~ 1853 ~
Crazy, crazy, Elizabeth Pool Lives in the woods. Doesn't go to school. Got no shoes. Her feet are bare. How many years will she live out there?" ~ A children's rhyme.
Snowflakes fall from the black, February sky as gently as a widow's tears. They drift down through the bare canopy and dust a curious trail. Hand - hand - foot - foot. It leads to a girl in her nightclothes, crawling through the snow. Fresh wounds and old scars litter her body; one leg is ringed with thick, ugly stitches.
She comes to the base of a Methuselah tree and curls up in its knotted roots. Soon, the snow covers her like a blanket, just as it blankets her trail. Elisbet smiles in her sleep.
In the darkness behind her, something opens its eyes.
A haunted man stands in a narrow hallway, grimly plugging rounds into a shotgun. "Holy Mary, mother of god," he mumbles to himself, "pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our... death. Amen." He kisses the crucifix dangling from his neck, readies his weapon, and pushes open the door at the end of the hall.
The bed inside is empty; four frayed ropes hang from its frame. The sheets are shredded and stained with blood. His eyes pass over these details as he casts about the room for something else.
She screams from above and to his right, behind the open door. He kicks it closed and fires without looking. The front of a wooden dresser explodes, showering him with splinters, but the muzzle flash reveals her. Elisbet pounces from high atop the dresser and drags him to the ground.
Growling, she tears the gun from his grasp and sends it skittering under the bed, then leans down and sinks her teeth into his face. He tries to push her away, but she drags her nails down both arms. Blood spurts from his wrists.
His mind recoils, leaves his body. Elisbet leans back and howls with blood-soaked lips.
The remains of a dresser drawer crash through the window and fall into the snowbank below. Elisbet does likewise, then crawls off, on all fours, into the bone-white wilderness.
"Praise the Lord. Thank you for coming, Father. Beth and the children are beside themselves with fear and I can't say my nerves are entirely steady."
"Well, they don't have the benefit of whiskey, Mr. Broderick." The priest kicks the snow off his boots, pushes past the haunted man and into the farmhouse. "Show me to the girl."
"Yessir. She's upstairs. We had to tie her to the bed, wouldn't sit still for the stitches." As they walk through the sitting room, the priest finds red eyes staring at him from every window, lupine forms silhouetted against the snow. A black dog sits beneath the sewing table, another lurks behind a bookcase. Its ember eyes smoulder in the darkness under the stairs. Both men quicken their pace.
In the darkness behind her, something opens its eyes.
Even in the narrow confines of the second floor hallway, the priest feels exposed. The farmer clutches his crucifix as they near the door at the far end. "We only tried to help her, Father. She was in the barn, unconscious and bleeding. We never invited this evil into our home. Help us, please."
"Righteous men need not fear the Devil, Mr. Broderick. Go look after your family and, whatever you may see or hear, do not attempt to come to my aid. Do you understand?" The farmer nods vehemently and begins edging back towards the stairs.
"Bless you, Father. God save us."
As the farmer retreats, the priest takes a deep breath and crosses himself. He reaches into his coat and removes a few tools: a cross, a bible, a bottle of holy water. He cradles them in one arm as he turns the knob and walks into the shadow of the valley of death.
"In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti!" he intones as he crosses the threshold, steeling himself for the full force of Satan's fury, but he is met by Elisbet's wide eyes and nothing more. He passes the dresser and circles around the bed, finishing his incantations and splashing her with holy water. She flinches, whimpers, and tugs at her restraints.
"Father of Lies, Most Unclean, I command you: Be gone from this poor girl! In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you!" He leans over the bed and presses his cross into her forehead, but it might as well be a warm washcloth, for as much as she struggles.
He puts his implements aside and sits down on the edge of the bed. "Dear girl, if you're not in the grip of Satan, what were you doing in that drunk's bear trap?" He looks down at her leg, sees the ring of clumsy stitches above her ankle. "And in your nightclothes, no less." He straightens her skirt, but leaves his hand on her thigh as his attention returns to her face. He brushes her hair back, strokes her cheek.
