Friday, October 30, 2009

Black Bet's Home

Black Bet’s Home for Toothless Vampires
By Kim McDougall

First published in Necrotic Tissue Magazine.

Black Bet’s home spawned much speculation and rumor, but one legend among all others was consistent. You left your name at the gate. I gladly shrugged mine off and crushed it underfoot. I had eyes only for the tall house that lurked up from the gloom. My veins ached for blood.
A blond, angel-faced boy met me on the path.
“My name ith Brututh,” he said, not asking mine. We approached the front door. “That’th Goliath.” He pointed to a dwarfish man dozing in the shadows of the porch. Beside him, an old codger tilted back on a rocking chair.
“And that’th Beaver,” said the boy. “Watch out for…”
Beaver’s lightning fingers pinched me on the bum. I whirled, grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off his chair like a rag-doll. Goliath woke with a start at the gurgling, whistling sound that came from the old vampire’s chest. It wasn’t breath, but laughter. His toothless grin was the maw of a suckerfish.
“Don’t ever touch me again,” I said and threw him down. His rocking chair cracked against the house.
“Lady, you’ve got ithueth,” said the boy, following me inside.
I threw him my best evil eye, laced with a bit of motherly ire. He backed away.
“Thank you, Brutus. I’ll take care of our new guest from here.”
A black-haired beauty stood at the foot of a stairway. I resisted the urge to fall on my knees. My kind doesn’t worship anyone but if we did, Black Bet would be a saint. In her presence, I felt every crust of dirt on my skin. The hunger that has sustained me for so long faded next to her radiance. She smiled and held out a delicate hand. Her teeth were perfect chips of whiteness that soothed like memories of sunshine. I had traveled months to find her, battled demons, both real and imagined, starved, stole, scrounged and begged. When I took Black Bet’s soft hand, something inside me broke. I fell at her feet and bathed them in my salty tears. Bet’s arms circled me like a cape in the cold.
“Come child, don’t cry. Let me look at you.” She wiped the tears from my face, and tucked my greasy hair behind one ear. “A might scruffy, but we can fix that. We’ll need to find you a name. What do you think, Hermit?” She spoke to a wisp of a man at her side. I hadn’t seen him lurking behind her skirts. He wore only a loincloth, and his nakedness was painful to witness. His chest was thin and concave. His legs were sticks, his arms twigs. I cringed when he reached out and tilted my head with one gnarly finger under my chin. His thorn-like nail traced the fading bruise around my eye.
“Susan.” He grinned, showing grey gums. “Black-eyed Susan.”
I jerked away from his touch, and let my skanky locks fall across my face again, hiding my shame.
“A name needs to come from within,” said Bet. “That black eye is no reflection of you, my dear.” She ran her lovely fingers through my hair, not caring about the tangles and dirt. “Come now. We’ll think on it some more.”
I almost corrected her. My black eye might have faded, but the bruise had been stamped on my heart with indelible ink. I had only to close my eyes, to see the fist coming at me. The one that knocked out my teeth. The one that blackened my eye. Others aimed at my stomach and kidneys. The one that finally rattled my brain, and left me for dead, with life oozing from my womb.
Only I didn’t die, not then. Death came later from a black angel who took my blood and pain, and left a shell. I saw him only through a haze of dizziness, my angel, but when he fed me his own blood, my wounds began to heal. Only my teeth were gone for good, and my child.
I wanted to tell Bet that Black-Eyed Susan was a perfect name, but before I could, the rafters shrugged and a scream tore through the house. The floor rumbled and Bet’s crew scurried into action.
“Hermit, get the bladder, and warm it this time. Brutus you’re up.”
“But I fed him thith morning!” wailed the blond boy.
“Baby likes you,” said Bet. “Now go, before he sets the nursery on fire again.”
Hermit shoved a pig’s bladder filled with warm blood into Brutus’ hand. The tangy-sweet smell nearly crazed me. My tongue flicked across my barren gums. It had been so long since I drank. I scrambled up, intending to get that bladder by whatever means. Hunger is so like rage; I could no longer tell them apart.
“Hold on,” Bet said, pushing me back to the ground. “There’s plenty to go around. No one goes hungry here.” She fell sideways as the house lurched again, and then the wailing stilled. “Come on. Let’s get you fed.”
Later, with warm blood filling my belly and tingling up my limbs, I slept in a room of my own. I washed with warm water in a copper tub and slept on a feather mattress. For days, I kept to my room, indulging in these luxuries I had never known, even in my mortal life. Now that my roaming had ended, my hunger sated, I felt not an easing of discomfort but a burgeoning disquiet. As a woman, I had cowered under the fists of men; as a vampire, I ran from their stakes and crosses. I thought the running would never end. When I closed my eyes, the hunt began again. Shadows chased me, wore me down until I could only hide under my lavender scented blankets and wait for the imagined blow to come.
