Short Story: BEARING GIFTS

 

In the nights before Christmas, a different kind of gift giving… one kept in shadow.

BEARING GIFTS

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The snow tried to follow her inside, buffeting the dust and gauze of the empty hall, until she forced the door shut. Without the wind and the snow’s glare, the house was utterly desolate. In the early days it had nauseated her to be alone there. She could feel the weight of all the silent rooms, the winding corridors pressing down on her, tempting their secrets. Now she had grown accustomed, though the wind still sounded like a warning as it begged for entry.

Clutching her bundle, she stepped across the wasted floorboards and approached the ballroom doors, which hung ajar in anticipation. Their moaning movement revealed what once had been a grand ballroom. She imagined it, glowing with candles and extravagant fabrics, a rebellion against the blasted land outside. All that remained of that glamour were the web-shrouded chandeliers and the cavernous yawning windows. They still leaked blue light into the room, enough to reveal the silhouette crouched in the center.

She never took more than three steps into the room. It was enough to made the shadow stir, ripple into movement. A sigh whipped around the ceiling; then, the wheezing voice. “You bring dinner.”

So many years and those words still rattled her spine. “Yes, I did.”

She did not look at the shadow anymore. In the beginning she had made the mistake of doing so. The impressions of grey flesh, distended from misery, and the tatters of an unused bridal gown squeezed over the rotten frame, would never leave her mind. It was best to close her eyes and present the bundle blind.

There was shifting, the crackle of old bones, then the bundle was ripped from her arms. She tried not to listen as the bundle stirred, cried, then extinguished with the crunching of teeth. The chewing dragged on for several moments until the swallowing throat belched and groaned in disgusted satisfaction.

“Done,” the voice sobbed. “Done…”

The sobbing was the worst. She could bear the grotesque shape, the chewing; even the preparation, creeping into silent homes and lifting the bundles from their cradles to satisfy her ward. That was all, she knew, necessary. But to hear this creature, who had once twirled beneath the chandelier with ultimate grace and promise, shaking and blubbering in such degeneration… She ran from the room, holding her hands over her ears until she had burst back into the storm.

Outside and concealed, she withdrew the knife from her dress. She had been carrying it for weeks. When the sobbing became too awful she would use it and end the cycle, allow that deformed body to rest. It would be an act of mercy. But the time had not yet come. She could still hear the innocence, the pure beauty, of that cursed child, trapped somewhere in the body of a beast.

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