Read Four and Twenty Blackbirds Online
Authors: Cherie Priest
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Contemporary, #Dark Fantasy, #Fiction
It should come as no surprise that I ended up a regular patron of the school counselor's office. Mr. Schumann was short and wide, with red hair that grew shorter every year. His ears protruded north past the narrowing fringe, straining to listen even when his round blue eyes appeared impassive. He always watched me with squinty concentration, like the face a cat makes while trying to figure out a bathroom faucet.
"Why don't you tell me about some of these pictures you've made?" he began our last session together. "Mrs. Patterson thinks they're very good, but she wants to know what they're about."
I stared at my shoes. "I already told her. They're about the sisters."
"Yes, the women who died. You said someone killed them."
His brown office chair squealed as he shifted his weight. He leaned forward and pressed his palms together. "That's a scary story to tell someone, don't you think?"
"It's for real. It's a for-real story. I didn't make it up."
"Where did you hear it? Did you see it on TV or in a movie?"
I shook my head, aggravated because I couldn't make him understand. "I didn't hear it anywhere. I just know it. It's in my head."
"But stories like that have to get into your head from somewhere. Where did you pick them up?"
"Nowhere. I came that way. I was born with the story. It happened to me before I was born."
He tapped the tips of his index fingers against each other, then reached for a pad of paper and a pen. "I've got an idea. Why don't you tell me the whole thing, thenâ€”from start to finish."
"I don't know the whole thing," I sulked. He still didn't believe me.
"Then tell me the parts you do know. I'd like to hear them."
I closed my eyes and saw flashes, frames of action disconnected and surreal. A house like the one I'd sketched for Mrs. Patterson, surrounded by swirling green-black water. The slick jerking motion of an alligator sliding off a bank into a fetid pool of stagnant backwater.
Three women. Me in their arms, passed from one to another.
"My mother and her two sisters," I said, eyes still shut.
Mr. Schumann rifled through a folder before pausing to read something. I heard his asthmatic breath aimed down at the desk, blowing against his loose papers. He scratched his head with his pen. "Eden, it's my understanding that your mother died when she had you. I know you live with an aunt and uncle; is there another sister too?"
"Yes, but that's not who I mean."
"But you saidâ€”"
I balled my hands into tight little fists, squeezing the story out like toothpaste from a tube. "Not my mother
. My mother
. When I was his prettiest one. It was a long time ago. Whole lives ago since he killed them."
Mr. Schumann held still for a minute. He thumped his wrist down on the desk and used his scritchy little pen to jot notes across his pad of lined paper. "Who is this 'he' you mentioned?" he finally asked.
I always saw the women so clearly, it seemed strange that I couldn't conjure his face. I felt his arms, broad and muscular when they picked me up to sit on his shoulders. I recalled the sweat and musk and tobacco smoke I smelled when I pressed my cheek against the crook of his neck. But these were only photographs.
I needed a scene. I cracked my eyes open enough to peek over at Mr. Schumann's fidgeting hands. They fumbled, disassembling the pen into pieces and placing them in precise east-west alignment with a granite paperweight and a letter opener shaped like a sword. Such anxious hands. Not like my father's at all. Not like the long, dark fingers so lean and strong and always sure.
My father's fingers held glass vials filled with funny liquids and powders, and he poured them one into another, another into a greater one, and another onto a small burner. One more bottle. Three drops of brown, smelly stuff on top of it all. When all was done simmering, he removed it from the heat with a padded glove and poured it into a Mason jar that might have otherwise held peach preserves.
His sleek back stretched a damp undershirt to its breaking point. He was at a rough desk, reading something from a book beside the vials. He leaned his head backwards over the chair and gripped his hair with both hands. Tight black wool.
He was frustrated, angry. Something was missing.
"What are you doing in here? Get yourself away now."
"But Papa, I wanted to know whereâ€”"
"I said, get yourself away now."
"Now!" He shouted it, rising out of the chair with enough force to throw it towards me. His elbow struck the book and knocked it fluttering to the floor. The pages flipped from beginning to end with a shuffling flap. Another flash: the shuffling of cards in my mother's hands before she laid them out in a cross-shaped pattern on a purple silk scarf. No. My father. His book.
