“Finnegan’s Field” by Angela Slatter is a dark fantasy novelette about a six year old child who mysteriously disappears for three years, only to return home just as mysteriously — but not quite the same. At least, not to her mother.
In Irish lore, when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again.
When children go under the hill, they stay where they’re put.
When children go under the hill, parents, though they pray and search, don’t truly think to see them anymore.
In Finnegan’s Field, South Australia (POP. 15,000), the inhabitants had more than enough Irish left in their souls that, despite a century and a half since emigration, they bore these losses with sorrow, yes, but also with more than a little acceptance. A sort of shrug that said, Well, it was bound to happen, wasn’t it? Eire’s soft green sadness with its inherited expectation of grief ran in their veins so they did little more than acquiesce, and they certainly did not seek explanations.
Until Madrigal Barker came home.
And when she did, three years after she’d disappeared, there was great rejoicing and wonderment, and not a little resentment from those adults whose offspring remained lost. A good many questions were asked and terrible few answered, and eventually everyone except Madrigal’s mother took her return as a happy miracle.
The child wasn’t the same.
Anne Barker had loved her daughter as a good mother should, with an irrational bias about her talents and perfections, but she knew Madrigal had not returned as she’d left. Out in the back garden, the girl played with D-fer; the dog acted as though it was only yesterday since his two-legged friend had been throwing the rubber bone for him to chase. As if he’d not aged in her absence, as if no grey and white had grown at the roots of his fur and around his whiskers, as if he didn’t trip on every third step as his hip gave way. If the dog didn’t notice, then why did Anne?
“Does she look different to you?” she asked her husband. Brian sat in the lounge in front of the huge television he’d insisted on buying to watch the football. It was too big for the cosy room, too big for the house, really. And he wasn’t even paying attention to the game, the violent coloured flashes of meat that tore from one side of the screen to the other, nor had he been for some time. His fondest gaze had been diverted through the glass sliding doors to the girl and canine, capering together with shouts and barks of glee. To the child who’d been born long after their first, long after they thought they were done.
Brian shook his head. “She’s a little taller. I’d have thought she’d have grown a few more inches, but perhaps she didn’t eat well while she was away.”
While she was away. It struck Anne that they were discussing their daughter’s absence as if she’d been at a holiday camp or boarding school or staying with a relative. Not acknowledging the fact that she’d been disappeared for thirty-six months. That there’d been no trace of her at all and their hearts had been daily broken with neither signs nor hints to give them hope. No clues, no evidence, as if she’d simply evaporated surely as dew on a flower petal when the sun hits.
And they’d not talked about it, her homecoming, except for the But where has she been the day Aidan Hanrahan called—on his mobile, no less, an instrument he’d used precisely four times in six years, for he didn’t like wasting money—to say he’d found her wandering his paddocks, not far from Deadman’s Mount. That he was taking her straight to the hospital but wanted them to know they had their marvel.
Arriving at Emergency, they saw her grubby as an urchin, hair knotty and matted with dirt and leaves and twigs, mud smeared over face and arms and legs as if she’d endured a long crawl through a puddle. But, aesthetics aside, she’d looked the way a nine-year-old girl should. More importantly, with her night-coloured hair and pale blue eyes, faded freckles, pert little nose, and the rosebud pout Anne so loved, she looked the way their nine-year-old girl should; as if she’d not aged a day.
But Madrigal wasn’t right, after she came home, though Anne couldn’t quite put her finger on why.
“Just her size? That’s all?” she asked, digging but not too hard, afraid he might begin to question her sanity. Afraid of the avalanche such small pebbles might start. If her husband was honest, he knew it too, that their youngest wasn’t as she’d been, but Brian wasn’t honest, at least not in his heart.
It was why he’d stayed married to her long after he’d stopped loving her; Anne knew it and he didn’t. She thought it probably meant he was kind. It was all equal to her: with him there, the bills got paid, with enough left over to put some savings by; he’d kept Jason fed and cared for when she couldn’t bear to get out of bed; and there was a warm body beside her at night when she needed it. After the loss of Madrigal, so much had changed in their lives that these small things were what she clung to when she felt most adrift, on the days when her imagination went hyper and she saw all manner of terrible acts being repeatedly visited on her daughter. Acts that made her long for the child to be dead, killed outright, and not kept alive to suffer the deeds Anne conceived.
Time had passed; Jason left home for university. She and Brian shuffled the cards of their lives, papered over the great gaping hole. Just when she thought that some scar tissue might grow, that they might move on, Madrigal came back.
“Can’t you just be happy, Annie?” Brian’s eyes were sad. “Can’t you just accept we were given a tremendous gift, and we should be grateful?”
Anne nodded slowly, let him think he was right. “Of course, love. I just meant… I don’t know what I meant. I’m getting used to seeing her; that’s all. I can’t stop watching because I think she’ll be taken away again.”
“No, Annie. She’s here to stay. God gave her back to us.”
She smiled, though his religious belief riled, and when she peered through the kitchen window once more, every single thing she spotted was something that was off. Something about the way the girl moved; if Anne squinted, she seemed to see a ghostly outline around her daughter. A shadow-shape that was slightly larger than Madrigal and a split second slower, as if just out of synch so that when she swung about, ran, jumped, and skipped, there was the blur like a butterfly’s wing in her wake, but only for the slenderest of moments. The hair seemed too dark, sucking in light but not sending it back, and it didn’t matter how often Anne washed the girl’s locks, they still came up oily. And the little girl’s smile seemed simultaneously too quick and too slow, as if it also carried its own spectre, leaving a short-lived smear as it slid into place.
But Anne knew she couldn’t tell anyone that. Madrigal looked like the child they’d lost, the child whose face had appeared on the flyers they’d pasted to poles and sticky-taped in shop windows, the face that had graced the front pages of a dozen newspapers ever so briefly, and flashed even more briefly across television screens while the tragedy was fresh. And the child was fine, seemed fine, but for the few times Anne had found her by the front door in the middle of the night, sleepwalking. She didn’t wake when shepherded back to bed, and didn’t remember the episode in the morning, just laughed and made a joke about how lucky she was that her mother kept such a good watch over her. That hurt, a tiny bit. Anne felt it stab at the raw ball of guilt which had surfaced when Madrigal first disappeared, the reminder that she’d not kept her daughter safe. But she could discern no intent in the comment, no sharp edge to the grin, nor cruel gleam in the eyes. It was just a child’s throwaway line, nothing meant to cut a maternal heart.
