I have long fallen in love with my cozy little cottage, sitting just right outside the skirts of a lively, bountiful forest. Softly humming a little tune, I thinly slice the freshly baked loaf of bread sitting on my kitchen counter. The toasty smell wafting in the air summons deep rumbling sounds from my empty stomach. My mouth waters as I spread a generous amount of light, velvety butter on my bread
Just as I am about to wolf down my buttered bread, I hear panicked shouts right outside my door. Slightly disappointed, I snatch a slice and rush out the door.
A young boy, anxiously crouched over the limp figure of what appears to be a young girl, is desperately crying out for help.
Upon noticing that the two children are severely malnourished, I rush forward and crouch down. I am shocked by the cuts and bruises covering their thin, tiny bodies, but I am forced to collect myself to address the most pressing matter at hand.
I look into the boy’s eyes and give him a comforting nod, “Don’t worry, I’m here to help.”
Upon hearing the word “help”, the young boy promptly faints with relief written all over his face.
What a strong, caring child.
With as much strength as I can muster, I carry each child into my humble abode. I slowly trickle some water into their mouths until both of them regain consciousness, “Shh, shh. Don’t speak, please try to stay calm and just eat.”
I use two fingers to pull off bite-sized pieces from my fluffy bread and gently stuff each piece into each of their mouths, one at a time.
“There we go, you guys are doing great!”
At last, the color has begun to flow back to their faces.
I lift the children into my bed, and I quietly tuck them in. The muffled cries of my grumbling stomach and the lonely, half-eaten loaf of bread end up forgotten as, overcome with exhaustion, I collapse onto the ground.
The body sitting and resting on my back feels as light as a corpse. I’m even more worried about the fact that Em hasn’t said a word for the past few hours, behavior that is drastically different from her usual talkative self. But her silence is understandable, considering our circumstances. Only a few days ago, we both decided to run away from our orphanage without so much as a morsel of a plan in mind.
We may be starving and looking death in the eye but I don’t regret my decision at all, and I’m certain Em feels the same. The “orphanage” was more like a match factory disguised as a home for orphans; the “caretakers” trained all of us how to handle the matches without regard for our safety at all. Em and I would’ve been able to endure it all if not for the horrendous disease that was rapidly spreading throughout the den. They called it phossy jaw. And little Mary was the very first victim. The sight of her violently shuddering on the floor with a swollen, decomposing jaw before drawing her final breath has been burned into my mind, haunting me to this very day. I refuse to let Em fall victim to the same demon. She was my ray of sunshine, my only source of comfort in that hellhole.
Despite the burning pain flaring up from my bony feet, I trudge forward one step at a time, telling myself one step forward is one step closer to freedom. When I see the distant lump sticking up from the ground gradually enlarge as I step forth, adrenaline rushes into my veins and I muster what little strength I have left to sprint towards it. My heart is thudding fast and loud as a drum, and I haven’t had enough water to sweat but I can feel the heat rising to my head.
As I near the door, I pause mid-step.
Wait a second. I don’t feel her breaths anymore.
Up until now, Em’s soft breathing had tickled my neck like a feather, and my notice of its absence sends my heart six feet under. I slowly set Em down on the ground and I check for heart beats, breathing, anything indicative of life. My heart drops even further.
No, there’s no way. We’ve already come so far. It can’t be…
I cry out in anguish and let out a guttural scream, a desperate plea for help.
As if to answer my cries, an angel descends from the heavens and gifts me the comfort of her aid, ““Don’t worry, I’m here to help.”
Please. Please save us. Please save Em.
And my world is suddenly sucked into a pitch-black darkness.
“Please, Miss Jane, let us help out around the house!,” I plead, “You already let us stay here free of charge, and you refuse to accept so much as a few words of gratitude, the least we can do is pull our own weight!”
Em eagerly nods in agreement, eyes full of energy and brimming with joy, “You’ve taken such good care of us for the past few days, and you’ve even offered us a place to stay, we are more than willing to offer our aid!”
Flustered, but evidently pleased to see the improvement in our health, Jane gives us each a light pat on the head, “Well, if you two insist.”
