The Mothers of Voorhisville
From multiple World Fantasy Award winner and Nebula, Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, Sturgeon, and British Science Fiction Award nominated author M. Rickert comes a gorgeous and terrifying vision of the Mothers of Voorhisville, who love their babies just as intensely as any mother anywhere. Of course they do! And nothing in this world will change that, even if every single one of those tiny babies was born with an even tinier set of wings.
This novella was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Liz Gorinsky.
The things you have heard are true; we are the mothers of monsters. We would, however, like to clarify a few points. For instance, by the time we realized what Jeffrey had been up to, he was gone. At first we thought maybe the paper mill was to blame; it closed down in 1969, but perhaps it had taken that long for the poisonous chemicals to seep into our drinking water. We hid it from one another, of course, the strange shape of our newborns and the identity of the father. Each of us thought we were his secret lover. That was much of the seduction. (Though he was also beautiful, with those blue eyes and that intense way of his.)
It is true that he arrived in that big black car with the curtains across the back windows, as has been reported. But though Voorhisville is a small town, we are not ignorant, toothless, or the spawn of generations of incest. We did recognize the car as a hearse. However, we did not immediately assume the worst of the man who drove it. Perhaps we in Voorhisville are not as sheltered from death as people elsewhere. We, the mothers of Voorhisville, did not look at Jeffrey and immediately think of death. Instead, we looked into those blue eyes of his and thought of sex. You might have to have met him yourself to understand. There is a small but growing contingency of us that believes we were put under a type of spell. Not in regards to our later actions, which we take responsibility for, but in regards to him.
What mother wouldn’t kill to save her babies? The only thing unusual about our story is that our children can fly. (Sometimes, even now, we think we hear wings brushing the air beside us.) We mothers take the blame because we understand, someone has to suffer. So we do. Gladly.
We would gladly do it all again to have one more day with our darlings. Even knowing the damage, we would gladly agree. This is not the apology you might have expected. Think of it more as a manifesto. A map, in case any of them seek to return to us, though our hope of that happening is faint. Why would anyone choosethis ruined world?
The mothers have asked me to write what I know about what happened, most specifically what happened to me. I am suspicious of their motives. They insist this story must be told to “set the record straight.” What I think is that they are annoyed that I, Elli Ratcher, with my red hair and freckles and barely sixteen years old, shared a lover with them. The mothers like to believe they were driven to the horrible things they did by mother-love. I can tell you, though; they have always been capable of cruelty.
The mothers, who have a way of hovering over me, citing my recent suicide attempt, say I should start at the beginning. That is an easy thing to say. It’s the kind of thing I probably would have said to Timmy, had he not fallen through my arms and crashed to the ground at my feet.
The mothers say if this is too hard, I should give the pen to someone else. “We all have stuff to tell,” Maddy Melvern says. Maddy is, as everyone knows, jealous. She was just seventeen when she did it with Jeffrey and would be getting all the special attention if not for me. The mothers say they really mean it—if I can’t start at the beginning, someone else will. So, all right.
It’s my fifteenth birthday, and Grandma Joyce, who taught high school English for forty-six years, gives me one of her watercolor cards with a poem and five dollars. I know she’s trying to tell me something important with the poem, but the most I can figure out about what it means is that she doesn’t want me to grow up. That’s okay. She’s my grandma. I give her a kiss. She touches my hair. “Where did this come from?” she says, which annoys my mom. I don’t know why. When she says it in front of my dad, he says, “Let it rest, Ma.”
Right now my dad is out in the barn showing Uncle Bobby the beams. The barn beams have been a subject of much concern for my father, and endless conversations—at dinner, or church, or in parent-teacher conferences, the grocery store, or the post office—have been reduced to “the beams.”
