Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Suffer Little Children

Everything she taught she’d learned from the books in her father’s study—and even then, only from the bottom shelves—she couldn’t have reached the top shelves without the ladder, and the ladder’s wooden rungs were lined with cracks that looked like spider webs. So, no geography, then (but her pupils would be English, so how much did they need to know about foreign lands?). Plenty of history—she liked the way the past could be packaged into neat little romances; they were like fairy tales but the difference was, these fairy tales were true. A smattering of French. A smaller smattering of Latin. Poetry. Fine art. She liked simple mental arithmetic, something about its solid rightness made her happy.

But what she taught didn’t matter; she was left under no illusions about that. Her task was to ensure the children were occupied and well-behaved, and that their wits were kept sharp to prepare them for proper education later. Children liked her, and that was the main thing. Adults didn’t, much; adults never quite knew what to say to her. She was unfailingly polite, but somehow always at one remove, everything she said sounded too considered and deliberate. But children seemed charmed by her.

In part, perhaps, that may have been the way she looked. She had such a very young face. Her cheeks were full and red like a baby doll’s. Her eyes, wide and innocent. The children instinctively might have recognised her as one of them, that for all the authority bestowed on her, she belonged to their world, not the world of their parents. It was true that she always looked so serious and thoughtful, and she only rarely smiled. But that didn’t mean she ever looked disapproving, or in judgement of them. She seemed to be a little girl who wanted to be all grown up. Children understand that. They want the same thing.

It was only natural that Susan Cowley would be a governess. Even as a girl she’d had a calming effect on the other children playing around her; she didn’t seem to have any friends amongst them, not as such, but what of that? And Susan seemed to accept that role with incurious equanimity. Her little sister would be given all manner of pretty clothes; Susan, more and more, would get formal dress, bordering even upon uniform in its austerity, all befitting her future career. She never complained.

When she reached seventeen, her great aunt found her a placement at Exley Hall, to look after two young children of friends of hers.

It was impossible to judge how responsible Susan Cowley was for the Exley Hall scandal. Certainly, she never tried to offer any defence, and that may well have been her undoing. She seemed only too willing to take the blame, and so the blame was put squarely on her shoulders. And maybe that was right. The children were in her care. Whether or not she had done anything directly to influence events, that, surely, cannot be disputed.

There were no criminal proceedings, for it was hard to see how anything that had happened could be called a crime. The Exleys did not want any muck clinging to their son’s name. They did not want any word getting out. That said, Susan Cowley was unable to find herself another position afterwards, so someone must have talked.

Mr. and Mrs. Cowley did not know what to make of it all. Susan had always been such a quiet child, the reliable one, the boring one, truth be told. They did not discuss the matter. They tried to pretend nothing had happened. Mr. Cowley only lost his temper the once, and that was not even with Susan; at the dinner table the little sister began asking how it was that Susan was home again, didn’t she like being a teacher?—and at that, without a word, Mr. Cowley had got up and slapped the girl around her face. The child was so shocked she even forgot to cry.

One night, when he couldn’t sleep, Mr. Cowley found Susan in his study. She was sitting on the floor, a stack of books by her side, and she was leafing through them slowly. All her old favourites—Arthurian legends, a Latin primer, and tomes and tomes of rudimentary calculus. “Susan?” he asked softly, “are you all right?” It was the gentlest thing he had said to her since her disgrace; Susan looked up at him, but her face registered no surprise at his new tenderness. She nodded. Mr. Cowley stood there in the doorway, and he knew that this was the moment he should reach out to her, try to talk to her, maybe find out what had happened. This was his chance. And he couldn’t take the chance, or didn’t, at any rate; he nodded back, quite formally, turned, and went back to bed.

There came in the post one morning a letter for Susan. Inside there was a newspaper clipping advertising for young teachers at H___ Priory. There was no letter, no indication who it might have been from; Mr. and Mrs. Cowley wondered whether the great-aunt was offering some help, just as she had done before. She hadn’t spoken to the family since the incident but maybe she had relented. It was not a governess’s position; it was not ideal; it was to teach a class of young children of no discernible means or background, and the wages offered were meagre. But, as Mr. and Mrs. Cowley said, beggars could not be choosers. They looked for H___ on the map. It took them a while to find it; it was far away, and seemed very small, tucked away at the edge of the page.

Susan replied to the advertisement. She did not expect an interview. By return of post she received notice that the job was hers.