I grin, “You won’t be sorry, miss, I promise we’ll be useful. We’re willing to do anything if it means we can help you!”
Jane laughs, but I catch a hint of worry in her eyes, “My dear children, while I appreciate your help, you mustn't make such promises to just anybody.”
“Oh, but Miss Jane, you aren’t just anybody!”
Jane affectionately ruffles my hair with a warm, glowing smile, “That’s nice to hear, dear Ren, thank you for your kind words.”
But it’s true.. you saved our lives.
At this moment, I make a solemn vow.
To protect Jane, no matter the cost. To protect every hair on her head, from her cozy, fireplace smile to her cheery little hum.
It’s only been a year and I’m already used to living with my two little helpers, Ren and Em. They fill my little home with so much life and joy that it feels as though they have been here from the very start. I absentmindedly wrap my fingers around the wooden handle of my pitcher to fill some glasses with water, and end up pouring out some air.
I sheepishly turn my head to look around only to discover that both children have witnessed my embarrassing slip of the mind.
I sigh, “Please forget what you just saw.”
Ren and Em, visibly suppressing giggles, vigorously nod several times and burst out the door with half-eaten loaves sticking out of their mouths. I can hear their giggles pass through the door to dance in my ears like a musical tune, and I can’t help but grin.
I slide a rope through the handle of the pitcher and secure the two ends in a tight knot, then slip on the makeshift necklace.
I call out, “Ren! Em! I’m heading into the forest to refill the water, alright?”
Em rushes back in through the door to cling onto me with a hug, “Miss Jane, why don’t you let Ren and I do it? You should stay here to rest!”
I pat her on the head, “Thank you for the offer, but I can’t let you two do all of the work, can I?”
Upon seeing words of protest beginning to form in Ren's mouth, I quickly hush him, “Besides, it’s quite unhealthy to stay inside all the time. I’d like to get some fresh air every once in a while. Don’t worry, my dears, I’ll be back in no time!”
Humming, I lower the mouth of the pitcher into a gurgling stream and wait for a rush of cool water to flood in.
I notice some movement out of the corner of my eye but I choose not to pay it any heed, dismissing it as a wild creature or gust of wind.
I should gather some berries for jam…
With more water slipping out than rushing into my pitcher, I set it aside and cup my hands to drink straight from the stream.
The sensation of cool, refreshing liquid blessing my dry throat only leaves it begging for more.
A sharp pain abruptly pierces my chest and my body is thrown backwards into the rough bark of a looming tree. A concerningly dark cloud of smoke is emitting from the throbbing point of pain on my chest and my vision blurs as I start to feel a little woozy.
I shudder in response to a booming voice in my head that shakes my soul to its very core, commanding me to “SLEEEEEEEEEP.”
The light, tapping footsteps approaching the door spark excitement in my heart, and I dash over to the door to greet Miss Jane.
I creak open the door and run, barefooted, through the dirt to throw my arms around her neck, “Miss Jane, what happened? It’s pitch-black outside and we were worried sick!”
A sickeningly sweet voice trickles out of Miss Jane’s mouth, and a shiver runs down my spine, “My sweet, sweet child, there’s no need to worry about me. I assure you, I am perfectly fine. Look, I have the water right here!”
Something doesn’t feel right.
“M-Miss Jane? Are you sure you are feeling fine?”
Come on, Em, what’s wrong with you? How could you even think of doubting Miss Jane?
I shake my head at myself, but I fail to control my shaking limbs.
Miss Jane smiles and puts her hands on my shoulders, “Of course. My dear Em, why don’t you call me mother? I don’t mean to impose but I truly see you as my very own daughter.”
I freeze in shock, and a warm fuzzy feeling starts to melt away at my irrational suspicions, “Miss Jane…”
I hear a soft creak behind me and the smell of Ren’s chicken soup fills the air. Ren must’ve overheard our conversation, because he’s standing in the doorway with his jaw hanging.
My stinging cheek causes tears to uncontrollably well up in my eyes. The warm, snug feeling that had filled my heart slipped out through the fresh cracks.
