With each passing day he grew more frightened thinking about what would become of her. As a child it had been easy to lie to her, to keep her sheltered from the true way of things. But as she grew into her adolescence the questions she asked became more complex and her need to be independent grew stronger. She’d ask:
If there is a God and he loves me, why’d he do this to me?
Even if he possessed the economy of words to explain to her how he truly felt about his God he would have spared her.
I don’t know why. But he gave me you didn’t he? He can’t be so bad.
One day in the early hours of the morning he caught her by the door with a bindle full of clothes and bread. Her hair was down. It took until sunrise to get her to give up on leaving him. To convince her to put her hair back up and her bonnet on. He was more broken up about it than she was. He said:
I love you Abigail. Do you know that? And if there’s one thing I need you to know, need you to understand, it’s that you can’t let anybody see you like that. Ever…
He often lost his train of thought or composure in those times.
And if they do. Well, I’m not going to be around forever.
These words proved themselves truer than either of them knew at the time. He was gone before the end of that year.
The township of Apple Tree doesn’t wake when the sun rises. It sits in the middle of a large grassy valley with the lone landmark in any direction being a small rocky crag to the east. And as the sun peeks over it the only thing to stir would be a drunk or two passed out at the front of one of the saloons. Even then, the drunks mostly just turn to face away from the light and go on sleeping.
At about noon Madam Pearl would step out of the bordello dressed in a maroon evening gown and a black fascinator holding a broom to shoo away any malcontent still clinging to the premises. It is then a stage coach full of girls arrives out front.
They’d be wearing elbow length gloves and corsets and polka dot flowing dresses and some wore huge hats laced with ribbons or hair plaited almost down to the ground. All of them a seeming picture of delicate desert rose-like beauty. But to get close was to see the haphazard stitching of a dress made out of a curtain, a hemline torn almost clean off, a missing tooth or a bruised eye socket peeking out from under a powdered cheek.
They would chat merrily while bringing in their luggage and bid good morning to their Madam as she watched them cross the threshold into the building. The barman Sam would place a hand behind his back and point his shiny red nose to the ground as they pulled up stools.
A shotgun hung above the bar and stories of Madam Pearl ripping it off the holder and damn near blowing a dirt-bag’s head off were in no short supply. The girls would order liberal amounts of gin or whiskey and Pearl would sit in an antique armchair not too far away with the paper and a small glass of blood red port. After pounding a few drinks in relative silence the girls would get down to the serious business of gossip;
Y’all think that new girl will be coming back again this month?
Which one? The fat one with the big earrings?
No not her. The young one. The quiet one with all the hair always up in a huge ol’ bun? Said she hated anyone touching it.
What was her name? Clementine? She was always by herself and only had one or two fellas the entire week.
Not Clementine I think it was Amy or maybe Abby or something cute like that? Did any of y’all talk to her she seemed awful worried or sad about something.
Like she’d never seen a pecker in ‘er life.
They burst into laughter. Sam smiled from under his moustache. Pearl still facing away with her newspaper spoke up causing them all to instantaneously fall silent.
Don’t belittle the girl. She has problems enough as it is. Her name is Abigail.
Her voice was deep and smooth like the mulled wine she drank. And just as hard to come by. The girls all agreed not to tease and apologized and quickly changed the subject.
At the mouth of the valley on an old spotted horse Abigail regarded Apple Tree. It’s funny she thought to herself, there’s not a tree in sight. She wondered if Pearl thought the same when she first arrived.
Madam Pearl didn’t hate men. Not all of them anyway. At this point in her life she was comfortable in regarding them as a means to an end. In the thirty years she’d lived and worked in Apple Tree the routine would always be the same. The town only ever saw any real business one week out of every three.
They’d start arriving a little before dusk. Most of them farmers who’d shuffle in on tired workhorses, some maybe miners from up north, some maybe tradesmen from another town. If they passed her in the street they’d tip their heads and wheeze the word ‘Mam’ at her. But seldom did they look her in the eye. Amongst them she’d clock off duty lawmen that would breathe whiskey in her face and shake her outstretched hand enthusiastically with two of theirs. Sometimes she’d take note of quiet and grizzled desperados that kept their hats on inside and eyed anyone who comes too close. She thought those ones especially pathetic. They all come to Apple Tree and she’d seen them all before.
A man would enter a saloon and gulp down rye before leaning his head back and exhaling loud and laughing deep from his throat. Always laughing and carrying on like little boys. They’d come stumbling out to piss or throw up or fight. Rolling around in the dirt or the mud like animals. She could stand them. But her hospitality was only as deep as their pockets.
When she’d first seen Abigail riding into town three weeks prior and saw the look in her eyes she found herself wishing she’d chosen any other place.
Abigail stood towards the back as far away from the bar as possible. It was late in the evening and she still hadn’t approached a man. She sipped at her drink and when men would approach her she’d curtsy and tell them sorry but she wasn’t working tonight. Some men had commented on how peculiar her hair was, how tall it was. Peculiar, tall but always beautiful they’d note. She didn’t believe them. The pageantry seemed disingenuous to her. They’d puff out their chests and try not to slur their words and act like they wanted to talk all night. All of this its own socially accepted dance, like bowerbirds decorating their nests to court a mate. But at least the Bower bird didn’t pretend he wanted to do anything else but fuck.