There was no direct railway line to H___. Susan was obliged to make no fewer than four connections, and each train she boarded was smaller and slower than the last—and emptier too, so that by the last service Susan was the only person in the carriage. It fell dark. It began to rain hard. No one came to inspect Susan’s ticket, and as the train crawled on she began to fear that the driver would just decide to stop, that he’d feel the journey wasn’t worth the effort, and that she’d be stuck there in the blackness and the wet forever. And she had the absurd desire to start shouting, to chivvy the driver on, to assure him he had a passenger and that he mustn’t give up, for her sake. Of course, she did nothing of the sort. She kept her composure, and only by hugging her suitcase close would she have given any outward sign that she was afraid. She sat still, looked out of the window into the pitch black, and hoped that soon she would reach her destination.

And, at length, she did. She hauled her suitcase onto the platform. The station was dark, and she could not see an exit. The rain sliced through her. “Over here!” she heard, and she realised that the platform wasn’t deserted after all; it was a woman’s voice, low in pitch, and she was gesturing at Susan to come and take shelter beneath her umbrella. The woman was large, and Susan couldn’t quite fit under the umbrella beside her; generously, the woman sidestepped and stood out in the rain to keep Susan dry.

“You’re Miss Cowley?” she said.

“Yes,” said Susan.

“Good! Follow me!”

And the woman marched on into the night, still holding out the umbrella for Susan, but she was striding away so fast that both of them got soaked. “It’s not always like this; sometimes the weather is quite nice!” And soon they were outside the station, and there was a little jalopy waiting for them. “Hop right in, the door’s open!” Susan took the passenger seat, and watched as the woman struggled against the wind and the pelting rain to get the umbrella shut. And then the woman was in the car beside Susan, and so drenched through that she couldn’t help but spray Susan with water as she shifted into her seat, like a dog shaking itself dry without worrying about the soaking it will give its owner. She beamed at Susan. She offered her hand, and Susan took it, and the woman pumped it up and down like a piston.

“I must say, I’m glad you’re you,” she said, and then blushed.

“Are you?” asked Susan.

“I thought you might be one of those dreadful old women! The school always gets dreadful old women, they never last long. Stay a term or two, and then go off to die somewhere, I’ll bet. Ha! Miss Susan Cowley, you must admit, the name sounds a bit elderly and a bit dreadful.”

“I had never thought,” said Susan.

“Like some Godforsaken spinster! Not that I’m judging. I mean, Valerie Bewes. That sounds shocking, doesn’t it? That sounds positively decrepit! I’m Valerie, by the way.” And she offered her wet hand again, and Susan had to take it. “I’m just so pleased you’re young, like me! We can be proper girls together!”

Susan didn’t think that Valerie looked especially young, she must have been thirty if she were a day. “Is the school very far?” asked Susan.

“Lord love you, you’ve travelled all day, and here I am jabbering! Yes, it is quite far. About nine miles, which isn’t too bad, but it’s uphill and this old girl doesn’t like climbing hills, and it’s dark and it’s wet—we’d better go slow. We should get moving, we can chat along the way!”

But they didn’t chat much. Valerie pointed at the hills and countryside (“Really, it’s quite nice when it’s daylight, and dry.”), and talked all about herself, and Susan quickly realised that the information offered was neither interesting nor pertinent. When Susan declined to join in the conversation, even Valerie at last ground to a halt. “You’re tired, poor darling, I’ll let you have some peace!”

And—“Here we are!” said Valerie, at last. And there was the school in the distance. Ever since she had accepted the post Susan had wondered what the school might look like, and the reality of it was that it was small and flat and rather unassuming. She felt some relief, and also a little disappointment.

Valerie explained that, its name notwithstanding, the school had really very little to do with H___. It was simply the closest town, and no one could agree what the name of this bit of countryside precisely was. The children were taken from the various villages and hamlets around, sometimes to a distance of fifteen miles—all the communities who didn’t quite belong to anyone else, they could fit in here. Most of the children boarded; it was simply too much effort for them to go back to their parents very often. There were never more than a hundred pupils in the school at any one time, and they were divided into three classes. The youngest, and largest, were the eight to ten year olds, who’d be taught by Miss Cowley. The middle class was for the ten to twelves, taken by Miss Bewes herself. The remaining class ranged all the way from twelve to seventeen, and Mrs. Phelps was in charge of them. That said, very few of the children were seventeen; in fact, very few of the children stayed at the school once they were teenagers.

“And what happens to them after that?” asked Susan.

“Oh, Lord knows. They probably go off and marry each other! I don’t think there are any pupils from H___ Priory who have ever amounted to much. They come from the countryside, they just drift back into it again.” Valerie laughed. “No, they’re fine, they’re good kids, mostly.”

