Anna returned to their farm and grabbed Mama’s gardening spade near her potato patch. Weeds commanded the patch, and any potatoes left in the ground would be close to rotting by now. Mama forgot about her potatoes when Papa left, but that was fine for Annabelle. She hated potatoes. She would rather eat grass than another potato for the rest of her life.
“What are you doing in Mama’s garden?” asked the little girl standing behind Annabelle with her arms crossed. Her curly red hair twisted around her head like brambles and clumps of sleep still crusted around her eyes.
“I’m just borrowing it. I’ll bring it back.”
Sofia scrunched up her face, as she did whenever she didn’t like someone’s answer to her. “I’m hungry.”
Annabelle frowned. She had hoped to finish the morning chores before Sofia woke up and then they could share the eggs for breakfast. But if she didn’t bury Starry the smell might attract more of the monsters. And if they found the chicken coop they would have no eggs at all to eat.
“I gotta do this first,” Anna stated. She tried to sound firm, like Papa when he spoke and didn’t want anyone to argue back. Sofia always listened to Papa. But she thought she just sounded bossy instead and her sister agreed.
“But I’m hungry!” She whined and stomped the ground with a bare foot.
“I gotta do this first!” the elder sister screamed back. Sofia would be six in another new moonrise but still she acted like a baby sometimes.
Anna stared hard at her sister and breathed heavily through her nose. She wanted to yell that it was all her fault they weren’t eating breakfast yet, that Starry was ripped up and dead because of her. But then Sofia would cry and tell Mama when she got back, and Mama would drop her head in her hands and sigh, ‘Not again, girls, please.’ Annabelle hated when Mama got sad like that. It made her feel all sorts of terrible dread.
“Go to the chickens and get the eggs. And make sure you don’t drop any this time.” The days were shortening and the air was growing cooler. The hens would soon stop laying for this season and then breakfast would be porridge, porridge, porridge. Porridge was almost as rotten and tasteless as potatoes.
“But that’s your job,” Sofia whined. She uncrossed her arms and placed each hand on a hip, pouting. When Sofia pouted for Mama or Papa, she could get her way. But Anna never fell for it.
“Please, Sofia. I gotta do this first then I’ll cook the eggs. I’ll let you have all the ones you bring.”
Her little sister’s eyes lit up at the offer. Sofia was always hungry. Mama never seemed to eat–she always gave her meals to Sofia. Anna didn’t like sharing; afterall, she was always hungry too, but she never begged Mama for more. Still, it wasn’t fair that Sofia got to eat so much more.
“You swear?” Sofia asked. She thrust her little hand out into the air, and waved her stubby fingers.
Annabelle reached for her sister’s hand with her right and slipped her fingers between her stubby ones. “If my mouth is full of lies, my eyes will fill with flies,” she said solemnly. Sofia clasped her sister’s fingers tightly and stared into her eyes. Satisfied when no flies appeared, she let go.
“Okay,” the little girl nodded and ran her fingers through her mess of brambled hair. “But don’t take long ’cause I’m real hungry,” Sofia warned before she skipped off for the coop.
“And keep the bucket away from the fence or the chickens’ll jump over!”
“I knooow!” her sister yelled over her shoulder. She stumbled forward but caught herself before she fell, giggling to herself.
Annabelle collected the dropped feathers as she returned for the dead bird. The feathers were still beautiful but they no longer felt soft or warm. Now they were dirty and her hands felt tainted touching them. The monster from her dream had done this, she knew. Like Sofia, it was always hungry. But though it had a big mouth full of sharp teeth, it could never eat. It just hunted and killed.
Thinking about the monster’s hunger made her own stomach twist inwardly and ache for food. Anna glanced at the dead chicken. The blood had drained from its body and she could see the milky pink flesh lined with soft yellow fat inside the hole the monster had ripped.
She dug in the shade of an elm tree where the dirt was still soft and moist and tried to keep her eyes off Starry. The queer thing was, nothing else touched the body. Flies avoided it, the ants and beetles marched around it, and the smell hadn’t drawn any scalehound. The monster had touched it. You should never eat something a monster touches. Papa had never said this but she felt sure he would if he were with her. Perhaps that’s how you become a monster in the first place, she mused.
She buried Starry among the roots of the elm tree where pink worms slithered through the dirt. Annabelle used the fire poker to push the fowl into the hole she had dug and then covered it back up. In her nine-and-three-quarters years’ of experience, she had never been to a funeral before and wondered if there was something she was expected to do. She pondered it for a moment before she decided the burial had been enough. She wiped her dirty hands on her backside and made her way home.
Anna found Sofia crouched by the chicken pen, holding out a dandelion for the hens to peck as she chewed on the stem of another. A white chicken pulled at the yellow flower and stained its face. Sofia had three eggs on the ground beside her. Five chickens and three eggs. Anna frowned. Either the others had stopped laying already, or Sofia had lost them somewhere along the way.