I stand on the porch and feel the sun on my skin. I can hear my mom and aunt in the kitchen and the cartoon voices from Shrek 2, which my cousins are watching. When I look at the barn I think I hear my dad saying “beams.” I look out over the front yard to the road that goes by our house. Right then, a long black car comes over the hill, real slow, like the driver is lost. I shade my eyes to watch it pass the cornfield. I wonder if it is some kind of birthday present for me. A ride in a limousine! It slows down even more in front of our house. That’s when I realize it’s a hearse.
Then my dad and Uncle Bobby come out of the barn. When my dad sees me he says, “Hey! You can’t be fifteen, not my little stinkbottom,” which he’s been saying all day, “stinkbottom” being what he used to call me when I was in diapers. I have to use all my will and power not to roll my eyes, because he hates it when I roll my eyes. I am trying not to make anyone mad, because today is my birthday.
As far as I can figure out, that is the beginning. But is it? Is it the beginning? There are so many of us, and maybe there are just as many beginnings. What does “beginning” mean, anyway? What does anything mean? What is meaning? What is? Is Timmy? Or is he not? Once, I held him in my arms and he smiled and I thought I loved him. But maybe I didn’t. Maybe everything was already me throwing babies out the window; maybe everything was already tiny homemade caskets with flies buzzing around them; maybe everything has always been this place, this time, this sorrowful house and the weeping of the mothers.
We have decided Elli should take a little time to compose herself. Tamara Singh, who, up until Ravi’s birth, worked at the library on Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other Saturday, has graciously volunteered. In the course of persuading us that she is, in fact, perfect for the position of chronicler, Tamara—perhaps overcome with enthusiasm—cited the fantastic aspects of her several unpublished novels. This delayed our assent considerably. Tamara said she would not be writing about “elves and unicorns.” She explained that the word fantasy comes from the Latin phantasia, which means “an idea, notion, image, or a making visible.”
“Essentially, it’s making an idea visible. Everyone knows what we did. I thought we were trying to make them see why,” she said.
The mothers have decided to let Tamara tell what she can. We agree that what we have experienced, and heretofore have not adequately explained (or why would we still be here?)—might be best served by “a making visible.”
We can hope, at least. Many of us, though surprised to discover it, still have hope.
There is, on late summer days, a certain perfume to Voorhisville. It’s the coppery smell of water, the sweet scent of grass with a touch of corn and lawn mower gas, lemon slices in ice-tea glasses and citronella. Sometimes, if the wind blows just right, it carries the perfume of the angel roses in Sylvia Lansmorth’s garden, a scent so seductive that everyone, from toddlers playing in the sandbox at Fletcher’s Park to senior citizens in rocking chairs at The Celia Wathmore Nursing Home, is made just a little bit drunk.
On just such a morning, Sylvia Lansmorth (whose beauty was not diminished by the recent arrival of gray in her long hair), sat in her garden, in the chair her husband had made for her during that strange year after the cancer diagnosis.
She sat weeping amongst her roses, taking deep gulps of the sweet air, like a woman just surfaced from a near drowning. In truth, Sylvia, who had experienced much despair in the past year, was now feeling an entirely different emotion.
“I want you to get on with things,” he’d told her. “I don’t want you mourning forever. Promise me.”
So she made the sort of unreasonable promise one makes to a dying man, while he looked at her with those bulging eyes, which had taken on a light she once thought characteristic of saints and psychopaths.
She’d come, as she had so many times before, to sit in her garden, and for some reason, who knows why, was overcome by this emotion she never thought she would feel again—this absolute love of life. As soon as she recognized it, she began to weep. Still, it was an improvement, anyone would say, this weeping and gulping of air; a great improvement over weeping and muffling her face against a pillow.
Of all the sweet-smelling places in Voorhisville that morning, the yoga studio was the sweetest. The music was from India, or so they thought. Only Tamara guessed it wasn’t Indian music, but music meant to sound as though it was; just as the teacher, Shreve, despite her unusual name, wasn’t Indian but from somewhere in New Jersey. If you listened carefully, you could hear it in her voice.