I look up in disbelief with a hand on my cheek, “M-Miss Jane?”
Ren put himself between me and Miss Jane, “Miss Jane, please calm down and let us right our wrongs. What have we done to anger you?”
“Please, call me mother,” replies a sugary voice dripping out from a twitching smile.
“M-m-,” Ren starts, but is interrupted by a harsh outcry.
Miss Jane, doubling over as though she were punched in the guts, let out a soft groan, “GO AWAY! GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!”
I-I can’t control my body. It feels as though I’m a stranger in my own body… and my presence is being forced aside by another one.
This other… “being”... seems to have access to the entirety of my past memories…
The demon in me drags my feet forth while lugging along the increasingly light pitcher of water, leaving a wet trail behind.
Though I remain a spectator of my physical form, I can tell that the perpetrator is becoming increasingly comfortable in my body, a disturbing thought that further alienates me from my own flesh. I can sense the demon’s intense craving for life essence, as the energy is gradually sucked out of my soul.
And then it hits me. Oh god. The children. I have to protect the children. I have to fight for control.
I struggle and try to wrestle down the conflicting presence in my mind, and I must’ve taken it by surprise because, to my elation, I am able to take back control. My excitement and relief is unfortunately interrupted by the excruciatingly painful sensation spreading throughout my body at an alarming rate. My momentary display of weakness gave the devil a chance to snatch back control, and so I am once again a mere witness of my corpse.
I fight with all my might but can only gather enough strength to regain control for mere seconds at a time.
As my home comes into view, I am forced to make a decision.
If I use my short moments of control to explain my situation or tell the children to run away, they will only insist on staying to help me out. I refuse to put them in such a dangerous situation. I must scare them off so they will run away of their own accord.
Em, with her sweet but wary smile, cautiously approaches Jane with a steaming hot cup of honey lemon tea. The sweet and citrusy fragrant is soothing but also acidic, like the calm before a storm.
“M-mother, Ren and I made this tea just for you!,” Em accidentally trips over a crack in the floor, causing some of the hot liquid to spill over the edge of the delicate cup, into her quivering hands.
“EM! Are you alright!?,” I dash to her side and cradle her hand in mine, “Let’s run it through the cold stream.”
Jane’s head whips towards our direction, “YOU CLUMSY, FILTHY BRAT! You better stay here to clean up the mess!”
Em, slightly trembling, wobbles into my arms and starts to sob, “R-Ren… what did I do wrong?”
“Nothing, Em, you didn’t do anything wrong,” I tightly wrap my arms around her and lightly stroke her hair to calm her down.
What went wrong? We’ve already gotten this far away from the match factory. So why? Why haven’t we been freed? What more must we do to secure our freedom? Our safety?
I should’ve known it was all just a facade. The whole situation was simply too good to be true. I was a fool to think that Miss Jane would be any different from the other adults. She only wants us here to work for her.
It pains me to see the devastation and betrayal swimming in Ren and Em’s eyes, but I must force myself to harden my heart if I am to save their lives.
I am using every single drop of strength I have to keep the devil in check, but I can feel its growing thirst for the young lives that are constantly within arms’ reach. So far, the devil has resorted to countering my efforts by using honeyed words to convince the children to stay. But such trickery can only go so far. Love and trust must be earned, and once they are lost, they are not easily regained.
The thought relieves me, but it saddens me all the same. It seems I still have a long way to go before I become selfless enough to completely close off my heart. Despite knowing that everything I am doing is for the sake of the children, the selfish side of me just wants to spend what little time I have left in control of myself with them as their mother.
Though, ironically, the idea was devised by the devil to fool the children into staying, I have come to find the idea rather endearing after giving it some thought. Truly, Ren and Em are like my very own children, and I love them with all my heart.
Oh, what I would give just to hear them call me “mother” one time. Just once, for real, and to me.
Sigh…I’m getting weaker by the day. My body is increasingly slipping out of my control… I have to think of a solution before I am forced to give in to the devil…
A little voice that I have long pushed to the back of my mind called out, “Oh but there is a way to protect the children.”