Yet something was gone from her little girl, and a piece of cold had taken up residence inside Madrigal though she still chattered and chuckled, hugged her family, talked to the cat and dog just as she used to. Soon, they’d arrange for her to go back to school—the social worker said they had to, couldn’t keep her locked in for the rest of her life; hadn’t she had enough of that? But Anne wanted to say that she didn’t know; that no one did, for Madrigal hadn’t told where she’d been or who’d taken her. Whether she couldn’t or wouldn’t was a matter for some debate, but the psychologist seemed to think it would be drawn out with time and understanding. It would surface if they kept giving her the anti-anxiety meds and taking her to the therapy sessions where she got to talk about her feelings and memories (before and after were parentheses, the lacuna in the middle what she could not remember or would not discuss), whether she had dreams (yes) or nightmares (sometimes), and how it felt to be home again (good).
Anne went along too, and the psychologist asked about her feelings and her memories. Anne smiled, although the expression always felt thin on her face, and said she was happy and relieved to have her daughter restored. That she tried not to think of the day when Madrigal was taken, for it made her feel very sad and anxious. Sad and anxious were her most-used words. Sometimes, she wanted to shake both the psychologist and Madrigal; they were so calm, kept so much hidden, and Anne had had enough of hidden things.
She pushed the window open into the summer dusk and called, “Maddie? Come in for tea.”
Anne had waited for three years, after all; what was a little longer?
“You’ve got to let it go, Mum.” Jason’s tone held all the bored superiority of a child gone off to university to attain a qualification neither of his parents had.
The house was quiet around her, the only sound the young man’s voice on the other end of the phone with its slight long-distance buzz. Brian had taken Maddie to the psychologist today because it was his turn to talk, though she doubted he would. He’d locked his feelings away ever since their girl had returned, determined to forget the pain and torment. As if asking no questions would mean he’d be rewarded for his faith like some modern-day Job; as if silence might ensure God’s baleful eye would not be drawn to the Barkers again.
She’d taken the opportunity to call Jason. He was, she thought, unusually well-adjusted for everything that had happened. He didn’t seem to have felt neglected by the attention paid to his sister’s disappearance, nor her subsequent return. He’d come home when she’d been found and spent as much time as he could spare away from uni before heading back for exams; he phoned regularly. Usually, she could talk to her eldest about anything, but now Anne regretted it. She’d asked if he thought there was anything different about his little sister, and received a lecture about Capgras delusion, where a parent with paranoid schizophrenia fails to recognise their own offspring, indeed becomes convinced a child has been replaced by an imposter. He’d been talking to his father, obviously—nice to know Brian confided in someone—and was stern as he told her he couldn’t believe she was thinking this way. Couldn’t believe Maddie was in danger of being rejected by her own mother.
“I’m not suffering a mental disorder, darling,” she said quite evenly, although she could feel her teeth grinding as she bit down on the words. “I was just asking because I’m concerned that she never talks about when she was away. What was so bad that she either forgot it or refuses to discuss it?”
He softened, as if realising how harsh he’d been; he sounded again like the little boy she’d loved so much, it hurt to let him out of her sight. “I’m sorry, Mum. Look, it’s only a matter of time. We don’t know what happened and you need to remember that even though she’s home, Maddie’s got to learn to trust the family again. Maybe somewhere in her head, there’s the idea that we failed her. Doesn’t matter how we tried, Mum; we didn’t succeed, and that will always be there until she confronts it and us. One day, she’ll yell and scream, and hopefully, the resentment will go away.”
“But we tried so hard, Jase; how can we be blamed for it?” She felt tears flood her eyes and her voice. She’d thought there were no more to cry, but helplessness overcame her. “We did everything we could.”
“And one day, she’ll understand that. But for the moment, she’s a frightened little girl with nightmares. She’s only been home two months, Mum; that’s such a short span when you consider how long she was gone. Not really time enough for her to settle, to feel entirely safe. She’s still waiting for something she can’t control to happen again.”
When they’d rung off, friends again, she dried her eyes and put a piece of corned meat into the slow cooker, generous with the apple cider vinegar just like her mother had taught her. Then garlic and onions, and a lot of salt. Lid on, set on high. She took her coffee out to the sun lounger in the backyard and sat.
Anne wondered if it was her. Was she going mad? Did paranoid schizophrenia manifest in a forty-five year old woman with no previous history of mental problems? She didn’t think so but she’d google it later.
Was it her?
Did she imagine everything? Did she imagine the shadow-shape behind her daughter? Had she become so fatigued, so battered by the constant enquiries, the constant prying? The fascination that the folk of Finnegan’s Field seemed to have with the return? People asked after Madrigal, the little miracle, each and every time Anne left the house, went to a doctor’s appointment, dropped in to the butcher’s for a roast, or bought tampons at the pharmacy. Would it ever end?
Even those who’d been under suspicion—the ones whose names she knew from indiscreet young cops, or actively dropped by malicious gossips or bad journalists—even they asked. As if to show how big of spirit they were, that they didn’t hold a grudge. Like Tom Pike, the school principal with a taste for young flesh, who had divorced his twenty-three-year-old wife only to marry a girl just out of high school. Or Bodie Hogan, who bagged groceries at the supermarket and offered kids lollies though he’d been warned not to, over and over. Or neat, precise Andrew Engle the dentist, with his bowties and highly polished shoes, who’d left town unexpectedly the same day Maddie’d been taken, and been uncontactable for a month. Men Anne couldn’t help but run into more times than she cared to each week.
Even when Anne dragged the wheelie bin out to the kerb every Tuesday morning, Mrs Flynn, the across-the-street-but-one neighbour, was waiting without fail, somehow always within hailing distance. It was as if she had radar, and was either watering her lawn or pulling her own green rubbish receptacle behind her, always ready for a chat. She’d never ask directly if the child had said where she’d been, but carefully cloaked her inquiries with concern. Anne had tried getting up earlier and earlier, but she still couldn’t beat Mrs Flynn to the footpath. Even when she tried taking the rubbish out the evening before pickup, the woman who knew everything that went on in their cul-de-sac and even in a half a dozen streets around them was there.
