by Alexandra M. Lucas
There is a saying among my foremothers in this tumultuous land: “I look upon your back only so that I may look upon your face all the sooner.” But when Father and my brother Miloš left for the front, I felt deep in my bones that I had seen their backs for the last time.
The moment my older brother’s draft letter arrived, I began knitting a scarf for him. It was green and gold, the colors of our family crest, but herbalism was my gift, so alas, I was not the most talented with a pair of needles. Even so, generous Miloš told me he was glad for the scarf’s imperfections. “All the better to remember you by,” he said with his gap-toothed smile. As he departed with Father, I felt a measure of peace knowing that at least the scarf I had made would help my brother find his way home.
Mother and I received letters from Father and Miloš weekly for some time, but then the leaves turned, and all postage stopped. As the nights grew longer, I tried not to think of what this change in the wind could mean. We continued with our chores around the farm as usual, but with each passing day, the sounds of battle drew nearer. The chickens would startle when I collected their spotted eggs, for they, too, worried about the approaching gunfire. Mother and I took to hanging the laundry to dry after dark so as to draw less attention in daylight, and I lined the borders of our farm with deadly hemlock and nightshade for protection. Despite these measures, the first frost had not yet graced us when the war reached our humble homestead’s doorstep.
The thing I remember most about that night was that the fog was too thick for even a kerosene lantern to pierce. We heard them before we saw them. Growing up in the sprawling quiet, I had learned the sounds that belonged around our remote farm. The shuddering of the tall grasses and the tawny owl’s yearning cry did not worry me. The stumbling thuds of mud-caked boots in the near-distance, however, made my heart gallop into my throat.
At first, they looked like two swaying will-o-the-wisps that Father had warned Miloš and me about when we were children. “When the air is heavy, do not venture out into the night,” Father had stated, his gaze stern with gravity. “Playful lights may call you, but do not be deceived. There is nothing they want from either of you that you can afford to give them.” I heard his voice in my head that night, but I wished that he had told me what to do if the lights ever chose to come to me.
When the figures at last stepped from the mist, a relieved exhale escaped my lips. Instead of any fearsome fantastical creatures, I simply saw two soldiers. I relaxed a little, as the sight had grown familiar to my eyes, and whispered close to Mother in the doorway, “Oh! They’re but men.”
But when I glanced up at her, I saw that her face was still as stone. “Indeed, they are.”
Neither Mother nor I moved until the men stood directly before us. Their uniforms were stained and tattered, but any child of our region could tell that they wore the colors of the enemy. I swallowed hard in response to their cheerful smiles, and I could not stop the heat from draining from my cheeks when my eyes briefly flicked to the military-issue pistols at their hips. Mother squeezed my forearm so tightly that she drew blood, but I bit my tongue so I would not cry out.
At last, the taller of the two cut through the silence. “Good evening, gentle ladies. Might you be able to spare some stew and bedding for two exhausted blokes?” His grin never faltered just as the shorter man’s bulging eyes never left my form. Something about each of their gazes planted a sickly seed in my stomach.
Mother pursed her lips, and I studied her face as she made quick mental calculations. Even I, a naïve girl of sixteen, knew she could not deny these soldiers anything they desired, not when they were armed and predisposed toward viewing us as the enemy. She was wise enough to know that voluntarily giving these men a little food and shelter now could prevent them from demanding other, more unseemly wants by force later.
After hugging me a little too tightly to her side, Mother summoned a strained smile for the two strangers. “Certainly. Out on a night like this, you two must be chilled to the bone. Please, come in and sup with us.”
“Much obliged, ma’am,” the tall one chirped. He winked at me as he stepped closer, prompting Mother to all but thrust me toward the kitchen so I would be out of sight for as long as possible. Even so, unease filled me at the thought of Mother spending even a moment alone with our uninvited guests.
My hands shook as I ladled the steaming stew into wooden bowls, but my nerves calmed as the familiar spices of Mother’s cooking wafted over me. The earthy scents took me back to the peaceful afternoon before this strange supper when I gathered the edible herbs for Mother to dry. However, something red and wild filled my heart when I turned around to see the two men sitting in Father and Miloš’s seats at our family table.
“Hey! Those are—” I began to protest, but Mother cut me off.
“—the best seats in the house, yes, Marica. Please, make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen.”
Closing his eyes, the shorter one grunted and nestled into Father’s chair with a series of violent creaks. “Don’t have to tell me twice.”
The other soldier elbowed his comrade, who then opened his eyes and straightened up. “What my friend Vivek here means to say is that we appreciate your hospitality, ma’am. As you may have noticed, there’s a war on, so it has been quite some time since we enjoyed such comfort.”
Mother nodded through a hollow smile, but her eyes never left those of the tall man as I set full bowls down in front of him and his ill-mannered friend. Before Mother and I could sit, Vivek began shoveling massive spoonfuls of stew into his mouth. Stray broth and roasted carrots oozed down his chin, but he did not stop to clean himself.
