This is a very disturbing story. Seriously, it involves baby mutilation. Not my usual romance.
But the full story won honorable mention in the horror category of the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest in 2018 So I’m sharing it here.
Needle and Knife
In Emilia’s dream, someone holds a baby. A brand-new white baby. Weak, inescapably male. Painfully blue eyes brimming with complete trust. He knows he will not fall.
The hands, which look so dark and brown against that new white flesh, tickle the baby’s ankle. The baby laughs. The big hand wraps around a tiny fat ankle and bends the chubby pink leg behind the baby’s back. He fusses. Blue eyes squint. He whines small and cute. The hand twists, folding the fat unformed bulb that will become the baby’s knee. Twists too far. The baby arches, curls, tries to pull his foot away from his back. He blurts annoyed squalls. Farther still. The baby cries.
Farther. New bone cracks.
The baby screams.
A knife glints against the baby’s breast and a bright bubble of blood appears over the new heart.
Emilia wakes, startled but soundless. She’s in the backseat of her grandfather’s car, head tipped back on the rich leather. It’s a North American car imported to Chile by a cargo freighter. Papi dozes beside her, her mother stares forward in the front seat, looking at the darkness of the Chilean countryside. Grandfather drives, she can see his soft brown hands on the wheel. Everyone in the car ought to hear the pulse of her heart, but no one does.
She wants to tell her nightmare, to hear comforting words, but she’s nearly nine and too old for such weakness. Her right hand still makes a tight fist, holding an invisible knife. Her left arm still curls as if cradling a new baby – her cousin, Vicente, she knows now that she’s awake.
To shake the dream, Emilia stretches her arms and leans forward to thrust her head between her grandfather and her mother. She smells strong coffee and catches the glow of her mother’s Blackberry.
Mother puts her hand on Emilia’s head and strokes her braided hair. Says nothing.
Grandfather whispers. “Is that my curious little snake?”
Emilia hisses at him.
“Go to sleep, Lia.” Mother glances over her shoulder at Emilia’s father. There’s no judgment, merely observation. Around Grandfather, Mother always looks at Papi as if he is a bird with a broken wing in a household of cats.
Emilia says. “Is this the Place of Gulls?”
“No,” Grandfather says. “We have to go into those mountains.”
Emilia presses her face to the car window and stares into the darkness of a countryside that is nothing like Santiago. This Chile is filled with an absence of life. No noise and no people. Nothing survives that does not understand hiding.
She always thought the night sky was black, the blackest black, but now she knows the only real darkness in the world is those mountains.
“Is that where our copper mine is, grandfather?”
Her mother speaks without patience. “You know it is. Be still and—”
“Yes, the oldest and greatest of the Vidal family mines.” Grandfather interrupts his daughter. “The one you’ll inherit.”
Mother watches Grandfather. The look of a sparrow watching an old hawk, waiting for him to dive and eat her young.
Grandfather notices but is not interrupted. “You’ll see it tomorrow. My grandfather burrowed into the earth and found the richest deposit of ore in all of Chile. He never mined half of it, because…”
“Copper dries up.” Emilia nods. “But people always want a bigger better roof over their heads.”
“Good girl.” Grandfather and Mother both say. All three of them smile but do not laugh.
The road jostles the American car and Papi snorts and blinks awake. Mother smiles, but Emilia frowns. It’s better when he’s asleep. She regrets this thought. It’s unkind, and Papi is nothing but kindness.
Papi gives her a goofy smile and tugs her hair as if she is not nearly nine. “Hey, Pretty Girl. Still awake?”
There had been something quiet, something special when it was only Grandfather, Mother, and herself in the stillness and the dark. Papi cannot tolerate the quiet.
“No, Papi, I’m dreaming. I’m a snake swimming in the mountains.”
Grandfather, Mother, and Papi all laugh at this. Papi laughs because his daughter is serious. Grandfather and Mother laugh so that Papi is not alone.
Then Papi tickles her and Emilia is the one laughing alone, joyful. The darkness of the mountains, the knife in her dreams vanish into the warmth of her father’s big brown fingers.