But Mrs Flynn had been unaccountably kind the last time she’d asked after the little girl, when Anne found she had no words, no answers left, or at least none she could bear to give. She’d stared at the old lady, swallowing and swallowing everything she couldn’t let out, and Mrs Flynn had patted her arm. “You just need time, Annie-girl. Things will come clearer with time.”
The gentleness touched her, pierced her, and annoyed her. Anne couldn’t work out how the other woman could be so certain. She didn’t see Mrs Flynn at the kerb again, though she did spot her on occasion, peeking from behind curtains, smiling a mournful smile that reminded Anne of her own great-grandmother, the last of the family whose feet had touched the old sod.
Anne didn’t know why she woke. There was no sound she could recall, no smell, no sense of being touched, none of the things that might make one stir, but wake she did, suddenly and in fright. Brian slept on, not even snorting when she shook him, though the cat looked haughtily at her from the end of the mattress. She strained her ears, hearing nothing, yet unable to ignore the sense that something was wrong. With a last look at her husband, she swung her legs off the bed and crept into the hall.
The door to Jason’s old room was latched back as always, but Maddie’s, which she closed every night because it made her feel safe, hung ajar. Anne hooked a hand around the frame and peered in, eyes adjusting to the darkness. The covers were rumpled, but the only form on the mattress belonged to D-fer, his red fur almost black in the night, huffing and snuffling as he chased rabbits in his sleep.
Swallowing to keep herself calm, Anne checked the bathroom and loo. Finding no trace, she took the stairs a little too quickly and almost tripped as she went, recovering just as she reached the bottom step. She would have headed for the kitchen to see if her child had gone for a midnight snack, but the front door was open. Standing on the threshold, scanning the darkened street, she felt a scream clawing its way up…until a flash of white caught her attention, disappearing into the shadows of the intersection, then reappearing between the solid trunks of trees lining the footpath. Part of her, the frantic part, wanted to call, to shout, to cry; the other part, the rational part, the part that had grown increasingly cold in the past three years, the past two months, said, Wait. Wait, watch, follow.
Without shoes, wearing the pink cotton nightie with a rip at the right shoulder where the embroidered flowers had worn away, she took to the asphalt, feeling every rock, every stick, every fragment of glass from shattered windscreens and broken beer bottles that had ever littered their cul-de-sac. She stayed what she judged a safe distance, keeping sight of the flickering spectre of her daughter’s nightshirt as it meandered here and there, through one suburb and into the next, sometimes stopping in front of houses, peeping in windows, then continuing on, until the randomness seemed almost intentional and Anne pondered whether the child knew herself pursued.
At last they came to a park, a small green space with wood fire barbecues and covered picnic pergolas. During the day, it was pretty enough, surrounded by trees, with a shallow pond in the middle where ducks managed to glide as if they were on an ocean rather than just a large puddle. At night, however, it was where drunks and drifters and dangerous men washed up, found somewhere to sleep; precisely the kind of folk Inspector Jasper Dawson had taken in for questioning more than once in the days after Madrigal’s vanishing.
Anne’s throat tightened as she narrowed her eyes, trying to make out how many, if any, of the benches and tabletops were occupied by slumbering figures reeking of booze and body odour. It seemed the place was empty, a rare occurrence, and Anne relaxed. Her daughter was sleepwalking. There was nothing sinister in what the little girl did, just erratic dreams directing her hither and yon. Anne was being paranoid; it was time to steer Maddie home. Past experience had shown she wouldn’t wake but would follow quite happily if she was led by the hand. Anne, hiding behind the trunk of a big old ghost gum, prepared to break cover and collect her child. She hesitated.
The clouds uncovered the moon, streaming pale silver light into the park. Madrigal approached a seat where a long, lean-looking figure lay. The little girl paused, head to one side as if considering, then carefully removed her nightshirt, folding the fabric precisely and putting it and the tiny pink undies neatly on another bench.
She returned to the man, crouched, then leapt far higher than her mother would have given credence. Madrigal landed on the sleeper’s chest with enough force to crack ribs and send the resultant snap to where Anne waited, dizzy and alternately shivering and sweating, her knees suddenly without the strength to support her. The child’s legs slithered down to clamp her victim’s arms by his sides. An unrecognisable voice issued from the little girl, a sound that carried though she spoke low, a voice that was many voices, raw and rough and angry, as Maddie demanded, “Is it you? Is it you?!”
All the man had to offer were curses until the child grabbed him by the jaw and held it with what must have been tremendous pressure. He simply whimpered after that. Anne could see his expression, twisted in terror. She wondered how her daughter could possibly be so transfigured.
With no answer forthcoming, or at least none that satisfied the girl, it became obvious that the fellow had no use. Maddie tore a rag from his shirt and stuffed it into his mouth, and then the little hands with their neat pink nails changed, growing talons that tore into the flesh beneath the chin, and Anne saw blood run black. Claws were jammed into eye sockets, one after the other, plucking eyeballs, which her daughter ate with great relish. The man struggled but couldn’t move, clasped as he was between the child’s thighs. Next, she bent as if to kiss him, shook her head the way a dog shakes a rat and jerked up with a tearing noise. The man’s lips were gone, and the sound of Maddie’s chewing came to Anne far too clearly.
Though her stomach rebelled, Anne refused to vomit. Lest the child hear. Lest the child see. She couldn’t move, couldn’t leave, had to remain. Had to witness.
Madrigal ate everything, just as she’d been taught at home—clean your plate, baby—bones and all, flesh, organs, fluids, everything, both hard and soft, until there was nothing left. Nothing for the police to find, for the girl licked the bench clean and scuffed any dark marks in the dirt to disguise what had happened there. When her child waded into the narrow pool to wash, Anne fled, softly as she could on bruised and battered feet. Along the streets, across lawns, climbing fences so she could short-cut back to her own home.
She left the front door open and raced upstairs, reaching the toilet and letting hot vomit pour loudly into the bowl. More followed, more acidic. She’d barely finished when she heard a scratching—of fingers, not claws!—and a small voice say, “Mum?”
She wedged a heel against the base of the door, then threw up again. When at last she was empty, she gasped, “It’s alright, baby. I’m a bit crook. Go to bed, sweetie-heart. Go back to sleep.”
“I love you, Mum.”
“I love you, baby.” Anne closed her eyes, squeezed them tight, hoped to a God she didn’t believe in that her child, her monster, had been convinced.
She wasn’t sure how many would be needed.
One for an adult?
Half for a child?