As I withdrew my hand from his bowl, the tall man’s mustache twitched, and his gaze crept up my forearm to my pale cheeks. “Many thanks…Marica, was it?”
“Y-yes,” I stammered. “You are welcome, sir.”
As I turned to hurry away, the mustached man snapped his long fingers around my wrist. I was too startled to keep myself from gasping, which seemed to make his eyes gleam. “Please. We’re friends now, aren’t we? So, we must call each other by our names. Mine is Tolya.”
I nodded and tried to retrieve my hand, but Tolya would not let go. I flicked my gaze back up to his with confusion in my eyes, but he only continued to grin and hold on tight. “Say it.”
After swallowing hard, I managed, “As you wish, Tolya.”
The mustached man finally let go of my wrist, but I did not feel relief. Something about me saying his name had curdled his countenance, turning it into something wicked that I did not want to understand. I did not dare to look at Mother, but her uneasy clattering with other dishes told me that she felt it, too.
The spectacle over, Tolya sighed and spooned his stew with surprising daintiness, stopping only when he noticed that neither Mother nor I had touched our bowls.
“Come, now. You two mustn’t starve yourselves on our account,” Tolya insisted.
Finally, Vivek came up for air. “Maybe they’re scared of us.”
The taller man threw his head of curly dark hair back and laughed a little too hard. “Scared? Of you and I, Vivek? What nonsense! These two should count their lucky stars to have a visit from soldiers like us.”
Tolya turned back to me. “Believe me, Marica. War changes people. There are some real monsters out there.” Without breaking eye contact, he suddenly darted forward and took the liberty of patting my bare shoulder. “But we’re not like that. We’re not monsters, are we, Vivek?”
Still slurping his stew like a pig at slop, Vivek grunted. “Eh.”
Once both soldiers had finished their dinner, they sat back and rested their stained hands on their distended bellies. As Vivek picked his teeth and Tolya searched around the dining room without moving a muscle, everything in the world seemed to suddenly fall silent. Even the crickets outside dared not strum their familiar song.
I had not realized that I had stopped breathing until the mustached soldier abruptly exclaimed, “Well! That dinner was fine, just fine. So, time for a little after-dinner digestif, then?”
Even after I resumed breathing, I struggled to process his words. Expensive liquor? Here? In these times? I stole a glance at Mother as I cleared their empty bowls, careful to leave the soldiers’ reach as quickly as I could manage.
“Gentlemen, I am afraid that we have nothing so grand for you,” Mother apologized, choosing her words carefully. “Since the war began, we have only been able to acquire the barest essentials and those things we have here on the farm. Perhaps tomorrow, I could ask our neighbor, Pietro, if—”
A heavy fist slammed on the table, interrupting Mother and prompting my mouth to run dry. Now that he had our attention, Vivek cleared the muck from his throat and demanded, “Liquor! Now! Or else.”
Tolya sighed. “Yes, well, that isn’t how I would’ve put it, but surely you’ve hidden something away, no?” The tall soldier flicked his eyes up to Mother, then to me, and then back to Mother. “Besides, you wouldn’t want to anger my friend here. Vivek can be ravenous in his appetites.”
Scuttling around the kitchen, my heart was beating out of my chest when my unsteady fingers found the tea kettle. “T-tea,” I breathed. When the three of them turned to me, I said it again, louder this time. “Tea? We-we have tea.”
A slick smile returned to Tolya’s face, and he leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head. “Tea would be splendid. It has been quite a long time for us, hmm, Vivek?”
Never had tea taken so long to brew as when I prepared it for those soldiers. No matter how much wood I added to the stove, the water in the pot resisted a boil. Even the rosehip blossoms appeared to protest, lingering on top of the cups like panicked floating red hearts that were too afraid to steep. Although I was careful to focus on my task, I felt the men’s eyes bore deeper and deeper into my back.
Once their tea was ready and I picked up the cups, I felt Mother’s stern touch on my arm. “You have done enough, child. Surely you are tired. Rest, now, and let me bring tea to our guests.”
The short soldier frowned. “No. Girl stays. The night’s only started.”
A glimmer of something sinister reflected from Tolya’s eye, prompting me to back away from the table. “My comrade here has a point. What on earth has our dear hostess so rushed?”
Without a word, Mother set the steaming rosehip tea in front of the men, and Vivek quickly wrapped his greedy sausage fingers around his cup. After he slurped the drink down, he fixed his gaze on Mother. “She’s good enough, too. What’re we waiting for?”
In the thick stillness, the crickets ceased their song once more. Time seemed to slow as I watched the tall soldier begin to rise from his chair, no longer interested in tea. Mother locked eyes with me, and the seed of panic that had taken root in my stomach pushed through to sprouting. We both knew what needed to be done; the question was only who would do it.
The next sounds I heard were Mother crying out and the flutter of her skirts hitting the wooden floor. As I rushed to her side, I felt the soldiers recoil and settle back into their chairs. Forcing my lips to move, I played my part. “Mother, are you well?”
