ill

Sam Garrett

"I think she's ill," was her older brother's explanation for the odd rasping noises she suddenly started to make in the middle of mass. Everyone in the chapel was looking at the family with either pity or disdain, and their mother was blushing furiously.

They all knew she would be making a fuss as soon as they got home.

Rena rasped faintly, "I'm all right." A long fit of coughing followed that, disproving her statement. She doubled over, possessed by sudden pain, and let out a loud, whooping cough, which echoed throughout.

"Take your sister outside right now," their mother hissed, covering her mouth with her fan as if that would hide the contempt in her voice. "Don't bring her back until she knows how to be quiet."

Ronald nodded obediently and took his sister by her arm. He could feel the sharp glare of their mother on his back—it right nearly blocked out the collective stare of the congregation—all the way out, and didn't feel that he could breathe until he was out in the chilly October air.

All at once, Rena was better, and she was able to stand up straight again, looking strong and smart in her pale green dress. Her auburn hair was tightly braided behind her head, since, according to their mother, only promiscuous women let their hair fall loose. "Mother's a frightful woman, isn't she?" she asked with a smile. Her voice was still hoarse—anyone's would have been after such a loud performance—but she sounded joyful all the same.

Ronald's mouth fell open with shock. "That—that was an act?" he demanded. He didn't know if he should be offended—as any mature older brother would be—or delightful. They both hated the stiff ceremonies terribly so, and he could remember complaining about how much he wanted to skip it that morning.

His hair was just the same color as his sister's—rich and vibrant—only it was very difficult to tell. Mother always kept it cut as short as possible. It was only between visits to the barber that anyone was able to tell he had nice hair. His face was much the same as hers as well—kindly yet intelligent, with a hint of defiance glowing in his eyes. They were, in all accounts, very handsome children.

She nodded gleefully, and pulled him away from the large chapel doors. "Come on. I can pretend to be ill for at least thirty more minutes."

He followed after her gladly, but he was still a little worried. "Mother will take a switch to you if she finds out that was a trick," he warned her.

"You're not going to tell her, and pretending to have a cough is easy enough," she kept a watchful eye on him as he spoke, to make sure he didn't plan on telling her.

"I'd be in trouble, too," he reminded her, and all doubt in each other's honesty quickly faded away.

They hurried along the side of the chapel, being mindful of the windows, until they came to the small outcropping of trees in the back, where they kept the chickens and the geese. The outcropping had long been the favorite hiding spot of all delinquent children, since it was very difficult to for anyone over the age of twelve to get into. Ronald, being tall for his age, already had trouble with it, and he was only eleven.

"We won't be able to keep track of time here," he told her as he watched her crawl in. He was already dreading how difficult it was to stoop low enough to fit while still looking where he was going. Last time he had tried to manage it, he had fallen headfirst and got a nasty bruise that his mother was very angry about.

"Now that you've got a bump on your forehead, everyone will think that you're growing a horn!" she exclaimed in disdain, and refused to take him anywhere public for a whole week. She made him take his studies at home until even the red mark was gone. He wouldn't have minded, since they had to wear the most uncomfortable uniforms at school, but he had to take his studies with his sister, and she was much more advanced than he was. She made him feel stupid.

"We won't have any time at all if you stand outside there looking like a fool. Get in here before someone from the chapel manages to get bored and look out the window," she said with a hoarse laugh.

He made it in without hurting himself, and found that the outcropping was much more lovely during Sunday that it was any other day.

The clearing hidden inside of the outcropping was a pleasant place, so full of the sweet smell of flowers that one could hardly tell there was a pin of animals not too far away. The air inside of it seemed gentler, too, and the sounds that came through the spaces between the narrow trunks of young trees was almost musical. There was no doubt that the outcropping was a very magical place.

"It's too bad that they coop us up inside, isn't it?" she asked with a sigh.

"I dunno," he said with a shrug. "Mother always seems nicer when we behave at church. If we didn't have Sundays to make our reputition with her better, she might not speak to us at all."

"Reputation, Ronald. But I suppose you're right. Not that I care what she thinks."

