There’s been few things I’ve concerned myself with over my years. Little gave me reason to.
But plenty gave my mother concern. Reading was never my strong suit. By time I was seven I could only stumble my way through books. Mother rarely believed me when I said the letters floated off the page, rearranging themselves. Moments when I was alone, listening to the frantic talks of my mother and tutor outside of the sitting room, I would reach out before me and try to grasp the letters. I never meant to make my mother sad. But I just never succeeded like other kids.
Arithmetic fell to the wayside, numbers incomprehensible. Mother tried, a few hours a day, sitting me in the dining room. Her own quill scratched the paper, echoing in the grand room. Walls of warm brown, her voice like a sweet melody. When math became too much, and I spent more time staring at her — long auburn hair, honey gold eyes, a freckle above her right brow — she would sigh, giving me permission to go play outside. Sometimes, Grandfather, who we lived with, would join in.
Mother had a man who was courting her. He didn’t mind the fact she was unmarried with a child. He overlooked it, and never asked Mother how. I never did either; her face would turn pale, and she’d be sick for days. Grandmother would scold me, taking over Mother’s duties until she was well. Augustine Acworth was his name. He had hair that shined like the sun, and a smile that made me warm. He was a merchant by trade, and a scholar by choice. He first suggested to Mother that maybe I could learn another language. He would be gone for weeks on work, and would return with gifts for the whole household.
First, they were books in French, then Spanish, German, the common ones, he called them. Well versed in the basics of those, he tried to guide me. I never got far. Once, though, he brought me a book in Greek. And it was odd. Without any help, I stumbled my way through the first chapter. It was political in nature, meaning that while I understood the words, the meaning went over my head. But when I read it outloud, and Augustine confirmed I did it to near perfection, Grandfather hefted me up and spun me around.
From that day, Grandmother set out to find me a Greek tutor.
Mother worried, too, about my inability to be calm. By ten, my anxious tendencies had not calmed. My foot would always tap, my eyes would dart and set guests on edge. Sometimes, I got lucky. Mother would send me outside to play in the yard. I’d return with stains on my coat, but no one scolded me for it. My family, bless them, were too understanding of my condition. There wasn’t a word to explain the way I was.
I understood, from a young age, that something horrible happened to Mother. It was the only way I could explain her behavior. She rarely left home, and when she did, I was kept closely to her. She’d freeze at any time, at the sight of any kind of man, breathing heavily. Mother left home maybe three times a year: Christmas service, Easter service, and my birthday.
Augustine got her to open up more, but it was fruitless. Some man would raise his voice and hand, she scamper behind Augustine, and they’d head home.
Grandfather was my only method of leaving the house. When I was younger, he’d set me up on his shoulder, and we’d go to town. He’d buy me a toy, we’d laugh, and he would run his errands. Clothes for Mother’s, that weeks groceries to the sound of church bells. (Grandfather admitted to me during the rain once that believing in God after what happened to Mother was hard to do.)
Grandmother told me before my eleventh birthday. Mother was seventeen. She told me Mother was a vibrant child, full of mirth and hair full of ribbons. “A beautiful girl,” Grandmother said, talking to me but obviously not there. But Mother met a man, Grandmother stressed, twice her age. Grandfather was inherently against it, but Mother ignored him. Mother ignored him, and paid dearly. She came home crying one night, alone, dress torn, face bruised, begging Grandfather for forgiveness.
Grandfather, in that way of his, went out to kill the man. He couldn’t find him.
I was born nine months later.
Grandmother said it was love at first sight.
My twelfth birthday came and went. Sometimes, I saw strange things on the border of our land. They were...odd, to say the least. Their upper bodies looked like humans, even if nude, and their lower bodies mimicked the bodies of our goats. They didn't scare me.
I never saw the same one twice, and only Augustine believed me. No one else saw them. He’d listened with rapt attention as I described them, nodding. Even if he did not truly believe, his indulgence of me did wonders.
I saw the creatures, in their entirety, when my life crumbled like glass. I awoke to the sounds of screaming. It was my Grandmother’s voice, cut off by a sickening thump and a demonic voice ringing through the house. “Where’s the boy?” it growled.
A crash next, followed by another screech from my grandmother. The sound was terrible, wet, and I could only imagine what happened to her.
It pains me to this day of what happened next to my grandfather. It was only sound, but I heard him bellow, a sturdy man of heavy fists, a solid thwunk into what sounded like fresh meat. Silence, then a roar, wood crashing on wood. Immediately, my mind went to demons. We had abandoned church — in fact, I had never been — and God, so in turn He sent His creatures of the Night to punish us.
I wish it was that easy.
Heavy footsteps began their march down the hall. Grown at twelve, I had my own room, next to my grandparents. It would come for me next, in all of its ugliness, and my mother would be left alone.
Looking back, I wish I was right for once.
“Hey!” I knew that voice. It was my mother’s voice. Sweet, high, wonderful at lullabies. Now, it was laced with something that then I did not know, but it made a chill run down my spine.
I may not have seen my mother that night, but I can still see her then. Nightgown, hair loose and wavy, knuckles white, eyes freed of their usual gentleness, replaces with fire. Her parents murdered, her child next. Weak once, she could not afford to be weak again. “I’m talking to you!” she yelled again, and this time I heard another thunk, but it wasn’t my mother’s voice crying out in pain, but that hell beast. Next came the clatter of metal on floor. “Get out!” she yelled. “Leave!”
It took me a moment, but I realized she was speaking to me. I barely thought about the fact I was leaving my mother to a guttural beast who easily killed my grandfather, the strongest man I knew. Or my grandmother, the sturdiest, most unrelenting of women.
Pajamas and all, I climbed out of the window. Mother wanted me to. Mothers would do anything for their children; mother ducks starving themselves for their chicks, mama bears fighting any and all who dared mess with their cubs. My foot slipped as I heard more yelling, then absolute silence. I stopped breathing, and the insects stopped chirping.
Mathaye Hardy was the bravest woman I ever met.