In Emilia’s dreams, she knows how to press the needle into the baby’s ear, how to angle it so that it pierces the flesh but does not bend when it hits the bone of its skull. She tugs the ear high and tall so that it will be sharp and attentive. It must hear the slightest rustling because it will not see.
The foot has grown through the baby’s chest and its toes wrinkle and clench as it squirms and whines. So much noise. Such a loud baby.
When the ears are stitched to the baby’s small head, blood trickles down the curves and into the canal. Emilia takes a moment to twist the baby’s neck. Soon its head will be able to turn entirely around, but for now, she’s only trained it halfway.
She cleans the blood from its ears, hushes and soothes the baby. She feeds it cat’s milk in a bottle. When the baby calms, she lays him on the wooden table and takes out her scissors.
Emilia pinches the baby’s tongue. It’s older now. Old enough to punch, but still tiny and weak. She uses the scissors to fork the tongue, and the blood gushes over the blade.
She cleans the scissors and feeds the baby a balm to heal its split tongue. Then the goat meat in mushed chunks to sustain it. Then the herbs and bone-powder to make it grow strong.
The baby calms as she rocks it on her shoulder.
The eyelids must be last. Glued with the proper balm. When Emilia is finished, those blue eyes will be clouded, and it will see only what she wants it to see. But that’s not for today. For today, she sings the baby ancient songs and massages its neck.
Emilia is alone in the hotel room in a bed large enough for two adults. Trembling at the darkness.
“Papi…” She whimpers, so cold and so empty in this place without skyscrapers and street lamps. She badly wants his goofy smile and his big voice. But she will not call for him because Mother can’t know she’s afraid of the dark.
So, Emilia feels the darkness getting closer, prickling at her skin.
Eventually, the sun breaks over the horizon and gray light spills into the room that hundreds of strangers have called their own. Emilia rises and opens her suitcase. Papi packed her favorite long-sleeve shirt, the one with the princess.
But she will see the copper mine today. So, she wears her new black sweater. She ties her hair into her mother’s bun.
Papi knocks softly and carefully creaks the door open. “Hey, Pretty Girl, you awake?”
She badly wanted his voice a few hours ago, but in daylight, she is annoyed.
“It’s morning, Papi. Why would I be sleeping?” Still, she smiles graciously, her mother’s smile. Her father recoils.
They have breakfast with Uncle and his wife. The woman, Anna, was from the warm coastlands of Chile where the people were white and the natives were few. The Vidals came from the south where the people were brown and had always owned the land.
Anna holds her baby as if he had wings. Everyone is polite, but she doesn’t belong. Mother and Grandfather look at her like wolves at a Chihuahua. Grandfather, Mother, and Uncle talk about the business, the buildings, the mines. Papi and Anna talk about babies. Anna worries that Vicente is only seven days old and shouldn’t be out in this cold. Papi assures her he will be safe.
Emilia watches the boy’s sleepy blue eyes and dreads his cries.
On the way to the mines, Mother hisses. “If that bitch thinks just because her baby has a prick he’s going to get any part of the business…”
“Dominic is weak, and his wife is weak, and their son will be weak.”
Papi stiffens the way he always does when Mother talks about weakness. He calms her with, “trust your father.”
This conversation would mean nothing to Emilia if it happened in Santiago. In Santiago, she was top of her class, she had ribbons and trophies. But as she walks through the copper mine with her hair in its tight bun, she sees only men and her cousin’s sleepy eyes.
Grandfather leaves his American car at the mine and drives a truck up the mountain. A trailer laden with two ATVs drags behind, chattering along, threatening to come undone and crash into Papi’s little car.
“Where’s he taking us?” Papi grumbles. “Anna shouldn’t be out this soon after giving birth.”
Mother says, “maybe there’s a restaurant on the mountain.”
Emilia looks out of the window at the mountains. The world is alive with green foliage and patches of snow. The darkness hides under the earth. It coils around unmined ore, shielding the shine of the copper from the sun.
There is no restaurant. They are going to the Place of the Gulls like Grandfather said.