"I do," he said ruefully. "Whenever she's mad at us we can't do anything fun."

"We can't do anything fun when she's happy with us either," she pointed out.

"We can too," he went to say before he began to think about it.

When was the last time she had allowed them to go outside to play? And even when she did give them a break from their studies, she would make them do what she called "civil activities", like making Rena learn how to knit, or making Ronald learn how to draw plants. Both tasks were outrageously dull, and neither of them could sit through it without complaining the whole time through.

They both had thought that this would discourage their mother, but she would only become sterner with her punishments. Rena had to go without dessert for a whole week last month because she objected to learning how to embroider. "It's pointless, Mother!" she had exclaimed, pointing out that they were rich enough to simply buy embroidered things.

It had gotten to the point of being unbearable.

"I wish we could run away," Rena told her brother as she etched a picture of a dog into the dirt with a stick.

"That's silly," said Ronald.

She nodded. "I know it is. But that doesn't stop me from wishing it."

"Mother says that wishing for impossible things is silly and sinful," he told her flatly.

"I know."

"And she also says that we'll understand why she treats us so as soon as we're respectable adults."

"I know that too."

"And—"

"Ronald, if I wanted to listen to another one of Mother's tirades, I would go back into that church and start dancing around like I'm insane," she said curtly, cutting him off before he could go on.

"She'd do more than lecture you if—"

"I know!" Rena exclaimed, throwing down her stick with exasperation.

He sighed. "I'm sorry." He was simply worried about what would happen when they got back to the church.

She seemed to be as well, for she mentioned it just as he thought about it. "I can't imagine what she'll do to me when we get back."

He nodded grimly. "Neither of us have ever embarrassed her in public before."

She laughed wryly. "Only Mother could get embarrassed by an ill child."

"She probably worries that they think you have the plague."

"Not even that I might actually have it!" she said loudly.

They were silent with unhappiness for several minutes. Rena finished her picture of a dog and then erased it with the hem of her skirt, knowing full well that her mother would make a fuss about it. She began to draw a picture of her mother, only she added the sorts of things that she thought belonged with her mother very well.

The first thing she added to the ruffled and laced woman was a pair of horns atop her head. When she started to draw in a long, snake-like tail, Ronald started to notice what she was doing. He scooted over close to her and coached her on what she should add to it next.

"She should have great big claws instead of fingers!" he told her. She quickly erased the primly folded fingers on her lap and drew monstrous claws, which went every which way so that it would be all the more offensive to their obsessive mother.

"I wonder how she would look with a beard!" Rena said as she drew long, uneven whiskers all over her round, bulbous face—the result of drawing with a stick in the dirt.

"Oh, that's horrible!" her brother told her with a laugh. "Make her bottom really big."

And so she did.

They went on for a good ten minutes before they decided they should go back to mass. They had had a great deal of fun, but they both knew they would be in more trouble the longer they stayed. Reluctantly, they got up and crawled out of the outcropping, leaving the picture there for another child to find. Perhaps they would recognize it as their Mother.

"We're going to be in trouble," Rena predicted as they came nearer to the chapel entrance. They did not bother to duck past the windows, but she did begin to cough again as if she was still only recovering from her illness.

They were met with a great deal of ruckus by the time they got to the front of the chapel. Many of the congregation was running to and fro, and they all seemed to be nervously talking about someone inside of the chapel. They did not even bother to use their usual gossip voices, which troubled the two children greatly.

Ronald walked over to a friend of their mother—an elderly man who never had anything interesting to say and was always regarded as "learned" by her—and asked him what was going on. The man shrank back from him for a second before he realized that they were only children and quite harmless.

Rena though this was odd, but she liked the change. She preferred paranoia to a drab personality.

"My goodness, children!" he cried. "Do not frighten me so!"

"Sorry, sir, but we're just wondering what's going on."

They expected to hear their mother's crisp, unpleasant voice sound at the turn of every second. Rena and Ronald winced every time they heard a woman raise her voice to make an exclamation of terror.