Spectral teeth tear rope and her right hand is free. It snaps across the priest's face, leaving three ragged streaks of blood in its wake. Elisbet roars and thrashes as he tries to pin her. A finger finds his left eye, sinks into the socket like a fish hook.
He reels back, wailing like a steam whistle. One hand staunches the flow of bloody humors while the other gropes for the door.
Elisbet ruled the town like a tiger rules the savanna. She'd been picking their pets and livestock out of her teeth for the better part of a week. More than one hunting party had gone in search of a big, bad "wolf," only to return with empty hands and heavy hearts. At night, she prowls their snow-capped roofs and howls until her throat is raw and bloody.
They are afraid of her! Bear traps bloom in back yards. Wolfsbane adorns doors and windows. Scarecrows stand guard in the public square. The world outside her cage is so much bigger than she could have imagined, but its men and women are so much smaller than she'd feared.
Freedom is a trade wind propelling her to undiscovered shores. This evening's conquest is the biggest yet: a brown speckled mare the size of a buffet table. Her place was set hours ago, in a farmer's barn, when he and his family marshaled off, leaving their homestead unguarded.
She slips inside as the sun sets. The mare's fear fills her nostrils and the intoxication unleashes her other self. It feels like escaping her cage all over again. The frenzy flings blood across the walls in thick strokes, fills her stomach to bursting.
When she staggers away, sated, something clicks beneath the straw and her world collapses to a point just above her ankle. She tumbles and the point becomes a tremor that grinds against her bone. She looks down. Red saliva wets a set of iron jaws that are gnawing on her leg. A scream wells up from gasping lungs. Her eyes roll back into a splitting skull. Silence.
Her whole life, she'd been trapped beneath a butcher's floorboards, her nostrils filled with blood and her ears beset by the screams of condemned animals. She sleeps on a bed of straw, surrounded by earthen walls, wrapped in suffocating darkness. The sounds of life beat a constant rhythm above her head. Words are never spoken to Elisbet, only about her, so she has as little use for language as its speakers have for her.
That's why she stares so blankly when an unfamiliar male, maybe a cousin or a visiting friend, eases open the trapdoor and creeps down the ladder into her cage late one night. He waits on the last rung until his eyes adjust to the dark, then studies her with appetite.
"So, you're what's got everyone so yellow-bellied, up there?" he whispers. "The Devil Girl. You ain't but a slip of a thing." He steps down off the ladder. "You know, I ain't never seen your 'devil dog,' neither. Maybe he's afraid of me. He should be."
The interloper advances, crouches down at her bedside. "Is it true, you don't even talk?" He waits, but no reply is forthcoming. Confirmation enough, it seems. "Do you scream?"
He pins her down and puts his mouth on her. His sweat stinks of liquor. She does not scream, in fact, or even struggle. This is not the first time violence has visited her in the night, but it is the first time anyone has left the door unlocked. She looks over her assailant's shoulder to the dim portal at the top of the ladder. The Dog waits for her, there, eyes blazing.
She explodes to her feet, carrying the rapist with her. She smashes him through the bottom of the ladder and into the wall behind it. His limbs and neck bend at unnatural angles. Elisbet climbs over him and leaps up to the trapdoor, wraps knuckles around wood and pulls herself up into a kitchen she has not seen in twelve years.
Footsteps. They must have heard the rapist die. The Dog has them jumping at shadows. She waits for them, stalks them, breaks them with brutal finality. She leaves the house a mausoleum.
She leaves her cage forever.
Baby Elisbet sleeps in darkness, tightly swaddled and surrounded by crucifixes. The midwife fled hours ago. Her mother cries in the next room while the rest of the family prays in desperation.
The Dog lies curled beneath her crib.- Daniel Bayn, 2013