She considered searching the internet for the correct dosage but didn’t want to leave a trail. Christ knew she had a big enough supply; the bathroom cabinet was packed because Dr Marten’s automatic response to seeing her in the doorway of his office was to reach for the prescription pad. But she only wanted to make them sleep. No matter what she’d seen, the last thing on her mind was killing, though the vision of Maddie perched atop the drifter had to be forced aside, as did the looped soundtrack of chewing and tearing and muffled screams. After dinner, she crushed two pills into her husband’s hot chocolate, just to be sure, and half into her daughter’s.
It wasn’t too much later that Brian began to drowse. Anne sent him off, saying she’d take Maddie, that he was too tired and unsteady to carry her, that he shouldn’t worry, she would take care of everything. He didn’t even grumble.
She sat on the couch beside their daughter, stroking the dark head in her lap, feeling the grease against her fingers, listening as her husband stumbled up the stairs, wandered heavy-footed along the landing, and finally fell with a thud onto their bed, the familiar squeak of the springs her signal. Anne shuffled away from the slight weight, then slid an arm under the little girl’s neck, another beneath her legs, and lifted the bird-boned child. So light, so light.
Some years before, Brian had partitioned off a part of the garage, just beside the laundry, so Jason could use it as a practice studio. Its walls were soundproofed so the noise of his drumming didn’t bother the neighbours—or his parents. That’s where Anne took Maddie. The space was disused and full of dust since Jason’s musical obsession had ebbed—in considerably less time than it took Brian to build the small room. With some difficulty, Anne tied the jelly-limbed girl to an old office chair, careful with the knots, not wanting to cut off circulation, but equally certain she didn’t want whatever her daughter had become to get loose. When she was satisfied that they’d hold fast, she took a step backwards, steeled herself, and then slapped Madrigal as hard as she could.
The seat slid across the floor on clunky casters; the little girl’s eyes opened wide rather faster than Anne expected and she saw something else there, something that was not her child. Something dark and withered, with sharp teeth and bloodshot orbs in the sockets, something that struggled against its bindings and snapped at her when she pulled it to the centre of the room.
Anne took up position on the stray kitchen stool Jason had used to store sheet music. She hooked her feet over the pedestal of the office chair and held it in place, scrupulously remaining out of reach of the neat, snapping little teeth her daughter was trying to deploy so viciously.
“What are you?” Anne asked. Her voice shook, which wasn’t the effect she was hoping for. She cleared her throat, put steel at the back of her soul and repeated, “What are you?”
If she’d expected it to try to appeal to her, to convince her she was wrong and this was her Madrigal, she was disappointed. Perhaps the diazepam had made it sluggish and stupid, diminished its ability to dissemble. Or perhaps it simply didn’t care anymore; perhaps it wanted only to kill her. The thought sent a shudder through her, icy as a drop of cold rain that finds its way through the gape of your jacket. Anne wondered if her real child would ever return.
“Where is my daughter?”
It struggled again, then appeared to give up; the angry glow of its gaze seemed to decrease as if it was thinking, now, how best to negotiate.
“We are what we are,” it answered in the voice that was many voices.
“You’re not mine.”
“We are what we are,” it repeated.
Anne pushed out a breath, then grabbed the pliers from the desk top. She took hold of one of the creature’s feet. The child had refused to have her toenails clipped since she’d come home. They were long and ragged and snagged on the sheets; it was easy to fasten the metal jaws onto the horny plate of the smallest toe. Anne peered at the thing and said, “What are you and where is Maddie?”
It did not answer, merely bared its teeth, and Anne saw they had their own shadows, their own doubles. Maddie’s little pearls and the others superimposed over top, the sharp ones that she didn’t want catching her flesh. She braced herself and pulled with all her strength; the nail ripped away with a sickening tear.
The thing shrieked and struggled, but the bonds held. It glared at her, weeping and hissing, and she waited until it calmed down, then moved the pliers to the next toe. But even as she prepared to dole out more torment, the injury she’d inflicted began to heal; the discarded bloody shard on the tiles no longer mattered, as the empty cuticle filled, a quick-quick-slow process, new horn covering the pink fleshy pad, then taking extra time to set, to settle, to become hard again, a little glassy.
Anne looked at the monster that had her daughter’s face. It smiled, smug, and said, “Just the small hurts.”
She tightened her grip and pulled again. The nail came off and the creature’s scream gave Anne a terrible sense of satisfaction. Though it recovered rapidly, she could hurt it over and over if need be. She might have worried at the coldness of her thought, but Anne had greater concerns.
“Where is my daughter and what are you?”
The creature hesitated, blinking away tears, and Anne hefted the tool. Her prisoner answered quickly. “Your daughter is here. Inside. What is left.”
The way its face twisted told Anne there was more to know. She hitched the needle-nose pliers to the next nail even as the old one grew back in.
“She is inside me as I am inside her. By now, I should have won, she should have gone, but this one…this one is strong.” It spoke a little desperately, and Anne sensed a fear that had nothing—or very little—to do with her; it sprang entirely from Madrigal’s continued presence, from her refusal to give up the frail body.
“You call us fairies. We call ourselves aossí.”
Anne coughed out a disbelieving laugh. “Fairy folk? You’re fairy folk?”
Before she’d died, Anne’s great-grandmother didn’t speak unless it was to tell a tale. Stories were the only speech left to her, their rhythms her last remaining song, the only concepts left in her head. She used to speak of the fairy folk of Ireland, the hidden folk, those who lived under the hill, those who sometimes took children away to feed them Fae food so they’d stay beneath the earth in the darkling kingdom, dress them in gold and silver and treat them like small royalty. Anne remembered the recitations only dimly; they were no more than echoes and ripples of an old life, an old land. They hadn’t belonged in the country where she and her children were born.
The creature leaned forward as far as it could against its bonds. “We take them, the little ones; we need their bodies. In our own place, beneath the hill, we exist in our common form, but out here, we cannot; we require a solid condition to travel above the earth.”
“Why? Why come up here?”
The look it gave her was one of contempt. “Why? Why not? Curiosity. Hunger.” It grinned again. “Mischief.”
“Can I get her back?”
The thing shook its head, and Anne thought she detected something like regret.
“Once we have them, we crush them, press them into a corner of themselves until they are no more than an echo.” It licked its lips as if weighing up what more to tell. “But this child, this Madrigal of yours, would not go. She has remained all this time, yearning to return home, to take what is hers by right.”