Grandfather stops at a dirt trail beside a railing and sky. It’s cold as a refrigerator here. Santiago never felt this cold. Emilia put on her coat, which was meant for light rain and black and sleek as her grandfather’s fur-lined coat. She stands beside her mother looking down at Chile. She can hear the cry of seabirds, but she sees none.
“It’s too cold.” Anna climbs down from the truck, clutching Vicente as if he is a life-jacket and she is drowning.
“Stop worrying, darling,” Uncle says. What he means is stop being weak in front of the family.
“Let me hold the baby, Anna. Rest.” Mother can be gentle, but Mother can also lie. Anna doesn’t know the difference and gives Vicente to the other woman. The baby cries.
The sound frightens Emilia. So much like her dreams…
Determined not to feel the cold, she walks to her grandfather’s side. She points out to the valley and the highways. “Someone should build a proper road over this mountain. Then a big hotel with a ski resort right here.”
“Clever,” Grandfather says. “They’ve tried. I stop them.”
Emilia studies the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. She waits for him to teach her more.
Grandfather says. “Get on the ATV.”
Her father and Uncle drove both ATVs off the trailer. Grandfather sits on the first in front of the cooler. Uncle straddles the second.
Mother sits on the ATV behind Uncle cradling Vicente.
Papi kisses Mother’s cheek then says to Grandfather. “Anything else, sir?”
“No.” Grandfather’s gentleness is more convincing than Mother’s when he waves at Anna sitting in the car, weak and drained and cold. “Take poor Annie back to the hotel.”
“Dominic, he’s only seven days old. We should—”
“Anna.” Uncle shows the family hardness. “You should rest.”
Papi whispers softly with real kindness. Anna is soothed and heartsick. Then Papi says, “Come on, Lia. You sit up front.”
Emilia glares. She is not weak like her uncle’s wife.
But she thinks about the darkness hiding in the mountain and longs to sit beside her father and sing silly American songs as they drive away. The cloud of those dreams would lift. He little cousin would be another crying baby if she could only get in that car and drive away from the mountain.
“Come, Emilia.” Grandfather commands.
And she obeys.
The road is impassable at the end of the world. The dirty trail to the heart of the mountain turns into a wall of rock and thick trees and snow. No person could get through.
Grandfather stops at the edge of the stone wall. It was once taller. Over time, it has crumbled. Nuggets of raw copper at the base left like an offering.
Vicente squalls from hunger and cold. Uncle stays on his ATV and stares straight ahead, his face as stoic as the stone.
“You know, Lia, I’m not the oldest of my father’s sons.” Grandfather walks toward the wall.
“Really?” Emilia turns to her grandfather, respectfully, her back to the woods. Grandfather had always been the oldest in the stories. “What happened to your brother? Did he get sick?”
Grandfather smiles. “He was lost when he was a newborn.”
Emilia casts her eyes over to her cousin, Vicente. So small, so weak. “How did he die?”
The forest crawls behind her, but it is impolite to turn her back on her Grandfather, and he wants to watch the trees.
“He didn’t.” It’s not like him to talk in riddles or euphemisms. “He was lost. Have you heard of the Brujo chilote, my little snake?”
Emilia snorts. “Witches and monsters in baby stories.”
Her grandfather smiles, pleased. “That’s not so. They are very real.”
The Brujo Chilote are the sort of thing Papi would talk about before he pretended to eat her belly. Emilia looks to her mother for an explanation of Grandfather’s ridiculous claim.
Mother watches the forest with a mouse’s eyes, ready to run.
Emilia steels herself. This is a test. To see if she is gullible? To see how much she trusts him? She says nothing. Vicente cries, and Emilia’s stomach turns with the memory of a knife and needle.
“The Brujo chilote bought my older brother from my grandfather. Sold for good fortune, protection.” Grandfather goes on. “He was turned into an invunche.”.
Emilia does not know what that means. She senses there’s a weight to the word, a summoning power, as if it should conjure images of frightening stories from her childhood. But in Santiago, the monsters were tiny figures on a television screen, and Emilia had always changed the channel.
Emilia hears her mother swear and Grandfather dips his head to indicate for her to look toward the wilderness.