Right in the middle of the opening chant there was a ruckus at the back of the room. Somebody was late, and not being particularly quiet about it. Several women peeked, right in the middle of om. Others resisted until Shreve instructed them to stand, at which point they reached for a water bottle, or a towel, or just forgot about subterfuge entirely and simply looked. By the time the class was in its first downward dog, there was not a person there who hadn’t spied on the noisy latecomer. He had the bluest eyes any of them had ever seen, and a halo of light around his body, which most everyone assumed was an optical illusion. It would be a long time before any of them thought that it hadn’t been a glow at all, but a burning.
Shreve noticed (when she walked past him as he lay in corpse position) the strong scent of jasmine, and thought that, in the mysterious ways of the world, a holy man, a yogi, had come into her class.
Shreve, like Sylvia, was a widow. Sort of. There was no word for what she was, actually. She felt betrayed by language, amongst other things. Her fiancé had been murdered. Even the nature of his death had robbed her of something primary, as if how he died was more important than that he had. She’d given up trying to explain it. Nobody in Voorhisville knew. She’d moved here with her new yoga teacher certificate after the second anniversary of the event and opened up this studio with the savings she’d set aside for the wedding. His parents paid for the funeral, so she still had quite a bit left, which was good, because though the studio was a success by Voorhisville’s standards, she was running out of money. It was enough to make her cranky sometimes. She tried to forgive herself for it. Shreve wasn’t sure she had enough love to forgive the world, but she thought—maybe—she could forgive herself.
With her hands in prayer position, Shreve closed her eyes and sang “shanti” three times. It meant “peace,” and on that morning Shreve felt like peace had finally arrived.
Later, when the stranger showed up for the writers’ workshop at Jan Morris’s house, she could not determine how he’d found out about the elitist group, known to have rejected at least one local writer on the basis of the fact she wrote fantasy. Jan asked him how he’d found them, but Sylvia interrupted before he could answer. Certainly it never occurred to her to think he was up to anything diabolical. Also, it became clear that Sylvia knew him from a yoga class she attended. By the time he had passed out the twelve copies of his poem—his presence made them a group of thirteen, but they were intellectuals, not a superstitious bunch—well, it just didn’t matter how he found them.
Afterwards, as the writers left, Jan stood at the door with the stranger beside her, waving goodbye until she observed two things: first, that the last car remaining in the driveway was a hearse, and second, that the stranger smelled, quite pleasantly, of lemons.
Jan preferred to call him “the stranger.” Never mind Camus; it had a nice ring to it all on its own. Eventually, when the mothers pieced things together, it seemed the most accurate moniker. They didn’t know him at all. None of them did. Not really.
One night in early June, after events began to unfold as they did, Jan looked for her copy of the stranger’s poem, which she remembered folding inside a book, like a pressed flower. But though she tore apart the bookshelf, making so much noise she woke the baby, she never found it. She called the others and asked each of them, trying to sound casual (“Remember that poet, who came to the workshop just that once? And that poem he wrote?”), but none of them could locate their copy either.
Sylvia remembered that night well; waving goodbye to Jan and Jeffrey, who were standing in the doorway together, haloed by the light of all those overwhelming lemon-scented candles. Jeffrey was a good deal taller than Jan. Sylvia realized she could look right into his blue eyes without even seeing the top of the other woman’s head.
When Jan called in June, Sylvia pretended to have only a minor memory of Jeffrey and the poem, but as soon as she hung up she began searching for it, moving ponderously, weighed down by her pregnancy and the heat. How could she have misplaced it? She had intended to give it to the child some day, a way to say, “Here, you have a father and he is a genius.” But also, Sylvia felt, it was proof that what she had done had been the only reasonable response. The poem revealed not just his intelligence, but also his heart, which was good. Sylvia had to believe this, though he left her. Her husband had left her, too . . . and yes, all right, he had died, but Jeffrey made no promises. He’d come and gone, which Sylvia considered fortunate. She didn’t need, or want, the complication of his presence. But she did want that poem.
