Annabelle woke covered in sweat. She had dreamt of the monster again; a black demon with a twisted and ruined body like the lightning-struck tree she saw when she went berry-picking with Mama in the summer. The terrible storm the night before kept her awake and just the sight of the burned bark peeling away to reveal its dead, black core gave her nightmares. She refused to go back into the forest until Papa hitched up the work horses and dragged it away. He always did things like that for her.
But that was back when they had work horses, back when she was little–no more than Sofia’s age. It’d been over three years since then and Anna was nine-and-three-quarters now. You’re not supposed to be scared at nine-and-three-quarters, she knew. You had to be brave and strong and protect the little ones that get scared. Papa said so. Monsters weren’t real. Papa said that, too.
But though she told herself and told herself this, there was still a little corner in her heart that felt scared when she had the monster dream, waking up in the pitch-black room and waiting until the cock crow. Even when she knew morning had come, she still didn’t feel safe as she stumbled blindly through the darkness to wash her face in the basin and slip her dress up over her head. She wished they could still use candles and the shutters didn’t have to be drawn so tight that no light peeked through. But this was the way things had to be for now. Papa said so before he left.
Anna hopped far off the bed and landed with a soft thud on her bare feet. The wood felt cool but the thin layer of dust and earth made it slippery, too. She paused to listen before she stepped any further. She heard Sofia’s soft breathing continue as her little sister slept soundly in the bed they shared, completely undisturbed. More importantly, she heard no monster growling with hunger slip out from under her bed to try and gobble her up.
She never let her feet dangle too close to the end of the bed where the monster could grab her. It was too dangerous even to rise from bed normally. She jumped in and out of bed–always. Anna had taught Sofia to jump too, like a big sister should. Sofia thought it a great game and always squealed with laughter when she jumped. Anna never explained to her why it was important to stay away from the gap beneath the bed. She didn’t want to scare her.
The house was silent when Anna left the bedroom. She had hoped Mama would be home, huddled beside the soft glow of a single lit log. But she must’ve left already, Annabelle told herself, and now was waiting along the village road for someone to buy the last of her fruits. She hadn’t seen Mama last night before she went to bed either, but this was the way things were nowadays. Papa said she was Mama’s big helper around the house. The girl of nine-and-three-quarters grabbed the fire poker left by the hearth and slipped out of the house.
Before Papa went away, he taught her to never leave the house without something sharp and pointy. When you have something sharp and pointy, no one wants to bother you. The fire poker was good because it was made of iron and wouldn’t break easy. It was her sword, just like the sword Papa wore when he left with the marching men.
Annabelle tied a length of thick rope around her skinny waist and slipped the fire poker through. Its handle caught on the cord but the poker was still a little too long. Its blackened point scraped against the ground and left behind a little trail wherever she walked.
She heaved a wooden bucket of seed up from where it sat near the front door. The door opened outward and she pushed it closed with her foot slowly to not wake Sofia before continuing toward the small chicken coop where she could already see the hens pecking at the bare ground.
The sun dyed the early morning sky a swirl of pinks and yellows like the sweet tree fruit Mama once brought back from the market. It had come from far, far away Mama said and it was so pretty Anna hadn’t wanted to eat it. She adored its soft rosy texture for it reminded her of when she first met Sofia, swaddled in a blanket and resting in Mama’s arms.
“Good morning, chickens!” she greeted in a hushed voice. She kept her voice low, just in case. Day may have dawned yet she still feared the shadows that loomed in the surrounding woods. She dropped the heavy bucket just outside the fence. On cue, the chickens clucked and scampered toward her with anticipation. They flapped their stubby wings and hopped from side to side on their little clawed feet until she finally tossed handfuls of seed over to them.