I was fascinated by the yellowed, dirty pages as they waved back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth until the thick cover clattered still. And before my father could whisk the book closed and throw it back up on the table, I saw what was mounted inside.
Dry and nasty, shrunken and crooked, a black, mummified hand with a gold ring on each finger was fixed against the inside back cover of my father's book. Not a picture but a real one, with stick-fingers splayed open and lacquered shiny.
I screeched and popped out of my chair in Mr. Schumann's office, forgetting for a moment where I was. I only wanted to step on the hand, to squash it, to kill it, to destroy it somehow. But my father was gone, and his book was gone, and the only hands I saw were the counselor's confused ones that were putting his pen together again.
And his letter opener, conveniently shaped like a sword, was lying close to me. So close that I barely had to reach out to grab it, and it took less than a second to slam it down through his pasty white palm.
It took him almost a full second more to realize what had happened enough to join me in my screaming. Not until the blood spurted through both sides of the wound and sprayed his notepad and the pen fragments with sticky crimson did he find his voice enough to call out, and by then I was well on my way to running the mile and a half home.
Lulu was waiting for me at the door.
Aunt Louise is a goddess. She's nearly six feet tall, with huge, melon-firm breasts and a tiny waist. From my very earliest inklings of sexual aesthetics, I wanted to look like Lulu. I wanted her black, spiral curls, her olive skin, and her deep brown eyes. I wanted men to fall over themselves for me the way they did for her. She was my mother's older sister, but only nineteen when she came to care for me. As Mr. Schumann said, my mother died when I was born and I was passed down along the maternal family members.
Back when I was a baby, we all lived with my grandmother and my mother's younger sister, Michelle. Lulu assumed most of the responsibility for my upbringing, and she took me almost everywhere. By the time I was two I'd been to concerts, coffeehouses, and poetry readings enough to scar me for life. But if Lulu had been a homebody, she would have never met Dave, and then where would we be?
Dave, shortly to become my uncle David, found me wandering away from Lulu while she investigated the meager Dashiell Hammett selection at a used bookstore. I'd found a display offering free fudge samples, and although I could not yet read, I understood enough to help myself. Dave worked at the store part-time, and when he finally peeled me away from the fudge plate, I was smeared with enough chocolate to frost a cake. But he didn't scold me, or demand to speak to my guardian. Instead, he propped me up on a pile of discarded books and left to get his camera.
Eventually Lulu noticed I was missing. She found me atop the pile, opening random volumes and pretending to read while Dave took pictures. What can I say? I was a doll. I
have Lulu's curls and her skin, and I was probably the cutest thing the bored clerk had seen all day.
Of course, then he saw Lulu. And both of them promptly forgot about me.
So now a word on Dave.
Dave is roughly the color of the fudge I bathed in that day at the store. Back then his head sprouted long, erratic dreadlocks knotted with beads and hemp thread, and he wore clothes spattered with political slogans like "Free Tibet" and "Stop Animal Testing." He asked Lulu if he could borrow me sometime to take pictures. He was working on his portfolio, and the folks at the Urban Art Institute were going to apprentice him out as soon as it was complete. For that matter, perhaps Lulu wouldn't mind posing for him sometime.
We three have been a unit ever since.
Four weeks after meeting Dave in the bookstore, Lulu took me and moved in to Dave's apartment, which he had turned into a makeshift studio. We went through countless rolls of film in those first months. The shutter flicked incessantly, like Lulu's cigarette lighter when she sat on the balcony in her underwear after photos or sex.
Lulu started telling people what everyone already assumed, that I was their daughter, and Dave adjusted our bodies into exquisite, astounding compositions of intimacy and danger. He laid us out in silks, in drapes, in only skin.
Once he sat me on a shelf draped with black velvet and placed two giant wings behind me. He said they were turkey wings; I can't imagine where he got them. Although they were mottled shades of autumn leaves, when photographed in black and white they were dark enough to be the limbs of giant ravens. I leaned back and raised my head, cocking it against one wing as though I were utterly exhausted, worn out from carrying all those dead souls back and forth from the underworld.
He pressed a button.