The other girls seemed to be doing just fine and every now and then one would come up beside her and offer either encouragement or sass:
He looks nice Abigail, why don’t you let him take all that hair down for you? Oh yes he’s nice but I think I need more to drink just yet.
Another would come by.
Abigail the night’s getting on. If you want to sleep here tonight you’ve got to work. The girls are starting to talk.
I’m sorry I’ll get right on that in just a minute.
And then another.
What’s wrong with you anyway? You think you’re better’n us don’t you? No of course not. I’m just feeling under the weather.
She caught Pearl’s eyes. They looked glassy and tired. She was watching a play she’d seen one too many times. Abigail looked away and approached the bar for another drink. That’s when he tapped her on the shoulder.
Excuse me, miss?
She turned to look with eyes already downed.
I’m so sorry to bother you but I just have to say you’ve the most beautiful pair of eyes I’ve ever seen. And I simply couldn’t forgive myself if I left without saying something.
He had a strong southern accent. He was younger and better dressed than the usual Bordello fare. Oh thank you sir. That’s very kind of you to say. I-
I suppose you could use a drink right? Sam could I please have a gin and tonic for the lady here and I’ll have a whiskey for myself.
Before she knew it he’d sidled in beside her and their elbows were touching. He started telling her all about himself in great detail. Striking oil and making it rich and doing his family proud and travelling the country. He was easy to laugh and quick with a joke, even quicker with the next round of drinks. He exuded a strange confidence as if the entire world was the parlour of his summer home. More importantly Abigail noticed that he wasn’t handsy and seemed relatively sober. She was surprised how little time it took before she was leading him up the stairs. She didn’t believe a word of anything he’d said of course but it was this or another round of ire from the other girls. Pearl watched on sipping her port.
The bedroom was softly lit by flickering candle light. Abigail laid down the rules. No kissing on the lips. No doing anything without her permission. And, most importantly, under no circumstances was he allowed to touch her hair. He listened dutifully and agreed to each.
Abigail, I understand completely and I know you’re new to this but I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible.
Abigail sat down on the bed and watched him standing there.
Would you mind if I locked this door my darling?
No that’s fine.
He smiled like a boy with pockets full of sweets as he twisted the latch. He then sat on the bed and started patting her on the shoulder. He did not touch her in the way a lover would caress his beloved. Rather it was more like how a hunter would pat his dog after a job well done. He put his hand on her face and gave it a soft squeeze and laughed as he did.
I’m going to ask you to do some things for me my dear.
Abigail went to speak.
Don’t talk now. Don’t ruin it darling.
Abigail’s eyes were empty. She wondered how much she’d get.
Would you get undressed for me?
He let her stand and she started removing her dress and under garments. Eyes on his all the time. She stood naked before him with her palms open as if she was the virgin Mary ready to receive him.
All the girls downstairs were talking about you and that hair always up, never letting anyone touch it. Were you dropped as a child?
He stood up and came towards her. He tapped her on the nose with his index finger. Or just poorly bred?
He reached up and pulled at her hair with a scrunched fist. Abigail jerked her head away and a ribbon snapped open. Hair fell down her shoulders and past her waist revealing just beyond her hairline a pair of black protruding horns made of sharpened bone like that of a goat.
Abigail wondered what people thought when they saw them. Did they think her a servant of the devil himself, cast forth from hell to cleanse the world of their wickedness? He looked into her eyes with shock and disgust. She darted into his chest, crouching just the smallest amount, tucking her head downwards and pushing one of her horns up under his Adam’s apple and through.
She wondered what he’d think about as he was dying. If his mind would go to his childhood or his mother. Someone he loved but left somewhere. If the brain is even kind enough to grant us these thoughts or just panics and thinks about all the blood leaving and what it would take to not die. She grabbed the hand he used to rip the ribbon and wrapped her other arm around his waist as he gurgled and choked. Behind his cologne she smelt his sweat and felt the warmth of his chest. She lifted her heels off the ground and felt the horn pass through the other side of his neck. In the flickering light of the candles they might have been a young couple dancing in the bedroom of their wedding night with Abigail at the lead. She could feel him dripping onto her hair and then her neck and then slowly making his way down her back.
She wondered where that mind would go. She didn’t believe that a ghost would leave his body and fly up to heaven. Her father wanted her to believe that but she saw it all as foolish. But there could be something. Even for an instant as everything fades away and the world becomes small maybe some understanding is gained as to the true way of things. She hoped that to be the case at least.
His body had gone completely limp and she now felt herself straining to support his weight. She let him drop to the floor, clumsily jerking herself free as he went. He landed in an awkward position like a puppet would after having its strings cut. She sat back down on the bed. She looked to a mirror in the corner of the room. It showed the hard blackness of his blood dripping down past her eyes like a war paint. Her horns darker still and glinting softly in the light.
Soon Pearl would come into the room and look at the boy crooked on the ground and look up to Abigail. She’d grab Abigail’s head to her chest and tell her it was going to be ok. She’d take her to the hand basin and clean her head and horns like a concert violinist would clean their instrument. All the while Abigail not taking her eyes off what she had done. She thought she could feel him out there somewhere watching.
I’m Xavier Francis, an aspiring and emerging creative writer and novelist currently studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the Queensland University of Technology. I work in both fiction and creative non-fiction, with an interest in multi-disciplinary exploration. Although I am in the beginning of my practice academically I have been writing stories and sharing my experiences in a collaborative and artistic sense since a very young age.