The older man peered down at them through his thick, boring glasses. It took him several seconds and a great deal of curious blinks for him to realize just who they were. "Heavens!" he shouted, throwing his hands up. "You're the children of the demon-woman!"

Rena giggled. "I've never heard her called that before!" She wondered how he dared to be so bold.

"Father Richard!" the learned man shouted, turning away from the children. "Father Richard, the children are here!"

From the chapel, a small, balding man came running with the palest face either of the children had ever before seen. He pulled out a handkerchief as he looked to and from each child, struggling to from a sentence. "You're—you're her children, then?" he asked to confirm it.

They shrugged. "We're Madam Rosa's children," Ronald told him.

His fright seemed to intensify. "Oh, dear!" he cried. "Oh dear! What ever shall we do?"

"What's going on?"

Involuntarily, he turned toward the chapel door. Both of the children acted before anyone could stop them. They hurried to the door and into the chapel before anyone could stop them—before anyone could prevent them from seeing the gruesome beast sitting right where their mother had just thirty minutes ago.

"Oh goodness!" Rena screeched when she saw who it was. She was an unmistakable creature—so much like the image they had etched into the dirt and yet still so much like the cruel woman who pressed them to be perfect even when perfection was undesirable.

The demented creature, its chest heaving and the coarse hair on the top of its head bristling, glaring so sharply that it was any wonder their flesh was not melting from the bone. It yelled an awesome yell, so loud that it cracked most of the intricate chapel windows—far louder than Rena had ever coughed.

She sat there—perhaps stood, for there seemed to be some sort of legs beneath the wretched carcass—and growled and grumbled in the incoherent language of monsters. There was a speck of intelligence remaining in her yellow, glowing eyes, but it was so corroded with hatred and rage that it was nearly impossible to see—but those children, attached to their mother though they hated her so, could see their mother inside of that beast.

"Mother?" Rena tentatively called out, her tiny, frightened voice easily overpowered by the growl of the beast.

The father, who had stood frightfully at the door—no sane man would want to enter a room so filled with evil—stepped forward. "You mustn't approach her, child," he told her in a voice so lacking in bravery. "You might provoke her—she might attack."

Ronald glanced back at him. "Is it our mother, then?"

The father let his holy eyes fall upon the unholy visage of the monster. "We believe it is… She was sitting there as any proper woman should…but the fierceness of the devil must have been too much for her, for she quickly fell into such a fit that most exclaimed that she was possessed. And then she began to transform into the horrible beast before you…" He reached out for Ronald, who was the closest, and said, "But you must come from here now, child, before her evils can wash upon you."

Ronald dashed away from him and came to stand beside his sister, who, he felt, needed his support more than an ailing old father could.
"But it's our mother!" Rena exclaimed in horror, though such an explanation did seem hollow, looking back from the father to her mother several times before she finally let her young, daunted eyes rest on the pulsating, grotesque creature.

"Your mother or not—once the devil has had her way with her, she is not worth the sympathy of her children."
But it was not sympathy that infested Rena's eyes. She did not look to the beast expecting to find her loving, compassionate mother hiding inside—she saw in the beast the mother that would so cruelly cut them off from all remaining desires of humanity. She saw in the monster the monster that was her mother, and knew that it was nothing more than a reflection of the inner truth.

"Please, child," he begged, "your mother is very ill…you mustn't be so close to her."

Rena smiled, and she would later be grateful for being turned away from him, so unholy of a smile it was. A small ounce of vindictiveness sprouted in her childlike mind so prone to magical fancy. She smiled at her mother—yes, there was little doubt that it was her—and said, "I like this look for you, Mother. It suits you."

The father finally found in himself the bravery to grab the children by their scrawny arms and drag them from the chapel. "You're lucky I got you out of there," he told them once they were safely outside. "Her evil might have rubbed off on you, and then we would have lost your souls as well."

Rena shook her head. "No," she said. "My Mother's evil could never rub off on us. It's you, so you worried over how impressionable others are without considering your own impressionability, that has to worry about her unholyness rubbing off."