Bordering the school was the little cottage that Susan and Valerie would share. Valerie seemed to think Susan already knew and had agreed to this arrangement, and Susan had no desire to disabuse her. “It’s nice and homely,” said Valerie. “Shared bathroom, shared kitchen, shared personal area, you know, all mod cons. Separate bedrooms. Let me show you your bedroom.”

The bedroom was plain. It was not as pretty as her bedroom at Exley Hall, or even her bedroom at home. The bed looked hard, the single pillow lumpy. The walls were bare.

“It just needs to be lived in a bit,” said Valerie. “It’s wonders what you can do with a few pictures around. I’ll show you my bedroom, later, if you like.”

Valerie offered to make them both some supper, she had soup on the stove. Susan declined, but thanked her. Valerie said that she would introduce her to Mrs. Phelps the next day, and then to the children.

“All right,” said Susan. “Thank you. Good night.”

Valerie laughed, and said, “My darling, whatever must you have done to end up here!”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Oh, I don’t mean anything by it! I’m sorry. But as if anyone would choose to come here. Most of them can’t get away from the place fast enough. Like Miss Fortescue, good riddance, the miserable old trout. Oh, I tell you, my darling, it’s going to be so much more fun living with you than it was with her!”

The Bewes woman left her then, mercifully, but not before once more offering Susan her hand to shake. And Susan got undressed, and lay on her bed, and propped her head up on the pillow as best as she could, and stared up at the ceiling, and listened to the rain, and tried not to dream about Edwin this time.

In the morning it was still raining hard, and Susan and Valerie had to run from the cottage to the school, Valerie whooping with joy as if it were some great game.

Susan was introduced to Mrs. Phelps. Mrs. Phelps did not shake her hand. Mrs. Phelps had no interest in her hand whatsoever.

“The headmaster and I are sure you’ll be most suitable, Miss Cowley,” she said. “I doubt we’ll have much cause to speak again, we’ll be in different classrooms, of course.”

“Of course.”

Susan wondered whether she was going to meet the headmaster as well. Valerie laughed, and said she hadn’t seen Mr. Phelps in simply ages; he stayed in the house, bedridden most likely, and passed on instructions through his wife. “Or maybe he’s run away,” she joked. “Or maybe he’s dead! Anything rather than live with that old dragon.”

Valerie took Susan to her own classroom. The children were already inside.

“Just don’t let them know it’s your first time,” she said.

“How do you know it’s my first time?”

“Oh, my dear, it’s so obvious! To me, I mean, not to them. Just try to keep them occupied. There’s a whole stack of books in the cupboards, get them reading, that eats up the time. And if anyone misbehaves, just strike them with the cane.”

“Oh!” said Susan. “No, I couldn’t!”

“You’ll be doing them a favour,” said Valerie. “That way they’ll know you’re in charge. You’ll be doing me a favour too, I’ll be inheriting some of these kids next term! The cane is your friend. Miss Fortescue, she got through half a dozen of them, we had to get in a fresh supply!”

“Yes,” said Susan. “All right.”

“Don’t you worry, you’ll be wonderful. You’ve got just the face for it! The children will adore you. And tonight I’ll make us some nice supper, and you can tell me all about your adventures.”

Susan entered the classroom then, and shut the adult world out. She immediately felt calmer. She looked out across the children, all of them eyeing her warily. Little girls in pretty blouses, boys big before their time with dirty faces and dirty fingernails.

“Good morning, class,” she said. And they all got to their feet then, and mumbled good morning back. She hadn’t expected that. She rather liked it. She hoped she’d kept it off her face, that surprise, and that pleasure. She was sure she had.

“My name is Miss Cowley,” she told them. “And I’m here to look after you.”

She looked through the cupboards. The children helped her. There were the books, as Miss Bewes had promised. There was also a map, as big as the blackboard. There were drawing pads. There was a whole colony of wooden abacuses.

She put the map up on the wall. It was an old map, and she knew some of the countries didn’t exist anymore, not since the war. The children were still able to point out some of the better ones, like France and Spain, and show her where England was. Afterwards, she set the children on to the drawing pads, told them they could draw whatever they liked, and use crayons to colour the pictures in. Some of the drawings were really rather good, and she took the map down and put the drawings in its place.

After lunch she asked the children what subjects they most liked, and they all said they liked stories, and that meant history. So she told them an Arthurian legend. The children listened, quite spellbound, as if they’d never even heard of Sir Gawain or his green knight, and at one point the realisation that these thirty young strangers were hanging on her every word made Susan freeze with stage fright; they waited patiently; she recovered; she began to enjoy herself. Already in her head she was planning other stories she could share with them the next day, and the day after that, and all the days following.

