In glimpses she existed, in snatches of sight through the half-broken windows of the old hill house: the girl with crimson hair. The townspeople whispered of her often, turned deep into their hearts by superstition and idle gossip. A child so fair of face with hair so red that it was as if blood cascaded in rivulets past her shoulders. If she smiled at you, your daughter would have her first bleeding by the new moon but, if she raised her hand, there would be a miscarriage in the family, though not one neighbor could tell you if this was true.
Her mother came down to the town each week for milk and bread, weathered and bent double by the efforts of poverty, as if once having a great fortune and losing it had landed heavy on her spine, bending it convex. The bones of her family name stood atop that hill like a picked-clean carcass, a cage of ribs that held the girl inside with nothing but crumbling architraves and a climbing, choking mould for company.
“I’m lonely,” she confessed one day to her mother. “Why have I no brothers and sisters to play with?” For she longed for the kind of whistling glee that other children seemed to bring, for the echoes of voices that she had often imagined within the walls of the house.
“I need only you,” her mother replied. “And when you are married, you shall keep me in wealth and splendor once more.”
What the child did not know was that, each and every night, her mother was making preparations for such a day. With a flick of her wrist and the glint of a needle, she set to work, pulling loose her daughter’s scalp as if unthreading the delicate patchwork of a doll and re-stitching it with fine scarlet hairs and, all of this, while the girl slept and, night by night, grew.
It was midsummer when the coming of her womanhood coincided with the return of the king from war. A splutter of blood christened her thighs just as the tearing of rugged flesh had wet his teeth after every battle. They called him the Cannibal King and murmurs of what befell his enemies were carried from town to town on a heavy breeze. He was a ripe age for a lord of war, but yet unmarried, so the girl was laced and cinched and sent to his castle.
The Cannibal King was not un-handsome for a man so fearsome in his reputation. To behold, his cheekbones crowned his face as if one could picture the exact shape of the skull that lay beneath and within the sockets of his eyes were two murky devouring pools of vision. They consumed her across the room, past the revelers and celebrations. They swallowed her entirely, for in all his years he had never seen such macabre beauty, such a totem of conquest, and by the next moon it was decided that they were to be wed.
On the eve of her marriage, how eagerly her mother prepared herself for work, stretching out the kinks in her calloused fingers, choosing the needle with which she would create her final masterpiece: the tapestry of her daughter, the soon-to-be wife of war. What riches the king possessed! What frescoed halls of treasure and spoils, of steel and gold and, soon to be added to his wealth, a queen with hair as red as blood, ever flowing down her spine.
But the girl could not sleep. She tossed and turned; some great weight of earth shifting inside her stomach. Anticipation, perhaps, molded into the recognizable clod of insomnia, so she rose from her bed sheets and went to find her mother.
By candlelight, the woman was hunched, almost unrecognizable in her gait of snarling vertebrae, for the girl had never before seen her so focused upon a task. Curious, she crept closer to see what it was that so absorbed her.
Against the wall, a rack of wires stood. A great many wires of such wonderful shades, of ochre and honey and hay, as enchanting as harp strings, but the girl watched as the brush in her mother’s hand rose and fell and saw how, one by one, the wonderful threads succumbed to a lacquer of vivid crimson, concealing their true colors forever.
It was with an inhalation that she revealed herself and the woman turned to face her.
“See all that I have done for you?” she asked. “Each and every night, I plant these seeds anew so that your skull will bloom like a rose, more radiant each day than the last…”
“All that you have done for me?” the girl replied, seeing the truth. “It is because of you that I have been lonely all my life.”
The woman simply smiled and gestured to the rack of beautiful strands.
“Here, before you, are the brothers and sisters that you so craved,” she announced. “For none of them were born with your fair face. What use is there in growing weeds if they will never capture the heart of a king?”
A hungry flame flickered in the woman’s eyes.
“I need only you,” she said. “What does a lonely childhood matter? For silken sheets and gold shall keep us company now.”
Seized by her despair, the girl thrust her mother from the rack where her siblings’ hair was strung and, with a crack, the woman’s head struck the faded flagstones and seeped the color of her greed.
On the eve of her marriage, how grimly the girl set to work, ploughing the furrows of her scalp to release the memory of her poor brothers and sisters. How artfully then she crouched above her mother and plucked loose the bloody strands from the woman’s skull, re-stitching for herself a tapestry according, at last, to her own design.
And, the next morning, how proudly she stood beneath the bone white arches that they called a cathedral so that all could see the lonely ghost of a girl made flesh at the Cannibal King’s side. For when she smiled, the congregation’s hearts grew warm and, when she raised her hand, they brought theirs together like the clapping of doves meeting the open sky.
And it was said that, though the birthing of their offspring proved bright and bloody enough to befit their union, the queen wanted a great many children so that their gilded halls would always be filled with noise.
Amy Crosby currently lives on the south coast of England with her family, who remain remarkably unfazed by the dark themes in her writing and her general penchant for anything macabre. As well as winning local competitions for her poetry (sadly, also dark), her work has been featured in MUSED – The BellaOnline Literary Review and Prole magazine. It is soon to be appearing in Bunbury Magazine and on the Ink Sweat & Tears website.
Lead image: “* (Lotus)” (via Flickr user William O’ Brien)