“What is that?”
“You’re lying,” said Anne through gritted teeth and tore out another toenail.
The creature thrashed, weeping and howling. “I cannot lie, not trapped like this. You know the rules; your blood must tell you!”
“What blood? What fucking blood?” Despite the soundproofing, Anne frightened herself with the volume of her voice. She waited to see if there was the tread of a waking man coming from above. But no.
Sobbing, the not-daughter said, “Your kind takes your heritage with you, surely as a scent. Other cultures, after a time, blend in with their new environments, but the Irish never really do. They’re always identifiable, no matter how many generations between them and the misty green, no matter how thin the blood becomes; they don’t forget what runs in their veins, that Brigid and Morrígu are their true mothers. You carry it just as you carry your grief; even when you celebrate, you know that sadness will follow as surely as your shadow trails behind you.” It panted, slumped against the chair. “And just as you bring that with you, so you bring your ghosts, too, and your demons. They trail upon your heels no matter where you roam in the world.” Then, defiantly, it added, “You’re such rich meat; why would we ever give you up?”
Anne dropped the pliers and fled. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, tears coming so fast that the washer and dryer were snowy blurs in seconds, and her breath so hot and hard, she thought she might choke. She wondered if what was left of her child was keening in the soundproof room. Trying to scrub the flecks of blood from her hands, Anne crumpled to the floor and wept.
When she came to her senses, Anne wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but she was aware of the night hours slipping away. She washed her face in the laundry sink and ran damp hands through her hair as if that might help matters, then cracked the door. The creature with her daughter’s face raised its head and watched as she slid inside and resumed her seat.
“I’m sorry,” it said and Anne heard Maddie’s voice alone. “I’m sorry, Mummy.”
It almost broke her, but she refused the tears. She licked her lips and stared at the creature’s toes, which were whole again, then at the features which had once been so beloved. “You say Maddie came back for revenge. Against whom?”
“The one who took her.” It shrugged. “There is always one who does what is needed in the upperworld. Those of my sort who are tasked with such things seek them out, make accords. They serve us in return for whatsoever their hearts desire. For some, it is wealth, others advancement, for others, illusions and dark satisfactions.”
“Who was it? Who took her?” Anne asked urgently, feeling suddenly so close to the truth that she ached. But her daughter-not-daughter shook its head.
“She doesn’t know, your girl, nor do I—I am not a seeker. We give those who serve us the means to induce a deep sleep, some tiny measure of our own power to facilitate, keep them hidden. Even if she’d seen, her memories are mostly gone now; they have decayed just as a body does when it is not fed. There is only the core of her, and that is anger…and a recollection of you.”
The thing went on. “But I can assist. She recalls the scent, so I recall the scent. I can track the one who collected her.”
“That’s what you were doing the other night?”
It nodded. “I could smell something familiar about the man in the park. But it was too faint; he’d had contact with but was not the one who took your child. Not our Mr Underhill.”
“That’s what they’re called, those we do not take beneath but leave out here to do our bidding. There are many.”
“Why don’t you take them?” Anne frowned.
“They are flawed; they must be so to agree to do what we ask of them, to take a reward for the lives of others.” It gave a crooked smile. “Those that are pure of heart, innocent, are much easier to control, to dominate. Ones like your daughter.” It made a rueful sound that might have been laughter. “Or she should have been so.”
“Why are you telling me this? Why help?”
“Because I want to go home! I am trapped as surely as she,” it fair howled. “You think you’re the only beings who value that? I want my own form back; I want out of this meat cage, this child who will not let me go, will not die! I tire of sharing.”
Anne wondered if it understood the irony; from the way its eyes shifted, she thought perhaps it had an inkling.
“If I let you go, we’ll work together. And when you’re done?”
It hesitated. “Then I shall return under the hill. This child will be gone.” Anne was silent so long that the thing sounded anxious when it said, “Do we have an agreement?”
Slowly, Anne nodded. “I know some of the ones they questioned. I’ll find out who else there was. We can go visiting and you can do your bloodhound act. But no attacks, not in daylight, not in public. When we find whoever it is, you need to be patient. Agreed?”
Her unchild nodded solemnly. “And when it is done, I shall be free, your child will be satisfied, and you will know that justice has been done.”
Anne wasn’t sure about that, but for the moment, she would take what she could get. She untied the bonds.
“Thanks for coming, Jasper. I didn’t really want to go to the station.” She’d chosen a table towards the back of the cafe, but not so far in that they looked clandestine. Just enough so other customers kept their distance.
“Never a problem for you, Annie. And never a hardship to get coffee and cake.” He smiled, toasting her with the cup, and she thought how he’d changed since they’d dated in high school. Three marriages behind Jasper Dawson, but no children. Bodybuilding and vanity kept him in shape, unlike most of the cops at the Finnegan’s Field station, whose junk food diet left its loud mark on them. His hair, once so thick and black, was long gone, receding in his twenties, shaved off in his thirties as if it by choice, then completely lost in his forties as he’d climbed the career ladder, making it to District Officer of a fifty-thousand-square-kilometre area and all the rural towns it contained. She liked the way the pale blue uniform shirt stretched across his chest and shoulders, and the navy trousers were tight in the right places.
She thought briefly about their adolescent fumblings behind the sports shed, how clever his fingers had been then, making promises his cock didn’t bother to keep when she’d at last agreed to go all the way; how selfish he’d been. Not like Brian with his saggy bum, potbelly, and full head of greying hair, Brian who’d stepped up when she found herself pregnant, and Jasper off at the Academy and not answering letters or returning calls. She’d never told him her oldest was his, that Brian was a better man than he was; that all the while he spent being transferred around the state, collecting promotions and wives like trophies, Brian had done what he couldn’t have, and done it far better.
Anne wondered how she looked to him now. She never sensed any flicker of interest. Wasn’t sure it had been there much past the night she gave it all up to him. There was the chase and the catch and the kill; after that, the hunter was sated. She knew she still looked good, better than Brian did, but then again, the greys were outnumbering the browns on her head, the skin beneath her eyes wasn’t as firm any more, nor was her jawline, and thin runnels radiated out from her mouth even though she’d stopped smoking years before when Jason came along. Maddie would have grown up to look like her if…
She shook her head and smiled. None of that mattered anymore.
“What do you need, Annie?”