It only went wrong towards the end of the afternoon.

Susan suggested they move on to mathematics. She was pleased that none of the children groaned, or looked unhappy at the prospect; by this point, it seemed, they would have followed her anywhere, even into the realms of simple arithmetic. “Why not show me what you already know?” she said. “Who here would like to stand before the class, and recite the times tables with me?”

No one volunteered. But then, no one resisted either. “How about you?” she asked a little girl sitting near the front, and the little girl got to her feet quite happily.

“What’s your name?” she asked the girl. But the girl just shook her head.

“Don’t be shy,” said Susan. “We’re all your friends here. Do you know the five times table?” The little girl looked at her blankly.

“I’ll demonstrate,” Susan said. And she began to recite. “Once times five is five. Two times five is ten. Three times five . . .”

“Fifteen,” said the little girl.

“That’s right.”

“Four times five is twenty. Five times five is twenty-five.” And on the girl went, all the way to a hundred.

Susan gave her a little clap. “Well done,” she said. “Does anyone else want to . . .?”

The little girl took a deep breath. And then she started on the six times table.

“Yes,” said Susan. “All right.”

“Ten times six is sixty. Eleven times six is sixty-six.”

“That’s very good. Well done!”

“Fifteen times six is ninety. Sixteen times six is ninety-six.”

“Big numbers now! Can you go any further?”

But the girl stopped dead, looked at Susan, frowned.

“That’s very good,” said Susan once more. “Yes. I shall give you a merit point. What is your name, again . . .?”

And the little girl, once again, was taking a breath of air. A deeper one this time. The effort of it meant she had to clutch on to the teacher’s desk, and her face turned red. A great wheeze there was, and Susan thought it sounded like it came from an old man, an old man close to death, and the girl’s face was contorted with the force of it—she hunched over, gripping at her stomach, and Susan reached out for her, and the little girl just pushed her away. She steadied herself. She calmed. She looked her teacher right in the face.

“One times seven is seven,” she informed her. It was almost conversational. “Two times seven is fourteen.”

“Yes,” agreed Susan.

And onwards. “Thirteen times seven is ninety-one. Fourteen times seven is ninety-eight.”

Susan felt the question rise within her—does she know the eight times table? “Thank you,” she said, and she hoped from her tone it was clear that the thank you was conclusive.

But the little girl had gone back to the beginning. She was reciting the seven times table again, and this time it was faster, more confident.

“Three times seven is twenty-one, four times seven is twenty-eight, five times . . .”

“You need to sit down now,” said Susan.

“. . . ninety-one, fourteen times seven is ninety-eight, one times seven is seven . . .” There was no pause for breath this time. Two times seven, three times, four, and there was a smile on her face, as the pace began to accelerate still further.

“You need to sit down now,” said Susan. “That’s enough.”

“Ten times seven is seventy, eleven times seven is seventy-seven, twelve . . .”

“I said, enough!”

Susan looked at the class, to see how they were reacting to this open display of mockery. They didn’t seem amused, and that was good, she supposed—they didn’t seem shocked, or even interested. They stared out at the little girl with frank indifference.

And still the girl was tearing into the seven times table, so fast now that the words were starting to blur, the numbers running into each other and in the collision causing bigger numbers yet to appear, and Susan had her hands around the girl’s shoulders and she was shaking her, “Stop!” she said. “Stop this instant!” She looked at the class. “Fetch me my cane.”

No one moved.

“I said, the cane!” And a few of the children exchanged glances, and one boy at the front got to his feet, walked slowly to Susan’s desk, so slow it was nearly insolent, but not quite, nothing quite so obvious; he pulled open a drawer, and took out an ugly thin wooden stick.

The little girl was babbling out the words now, but she didn’t look afraid, she was exultant. “Don’t make me do this,” said Susan. “I don’t want to hurt you. Do you hear me? Stop. Stop. Hold out your hand. Hold out your hand.”

And, without pausing, the numbers still spilling forth, the little girl did so, she opened her palms ready for punishment.

Susan hit her. She didn’t want to hit her hard. But the stick was designed to hurt, and as it swung down it made the air crack, and the explosive pop it made against the little girl’s hand seemed too loud and too too angry, and Susan at once regretted it, but it was too late.

The girl stopped immediately, somewhere between forty-two and forty-nine. She looked at Susan in bewilderment. Then down at her hand, and Susan could see that the blow had broken the skin. She looked back up at Susan, and there were tears in her eyes, and there was disappointment too.