The invunche crouches on the stone, perched on one foot and steadied by two long arms. The other foot curls and uncurls from its chest where its heart ought to be. If it had once been human, it is no longer. Thick with muscles and grey hair, it sways, never still, always listening and tasting the air with its forked tongue. The head floats over its massive hairy shoulders as though the thick cord of its neck is only a string, tenuously attaching the weird and inhuman face to the rest of the contorted body. The eyes are white, seeming to see nothing until they fall on Emilia. The lips, the only truly untouched thing about the monster, smile.
Emilia does not scream when the monster launches into the air and lands before her. But she also does not run. The invunche, invited by her grandfather to steal his kin, sways on one foot and his great arms reach toward Emilia, capture her by her waist, lift her onto its back where she sees its other leg was once broken and sewn through the monster’s chest.
Her mother shouts not for Emilia, not in fear, but in betrayal. “You said it wanted the baby.”
Uncle also shouts. “You said you wouldn’t argue if it was your child.”
“Hush.” Grandfather does not shout.
The invunche carries her into the trees where no human thing could have passed. No human should smell so animal. No animal should move so quickly. Nothing that quick should be able to hold her so tightly.
Emilia never screams, but she punches. Its eyes depress under her fists like warm jelly. The massive jaw hurts her knuckles. The beast laughs, without human words, but with human understanding of her … weakness.
Enraged, Emilia bites the invunche’s ear, tearing at the scarred flesh. It howls with pain and gropes for her neck. She spits in its ear canal, then finds her scream. It is a weapon.
The invunche catches her neck and yanks her away. She grabs its hairy arm and bites until the howling echoes in her mind and the blood washes her eyes.
The soft voice comes from above, higher in the trees, from the very sky. “Put her down.”
The monster seethes with pain and rage, swaying in the vines. It wrenches its arm to hurl her to the ground.
“Gently. In her place.”
The invunche hops from vine to tree, moving back the way they came until it lands on the wall once more. It grunts unhappily and drops Emilia before the stone.
Emilia wipes its blood from her eyes and spits at it. She knows vulgar words to say, but Grandfather is watching, holding the baby. Uncle sits on the ATV which chugs softly. Emilia’s heart beats louder than a machine, but she returns to Grandfather’s side. Her mother touches her shoulder proudly.
The Vidals glare at the invunche and share the same thoughts. If I were a boy, if I were the eldest, if I had been chosen…
The beast cannot find stillness. The trunk of one leg roots firmly, but even its eyes float in its skull. Then it’s head swivels and stares above. There is a darkness moving in the shadows, something soft and powerful. Uncle rises unable to remain seated in the presence of something so awful.
“Your granddaughter is very brave, Espen.” The voice from the other world speaks.
“Thank you, sir. Yes, she is.”
Emilia has never heard her grandfather call someone sir.
The shadow perches upon the invunche’s back. The body of the thin man fits perfectly between the divot of the beasts’ back and the deformed leg as if the leg were a saddle. Without any command, the invunche crawls from the stone and leans towards Emilia’s mother.
“The eldest. You took great care she was female.”
Mother shivers but does not look away from the darkness. Grandfather says nothing.
The invunche sinks lower, and the faceless shadow considers Emilia. The shape has eyes like fire and angels and ice. “And she made certain her eldest was female.”
None of the Vidals speak.
“But someone made a mistake.” A thin finger, wrinkled and stained black, grazes Vicente’s cheek.
“Someone lied,” Uncle says.
The shadow does not care but reaches for the baby.
“What are you going to do?” Emilia demands.
Her mother’s fingers tighten on her shoulder. But Emilia can taste the blood of the invunche in her mouth, and she’s not afraid of her mother.
“Why, I’ll feed him cat’s milk, goat flesh – unless man is available. I’ll raise him to be strong and obedient and carry me in unreal places like this.” The black fingers dismiss the mountain, all of Chile, all the world.
Those eyes, all the light and life of the world swirling in the blackness of the hood, twinkle at her. “But, I’ll start by breaking his leg.”
Emilia remembers her dream, and the darkness drenches her bones. “You’re evil.”
“Perhaps I’m only necessary. Your family knows that.”