Her stomach growled looking at the eggs. If Papa were here, he would surely butcher that nasty old cow and they would eat like they used to before the marching men came through their lands and hauled people and food away. She hated those men. They were monsters too, but they were worse because they pretended to look normal.
Anna gathered the eggs in her hands. “Let’s go back inside now,” she said. The monsters lived outside. Inside they were safe–even from the under-the-bed monster since he could only come out at night. The shutters drawn across every window kept them safe from harm. Papa said so.
“Where’s Starry?” Sofia asked, dropping the dandelion in the pen while still chewing the stem in her mouth. “I couldn’t find her.”
“Starry got out of the pen,” Anna replied without pause, “And the monster got her.” She glanced down to her little sister, who continued to chew contemplatively on the stalk. Anna was surprised at how well her sister took the news. She had expected another tantrum. She placed a gentle hand on Sofia’s shoulder and led her back into their shuttered and dark home.
Anna stacked a log inside the hearth and lit it with flint. She placed all three eggs into a pot of water and hung it from the mantle to boil. The fire in the hearth illuminated the bare room. Once, they had furniture all around: sofas for sitting and chests for storage. A big bookshelf full of books that Mama loved to read. And a long table that sat in the center of the room between everything where Anna and Sofia played games. All of that had been cut into blocks and splinters to last them through the winter, in case Papa didn’t return before the snow. Anna had helped Mama chop everything up.
The axe had been heavy and she would squeeze her eyes tight when she swung it down, until Mama told her that was how people cut their own legs off. After hearing that, she felt too afraid even to blink when she swung. Sofia stacked the wood while they cut but she had stolen a few slithers from the pile for herself to make into dolls. Annabelle had yelled at her for that until Mama shook her head and said it wasn’t worth a fight, those tiny pieces wouldn’t have burned for more than a couple minutes anyway. ‘Let your sister have some fun,’ Mama had said in her usual, weary sigh of a voice.
Sofia had tied the wood with yarn and covered their bodies with the cloth scraps Mama used to use for dusting, back when there was furniture to dust. They were Sofia’s treasured possessions. She took better care of them than anything else.
“Once upon a time,” she heard Sofia say as the little girl made a semicircle of dolls in front of herself, “there lived a very beautiful queen from a far away land. Everyone loved her and would bring her lots and lots of presents. One day, she received from the island men a little girl. ‘This girl shall take care of you when you are sick, she shall make you food when you are hungry, she shall spin you fine clothes when you are cold, and she shall care for your children when you are a mother,’ one of the island men said. The queen smiled a very beautiful smile and thanked them in a very beautiful voice. The queen was pregnant and everyone was excited to see her beautiful baby.”
Annabelle glanced at her sister. She knew this story, it was one Papa sometimes told. She liked the happy stories, the ones that ended in love and happily-ever-afters. But this story was not such.
“The girl was a very good maid to the queen. She cared for her, cooked for her, clothed her, and taught her a lullaby from the island to sing to her baby when it was born. The queen loved the girl like a younger sister. When it was time for the birth, the maid stayed by the queen’s side all day and night. It was a long birth. And in the morning, when the kingdom awoke, neither the maid nor the baby could be found and the queen lay still in her bed.
“The king ordered for the healers to come and they crowded around the queen. ‘The queen is not dead,’ they told the king, ‘but she has been trapped in her body and we are not powerful enough to bring her out.’ The healers left the king as he howled in misery by his queen’s bedside.”
“Sofia,” Anna interrupted, “Can’t you do a different story? This one is too sad. What about the story of the Maiden of Flowers?” Anna liked that story best because it had a happy beginning, middle, and end. No children were eaten, no one was made a slave, no one died. Only a girl who loved flowers so much she found a way to the Flower Kingdom where sunflowers lit up the sky and everything smelled sweet and fresh.
“No,” Sofia firmly replied, the king doll gripped tight in her little hand. “That’s a stupid story, and it’s not even real.”
“Your story’s not real either!” Anna fired back.
“Nuh uh!” Annabelle sneered at her sister. “Papa made it up. There are no kings or queens and no one has magic anymore. It’s just a story for little kids to believe.”
“Just ’cause it’s a story doesn’t also mean it can’t be true.”
Sofia pouted and Anna turned her back to her sister. Papa said to pick her fights. It wasn’t worth it to argue over everything. She tried to focus on the rolling bubbles of water jostling the little eggs around and block out her sister, who now whispered the story softly to herself while she continued her play. She tried to ignore her but Anna didn’t need to hear it to know how it ended: everyone–the queen, the babe, the maid and so many others–even the good ones–died.
She had cried the first time Papa told her the story and yelled at him that stories weren’t supposed to end like that. Stories should be happy. He only smoothed her hair and said that sometimes things don’t end like we want, and sometimes endings weren’t endings at all. She never understood Papa when he spoke like that.