“That’s enough now,” said Susan quietly. “Sit down.”

The little girl did so.

“I will not,” said Susan, “tolerate insubordination. Not in my class. I’m here to help you. I want to help you.” She added, “And I read to you all about Sir Gawain!” It didn’t come out too plaintively, she hoped.

For the rest of class she had them read to themselves. There was only another fifteen minutes to go. The children were all perfectly silent, but Susan felt relieved when the bell sounded. She dismissed them, and smiled at them as they filed out, to show that everything was forgiven and forgotten. And the children seemed to hold no grudges, quite a few of them smiled back, even the little girl she’d beat.

Valerie Bewes made stew for them that evening. Susan did not want to discuss the incident with her, but there was no one else she could tell. Valerie laughed at the story, and told her not to worry.

“They’ll always try something,” she said. “It was your first day, and they have to find out how hard they can push you. I say you made it perfectly clear! Well done, you!” She helped Susan to another helping of stew. Susan didn’t like it much, the vegetables were nearly raw, the chunks of beef too stringy.

“I must go to bed,” said Susan. “I’m tired.”

Valerie looked disappointed, just for a moment, and then she smiled. “Of course. First day of term is the worst, you know! It’ll be easier tomorrow, you’ll see!”

Susan thanked her for supper, and went up to her room.

The room had changed. Susan stood in the doorway and stared at it. And then she heard Valerie chuckle, she hadn’t realised she’d come up the stairs behind her.

“I did a bit of furnishing for you!” she said. “Miss Fortescue left all her pictures behind. She’ll probably come and collect them at some point, but until she does, you may as well benefit from them . . .! She liked natural history. Natural history was her favourite subject.”

“Yes,” said Susan.

There were a dozen different paintings on the wall, and all of birds. Some of them were life studies, some of them were anatomical examinations. But even the skeletal bodies still had their wings intact, jutting out the sides, and that gave Susan the oddest impression that the poor creatures had had their skin and organs only selectively removed. She didn’t know what type of birds they were. She recognised an eagle.

“It makes the room feel more lived in, doesn’t it?”

“It does indeed.”

“Do you like it?”

“Very much.”

Valerie was pleased by that, and seemed about to start another conversation. “Good night,” said Susan, quite firmly, and Valerie nodded, gave a flash of a smile, and closed the door behind her.

Susan lay on the bed. No matter how tightly she drew the curtains, enough light got in to pick out the birds. The eyes seemed to follow her, and if they had no eyes, then the eye sockets followed her instead. When shadows passed over the feathers it made them come alive, to flex and ripple; the rain spattered hard on the windows, and sounded like the flutter of a thousand wings.

When Valerie knocked at the door, maybe half an hour later, Susan was almost grateful.

“I’m sorry,” said Valerie. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to disturb. I’m sorry. May I come in, my darling?”

“Just a moment,” said Susan, and she put on her dressing gown, turned on the light, and answered the door.

Valerie was smiling at her, but it was a brave smile; she had been crying. She came with a bottle of brandy, and two glasses. “I’m sorry,” she said again.

“What’s the matter?”

Valerie came in, and sat upon the bed. In her beige dressing gown, with her hair loose and messy over her shoulders, she looked even older than she had by day. She smelled of brandy, and Susan supposed she’d had rather a lot of it.

“Sometimes I have bad nights,” said Valerie. “May I confide in you? Can I trust you enough so I can confide?”

“I imagine so,” said Susan.

Valerie then burst into tears, and told Susan some ghastly little story about how she’d once worked as a governess, many years ago now, and how she had been seduced by her employer—or perhaps she had seduced him, the story wasn’t very clear. She had fallen pregnant, much to the horror of the man, who had thrown her out of his house and away from his children, denouncing her as a slut. She had tried to lose the baby, she really had, she’d drunk gin, she’d even thrown herself down the stairs once. But it was no good, the baby had been born, and had been taken away from her.

“Would you drink with me?”

“No, thank you.”

“Please drink with me! So I’m not drinking alone . . .!”

Susan sipped at her brandy, and it didn’t sit well with the stew, and she felt a little sick.

“My life was over,” said Valerie. “Until I found this place. The school took me in. They forgave me.”

“Yes.”

“Did something like that happen to you, my darling? Do you need to be forgiven?”

“No,” said Susan. “Absolutely not.”

