It had rained the night before the man found her. At a farm on the outskirts of the city, her makeshift shelter against the brick wall had barely held back the downpour. Sick, starved, and shivering, she was curled up under a stolen sheet stretched unevenly over the juncture of two barrels. She was frightened by the man’s shadow as it fell over her in the morning. She feared that he was the owner of the farm, come to chase away the street rat hiding against his farmhouse.
Instead, a man with silver hair and a silver beard smiled kindly at her. He crouched down, shrugging off his coat and offering it to her. She stared at his outstretched hands with suspicion, yet she couldn’t find the words to refuse the offering of warmth. His smile did not wilt at her hesitation, and eventually she took the coat with trembling, weak hands. She clumsily attempted to thread her arms through the sleeves before giving up and letting it rest on her shoulders. It was plush velvet, the softest thing she had felt on her skin for a very long time.
‘You look hungry,’ he said, ‘can I buy you some food?’
He led her through the city gate, passed the armored guards standing at attention with glinting scabbards at their waists. He took further in, towards the marketplace. The floating shouts of the vendors became louder as they entered, bargains and bartering echoing from within. The deeper they travelled into the lively marketplace, the stronger the unfamiliar scents burned her nose.
The man stopped at a baker’s stall. The sight of steaming pastries nearly made her knees give out in delirious hunger. From his pocket he produced a handful of coins, clinking with the promise of food, and bought her a cheese-filled pastry. It barely sat in her palm for a second before she devoured it.
With a paper bag of other treats from the bakery, he beckoned her to follow him out of the marketplace. The pale sunlight of a day after rain shone onto his hair and beard, making it so silver it looked blue.
He pointed to a mansion on a hill in the distance, overlooking the bustle. The stained-glass windows glinting brilliantly in the sun. It looked like a palace fit for a ruler, citizens ant-like around it.
‘That’s my home. Would you like to go there? There’s plenty of space for you there,’ he said.
She did not want to look this gift horse in the mouth.
‘There are other girls who have taken refuge with me,’ he clarified as they weaved through streets and alleyways, occasionally passing her another pastry to fuel the exertion. He explained that he was a dignitary with more gold than he knew what to do with, and it gave him no trouble at all to help the less fortunate.
A woman sat on the steps before the doorway of the mansion like a serene-looking statue. She was as pallid as marble, too, watching the approaching pair with wide, sunken eyes.
‘Mister Fox,’ she said as he greeted her with a kiss to the crown of her head. ‘You’re back. But who is this?’
‘This is…’ He paused and looked at the newest guest to the mansion. ‘Selma.’
She blinked, shocked that he had suddenly given her a new name. He had not asked what her name was before.
The woman repeated the name, smiling excitedly. ‘Your life will be better, now.’
Along with the new name and new home, the man showered her in gifts: gowns, jewels, and affection. The pallid woman, named Anne, insisted that Selma refer to the man as Mister Fox. He was away often due to work as a dignitary of the court, leaving the two women to become close.
Anne had been a denizen of the house for some months and spent most of her days in the gardens, as Mister Fox urged her to get some sun whenever she could. No matter how long she basked in the sun, she remained pale and dull in pallor. Her hair never shone under the light. She ate dinner every night in the banquet hall yet never gained weight.
‘I was sick when I came here,’ she explained to Selma when asked about her ill-looking condition. ‘I ran away from my first husband, now Mister Fox is my new husband in everything but title.’
‘Your husband? He’s much older than you,’ Selma pointed out.
‘He promised to nurse me back to health.’ Was Anne’s answer, spoken with finality.
One night, Anne came to her bedroom and gestured for Selma to follow her. She placed a bony finger against her own lips and crept along the halls to the limestone balcony overlooking the internal gardens. Mister Fox emerged from a small wooden booth among the hanging vines below, his hair and beard shining blue in the light. He disappeared into the mansion without having noticed the women hidden on the balcony above.
After a moment, Anne led her to the stairs to the gardens. They approached the wooden booth, decorated with patterned carvings. Anne parted the curtains and looked back at Selma expectantly. Selma peered inside.
There were five portraits sitting on an alcove, illuminated in the flickering light of a candle. Each portrait depicted a different woman, all unfamiliar. The various jewels placed around their portraits glimmered and threw dancing colours across them.
It was a shrine, she realised.
‘Mister Fox comes in and tends to them each night. Just like how I took care of her,’ Anne pointed to a woman, then the next, ‘and she took care of her.’
‘You… took care of that woman?’ Selma asked.
She nodded, ‘She was sick, like me. Selma, will you take care of me, too?’
A week later, Anne’s health took a turn for the worse. She was confined to her bed, and Mister Fox was confined to the floor beside her bed. He clutched her hand, crying and giving mournful apologies that fell on the ears of a wasting woman. He lamented tearfully of his broken promise to cure her. Selma stood by with a bucket and wash cloth, watching the scene.
Within a few days, Anne died. The coroner had barely taken her away to the city morgue before the mansion’s door shook with hammering fists.
‘Mister?’ Selma asked, scared.
He stood in the centre of the foyer, listening to the continuous knocking. From behind he appeared calm, his arms folded behind his back, but when he turned to look at her his expression mirrored her own panic. He approached the door and reached for its brass handle with a trembling hand.
City guards poured inside, displaying the seal of the Liege Lord. The other dignitaries of the city had called for Mister Fox’s arrest. Selma cowered as he was roughly apprehended, struggling and resisting their hands. His cries ricocheted in the foyer.
‘The Liege Lord demands that you answer for your crimes of the abduction his wife and an inquiry into her death.’
‘I didn’t abduct her she—’
A guardsman clubbed Mister Fox across the face, and his silver beard blossomed red. The crowd dragged him by his bound arms from the mansion.
Selma dared not move, listening. Only silence answered. She walked away from the open door, deeper into the mansion, entering the gardens. She shucked the curtain of the shrine stepping into the darkness, affronted by stale smell of old smoke. She kneeled and fumbled near blindly, striking a match to hold to the wick of a candle.
In the quivering glow of the small flame, she somberly observed the faces of each woman’s portrait. She paced the candle before the sixth, illuminating the familiar visage of the most recent addition to the shrine.
‘Goodbye, Anne,’ she murmured. Then, as an afterthought, ‘goodbye, Selma.’
She stood and left.
Author: Kyrah H is a fourth-year creative writing student of the Wiri and Luritja First Nations. She like to experiment with horror-themed fiction. Expect to see more of her work in ScratchThat, GLASS magazine, and online.
Artist: Yongzheng Wang is a visual arts student from China, currently studying at QUT and living in Brisbane, specialising in traditional painting such as classical oil painting and academic sketching. While studying art in China, he won a first prize in landscape drawing in institute. He is fluent in Chinese, French, English and Italian and has a good knowledge of Western art theory.
Editors: David Farr and Grace Harvey