Wallflower, wallflower, growing up so high
We are all maidens, and we must surely die
Winter visited the parish early that year. The folk in that part of the world were poor at the best of times, and the snap of cold brought with it a slew of further hardships. Root crops turned to black powder beneath the earth, livestock shivered and waned in their pastures, and both the very young and the very old were afflicted with chilblains, quinsy, the croup.
In the absence of a doctor, and with the nearest town a long and difficult journey to the west, the parishioners turned to their rector. He was a man of middle years, come by their little hamlet when the hawthorn was budding. The women of the parish did not think him unhandsome. Outside of his sermons and the other sundry duties of his position—the weddings, the baptisms, the funerals—he associated very little with his flock. When the first frost appeared parishioners came knocking on the vicarage door. He greeted them with little enthusiasm. He did not like to be disturbed. Not since the previous summer, when the Widow Salter had called upon him most days, had he been troubled so often.
He began rising earlier for his morning walk, leaving while the sun was still a watery haze upon the horizon. He would wash and dress by candlelight, his breath misting the air, then take up his stick and leave quietly through the back gate.
The rector had walked this path every day without fail for several months now. He had watched as the trees turned from green to copper to dark skeletons, seen the fly agaric flourish in the damp and rotting undergrowth, witnessed a generation of rabbits conceived, born, grown, eaten.
That morning was a particularly cold one. Fallen leaves from the beech copse littered the ground, desiccated and rimed with frost. Each of the rector’s footfalls made a satisfying crunch, leaving dusty imprints in their wake. The path beneath the leaves was treacherous. The mud had frozen into sheet ice, forming peaks and troughs around the wheel ruts. The rector trod carefully, stepping up onto the embankment when the ground was too slick for his boots.
He knew this path well now. He could have walked it in the dark, without even the light of the moon to guide his steps. He knew the shape of it, every curve, every swell, each deceptive little turn.
There was a stile in the fence that separated the road from the wild country beyond. He paused atop it for a moment, let a gloved finger rest on a place where the pale wood was stained. Then he lifted his other leg over the crossbeam and dropped down heavily on the other side.
From there it was a short walk to the tar pit. At first glance it appeared innocuous, as still as a millpond. Only its unfrozen surface suggested any incongruity. If one watched for long enough they might see a bubble rise to the surface, swell queasily, and burst in a sulphurous belching.
The parishioners stayed away from the tar pit. Its presence near the hamlet made people uneasy; it was known as a place of ill-omen, the kind of rural superstition that the rector would often dismiss sternly from his pulpit. Once or twice a year a sheep would escape its pen and wander off, never to be seen again, with only a tuft of wool caught in the nearby blackthorn to mark its passing.
As he did every day, the rector walked the perimeter of the tar pit. In the summer it had looked almost beautiful, a near-flawless pool of liquid blackness. Now that he was closer he could see where the cold had warped the surface, creating oozing plateaus and puddles of noxious water. It displeased the rector to see it so. He had enjoyed the tar pit more in August, when its benign prettiness had concealed the malevolence beneath. Now it was ugly. He did not like things to be ugly.
There were few trees nearby, so the surface of the pit was mostly clear of litter. Only a handful of leaves rested there, blown from a nearby hazel which had been coppiced so often that it no longer resembled a tree at all.
The rector counted the hazel leaves on the surface of the tar. One, two… twenty two.
Letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Bones in the human skull.
It seemed to him a fine number, so he spoke it aloud. Then, pleased with the taste of the consonants, he elaborated: “Twenty two in the tar.” This pleased him even more.
The rector became aware, then, that he was not alone. He was not sure when she had crept up on him. She had certainly not been there when he arrived. He caught sight of her in his peripheral vision, crouched dangerously close to the edge of the pit. She was not dressed for the cold, and the soles of her bare feet were black as bitumen.
He did not look at the child, but he could feel her eyes upon his back. Ignoring her, he knelt beside the pit and began to drag the fallen leaves towards him with the tip of his walking stick. When they were within his reach he plucked them from the tar, let the last viscous drops fall, and placed them reverently upon the frozen grass.
“What’re you doing?”
Her drawling provincial vowels made the rector wince. “I am cleaning the pit.”
He turned to look at her. She squatted in the grass like a church gargoyle, scratching at her ears with a dirty finger.
“You are a child,” he said. “I do not expect you to understand.”
“I’m no’ a child,” she sulked.
She was half correct. Her malnourished frame made her look younger than she was, but the rector could see where her body would swell and bud before the next summer.
“Do not be so dismissive of your youth,” he said. “Before long you will be squalid.”
The child frowned, rocking back upon her haunches. She rolled the unfamiliar word around her tongue.
“It is the fate of your sex,” he continued, plucking another leaf from the tar. “To become unclean. You will grow, and change, and become a slave to the whims of your flesh. You will tempt and deceive and grow fetid. You will not be able to help it. It will be a part of your nature, as surely as your need for sleep.”
The child was silent for a moment. Her eyes were empty, dumb as livestock. She took up a stone from the ground and tossed it into the centre of the pit, where it sat for a moment before the tar sucked it down. The frost had made a perfect quiet of the world.
She was as innocent as Eve, he thought, with her dull eyes and androgyne thinness. The spring would make of her fruit and serpent both, temptation and tempter. He thought of how easy it would be to put his hands about her neck. He could preserve her purity like the creatures in the tar, the ones that were older than the world.
But it was not God’s will to punish the innocent. She did not deserve that retribution yet.
The rector remembered Jenny Salter plucking blackberries from the roadside. How the birch trees had bathed her in August’s dappled light. She had caught her finger upon the brambles, and blood had mixed with the dark juice as she put the fruit to her lips. The rector had watched from a distance as she hitched up her skirt and straddled the kissing gate.
The child turned her face to the sky. The clouds were pale and heavy, pregnant with the year’s first snow. She did not shiver.
There was a white shape in the middle of the tar pit. It reached upwards, as if it were grasping at something out of reach. For one, wild moment the rector saw Jenny’s slender hand, still stained with red at the fingertips. Then it resolved itself into nothing more than a bare branch, dead wood from the hazel tree. Still, he could not look at it.
“For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts.” The rector spoke under his breath, almost to himself. “Murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts…”
He looked over at the child, but her eyes were focused on the sky. For a long moment he watched her, waiting for her to move, to speak, to do anything at all. She remained perfectly still, staring upwards as the first flakes of snow began to fall.
The rector climbed to his feet, retrieved his stick and walked back towards the vicarage, leaving the girl alone with the trees and the tar and the dead.
Lauren O’Donoghue is a writer, game designer and community worker based in Yorkshire. Her previous and upcoming publications include Planet Scumm Magazine, the Cranked Anvil Short Story Anthology, Atlas & Alice, ergot. and Blood Orange Review. She is currently a candidate in the Curtis Brown Creative Breakthrough Writers’ Programme.