That night, when Sylvia’s water broke, she was surprised at how it felt: “As though there had been an iceberg inside of me, which suddenly melted,” she told Holly.
Holly, the midwife and a keeper of many secrets, had a house in Ridgehaven, but that May, she rented a small room from the Melverns, who were thrilled to have her in such close proximity to their pregnant seventeen-year-old daughter. Holly had told no one what she had seen: all those pregnant women in Voorhisville who didn’t appear to have a man in their lives. While this was certainly not scandalous, she did find the number significant. When the babies began arriving that last week in May, it became clear to Holly that something had happened to the women of Voorhisville. Something indescribable.
For Jeffrey’s appeal—though he was a good-looking man—went beyond description. Though there weren’t many, there were other attractive men in Voorhisville who the women had not fucked; receiving nothing in exchange but a single night, or afternoon, or morning (after yoga class, in the studio, the air sweet with jasmine). When the women tried to define just what was so compelling about the stranger, they could not come to a consensus.
Lara Bravemeen, for instance, remembered his hands, with their long narrow fingers and their slender wrists. She said he had the hands of a painter.
Cathy Vecker remembered the way he moved. “Like a man who never hurried . . . but not lazy, you see. Self-contained, that’s what I mean.”
Tamara mentioned his eyes, which everyone else thought so obvious there was no need to comment on.
Elli Ratcher stopped chewing on a hangnail long enough to say, “When he held me I felt like I was being held by an angel. I felt like I would always be safe. I felt holy.”
At which point the women sighed and looked down at their shoes, or into their laps. Because to look at Elli was to remember she had been just fifteen. Though no one could be sure about Jeffrey’s age, he was certainly a man. What he’d done to all of them was wrong, but what he’d done to Elli (and Maddy, they hastened to add) went beyond wrong into the territory of evil.
My name is Maddy Melvern—well, Matilda, which just goes to show how grownups like to make up the world they live in; my parents naming me like I was living in a fairy tale instead of Voorhisville. Let’s just set the record straight, I don’t remember no sweet-smelling day here or none of that shit. Voorhisville is a dump. The houses, almost all of them, except the Veckers’, are all peeling paint and crooked porches. Voorhisville is the kind of town where if a window gets broke it’s gonna stay broke, but someone will try to cover it up with cardboard or duct tape. Duct tape holds Voorhisville together. Roddy Tyler’s got his shoes duct-taped, and there’s duct tape in the post office holding the American flag up, and there’s duct tape on the back of the third pew in St. Andrew’s balcony. I don’t know why. There just is. I was born here and I ain’t old enough to do nothing about it. I can’t explain why anyone else would stay. I know the mothers like to say there are sweet-smelling days in Voorhisville, but there ain’t.
I agree with Elli. Jeffrey was a angel. And just to be clear, my baby was a angel too. All our babies were. No matter what anyone says. I don’t care if he stayed. What was he going to do? Work at the canning factory? Maybe you can picture him doing that and then coming home to, like, have barbecues and shit, but I sure can’t. He didn’t fall for it, you know, that way of doing things right. What I say is that if everybody in Voorhisville’s so concerned with doing things right, then just as soon as we get out of here I’m going to live my life doing things wrong.
It was the first day of school and me, Leanne, Sasha, and some of the guys was walking to Sasha’s house when we see this hearse parked in front of St. Andrew’s. Mark dares me to go into the church. I’m like, what’s the big shit about that? So when the door shuts behind me they all take off, laughing like a bunch of retards.
I kind of liked it. It was peaceful, all right? And it did smell good in there. And everything was clean. So I’m looking at this big statue they got of Jesus on the cross? He’s got the crown with the thorns on his head, and he’s bleeding, and I don’t know why, but whenever I see statues and pictures of Jesus and shit like that, I sort of hate him. I know that’s insulting to many people, but he annoys me, with that crown piercing his skull and those nails in his feet and hands and shit. I never understand why he didn’t do nothing about it, if he was so powerful and all? “You belong in Voorhisville,” is what I thought, and I guess I said it out loud ’cause that’s when a voice behind me goes, “Excuse me?”