“I just…I just wanted to talk about Maddie. How she was found…”
She could see from the way his lips tightened and whitened that he was annoyed. Annoyed at having to go over this again, at having to discuss why he couldn’t find her little girl in the first place, and why she’d come back. How she’d come back. He was pissed off because he hadn’t been the one to bring her home, Anne thought.
“Look, Anne. I don’t have any answers. All I know is we looked high and low. You were there; you saw how hard everyone worked, saw how no one got any sleep for days and days on end. You know how determined everyone was, the cops, the searchers, the social workers…everyone.” He ran a hand through hair he no longer had. “Whoever took her hid her incredibly well. How she escaped—surely, she escaped, because the sort of person who steals children generally doesn’t let them go—I don’t know.”
“I know, I know. And I’m grateful, Jasper; don’t ever think I’m not.” He’d been there for them all, a shoulder for both her and Brian, avuncular to Jason. Even after the search had been scaled down, then called off, he’d still visited, came to dinner, dropped over of an afternoon or morning, just to let them know they’d not been forgotten, not by him, at least. “I was just wondering was there anyone you looked at in particular? Anyone apart from the ones we already know about…and not just the drifters…?”
“Annie, you know I can’t—”
“You know what they say: most crimes are committed by someone known to the victim.”
“What about Bill Watkins at the chemist? Ted Doran over at the water authority? The baker’s boy, Toby Anderson? People talk.” She dug, found inspiration. “Mrs Flynn! What about nosy old Mrs Flynn?”
His face turned hard. “Mrs Flynn lost a kid of her own, same as you did, only years ago. Don’t you remember? Stop it, Annie. You got Maddie back. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
As if the Barkers, who’d lost old friends—those offended by what police questioning implied—as well as all ability to judge who they could and could not trust…as if they could go back to the way they were by this simple act of restoration.
After last night…
Anne sighed and sipped her coffee. She hadn’t known about Mrs Flynn, or hadn’t remembered. She couldn’t tell Jasper what she’d seen, what she’d heard. “I know. I’m sorry. I know everyone did their best, especially you, Jasper; I know that. It’s just …”
“She’s home, Annie. She’s home. Everything’s okay with her, right?”
“Of course!” she lied too brightly. “Everything’s fine. Sometimes, my curiosity gets the better of me.”
“You know what curiosity did to the cat, Annie.” He laughed and grinned fondly. The radio at his belt squawked, and he said, “I gotta go. Give my love to everyone.”
She nodded. “Thanks for humouring me. Come over for dinner again soon; we’ve not seen you for a while. Don’t be a stranger, Jasper; you’re family.”
He hugged her tightly, then rose and walked away, hooking the handset up to answer the call.
Anne stared after him. She’d been foolish to think he’d give up names. She swirled the dregs of her cappuccino, drank them down, and then waited a few moments before pulling the to-do list from her handbag. Chemist (painkillers, facewash, pantyliners, Bill Watkins); bakery (bread rolls, maybe a date slice, Toby Anderson); supermarket (loo paper, laundry liquid, three-litre bottle of milk, Bodie Hogan). Brian would be taking Maddie and D-fer for a walk. She’d be done soon; she’d go home and put on dinner. Afterwards, she’d try to think up a new strategy.
Mrs Flynn was watering her front yard when Anne pulled into the drive. She didn’t go up to the garage door, didn’t hit the remote, but killed the engine, got out of the car, and walked across the road. The old lady’s white hair caught the afternoon light and seemed to glow, and her smile was friendly and sad as Anne approached.
There was no good way, thought Anne, no easy way. She blurted, “I’m sorry, but…I know you lost a child …”
She may as well as have slapped the woman’s sweet face. No, punched it, pressed it in as far as she could for the features appeared to collapse in on themselves. Anne put out a hand to stop her from turning away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be cruel, but I have to talk to someone.”
Mrs Flynn nodded slowly, waited; made Anne speak.
“Were there any suspects?” She didn’t know if that was the thing to ask, but it was all her mind released from its depths.
The old woman shook her head but said, “Plenty, love. Plenty, but none as they could prove and none as they could pin it on.”
“Anyone who’s still here?”
“Mick Galbraith, Neil Rooney. Aidan Hanrahan’s older brother Liam, him as hung himself from a tree out by Deadman’s Mount a year after my Bridie went missing. An unlikely suspect for you, to be sure.”
Galbraith and Rooney were old, old men now, both in the Care Home on the South Side. Neither was sufficiently mobile to grab a small child and spirit her away; they certainly hadn’t been any more limber three years earlier. Anne rubbed her hands hard over her face, concentrating on the pressure, trying to anchor herself to something solid-seeming.
“Worst day of my life, Annie. Realising she’d not come home from school, then waiting and waiting and saying all the prayers I was ever going to have in me. Making promises to a shite of a God while the men searched high and low, through paddocks and bush, dredged the rivers and dams, turned people’s homes inside out, looking for my little girl. And all those prayers, Annie, all that begging and what did it get me? Nowt. Not even a body to bury.” She puffed, trying to get her breath back; then Anne realised she was wheezing a laugh up from her ancient lungs. Mrs Flynn said something then, so low Anne doubted she heard properly: “Perhaps there’s something worse, though, having one come home.”
The old woman turned away, twisting the hose nozzle to shut the water off, and reeling in the sinuous length of its body as she shuffled up her drive before Anne could say anymore.
Returning across the road, Anne saw the front door of her own house opening and Madrigal flew out, for all intents and purposes a little girl happy to see her mother home with the shopping, hopeful of a treat or two. It was only as they drew closer that Maddie’s expression changed, twisted, became hateful, her nose twitching, nostrils widening to take in some odour Anne wasn’t sensitive enough to detect.
Maddie steamtrained towards her and latched onto the nearest wrist, her nails digging into the skin, and her teeth—those lovely small teeth!—tore into the flesh. Anne registered the white-hot pain of something that grew and dug deeper than it should, Brian’s shout from the doorway, D-fer’s whimpering, then passed out from an agony that seemed all out of proportion.
“It wasn’t her fault,” she said desperately to Dr Marten, sitting on the edge of the trolleybed. “Not her fault at all.”
“Anne, she could have killed you.”
You don’t know the half of it.