Click. I was in a contest. Then on the cover of a magazine. Then a calendar of my more endearing toddler poses, the less morbid ones that the unwashed masses might purchase as Christmas gifts for teenage girls or middle-aged housewives with nail polish that matched their kitchen curtains.
But the pictures of Lulu were the ones that made us both stars. Lulu is a goddess to more than just me, you see, and Dave's pictures brought the world to attention. Suddenly, we were rich. We moved up to the mountain with the rest of the rich people, and I started school.
And I started seeing the dead women.
And I stabbed my counselor with his own dull knife.
And I ran away from his office, all the way home, where Lulu was waiting for me.
She was holding the door open with one hand and the telephone with her other. The phone's pigtail-curled cord barely stretched from the kitchen, where the machine was mounted on the wall. She'd already gotten the call from the principal.
She stepped aside and let me run past her. I was panting and gasping for air, unable to dash another yard but unwilling to quit trying. In the living room, I did laps around the coffee table while she closed the door and placed the phone back on the receiver. She joined me by standing in the way of my loop, forcing me to stop or run into her.
She did not raise her voice.
"What'd you do that for?" she asked. "Why'd you hurt Mr. Schumann's hand?"
I shivered and shook, though it was warm where I stood, in the patch of sun cast through the huge picture windows. "It was moving. And he wasn'tâ€”it wasn't him. It wasn't his hand. It wasn't his hand I wanted to stick!" I hollered. "It wasn't his hand I saw! It was a different one. A little wrinkly one. The one in the book."
Her eyebrows perked. "What book?"
"The book I saw. It was old, with old pages all yellow and dusty. And when it fell open, there was the hand stuck to the back cover. It was moving."
"Yeah. And then when I opened my eyes Mr. Schumann was there, with his fat wiggly hands all moving in front of meâ€”and I don't know. I don't know why I did it. I'm really really sorry. I didn't mean to hurt him. He's a big dumb dork, but I didn't mean to hurt him."
"Come here." She picked me up and sat on the couch, wrapping her strong arms around me, letting my head sink against her breasts like one of the most popular pictures of us together. She leaned her mouth close to my ear and whispered the rest.
"You see so much you shouldn't, poor baby. Just know this: know that the sisters would not hurt you, and they would help you if they could. They're looking for something they lost, years and years ago, they're not looking to harm you at all. They would never harm you, even if they couldâ€”and I figure that they probably can't."
"But there's this book, Lu. Are they looking for the book?"
"Good Lord, no, or at least I don't think so. Don't you think any more about that book. Maybe one day you'll outgrow the sight, and you won't see them anymore, but this is our blood, baby. Someday I'll tell you who the women are, and why they follow you with their pleading eyes and reaching hands. You should think of them as your guardian angels, and don't be so afraid. They love you, and so do I. But don't you ever expect anyone else to understand it.
"Tomorrow the police will come and a social worker will want to see you, but that's all right. You tell them you're sorry about Mr. Schumann's hand, and that it was an accident. You tell them that you closed your eyes, you fell asleep, and you had a nightmare. That's close enough to true for now."
Something awful occurred to meâ€”something more awful than the thought of any school suspension. I sniffled and wiped my nose on her blouse, not even sure how I should broach my fear. "And they won't send me to the pine trees?"
"To the what?"
"To the pine trees?"
She continued to stroke my hair, but didn't respond right away. "What do you mean about the pine trees, darling? Where'd you hear that?" she asked quietly.
"I dunno." I'd picked it up in some conversation held above my head when I was too young to recall the specifics. It was one of those things I'd heard in passing, not really understanding either the meaning or the context. I had only a dim impression that you got sent to the pine trees if you did bad, crazy things. And if you were
bad and crazy, you never came back from the pine trees. They swallowed you whole.
Lu snuggled her chin down against the top of my head and kissed me there, where the hair parts. "Okay," she said. "So you've heard just enough to be afraid. I'm sorry for that, and that's just one more thing that I'll have to tell you more about someday. But don't worry about that for now, either. There's no such place anymore. Not the pine trees you're thinking of. No one will ever send you there, or anyplace like it. And any time you find yourself frightened of the pine trees, you remember what I said about those three sisters and you can stop being afraid. They won't let anyone take you off to the pine trees, and neither will I."
"Not so long as I live."