If Valerie was offended by the vehemence of this, she didn’t show it. She just nodded, poured herself another glass. “I’m sorry,” she said. “The first day of term does this to me. Seeing the children again. And thinking, one of them could be mine! Do you see? Any one of them, how would I ever know? I’ve never told anyone this before,”—and Susan rather doubted that, Susan imagined Valerie Bewes told the same story to every new teacher who arrived, maybe that’s why Miss Fortescue had fled H___ Priory as soon as she got the chance—”but you’re like a little baby, aren’t you? You look just like a baby doll. You could be my daughter. You could be. I know you can’t be, you’re too old, but. You could be mine.” She stroked at Susan’s cheek.

“Yes,” said Susan.

“May I stay here tonight?”

“No.”

“No. Of course. You need to sleep. Yes. I’ve been selfish. I’ll see you in the morning. Yes.”

Susan didn’t think Valerie was all that drunk, she got up from the bed and made it to the door steadily enough.

Before she put out the light, Susan removed every bird picture from the wall, and put them, face down, under the bed.

Most nights Susan dreamed of Edwin. And sometimes they weren’t nightmares. Sometimes she actually missed him.

Susan hadn’t much liked Edwin Exley at first. She preferred his little sister, Clara. Clara was six, and shy, and not very pretty, and Susan’s heart went out to her. At eight years old Edwin was already tall and arrogant; Mr. Exley told Susan on her first day that Edwin was going to have a stellar career in the army, and that there was no limit to what the boy would achieve for his country. Edwin himself certainly seemed to believe that. His father had already taught him a lot of the basics of being a soldier, and when he met his new governess he stood to attention, and gave her a salute that Susan suspected was a little too clipped and far too ironic.

Mr. and Mrs. Exley were kind to Susan. They let her eat with them of an evening, and treated her quite like she was an elder daughter rather than an employee. They gave her a comfortable bedroom, with a soft bed, and drapes, and lots of pretty pictures on the walls. When the family took a few days in the south of France during the autumn, they wanted Susan to come with them; she still was required to teach the children in the mornings, but the afternoons were her own, and they encouraged her to sit on the beach with them and enjoy the sun.

The nursery at Exley Hall was turned into a little classroom. All the toys and games were put away each morning before lessons started; for a few hours, at least, this was to be a place of learning. Susan directed most of her classes towards Clara in particular; Edwin was not exactly bad mannered, but he made it clear he wasn’t much interested, and any attention he gave was bestowed upon his teacher as if it were a great gift for which she should be grateful. He was not very good at mathematics, he enjoyed history only when it was something he’d already heard about from his father. He discovered he had an aptitude for Latin, which delighted him, and his face lit up like a little boy when Susan complimented him upon it.

Both Clara and Edwin would listen when their teacher told them ancient stories of heroism and derring-do. Edwin liked the tales of King Arthur, but only when there were quests and fighting; he didn’t like Guinevere or Lancelot, he didn’t want to bother with all that mushy stuff.

One night Susan couldn’t sleep, and she went downstairs to Mr. Exley’s study. It was even better furnished with books than her father’s, and she thought something to read would help her rest. She was surprised to find a light burning. There on the floor was Edwin, and all about him were texts he had taken from the shelves. He started when he realised Susan was there.

“Don’t tell my father,” he said.

“Your father wouldn’t mind,” Susan told him. “He’d be pleased you want to learn things!”

“No,” said Edwin. “He wouldn’t.”

Susan often found Edwin in the study at night times. They never discussed their secret rendezvous during the day, and Susan tried not to go down there too often—maybe no more than once, say twice, a week. Edwin would show her new books he had found; sometimes they were geography, and as he enthused about Africa and the colonies she rather got the impression that he was teaching her. He was taller than she was; he had no problem reaching the higher shelves. And he had no fear of the step ladder; he’d race up to the very top of it to fetch books that were brushing at the ceiling, with a fearless speed that sometimes made Susan’s heart stop.

She showed him some poetry. He was resistant at first. She made him read it out loud to her, and he began to like it more, he began to enjoy the rhythm of it.

On his birthday she bought him a little notebook in which he could write his own poetry. She bought him a sketchpad, so that he could draw.

One day Mr. Exley put down his newspaper at the breakfast table, and the rare act of that caused his wife to stop her chatter. Mr. Exley said to Susan, “And how are the children getting on? Learning things, are they?”

Susan told him they were both doing admirably.

Mr. Exley nodded at this. “That’s good,” he said. “What they learn now, they’ll never forget. I’ve got such stuff in my head, all the kings and queens from William the Conqueror, times tables, things like that. Useless, of course, but it’s nice to have.”

Mrs. Exley said that the children seemed very happy.

Mr. Exley said, “We should have a demonstration some evening. Nothing too fancy. Just you and the children, showing us what they’ve learned.” Mrs. Exley looked quite excited by that. Susan told them she’d make preparations.