I know… I know what I must do, but I can’t bring myself to do it…not yet… not while there’s still hope.
Snuggly huddled in bed with Ren, I turn to face him, “Ren, I’m scared.”
“Me too, Em, me too…,” Ren sighs, and I can hear the exhaustion in his voice, though it’s too dark for me to see his expression.
“Did something happen to Mi—I mean mother?,” I ask in a shaky voice, “She was so kind and sweet before…”
“No, Em. She was never kind or sweet. It was all an act.”
I try to hold back my tears, but I can’t hide the tremble in my voice, “D-do you really believe that?”
I can hear the regret in Ren’s voice, “Oh Em, please don’t cry, everything is going to be alright, I promise.”
His words of comfort only serve to break my fragile dam, and the falls come pouring out.
To my astonishment, rather than embrace me in an attempt to calm me down, Ren joins me, and we mourn together.
All of this started the night Jane came back from the forest with the pitcher of water…I wonder what possessed her to show her true colors. Perhaps she felt that after gaining our trust, we wouldn’t dare to leave her side no matter how poorly she treats us. She speaks sweet nothings to us and hands them out like candy, but I refuse to be fooled.
I let myself get lost in my thoughts while drowning in silent tears until I finally drift off to sleep.
My consciousness dissolves into a blinding flash of light and the silhouette of a strangely familiar figure slowly emerges from the curtain of radiance.
I see Jane comfortably seated in a soft field of grass while affectionately watching Em, who is grinning from ear to ear, jumping and twirling in circles without a care in the world. Em enthusiastically runs into her arms, and giggles in glee, “Mother, why don’t we collect some flowers to make some tea?”
Jane crouches and lightly squeezes Em’s hands, “That sounds wonderful, Em.”
A hooded figure with black feathered wings suddenly flickers into view and wraps its arms around Jane’s waist.
Jane’s eyes widen and she aggressively kicks at the mysterious abductor. The towering wings begin to flap and Em wails as she grips onto Jane’s hand so tightly that her knuckles turn bone-white. Despite her efforts, Jane’s fingers inevitably slip out of Em’s hands. As the two approach the clouds, Jane closes her eyes as though resigning to her fate.
I break out of my frozen stance and yell, “Mother, come back! You’re getting too close to the sun!”
The stygian figure shoots up with Jane in their arms, and the wings burst into flames. In the blink of an eye, the two descend in the form of ashes raining down from the sky.
I’m running out of time. I’ve been stalling for long enough.
The shimmering, teardrop stars spread across the dark veil over the once sunny skies call me forth, into the abyss.
I wrap my feeble life force around my soul to bind it to my body once more. The burning flames scorching my soul are nothing compared to the feeling of having my heart shattered into innumerable pieces.
I crack the door open as quietly as possible, but pause a half-step out the door. In spite of better judgment, I slip back into the house and step across the floor on my toes to peek into Ren and Em’s room.
They look so peaceful.
I smile melancholically as I watch the bodies slowly rise and fall with each deep breath. And then I notice their tear-stained eyes and soaking wet pillows. The sight of their sorrow tears apart my heart but it also steels my resolve.
Without further hesitation, I step out the door and fall under the mercy of the night sky. In a trance, I return to the home of the devil, heading deeper and deeper into the looming trees. My bone-deep pain continues to grow as I near the stream where I was cursed.
I step into the burning cold of the running water and I follow the direction of flow. It feels as though I am walking on a trail of sharp shards of ice, but each step lifts a ton off my shoulders and lightens the load on my shredded heart.
The devil is fiercely clawing at me from the inside, but I have never felt so at ease. I hum softly with the whooshing water and harmonious chirps that pinch the biting cold of the air and cut through the otherwise dead silence of the night.
I can tell that I’m nearing the end when I start to hear rushing water crash into the rocky earth far down below. The rumbling drums tell me the falls are waiting for my arrival, and I quicken my pace to reach them.
I sprint with the current as I am drawn in by the chasm beckoning me forth. When my feet finally reach the edge, I curl my toes and free my soul.
At last, my fallen heart has been gifted the wings to soar once more.