So, I turned and there he was. At first I thought he was the priest, but he set me straight. We talked for a long time and then after a while he said we had to go somewhere safe. I kind of laughed, because ain’t churches supposed to be super safe, but he took my hand, and we went up to the balcony. I don’t know why, we just did, okay? That’s where it happened. I know me and Elli ain’t been getting along so much here, but she’s right: it ain’t bad, what we did. I know, doing it in the church makes it seem bad, but it was good, okay? Like how they said it would be, not like . . . not . . . Okay, I’ve been with boys my own age, and I’ve had bad, and this was not like that. And I ain’t just talking about his dick. I’m talking about the feeling. What’d she call it? Holy.
But that don’t mean that Voorhisville ain’t all stinky and shit. We don’t gotta lie about that. We should tell it right because what this shows everyone is that something like this could happen anywhere. If it happened in Voorhisville, it could happen in any town, and I don’t see that as being a bad thing.
The third anniversary of Shreve’s fiancé’s death fell on a Saturday when yoga class was scheduled, but she decided to teach anyway, and was glad she did. She started class with a short meditation. She didn’t tell the women what to think or feel. They just sat there, breathing in and out. Shreve thought about her plans. After class, she would go home and change into something comfortable (but not her pajamas, as she’d done for years one and two), make herself a nice pot of tea, light a candle, and look at photographs.
By the time she opened her eyes, those hard minutes had passed. On that day (though not everyone remembers) Voorhisville smelled like chocolate. Emily Carr woke up at 4:30 and began baking. By 6:30, when Stecker’s opened, she was waiting there with a long list of ingredients. She baked chocolate bread, and a chocolate cake (layered with a raspberry filling), a chocolate torte, and good old-fashioned (why mess with perfection?) chocolate chip cookies. Though the day was warm, she also mixed up some Mexican hot chocolate, which she poured into a large thermos. She made a batch of chocolate muffins and six dozen dark chocolate cherry cookies. Then Emily filled several baskets with cookies, muffins, and slices of cake, torte, and bread, and began delivering her treats to the neighbors.
“But why?” they asked, to which she just shrugged. Until, when she got to Shreve’s house, she said, “Let me know what you think. I’m going to open a bakery and I’m trying to find out what people like.”
At that point, Emily began to cry. Shreve invited her inside. Wiping her eyes as she stepped into the warm living room, Emily said, “I’m happy. That’s why I’m crying. I’m so happy.” Then she noticed the photographs spread across the floor, the wedding dress on the couch, the stricken look on Shreve’s face.
“My fiancé died,” Shreve said, “three years ago today.”
Emily, who had forgotten the date entirely until Bobby Stewart said, “What is this? Some kind of September eleventh thing?” resisted the impulse to ask Shreve if he’d been one of the thousands. Instead, she said, “There’s a thermos of hot chocolate.”
Shreve looked from the basket to the photographs, the wedding dress, the box of tiny bells. “I don’t know what to do.”
“We could go to the park.”
That’s what they did. On that mild September evening the women sat beneath the oak tree in Fletcher’s Park, ate too much chocolate, and became friends.
The following Saturday, after Emily’s first yoga class, the women went garage sale-ing together. Both women appreciated a bargain, and both women had appreciated Jeffrey, though they wouldn’t know this until October, when they confided their fears to each other and—like high school girls, giggling, nervous, and unsure—went to the drugstore for pregnancy tests, which, oddly, were all sold out. They drove all the way to Centerville to purchase them, during which time they told their stories of the stranger with blue eyes and thus discovered that they had shared a lover.
“Did you notice how he smelled?” Shreve asked.
“Chocolate,” Emily said. “Do you ever get mad at him? The way he just left?”
“Actually, I sort of prefer it this way. I’m not looking for anything else. You?”
Emily shook her head. “It’s the weirdest thing, because normally I would. I mean, I think so, at least. I’ve never done anything like that with a stranger. But for some reason, I’m not angry.”
