-flowered hat, but I push the desire away before it can lead me in a less healthful direction.

“But you believe we have begun to rise again?” I pose the question easily enough, giving them the tone of being the first words to leap into my head. The truth is that Mrs. Newton’s manner is rather open, considering that this is our first encounter with one another. If her wish is to win me over as a new recruit to her cause, I wonder at her willingness to delve so quickly into subjects that would make the typical London housewife curl her lip in offense.

“Do you not agree?” She steeples her fingers in front of her, taking on a pose I would expect from one standing to have their likeness painted. “You yourself have already left the foolishness of Spiritualism behind. There are no great mysteries that cannot be solved without the dedication of great intellectual minds and the tools they yield. We will conquer all of the scourges that have plagued humanity, from illness to war…” She spreads her hands apart, leaving the rest of her statement open.

“Perhaps even death itself?” I suggest, still managing to keep my voice light.

A small laugh escapes from the back of her throat. “Oh, I’m not sure we’ll press matters that far. But with the advances we’ve seen these last few decades, I would not rule out anything, Miss Hawes.”

***

Snippet Monday (belated): Dust and Silver

I apologize for the lateness of this post, but my reasons are good: I was caught up untangling some plot messes yesterday, forgot to write up this post, and ta-da! It’s suddenly Tuesday and whoops.

So, this week, I bring you another excerpt from Dust and Silver. In this scene, Lady Drummond arrives at a meeting with several others, to discuss a recent string of murders that has occurred in London…female_angel_praca_dos_restauradores_2

***

“Another one?” I pose the question to whichever of them decides to provide me with an answer. Mr. Albert Goring, the man at the table, is the first to reply.

“That makes three now. A prostitute, a kitchen maid, and now the wife of a banker.”

I scan through a few more lines, my eyes narrowing as I attempt to make out the notes, apparently written in some haste. “Hmm, seems to be moving up steadily along the rungs of society. And there is nothing in common other than the manner of their deaths?”

Mitchell sniffs and lets the window blind fall back into place. When he turns towards us, his dark eyebrows are pinched together, the creases between them the only lines on an otherwise smooth, ageless face. “The head nearly chewed off. Hell, this one was barely held to the body by more than a scrap of sinew.” He comes up behind Goring, reaching over him to shuffle through a few of the papers until he finds what he wants: A photograph, one that he takes the trouble to walk around the length of table in order to bring to my side.

“No,” I say, as my gaze falls on the image. “Not a clean wound at all.”

I try not to imagine how much worse the scene must have appeared to the naked eye. Rendered in black and white, a majority of the blood is reduced to mere mottled shadow, or stains that could be explained away as something – anything – else. But the position of the woman’s head cannot be interpreted as a play of light and shadow or a simple photography trick. There it lies, against her shoulder, the thick, wet ropes of her dark hair spread out around her, in a grotesque simulation of a crown or the rays of the sun.

There is no elegance to the injury. A knife or even the swift slice of an axe would have left some line of the woman’s throat intact. But this is a nothing short of a mess. Flesh that appears to have been gnawed on, torn apart, the skin hanging ragged around the still-gleaming white and visible vertebrae of her spine. The rest of her remains untouched, and I wonder at how so much violence could be inflicted on a single part of her body, and nowhere else.

“What was her name?”

“Mrs. Lillian Butler,” Goring tells me. “Married less than a year. The police, of course, have their eye on the husband. But he wasn’t even in the country when the last murder occured. They were on their wedding journey, in Paris at the time.”

I push the photograph away from me, face-down on the tabletop. “So we have three deaths over the span of a year—”

“Fourteen months.”

I glance at Mitchell, who has resumed his place by the window.

“Fourteen months,” I amend. “Three women, vastly different backgrounds, and there’s nothing connecting the location of their deaths?”

Goring clears his throat. “Mrs. Butler was murdered in her home. In Leadenhall Street.”

“And the ladies’ maid, Miss Docking, was in St. James’ Street. Though she wasn’t killed there.” Instead, her body had been found in the mews behind the townhouse in which she lived and worked, the straw of an empty horse’s stall soaked in her blood. “And Miss Patton—”

“The whore,” Mitchell interrupts. I refuse to even flick my eyes in his general direction.

“—was discovered in an alley off Chancery Lane. And there is nothing else? Place of birth? Even where their parents, their grandparents hailed from?”

Goring shakes his head. “Nothing but the, uh…” He waves a hand in front of his collar, the vicious wounds shared by three separate victims recreated with a waggle of wrinkled fingers.

I lean back in my chair, drum my fingers on the edge of the table. “So we are precisely where we were before, when Miss Docking was killed.”

***