“Look, it was me, my fault. Maddie hasn’t been sleeping well and I…I put half a Valium in her hot chocolate last night. Maybe it reacted with the anti-anxiety meds?” Anne knew she was clutching at straws but saw him pause, considering. She went on.“ She’s been through so much, Terry. It’s not her fault. Surely, she was due some kind of a fit like this? Jason was telling me that she’s bound to have some anger issues that we didn’t find her, that we left her to whatever happened. It’s not a conscious thing.”
“Well, I’m no psychologist, but…”
“Let us take her home. If she’s calm now, please just let us take her home. I can’t bear to leave her here. She needs us and we need her.”
“She’s calmed right down, but she’s still restrained. I’ll tell the nurses to release her.” He shook a finger. “I’m not best pleased about this.”
“I know, Terry. But I’m her mum. I know her. She needs me.” She kissed his wrinkled cheek. “Thank you.”
The painkillers took the edge off the physical pain but not the mental anguish. Anne paused outside the door of Madrigal’s private room. She’d seen Brian disappear down the corridor towards the cafeteria and figured she didn’t have long. She slipped inside and found the not-daughter staring at her, as if it had known she was coming.
“I’m sorry,” it said formally, briskly. “The child remains and she is strong. She smelled the scent on you, and she overwhelmed me. It is…it is not how I would have had it. I am…poisoned by her, compromised.”
The thought gave Anne a little pleasure, a tiny pride that her baby clung on so tenaciously, but she put sternness into her tone. “Will it happen again?”
“She knows now it was not you, that she was mistaken. She is calm. She is sorry.”
“Maddie?” said Anne, talking beyond the creature, addressing her daughter as if she stood over its shoulder. “Maddie, hang on, love. We’ll finish it tonight.”
Brian didn’t argue when she offered him the tablets before bed. The way his eyes seemed to shuttle back and forth, left to right, the way his leg bounced up and down restlessly as he sat, even as he drove them home from the hospital, the way his fingers tapped and his hands shook, and he kept swallowing.
When her husband was snoring, if not happily then at least consistently, Anne dressed in black jeans and T-shirt, sneakers so old she wouldn’t care if she had to get rid of them, then went to her daughter’s room.
Madrigal was already prepared, neat in identical attire, her hair pulled into a tidy bun. She sat on the edge of the bed, small feet dangling, kicking as if she was waiting for a play date. She responded to the jerk of Anne’s head and trotted along beside her. As they stepped outside into the midnight dark, she slipped her little hand into Anne’s, who felt that not only were her fingers being squeezed, but her heart as well.
They’d not put the car in the garage that night. Don’t bother, Brian, we’re too tired, straight to bed, the lot of us, she’d said, and he hadn’t insisted. She released the brake and let it roll down the slope of the drive, then strained to push it along the street a little ways before getting in at the next intersection and starting the engine. All the windows in the cul-de-sac were blackened eyes, bar one. Anne thought she saw a curtain twitch at Mrs Flynn’s but didn’t pay much attention. She didn’t think the old lady would be a problem.
Twenty minutes later, out beyond the town’s boundaries, Anne turned off the headlights and slowed, hoping they wouldn’t hit anything. She was about to swing into a long winding driveway until she saw headlights coming towards her; she slammed into reverse and back off the road, into a stand of tall fescue grass, praying the vehicle wouldn’t go right because then they’d have no chance of staying hidden.
“What—” Maddie began.
“Shhhhh!” Anne hissed as if they might be heard, laying a finger against the girl’s lips. When the other car turned left with barely a tap of the brakes, Anne sighed. She turned the key in the ignition, keeping the lights off, and followed. Ten minutes, and her quarry took another left, and Anne continued on for a kilometre. When she pulled over, she nosed behind a cluster of dwarf banksia shrubs. She closed her door quietly, knowing how sound travelled at night. Maddie copied her.
“This way,” said Anne, and the little hand returned to hers, and this time, she squeezed back.
Deadman’s Mount sat roughly in the middle of the north paddock of Hanrahan’s farm. It rose like a burial mound, twenty-odd feet high, dotted with rocks and sheep droppings, scraggy grass and bindi-eyes. Even if her sense of direction hadn’t been so good, Anne would have been able to navigate from the silhouette it made against the night sky, blotting out the stars. Unspeaking, they walked carefully, attentive to the ground pitted with animal tracks, the holes cattle had made during the wet season, and which had dried, hardened into an obstacle course that could break an ankle or twist a knee.
They had to circumnavigate half of the tumulus before they found him, Maddie’s little nose sniff-sniff-sniffing all the way.
Anne watched a little while as he dug a hole in the side of the Mount, a small hollow, not quite a tunnel, just a niche where a child might be hidden, nestled, cocooned. He’d parked the police car, one of its back doors open, so the headlights were directed to where he worked. She could see patches of sweat dark against the light green T-shirt. He’d wiped his forehead at some point and left a smear of dirt across it.
He stopped at the sound of her voice but didn’t drop the shovel.
“I’m sorry, Annie.” And she thought from his tone he probably was. “Normally, I don’t take from home, not from Finnegan’s Field, but…I’d driven around and around; I’d tried all the towns near and far, and found no one. Time was running out, and I couldn’t fail. I saw Maddie walking home from school. I’m sorry, Annie. I would never have hurt you if I’d had a choice—and I had no choice.”
She marvelled that he didn’t try to deny it; she wondered if he thought she’d just shrug and say, Well, that’s all right, then, if you had no choice. Or did he think it wouldn’t matter if he told her everything because she and her daughter wouldn’t last long this night? She’d been pondering, since she’d woken in the hospital, how he’d not been to their house since Madrigal came home, but only ever phoned. He’d been on leave when she was found and not seen Maddie at all, not then and not since. At the time, Anne thought perhaps he’d been embarrassed by his failure, but maybe, somehow he knew…sensed… Had he lain awake at night, wondering if the little girl would name him? If his own constables would arrive at his door to ask questions that would destroy him? As the days and weeks dragged on, did he fear less or more? Anne thought of him with his career as mindless and repetitive as a hamster wheel, his trophy wives who never stayed, the emptiness of the power he’d claimed as a reward from the Fae in return for all these tiny lives…
There was too much inside Anne; she thought she might burst, that the cyclone of sadness and rage would corkscrew up and tear her apart. She swallowed and swallowed again, forcing all the emotions down, forcing them not to hurt and not to burn, making them hibernate, until at last she could bring herself to give Madrigal a single nod.