Downstairs, voices rose in argument and laughter. Where would I fit into this strange family? I had come here out of desperation. My few kills had been disasters. My victims looked like death came from a soupspoon, their necks mangled by my toothless bite. I learned to harvest rabbits and rats, to drain their blood and drink like a mortal from a cup, but it was poor fare that barely sustained me. Then I heard of Black Bet’s home for toothless vampires, and made the long journey to this quiet room. Now what? Would they find me a name so that I could live out my endless days with these other helpless creatures of the night?
The floor rumbled. Baby was hungry again. His cries shook the old house, vibrated up into my bones. I opened my door, Brutus rushed by with the pig bladder, and in a moment, the night was quiet again.
“Come down for dinner,” said Black Bet. She stood at the bottom of the stairwell. Her eyes caught the sconce-light and beckoned from the darkness. “We’re having a special Solstice feast. Please join us.”
I looked back at my room and the haven it offered before descending the stair. When Brutus joined us, looking a little shaken, we all sat at the table in the great room. A fire burned high in the hearth. Blood pudding glistened on our plates.
“Beaver why don’t you give thanks tonight?”
The old vampire nodded heartily. With bowed heads, we waited in silence.
“Cockles and mussels! The fox ate all the chickens and spit out the gizzards!” Beaver cackled and stuck his face in the pudding like a pig at a trough. The black, jellied blood smeared his jowls and flew off his lips like spittle. The others took this as a sign to begin. Goliath ate quietly. Brutus jiggled his pudding on the spoon before gobbling it down. Hermit picked at his with those long, vulture claws. Black Bet smiled at her charges.
“We have new business tonight,” she said. “This fine lady needs a name. It’s tradition here. We all left our past lives, along with our old names when we crossed the threshold of this house…”
A shout interrupted her. Spoons clattered to the table. Hermit crept to the window and peered behind the heavy drapes. More shouts of “Devil!” and “Demon!” filled the night. Black Bet scraped back her chair.
“I’ve had enough of this,” she said. “Why can’t they just leave us alone to enjoy a simple Solstice feast?”
She took her cloak off a hook by the door and went out. Brutus and I joined Hermit at the window. An army had amassed on the front lawn and a bonfire at the base of a giant cross lit the night.
“Demons!” yelled a man on horseback. “Undead nightcrawlers!” He brandished a long wooden pike. “Come face the wrath of God!” Behind him, dozens of men, wielding hoes and pitchforks, cheered.
“Hmph,” said Hermit. “The wrath of idiots, you mean.”
Bet emerged from the shadows. The vigilantes raised their weapons even as they stepped back. She was magnificent. The fire highlighted her hair like a black halo. Wind resurrected leaves, and whipped Bet’s cloak around her. She raised her arms and the bonfire spiked toward the sky, enveloping the cross, reducing it to ash in seconds. She turned her attention on the vigilantes.
I peered anxiously into the gloom. A small hand tucked itself into mine. I looked down at Brutus’ toothless smile.
“Don’t worry, lady. Bet hath a way of talking to people. You’re thafe here.” I squeezed his hand, more to reassure myself than him. Bet still confronted the vigilantes. Her billowing cape puffed up like the mantle of a cobra, but her voice was quiet. I couldn’t hear her words. After a moment, the men turned and left without a fight.
“Won’t they be back?” I asked Bet as she hung her cloak by the door.
“Be back? No. They were never here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They’ve been drinking at the inn all night. Tomorrow they’ll have wicked hangovers but no memories of bonfires or vampires. Now come, let us finish our feast.”
Later that night, I lay in my feather bed, listening to the ticks and creaks of the old house that sheltered us. Brutus was right. I was safe at last. I needed only to find a name. I had been called so many: wife, wench, bitch. They all rolled off the tongue so easily, and stuck like scullery grease. I had a chance to remake myself, but in what image? Bet assured me that my name would come when it was ready.
A cry of pure rage ended my quietude. Baby was hungry. I slipped out of my room. Downstairs the others rushed to prepare a meal for the monster in the bassinet. I opened the nursery door. Baby lay in his crib. His face was puckered, fists tiny white nuggets of rage. One hundred and fifty years old, they told me. An infant for all eternity. Insatiably hungry and frustrated, Baby had learned to be heard. His cries pitched higher, sending the washbasin crashing against the door. I ducked the missile and picked him up, not thinking that he could boil my eyeballs in my head, only that a baby needed solace. I held him to my chest and we rocked. His mouth searched for succor. With a nail, I ripped the skin on my breast and he latched onto me like a leech, drinking the blood I had stolen from another.
“There, there, little one. Nanny’s here,” I said. “Nanny will take care of everything.” His mouth was soft and hot. His fists kneaded my flesh and he grunted little sighs that echoed my contentment.


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1 comment:

Kim Smith said...

WOO HOO! Loved this totally. Happy Halloween!

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