Were the women of Voorhisville enchanted? Bewitched? Had a great evil befallen them? It was hard to imagine that anything bad happened that autumn, when everyone glowed.
Later, they had to agree it was more than strange that they all got pregnant, even those using birth control, and none of them suffered morning sickness. It was also odd that, given the obvious promiscuity involved, no one got an STD. But that fall, all anyone cared about was that the women of Voorhisville were beautiful.
Lara no longer stood at the small window in the upstairs hallway spying on her neighbor. Yes, Sylvia was beautiful. She had always been beautiful, even at her husband’s funeral, her face wracked with grief. But there were many beautiful women in Voorhisville. Why hadn’t Lara noticed before?
One morning, shortly after September eleventh (she later recalled the date because she’d eaten Emily’s chocolate cake for breakfast), Lara stood naked in front of the bedroom mirror. Why had she spent all that time studying Sylvia? Lara turned, twisting her neck to get a sideways look.
She decided to begin painting again. She would paint her own strong legs, the sag of flesh at her stomach, her tired eyes. She had to paint all this to try to express the feeling she had, of no longer being a sum of parts. Her parts would be there, but that’s not what the painting would be about. It would be a self-portrait, Lara decided, and it would be huge.
When Lara realized she was late she phoned the pharmacy. “I’m not coming in today,” she said. She didn’t offer an explanation. Even as she said it, she wasn’t sure she would ever return to work. She knew how this would sit with Ed. He wouldn’t like it, but it wasn’t as though she expected him to support her; she had her own savings.
As Lara dressed, she thought about Jeffrey. She’d taken a huge risk; he could have been a psycho. He could have stalked her. Or told Ed! Instead, he disappeared. For weeks, Lara looked for the hearse, but she never saw it again. He was gone as mysteriously as he’d arrived. She’d been lucky, Lara thought—guilty, yes, but lucky.
It didn’t even occur to her she might be pregnant.
Theresa Ratcher knew she was. She would say, later, that she knew immediately.
When Lara drove past the Ratcher farm on her way to Centerville for art supplies, Theresa Ratcher was standing in the driveway, shading her eyes, as though expecting a visitor. The women waved at each other. Lara sighed. Even Theresa Ratcher was beautiful in her old housewifey dress, her clunky shoes, her corn-colored hair in a messy ponytail.
Theresa watched the car arc over the hill with one hand on her tummy, which had not been flat since Elli was born fifteen years ago. Pete would never suspect a thing. Why would he? Why would anyone? She closed her eyes and tilted her face towards the sun. “What are you doing?” Pete said. Theresa opened her eyes, wide, as though caught. Her husband’s face had hardened with time, and he smelled of manure, but she loved him. She placed her hand on his crotch. After a moment, she turned and walked away. He followed, surprised when she didn’t go into the house but walked behind the barn, where she lay down on the grass and lifted up her dress, revealing her freckled thighs, the white crotch of her panties. This was very much like how it had happened, when, still teenagers, they’d made Ellie.
Here’s your dad, Theresa thought.
What all (or most) of the women of Voorhisville would have said was that beautiful was everywhere that fall: it was in the light and shadows and the muted green leaves that eventually burned into a blaze of color, it was in the duct-taped houses, in the bats that flew out of St. Andrew’s belfry each night, and the logey bees buzzing amongst the pumpkins and squash.
Beautiful was in the women, the way they talked, walked, the things they did: the stretch of limbs in yoga, the scent of chocolate from Emily’s kitchen. Jan Morris had never written so proficiently—or, she felt (and the writers in the workshop agreed) more beautifully. Lara Bravemeen began painting again, which caused an argument with her husband, a fight Lara could only think of as beautiful in its passion.
Strange things were happening to the women of Voorhisville. Anyone could see that.
“Like bones, and skin, and blood,” Elli Ratcher later said. “What could be more beautiful than that? What could be more strange?”