The girl leapt at Jasper, taking him so swiftly that all he had time to do was drop the shovel but not raise his hands to protect himself. He seemed utterly surprised by the child’s speed and strength, possibly because, having once carried her off all unresisting to Deadman’s Mount, he simply didn’t believe her a serious threat. But Maddie bore him to the ground in a matter of seconds and began her work.
Anne did not look away. She found neither regret nor sorrow, neither satisfaction nor disgust inside; she thought she might be empty now. She wondered if sensations, emotions, would return, but it didn’t bother her, the idea of permanent lack.
With a bite, Jasper’s muscular neck was torn open, exposing for a few seconds sinews and oesophagus, before the dark red welled and the creature took more mouthfuls, barely chewing before she swallowed. The shifting of her throat as the morsels moved down, down, down to her gullet for a long digestion was hypnotic. Soon, Jasper’s head hung loosely by a few bloody threads and the child’s tongue wound itself through the white vertebrae peeking above his shoulders, picking them clean of meat. Anne watched as her daughter subjected Jasper to the same kind of scavenging she had the drifter. Soon, there was nothing left of Anne’s former lover, nothing left of Finnegan’s Field’s Mr Underhill.
“What now?” she dully asked the gore-covered child, who shrugged as she cleaned her face much as a cat would, with a licking of hands and a rubbing of cheeks and forehead.
“I go back beneath. Your child will let me be at last.”
“Release her,” said Anne quietly. Then louder, but more pleadingly. “Please give her to me.”
The creature shook its head. “There is not enough of her left. She would not fill this body, this brain. There has only been the desire for revenge and that is fulfilled… She will fade quickly. Nothing remains for a mother to hang her heart upon.”
In the years that Madrigal was gone, Anne had kept her daughter’s voice in her mind, kept it clear and crystal as a bell, but now…now she didn’t think she could recall it. The sound of the many voices had replaced it; the old creaking tones, the echo of creeping roots and soughing boughs, of myriad timbres braided into one, had overwhelmed the last thing she’d retained of her child. Tears welled and broke.
The creature seemed nonplussed, then for a moment, just the tiniest moment, Anne’s true daughter appeared; the vagueness the thing had worn was sharpened into something she recognised, and the girl-suit fit properly for the first time in months. Madrigal lifted her arms. Anne’s knees gave way, and she collapsed into the hug; thin limbs wrapped around her neck and held her tight. She ignored the smell of blood and meat on Maddie’s breath, of the mess that Jasper had left in his death throes, the lasting stink of shit and piss hanging in the air where he’d died, where he’d been disappeared.
When at last the little girl pulled away Anne saw that her daughter was gone, all trace of Madrigal eased, shrugged off as easily as an unwanted coat. The sense of a second being under the skin was stronger, the way the body’s outline vibrated in time with a different rhythm. The not-daughter stepped back, nodded, and turned.
Anne saw the shovel Jasper had dropped. Its great pan of a head beckoned. The handle was smooth, mostly, but in some places, there were splinters; fragments pricked at her palms as she grasped the shaft, then dug in deep as she swung the tool, even deeper when it connected with the back of Madrigal’s head.
The impact sounded like a melon on cement.
The hole Jasper had made in the Mount was the perfect size and shape, and Anne began to slide Maddie into it. When she was done, she thought, she would replace the piece of turf Jasper had carefully cut away; no one would know.
“Annie?” The voice behind her was familiar, and Anne’s head snapped around so fast, she felt muscles pull.
Mrs Flynn looked strange in the light, so pale, almost lost but for the determined expression on her face. The woman didn’t appear afraid or horrified. She just said, “Not together, Annie. Don’t bury it intact.”
Understanding, Anne said, “Just the small hurts. That’s what it said. Only the small hurts heal.”
“And are you willing to risk it?”
Ten minutes later, Anne had used the spade to separate head and body, and dug another hole deep enough to satisfy Mrs Flynn. The bloodied ball was gently interred and covered over, the corpse laid as if to sleep in the hollow space.
Together, they made their way to Jasper’s car. On the back seat, another stolen child curled, deep in slumber. They peered at the little boy, their mothers’ hearts aching but somehow not in the same way as before. They’d been broken too well, fractured too entirely. What now filled the cracks between the fragments, holding the pieces together and allowing the women to go on, was cold, hard iron.
“Do you recognise him, Annie? I don’t.”
“No, can’t say I do. Probably from a town further over, maybe a property somewhere.” Her hand hovered over his forehead, dark curls damp in the heat, but she didn’t touch.
“He’ll not wake for a while,” said Mrs Flynn, speaking low.
“Can you be sure?”
The older woman shrugged. “I’ve read a lot.”
The police radio squawked, the voices of two young constables blared across the paddock. “Got a GPS fix on the Inspector’s car. He’s parked by Deadman’s Mount. Get out there, Robbo, and see why he’s not responding.”
“Young Robertson’s got a foot like lead; he’ll be here in no time at all. He’ll take care of the little one. We’d best get cracking; I’m parked not far from you. Grab a branch and wipe away your footprints as you go. Did you touch his car?” Mrs Flynn asked. Anne shook her head, but she raised the shovel. The old woman nodded. “Then take that with us. It’ll be handy.”
When Anne finally crawled into bed beside Brian a few hours later and closed her eyes, all she could see was the blackness of a hole in the hillside of Deadman’s Mount, of the inside of a pit where dead eyes tried to stare up to the sky that had once mirrored their colour. All she could think of was a small, headless body curled in an anonymous grave without the benefit of a coffin or the respect of final words.
Anne drifted back to the day Maddie had first gone, how she’d not come home from school, how panic had finally set in when none of her friends had seen her. Anne thought of the hours she’d spent, searching alongside the other men and women who couldn’t simply sit around and wait, how they’d tramped across Hanrahan’s paddocks and others like it, circled Deadman’s Mount, and found nothing, seen nothing to say it was a doorway. A place where the missing had been laid to wait while they made passage through to under the hill. She wondered how Brian would react when they woke and found Maddie gone again. She didn’t think he’d take it well. She didn’t think he’d stay.
She began to make plans for the future. Plans for dissolution, for moving, for carrying on life elsewhere after the inevitable furore of Jasper’s disappearance had died down. For hunting all the Mr Underhills there might be amongst the children of Eire.
“Finnegan’s Field” Copyright © 2016 by Angela Slatter
Art copyright © 2016 by Greg Ruth