Not the red-warm glow of a burning fire greeted me. Their torches blazed of rage and vengeance and stabbed through the abominable darkness of the frosty night. Torrid tempers protested at the footsteps of the Horton’s house where I had been dragged. Inside, Mrs. Horton struggled for breath. Margaret Worthington, the coroner’s wife, shouted to those who had gathered around outside. She spoke to me in a damning tongue.
“Prove to us that you are not with Satan’s league!”
The death of the doctor and the other midwives had fallen blame on the one who had worked with them the closest. “Coincidence or black magic?” they murmured in the undisclosed backdrops of church pews and street corners.
And what would happen now? Who would deliver Sheriff Horton’s baby?
Certainly not me, the girl with the birthmark of an upside-down cross at her neck. The girl who had never played well with other children, stole the gaze of taken men, and was always present where unfortunate events unfolded. But I was the only one experienced in child delivery. No one else knew what to do.
“She can’t be trusted!” Sarah Thorton, the seamstress.
“She’ll give the babies to Satan!” Boyd Finley, the baker.
“They’ll be marked forever, damned to the Devil!” Annette Harris, a friend no more.
Inside the Horton’s house, moans escalated under the crowning of the child.
“She needs the calming reassurance of a skillful hand,” I told them.
Desperate, the townspeople shuffled me inside.
“Deliver the baby alive or you will die.” Sheriff Horton himself.
Forty agonizing minutes later, the child was born at midnight. Six toes on the right foot and an inverted star-like birthmark on his chest.
Screams erupted. I managed to flee out the back door into darkness, across the ditch and into a well in the field. I climbed down and waited with drawn breath. My shaking uncontrollable and not of the freezing temperature. I could hear their protests, their threats, the thunder of their hunt for me. Their search ended in a riotous cheer as sharp weapons and crucifixes shadowed over me at the top of the well in a blade-studded circle. I was their feral beast, captured.
Voices (of those who I thought I knew) rose and fell around me like a cold, winter ocean: my father, begging me to surrender or face execution … my music teacher, Nell, praying for God’s forgiveness … and Beth, my sister, humming a church hymn, her passive hate further branding me with the sharp glare of damnation. Beth the angel, who had miraculously survived birth in the death of our mother, the first of many terrible events to surround me.
Shouts gained rhythm and became a chant. I crouched back into the darkness. Pulled it around myself like an old lover. The blood of birth had glued between my fingers. I wondered how long before it might be my own.
In the distance, I heard a holler. The people’s voices softened. Someone drew near. It was Father George, our new pastor, the hero in a town suffering from a recent black storm of bad luck. Everyone had taken an unnatural liking to him, and he to me.
“Help her, Father! Help her.” Beth playing the part—loving sister. Pretending I am good enough to be saved. Believing evil is not in hand with mine.
“It is not too late.” Father George leaned over the well. His eyes locked on to mine, a gravitational pull, hypnotic-like. I felt the earth spin below me, then spiral up into the steady pulse of my own heart. I had the urge then to love him, as though my soul had awakened from a dull slumber.
“But she is with the Devil.” A stranger, who knew me no better than I him.
“She is with the town of Sheffield,” Father George corrected him.
He stepped down the ladder and reached for my hand. It was strong and warm, and filled me with images when he squeezed it gently, none of which Margaret Worthington would have found holy. I saw mass graves, the intermingle of flesh, lightning and fire, and every form of the bizarre and deviant, all beneath the shadow of Father George.
“Come, my child,” he said to me with a smile deeper than the darkest of seas. In that moment, I felt it, the red-warm glow of the burning fire. I smiled back at him and took his other hand in mine.
BIO: Erin Cole is a writer of dark and speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in over 50 publications, and she is the author of the novel, Grave Echoes, and the horror anthology collection, Of the Night. She daydreams that one day, Hell will freeze over, and she’ll get that tree fort she always wanted.