Edwin could soon list all the kings and queens, just like his father, and as an added bonus Susan felt he should also indicate the dates of famous battles they had fought; Hastings, Agincourt, the Boyne. Clara could read some poetry; for all her shyness and plain features she had such a sweet voice. And both children could conclude with a recitation of their times tables, five, six, seven and eight, all the way to a hundred.

The evening went very well. Both the parents looked proud and indulgent as their children stood tall and parroted out all the facts they knew. Clara read three poems; one by Keats, one by Shelley; the final one was by Edwin Exley, although the author’s name was not mentioned, Susan thought it would be a charming little secret. It wasn’t necessarily a very good poem, and was rather cruelly exposed beside the Victorian Romantics that had inspired it, but Mr. and Mrs. Exley couldn’t tell the difference.

Mr. Exley gave the children a round of applause, and a shilling each, and told Susan that they would have to have a similar soiree at some point. Maybe at Christmas, when all their friends were there?

That night Susan visited Edwin in the study.

“I love you,” said Edwin, suddenly.

“Well, I love you too.” Susan thought nothing of this: Clara was always telling Susan she loved her, and putting her arms around her, she was such a needy girl. And Edwin was studying a book at the time, he wasn’t even looking at her.

“Will you marry me one day?”

Susan laughed. “Oh, I shouldn’t have thought so!”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re a little boy.”

“I won’t be a little boy forever. I’ll get older soon. And I’ll go and fight. I’ll be brave and defend my country, and I’ll never be afraid. Do you believe me?”

“Yes. Yes, I believe you.”

“I’ll be fighting for you.” Edwin had put aside the book now, he had abandoned cover, and he was staring at Susan, and he was beginning to cry, but he didn’t seem sad, he seemed fierce.

Susan didn’t know what to say. “You’ll marry someone else, Eddie. You’ll see. Someone better than me.”

“And when I do, will you come to my wedding?”

“Of course I will!”

“Good. I want you there. I want you to see my bride. I want you to know that I shan’t love her. That I’m marrying her out of spite. That I’ll be cruel to her, and punish her, because she’ll never be you. I want you to know it’ll be your fault.”

“That’s a wicked thing to say,” said Susan. Edwin didn’t care. He shrugged.

“I pray to God each night that you’ll love me,” he said.

“God can’t answer prayers like that.”

“Not the God of Jesus,” he sneered. “There are older gods. The things I’ve read. The things that are in the books on the top shelf.”

Christmas Day, Mr. Exley said, would be for the family alone. Cook and the two maids were given time off. Susan was put right at the heart of the celebrations, and it was tacit proof of acceptance that she found very touching. Mrs. Exley gave her as a present a pink dress—”You don’t seem to have anything nice, my dear,” she said, and the dress fitted perfectly. Clara gave Susan a piece of embroidery she had stitched herself. Edwin didn’t give Susan anything, but he was a boy.

And in the evening they all went to a carol service at the church, and sang hymns together. Mr. Exley sang with particular gusto. Edwin sat at the end of the pew, away from Susan, and barely even mouthed any of the hallelujahs to Christ.

On Boxing Day, Cook and the maids came back, and everyone prepared for the party. Lots of Mr. Exley’s old friends came with their twittering wives, and in honour of this Mr. Exley wore his regimental uniform. There was a turkey dinner, and crackers, and cigars, and a game of charades: Susan didn’t join in, but she enjoyed watching all the grown-ups play. Before the children’s bedtime they were presented, newly dressed in smart clothes; the Exleys said Clara and Edwin would perform for them. Edwin stiffly recited the crowned heads of England once more, and the men especially gave hearty applause. Clara performed from memory a short poem by Keats. As a grand finale, the children would chant the seven times table.

It began well enough. Everyone looked on kindly, knowing that it would all be at an end soon, and they could get back to their sherries and jokes and fun. No one even appeared to notice how Edwin’s delivery was somewhat forced and sarcastic; Clara, at least, was a perfect angel.

Somewhere in the middle Edwin broke rank, and began to deliver a poem of his own. Clara didn’t know what to do, she floundered on for one more calculation, then came to a stop, and stared at her brother open-mouthed and dumb.

It wasn’t a love poem. That was the first thing to say. There was really very little about love in it.

It was a wonder Edwin got as far through it as he managed. He told, in doggerel verse, how he and his governess would meet regularly at night and have sex in his father’s study. There was nothing tender to it. It was blunt and pornographic.