Grandfather holds out the baby, transferring the fate of the newborn to the darkness.
Emilia’s heart stalls.
Then before the withered hands steal her tiny cousin, Emilia grabs Vicente.
“Emilia!” Her grandfather’s shout should freeze her blood.
Instead, she climbs on Uncle’s ATV, and turns the machine down the dirt road. She steers one-handed, cradling the newborn the way Anna did. Flying down the road, fleeing the mountain, the darkness, the chill in her bones, and the fear of her overwrought heart.
Vicente squalls, a sound familiar from her dreams and inevitable. Something grunts close behind the ATV, something loping on three feet, burdened by shadow.
Emilia feels the darkness in her mind. A twinge. A promise of strength, power. She could be like Papi, all kindness, but she would not be weak. She could protect the weak. So many lives she could touch, improve, strengthen. The Brujo Chilote would make it so. But only if she would surrender the squalling brat frozen in her arms.
Emilia nuzzles her cheek, wind-blasted from her flight down the mountain, against her cousin’s head. The softness of his hair and the force of his wail warm her face.
Lightning from the cloudless sky strikes a tree, and fiery branches tumble into the road. The conflagration surrounds the ATV at once, too fast, too neat to be natural.
Emilia wonders if there’s a way to steer the ATV through the fire, to jump the branches, to land unharmed on the other side. Then the invunche is in front of her, not behind.
It emerges from the fire, the silver hairs on its head and neck burning. Two fists swing over its head, slam down on the hood of the ATV. The machine cracks, jolts, and stops.
Emilia leaps off the ATV, keeping the invunche on the other side of the hissing machine, keeping Vicente supported and safe. The creature puts its hands on the seat and grins. Cold. Hard. A Vidal smiles. It hops over the machine.
She steps back away from the invunche as the darkness between the flames sits on the monster’s back. Vicente wails. Will he never stop crying?
There is no way through the fire, no way away from the beast, no way to protect the infant screaming in her ear.
Except to kill.
Emilia shifts one hand to Vicente’s neck, so fragile. Like chicken bones. Like twigs, she snaps for fun.
The invunche snarls and sags. The darkness watches her, and it waits. Her hand twitches to snap the infant’s neck. Her fingers won’t obey her command. She steels herself to try again.
The darkness slides off the invunche. A toe touches the earth.
The fire is gone, and Emilia is in the dream. She’s walking down the corridor holding Vicente who gasps as he cries. The Brujo Chilote ride the invunche because her world is too thin to support their realness. How does she know that? How did she survive the shattering of her world, the fall into someplace stronger?
Vicente calms as she soothes him. She sees the wooden table, the knife, the needle. She turns to look through the window to all the worlds.
The voice is soft behind her. “I want an heir.”
Emilia can see the gulls now, carrion birds feeding on whatever world they chose. The mountain looks down on other places not as real as this tower, and she understands power.
She cuddles Vicente close. “You tricked me.”
“I’ve waited for you.”
Emilia looks down at Vicente. Brand new, so pale. Painfully blue eyes. Trusting her not to drop him, or let his head fall.
She tickles his foot and Vicente gurgles and laughs.
“Someone must take my place.” The shadow touches Emilia’s shoulder. Life is thin. There is devastation in the place of the gulls, held away from her fragile home by little more than a crumbling wall. From this height, she could change the world, reshape it in her image. She can control it.
Emilia grips Vicente’s tiny fat foot then his unformed knee. She bends his chubby leg, far. Farther. Too far.
New bone cracks.
Emilia holds out her hand. “Give me the needle.”
“That comes later.” The knife appears in her hand. “His heart.”
The bubble of red becomes a line, the line becomes a river, then a valley of blood. Her dark fingers swim inside the blood. The shadow withdraws the tiny heart. Emilia cuts deeper, finds Vicente’s foot, pulls it through.
The shadow hands her the balm, and Emilia heals the wound.
“Now open your mouth.”
Emilia obeys. Fingers touch her chin, and her mouth opens wider than possible until it is not her throat opening but some deep passage into her soul.
The tiny, still beating heart drops inside.