My short story Making Friends is now available for all to read. (CW for moderate violence and undead things)
Everyone wanted Gretel to make friends, but she was running out of materials. She watched her parents argue about it, voices low, their faces half-lit by the dying ember-fire.
“People are beginning to talk.” Pa rubbed his face tiredly and took a sip from his tankard of dusty ale. Shadows deepened the worry-lines on his face, making him look a part of the gnarled wood walls behind him. “I heard Sif and Mara talking about it today while scribing that new holy text. Saying it’s not right, how she never plays with the other children, just hangs about in the graveyard talking to the headstone for your old mum.”
Gretel chewed her lip and shifted under the table where she crouched. Her cat, Brush, bumped against her knee. The carpet, pocked and threadbare, barely shushed beneath her feet.
Mama folded her arms across her belly. She had the brittle look she always got whenever Nanny was mentioned. “She misses her. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Pa gave her a long look and said nothing. He’d said “Your mum was a witch” so many times that Gretel could hear it in the silence, but he knew better than to say it now. Mama wouldn’t hear a wrong word said about Nanny, even though they’d fought daily before she’d been taken. Death sometimes brought people closer together. Gretel thought that was beautiful.
Gretel thought a lot of things about death were beautiful, but she wasn’t allowed to talk about that. She was allowed to talk about food, and temple, and her unending apprenticeship at the scribehouse where Pa worked. And “Interests appropriate for a girl of ten summers” as Pa would say. Not about her cat, who stank of rot but was obedient without training. Never about Nanny.
Brush started to make a wheezing sound, drool bubbling from the corner of his lopsided mouth. Gretel shushed him, then scratched his lone, tattered ear.
Mama glanced around and Gretel held her breath, but her mother’s gaze never grazed the kitchen table, nor the pair hiding in its shade. “She’ll make friends. She’s special: someone is bound to see that.”
Pa smiled like his cheeks were hard to lift. “She is special, there’s no doubt there. But how long before she goes like your old mum? If she can’t fit in, they’ll come for her.”
“She’s only ten.”
“I don’t think they give a damn how old she is.”
Gretel stroked Brush while her parents turned the conversation to work. Her fingers felt over the thick scar tissue where she’d stitched his eye back on, nearly straight. Brush didn’t purr, or lean in to the touch, but Gretel found it calming all the same.
This friend problem was worse than her parents realised, but then she’d always considered her parents endearingly stupid. They thought that if she made herself small and bland and amiable, that somehow people would overlook the red splash of birthmark on her face, or the hunch in her shoulders.
But Gretel didn’t want to shrink and hide. She wanted people to see her. She wanted them to know that she was special. And as Nanny had taught her, the only way to do that was to make them.
She waited until her parents went to sleep, ignoring the cramp of her legs and the crick in her neck. Her Nanny had taught her patience: that’s why Nanny had been an old woman by the time they came for her.
Once their door had shut and their conversation faded into long, slow breathing, she got her pack and her shovel. She had most of the components already; vials of blood and semi-fermented organs, the wing of a dove and a curling purple flower. She headed out into the crisp night with Brush trotting obediently at her heels.
When she got there, the gate was unlocked. None of the braziers were lit and the moon was too pale to guide her, but her feet knew the path. She didn’t stumble.
She drew a long breath, enjoying the way the cold air grazed her throat. She’d always loved the night, and the moonlight only made the graveyard more beautiful, painting it in soft greys and sweeping shadows. She knelt beside a headstone. Though she couldn’t read the inscription, she could feel it under her fingertips, rough and cold. She tilted her head to the sky. “I will have friends, Nanny,” she whispered to the moon.
She plunged her shovel into the dirt. A girl had been interred there only a week ago and the earth was still loose. Her muscles quivered and dirt spilled down her dress, but she liked the effort of it, and the quiet chuck of the spade hitting the earth. “Brush.”
The cat wheezed at her. She narrowed her eyes and squeezed a thought at him; with a lurch, he started to dig.
“There she is!”
Gretel’s chest went tight; she dropped the shovel and scooped up Brush, ducking behind a headstone.
Two girls and a boy ran past, all taller than Gretel and crooked-limbed with adolescence. She couldn’t make out their faces, but it didn’t really matter which of her tormentors they were. She huddled against the cold stone, hugging Brush tight to her chest.
“Told you I saw someone leaving her house!” The boy’s voice was ugly with triumph.
One of the girls yanked the shovel from the dirt and hefted it in her hands. “Little witch was diggin’ up Sal Carpenter. Who does that? T’aint natural.”
Gretel struggled to draw air into suddenly thin lungs. In her mind, she could see them standing over her, faces ugly. Her scalp burned with the memory of hair torn out in fistfuls; her sides ached with the faded impression of boots.
It had only been once but once was enough.
She tried to skirt to the other side of the headstone, Brush stiff in her arms. The night would help her hide, but the moon was out and they were close enough to sneeze on.
“When Da and the others got her grandmama, he said the only way to save a witch is to beat the evil outta her. Come on, she can’t have gone far.”
Gretel squeezed her eyes shut. Half-memories, half-prophecies played across her mind. Flashing teeth and cruel laughter. Bruises like brutal paint across her skin. Shrinking ever smaller under their taunts and fists.
