The Little Ones / C.A. Steed
CONTENT WARNING: references to rape.
I kill him, in my mind, over and over. They may say that forgiveness is a balm for the soul, but only revenge will allow me to rest. The little ones have told me this.
I hear them, constantly. They shift and slither, coiling and uncurling and speaking to me, oh so quiet and soft. Their voices are like dead leaves moved by the wind, whispering, hushing. Hissing.
I was scared of the little ones, at first. At what they meant I had become. I tried to tear them from me, to dig them out at the root, but how can you destroy what has become part of yourself? I realised that, eventually. The little ones helped me to see.
I lay in the cold and the dark, hands over my eyes, every inch of the skin that was left on my bones smarting and stinging, and for the first time heard words among the voices.
you cannot be rid of us
we are one now
you are us
and we are you
I may have screamed. I think I raised my hands to tear through into my skull to rip out those words, but they began again.
we will never harm you
never leave you
never hurt you
we are yours
and you, ours
I think I formed words then, my own words, from between the torn scraps of meat that were all that remained of my lips. I think I told them that they weren’t real. I think I told them to go away. I think I told them to kill me.
we will never harm
Was it then that I began to believe them? I wanted to, I know that.
but others will
others will come
men will come
I wished for death, then. I could not endure again what I had already. I would strip the flesh from my bones myself, first, claw each piece away with my nails and teeth to leave only a skeleton that had no body left for a man to violate.
we will protect you, said the voices.
we will guard
men will come
and we will show
The little ones did not lie.
I am protected, now. I cannot be hurt, because those with violence in their hearts cannot come near me. The little ones gave me a gift, and with it I see into the hearts of men, to the evil that lies inside. I see them, I truly see them, and it stops them cold. They freeze, and their jeers stop in their mouths, and their eyes cease their roving, and their fingers, their constantly searching and grabbing and plunging ripping tearing holding biting fingers, are paralysed, are hooked forever into bestial claws.
The first man–before I was who I am now–taunted me, telling me that I made him hard. Stiff. It is not lost on me that now, that I make all the men who come hunting me hard and stiff. It is what they want, after all.
The first man has never returned. I kill him anyway, over and over, in my mind. I see him frozen, I see him weak, I see him paralysed and cold and empty, and I see my face reflected in his eyes, triumphant, powerful, strong. The little ones like this game. They like to hear how I will kill him.
I wait, and I am ready.
My cave is far from the ocean, because I cannot bear to hear the crashing violence of the waves. I need no one–why would I, when I have my little ones curling and coiling about me in a loving embrace? When I have my stone army, my trophies, my wicked men, arrayed around me?
I know when someone is coming. The little ones caress and nudge me awake, and lead me to the opening to the world. It is bright there, and I do not go unless I have to defend myself. Once it’s done, once I’ve made cold and hard and stiff the men with evil in their hearts, I retreat once more to the welcoming embrace of the dark.
The little ones have led me here once again. Someone is coming. I am ready to look at them, to see their evil, to fix them forever in a pose of agony and despair. Most of the men look betrayed at the last, aghast that a mere woman could so overpower them. But of course, I am no mere woman.
The rattle of stones disturbed by a sandaled foot. The whisper of clothes brushing against skin. The unmistakable clank of metal. A weapon.
I slink around an outcrop of rock, the little ones hissing their encouragement, and see this newest interloper. My eyes are weak with the glare from the seldom-seen sun, but I see him well enough. Slim and slight, his curls caught up in a leather band. He is small, smaller than even me. A boy! Truly, men’s evil blooms in their hearts from the cradle.
I will fix him in place, I will make a statue of him, and he will not go from here to destroy more women. I will keep him here, and keep them safe. This is my duty and my purpose, now.
The boy turns, and a flash of sunlight blinds me. Blinking away the afterimages, I see he carries a shield, polished to the shine of a mirror. The light caught it for a moment, and it was as though the boy had brought the sun itself in here.
I will extinguish it. How dare he disturb my dark? How dare he bring his malice, his violence, to this place? To me?
I step out, the little ones not twining around my head now but arcing forwards, towards him. Their hiss fills the cavern. He turns, and I see his face.
Not his face. Her face.
She is dark of skin and bright of eye, with a broad nose and full lips. Her eyes are brown and her gaze is soft and her heart is full only of tenderness.
Rocks claw at my back and I realise I must have fallen backwards to the cave wall. I crumple as she steps towards me, palms raised like someone approaching a frightened animal. I watch her, the first person I have seen in so long who has not turned to stone at the sight of me, the first warm, living person who has been near me in so long. She crouches down, her eyes level with mine, and gently, so gently, she turns her shield to face me.
My eyes fly shut, and the little ones knit and twist over my face. I will not look. I will not see what I’ve become.
Pressure on my cheeks, and not the sliding, sinuous feel of the little ones. Five gentle fingertips, resting on my skin. A hand cups my face. I let myself lean against it, into its warmth.
I raise my own hand and brush the little ones away from my face. They resist.
stay with us
it’s better in the dark
Back, I say to them, and they retreat.
A deep breath shudders through me. Her hand leaves my face, and for a cold moment I am alone with the little ones until her fingers find mine, interlace with them and squeeze. She is so warm and soft and alive. She has carried the sun in with her, and I allow myself to leave the cold and the dark behind. The hissing of the little ones fades, and I can hear only her breathing, slow and steady. I squeeze her fingers back.
I open my eyes.
C. A. Steed’s writing has appeared in New Writing Scotland, Barren Magazine, and Causeway/Cabhsair. She was longlisted for the Bare Fiction prize and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a MLitt in Creative Writing. Find her on Twitter @ZaciDeets.