Annabelle loved the chickens. The cow was old, partially blind and tried to kick her whenever she came near. Yet the chickens were always so happy to see her; sometimes they would even let her hold them. Their feathers were soft and warm in her lap and she didn’t even mind when their sharp claws and beaks scratched up her arms and legs. Anna watched them eat and tried to mimic their contented clucking. A brown one paused from its breakfast to look at her, cocking its head to the side. She clicked her tongue. The hen gave her words a moment of consideration and then returned to its pecking. Anna giggled and was about to try talking to another one until she noticed a chicken missing.
It was the black hen with gold in its wings. Sofia called her Starry, even though Mama and Papa always warned never name an animal you’ll eat. Patting the fire poker at her side, Annabelle climbed over the wood fence and into the chicken pen. A couple clucked in surprise when she landed and watched her with wide eyes as they continued to eat.
“Starry? Are you in there?” she called out toward the coop. Anna reached for the poker and gripped it tightly in her hand. The chicken coop wasn’t very big–they never had many chickens–and, because of a hole still in need of repair in the roof, the sunlight entered through and illuminated the inside of the coop. Annabelle stepped quietly alongside the building and then quickly darted her head into the coop. Musty straw beds with five fresh eggs and chicken droppings greeted her. But not the black chicken.
Anna walked around the pen and this time noticed an overturned bucket by the fence. Sofia must have used it to get out of the pen when she finished playing with Starry, and then Starry must have used it to escape.
Anna sighed. Her sister always seemed to forget to do something, like wash her hands before she ate or close the door when she left the house. Mama said Anna was the same way when she was Sofia’s age, and that Sofia would grow out of it. Whenever Mama said this to her, Anna wondered how long it took for someone to grow out of a bad habit. She hoped it would be soon.
Still, if she didn’t find Starry then her little sister would throw a fit. Anna tossed the bucket beyond the fence, tucked the fire poker back between her dress and twine belt, climbed back to the other side, and tried to imagine where a chicken would go.
The answer was not very far. Clumps of black and gold feathers littered the small woods to the west of their home. She followed them, her knuckles white from her grip on the poker, as more and more appeared. They formed a path that led her to a small clearing covered in dry sticks and dead leaves. Starry laid on her back staring up to the clouds. Anna shivered with a sudden cold and took out the poker while she approached the hen.
The feathers had been ripped so forcefully in some places it had torn the flesh with them. Little white bones stuck out from where the body had been cracked open. Annabelle had seen butchered chickens before. She had even helped Papa do it a few times, ever since she turned eight. She had seen the remains of chickens eaten by foxes or feral cats. In all occasions, little was ever wasted. But the creature that had taken Starry had wasted everything, tearing into the bird and then throwing it back to the ground like trash, unable to find whatever it had wanted to find inside her.
Then she felt it. The dread from when she saw that tree. When she had her nightmares. When she walked alone in the dark, silent bedroom. It gripped her with spindly fingers, seizing her chest and heart. Annabelle felt like she was choking. She gasped for air but nothing could reach her lungs. Her heart pounded THUD THUD THUD in her ears. The monster was nearby. She was sure of it. It was grabbing her from the darkness. Its fists clenched tighter. Her lungs and heart burned like a thousand needles pierced them.
She couldn’t remember what Papa said to do. What did he say to do? What did Papa say?! All her mind focused on was how she couldn’t remember his words. How she was going to suffocate without remembering what he said, what he sounded like. But she remembered his nose. It was big and crooked with a fuzzy mustache and a scratchy beard. That’s right. When he held her, his beard always scratched her cheek.
He always held her when the dread paralyzed her. He would whisper in her ear. That’s right, his voice was a whisper. Papa never yelled. His voice was always soft and warm like soup on a cold night. And he had whispered…
‘Breathe, Anna. Take a deep breath. In… then out. In… then out. Good girl. You’re such a strong girl. Now, count from ten. Count with me. Ten, nine, eight, seven…’
“…Six, five, four, three, two, one.” Annabelle opened her eyes. The hen was still there but she had banished the dread. The monster hadn’t won against her. Not yet, at least.