She didn’t want to be small or fearful. She wanted her shadow to loom over others. She wanted to inspire fear. And so, when the boy grabbed her arm and yanked her, stumbling, to her feet, she whispered, ‘Hurt them,’ and slammed the thought into her small, lumpy-headed cat.
Brush cannoned at the boy’s face, a constantly shifting mass of teeth, claws, and fury. He screamed and fell back, dropping Gretel, to struggle with the cold-fleshed, stiff-furred beast attacking him.
One girl hovered, hands flapping, while the other snatched at Brush. The boy continued to scream.
Gretel stood up, fists clenched at her sides, the snarl on her lips the match of the roar in her chest. Brush started to shriek with his wheezing, broken voice, a sound like spraying fluid.
“Don’t just stand there!” One girl yelled to the other. “Get her!” She caught Brush around the middle and tried to pry him from the boy’s flesh-torn face.
Gretel backed up as the other girl advanced. She loomed, like Gretel wanted to loom. Her face was pretty even when ashen and white-eyed with fear. She raised a trembling finger. “Call off your witch’s cat.”
Gretel shook her head, pressing back against the headstone. A shadow flickered at the edges of her vision: movement. More villagers come to join the attack. Her gaze hovered on the girl standing over her, weighing her options.
“Call it off!”
Gretel dived to one side but the girl grabbed her and slammed her back. Gretel’s head cracked against the headstone and sparks filled her vision.
“I’ve got it!”
The girl pinning her released her, giving Gretel a groggy view of the other girl tearing Brush from the boy’s face. Brush hissed and slashed at her as she raised him above her head.
“You can do it, Brush,” Gretel whispered.
The girl brought him down on the headstone with an audible crack.
Gretel screamed, raw and high, trembling hands coming to the sides of her face. The girl tossed Brush aside. Gretel could barely draw breath at the sight of him limp, back twisted at an unnatural angle.
She could remember finding him at the side of the river, fur damp and patchy, one eye glazed and the other hanging loose. She’d spent weeks brushing the life back into that fur, stitching his wounds closed with gut and will. Her first pet, presented to her parents with pride.
The boy kicked Brush and Gretel jumped. Brush rolled over and started to drag himself to Gretel, hind legs trailing uselessly.
“No!” Gretel shoved past the girl to pull Brush into her arms. She hugged him against her chest, cradling his head with one hand. Tears of rage streamed down her face. Just a few more days. A few more days, and they would never have dared hurt Brush. A few more days, and she would have a friend, too.
Brush wheezed in time with her heartbeat.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, her voice high and shaking.
“We have to do it,” said the boy. His face was a mess of scratches and gouges, his nose covered in punctures. One eye wept sluggishly. His lips pulled back in a snarl. “To kill her demon cat, you’ve got to kill the witch.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and curled over Brush as they closed in on her.
Words from Nanny’s journal flashed across her thoughts and leapt from her lips in a language long dead.
The boy backed up. ‘What is she doing?’
The girls didn’t answer. Gretel’s voice rose to a crescendo, a trembling echo on every harsh utterance.
The boy clenched his fist and drew back his arm. ‘Hey witch, I said what are you –’
His fist shuddered an inch from her face, held by a hand-like shadow wisping into the air. All the colour drained from the boy’s face, leaving him as grey and sickly as a corpse.
Gretel looked up, a smile ghosting across her lips.
Her spectre, tenuously summoned, vanished as the boy ripped free and smacked immediately into one of the girls.
There was a snarl, low and feral, followed by a scream. Her attackers scattered. Gretel’s eyes followed them out the gate, then snapped back as the snarl returned. A hulking dog pinned the last girl to the ground. Shadows steamed from its shoulders, a magic that made her eyes widen.
“Spot. Heel.” A young voice came from the shadows with an imperiousness that Gretel envied.
The dog barked once, gritty and broken, and raced to the feet of a boy much older than Gretel. He was like a shadow all himself, dressed in black with dark skin tinged grey by magic.
The girl on the ground scrambled to her feet and stumbled from the graveyard as fast as her legs would carry her.
Slowly, Gretel got to her feet. Brush’s legs dangled from her arms, her dress was muddy, and the back of her head sticky with blood, but she still held herself as tall as she could.
The boy took in her cat, her dress, and his gaze slid to the shovel still laying in the dirt. “Are you okay?”
Gretel nodded once, then nodded again. “Brush would have protected me, you know.” Her voice was still high with adrenaline and fear, but she met his eyes and raised her chin.
He shrugged and gestured to the grave. “Do you want help with that?”
Gretel felt like a fire was lighting her up from the inside. Forgetting her pride, she broke into a wide grin. “Yes please! I wasn’t sure how Brush and I would get her home.”
“What’s your name?”
“Gretel.” She thought of what the other children called her and decided to claim it as her own. “Gretel Gravetalker.”
“They call me Erfur the Grey.” He sounded proud. It was a name with a whisper of fear in it, though Erfur looked gangly, like his bones were too long for his skin. Maybe Gretel’s name would be like that one day, too.
They worked together for a while, Gretel shovelling while Erfur directed Spot to assist. Brush watched with blank eyes, wheezing gently. “Won’t your parents mind? The body, I mean?”
Gretel shook her head. “They’re always telling me to make new friends.”