She took her time opening her eyes, even allowing for a meek flutter, and then she looked up at me. “I fear I have overexerted myself. It has been so long since we have entertained, you see.” After taking a deep breath, Mother tilted her head so she held Tolya’s gaze. “Forgive us, gentlemen, but I need my daughter to help me to bed. Exhaustion has overtaken me, so I must rest to better accommodate our honored guests on the morrow.”
Tears sprang to my cheeks, but I was glad for the blurring. As I helped Mother back to her feet, I ventured a glance back at the soldiers. Vivek grunted in disapproval but didn’t move, while Tolya rolled his eyes and waved his hand in exasperation. “Yes, yes, there’s no need for such dramatics. Off to bed with you. There’s always time for tea tomorrow.”
I did not require further encouragement. Slowly and steadily, I assisted Mother to the bedroom I shared with her, pausing only for Mother to call back to the soldiers, “Make yourselves at home, gentlemen. Rest well.”
As soon as I had closed the door to our bedroom, she sprang from my shoulder and turned her key in the lock. Until that night, I had not understood why she had insisted on only making one key for the room. It was but one of many moments of gratitude I would have for Mother’s wisdom.
“Marica,” she whispered in a hurried bark, “you are a woman now. And so you know why we cannot leave this room until sunrise.”
I nodded and sat in a chair near the door, staring at the keyhole without blinking. As she fussed with bedding, I wondered how she could think of sleep after all we had endured. But before long, I heard Mother’s breathing slow to a soft coo, and I was awake and alone.
Fear and curiosity mingled inside me, urging me to draw my chair close to the keyhole. Moving with the precision of a cat, I sat so that I could see the soldiers through the lock that Mother had turned. A frown carved its way onto my face as I watched them eat and drink every scrap of sustenance that we had painstakingly prepared and preserved over the last week. Vivek took particular delight in breaking bottles and throwing food he did not like on the ground, and Tolya did not stop him. If Father were here, I thought, quaking with anger, these worms would not dare show our family such disrespect.
Alas, behind a locked door and without a pistol of my own, there was naught I could do to intervene. Just as I had resolved to turn away and stuff my ears with cotton, I heard Vivek cackle, “Know what this reminds me of? Those two squealers!”
Tolya smirked and started digging around in his pack. “One couldn’t forget those two. Pathetic. Begging for their lives with every excuse in the book! What did they say they were? Father and son? Laughable!”
Ice filled my veins as I wavered between wanting to learn more and desperately wishing I had not heard a word. The choice was soon made for me when Tolya finally retrieved the item for which he had been searching from his pack. My mouth dropped open when I made out what it was through the keyhole: the scarf I had knitted for my brother Miloš. Only it was not the exact same, for instead of sporting only two distinct shades of green and gold, I saw that it now had spatters of crimson.
“Good thing I kept this old rag after we took care of them,” Tolya murmured as he wrapped my brother’s scarf around his neck. “It’s colder tonight than whatever’s left of those two blokes.”
Any other words they exchanged faded from my hearing as reality stepped onto my shoulders. I wished to scream, sob, and vomit all at once, and yet I seemed unable to do any one of the three. My brother Miloš’s gap-toothed smile filled my mind and then faded from view, lost in the thought of Vivek’s giant, cackling mouth. For a moment, it seemed as if I was sitting on Father’s knee again, and then I felt like I was falling, eternally unable to find my footing. Although I longed to wake Mother, I did not dare, for it was only right to permit her one last night of sleep without the burden of grief. Instead, I stuffed cotton in my ears and laid beside Mother on the bed, counting the minutes until the soldiers finally snuffed out their candles.
As I tried to find sleep, my mind turned to the tea I was to prepare for the soldiers the next morning. I wondered what flavor of tea leaves would appease. Their tastes were hardened. Cruel. Thirsty for things that did not belong to them. Still, I believed I had an elixir that would satisfy soldiers like them. That morning, I had gathered nightshade berries to brew a poison to keep voles and weevils from raiding our garden. After all, Father had told me once that the dark plant’s fruit was deadly. I wondered if nightshade had the same effect on all types of intruders.
Tomorrow, when I brewed my special tea for the soldiers, I would find out.
Alexandra M. Lucas is a Narrative Designer at Stoic. She won the GDC Game Narrative Review Platinum Award twice, and she has delivered pop culture presentations at GDC, PAX Dev, GeekGirlCon, and Wellesley College. She won the 2022 Dark Sire Award for Psychological Realism for “In the Deep“, originally featured in our Summer Issue: Second Place; her story, “The Lighthouse Remains,” was also a 2022 Gothic finalist. Alexandra won a 2020 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Merit Award for “Leftover,” and her prompts piece, “Sleeping Beauty,” was published in the Village Books 2022 Writers’ Corner Anthology. Her short stories have appeared in Coffin Bell Journal, and Whatcom WRITES.
Including “In the Deep”, Alexandra’s work has been featured in all four HamLit season issue: “The Other Side” in Winter Issue: No Man’s Land, “With You” in Summer Issue: Second Place, and “Harmony” in Fall Issue: Golden Age.