And it was something more too. There was something animal about it. Not merely the sex itself, as rough and primal as it was. But a suggestion too in the act of congress, that as Edwin performed acts he should not have known about, and that surely most humans weren’t even capable of, there was something monstrous being born, that these writhing creatures were no longer simply boy and woman but something not of this world; there were beaks, and scales, and talons, and tongues that were impossibly, terrifyingly, long.

Mrs. Exley just said, “No, no, no,” over and over again, as if her quiet denial of it could really matter a jot. Mr. Exley roared at his son to stop, and when he didn’t, he got up, marched over to him, and clipped him hard around the head. At that point only did Edwin fall silent; he glared at his father, glared at the room, and glared at Susan most particularly. Then he ran from the room.

Susan ran too. She didn’t know where to go. She went to her room. She sat on the bed, numbed. She wasn’t there for long. Mr. Exley banged upon the door, told her to get out, and come with him.

She had never been to Edwin’s room before. Now she saw that all over his bed were pages and pages of scribbled verse, ripped out of the notebook she’d bought him, and sketchpad drawings. The drawings were of her, she recognised herself at once. In most she’d been given claws and wings, it was her head on the body of wild beasts—lions, dogs, birds. In all she was naked. Human breasts, obscenely large, grew out from trunks of fur and scales, and dangled.

Edwin stood there, frightened, but acting brave, acting like a man.

Mr. Exley picked up some of the writings, looked them over briefly. Threw them on the floor. “Filth,” he said.

He turned to Susan. “I do not believe. I cannot believe. Any of the things he writes here are true.”

“No,” she said. “No.”

“But how,” he said. “How?” And in that moment he looked at her so imploringly, like a little child himself, begging her to make things all right again. The face clouded; his teeth clenched; he was an adult once more. He said to Susan, “I want you to beat him. You must beat him. To within an inch of his life.”

And she saw then that in his hand, lying almost nonchalantly against the seam of his regimental uniform trouser leg, was a cane. “No,” she said.

“If you don’t beat him, I will,” said Exley. “And it will be easier on him if it’s you.”

“I can’t. I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Very well. But you will watch.”

She did watch. And just before Edwin bent over there was still something of the man in him, staring down his father defiantly, staring down the world. But it didn’t last long. And as he struck his son, again, and again, and again, Mr. Exley would glance at Susan to check she was still watching, to check she appreciated what her bad teaching had forced a loving father to do—and she could see that he wished he could beat her as well, that he could put her over his knee and beat her senseless.

Susan left Exley Hall the first thing the next morning. She left behind the pink dress, taking it now seemed wrong. She didn’t see any of the family. It was one of the maids who saw her off. She’d never really spoken to the maids, but this one was kindly enough.

“And Miss Clara still hasn’t spoken,” she said. “Not a single word, though they do try and coax ’em out. Shock, I shouldn’t wonder.”

A taxi took her to the nearest railway station. Because it was Christmas, she had to wait some hours for a train, and she was cold.

She found in her coat pocket a letter. Miss Cowley, it said on the envelope, and she recognised the handwriting as Edwin’s. She opened it with strange excitement. She didn’t know what to expect. An apology. Or some words of new tenderness?

Inside there were just two words. Something’s coming.

In her dreams, the rain stopped. Or, rather, in her dreams she could make it stop. If she only gave up struggling. If she just let things be.

But when she woke to her second day at H___ Priory, the rain was still battering hard against the windows. Even Valerie took no pleasure in it today, and when they ran for the school they were drenched from head to foot in an instant.

The children in the class were neat and dry, of course. And Susan feared that they would laugh at her when she came into the room looking like a drowned rat. Not a bit of it; and if they harboured any grudge towards her for what had happened yesterday, there was no indication of it at all. They stood to attention when she addressed them; one of them had even left an apple on her desk.

“Where is the little girl from yesterday?” Susan asked. She didn’t know what she wanted to say to her. She knew she mustn’t apologise, or show weakness. The little girl wasn’t there. No one seemed to know where she might be, or gave her answer at any rate. Perhaps it was just as well.

For the morning they drew pictures and sang roundelays. Before lunch she told them another Arthurian legend; Edwin might have thought that Guinevere and Lancelot was mush, but it was a lovely story, and Susan saw to her satisfaction that even some of the boys’ eyes watered at the telling.

She knew she could not avoid the matter forever. And in the afternoon she fetched from the cupboard all the abacuses they had, and distributed them liberally about the room.

“Mathematics,” she said.

That was all it took.

Some boy, some wag, suddenly piped up with the seven times table. He sang it out, bold and confident. Susan opened her mouth to stop him, and then decided she’d have more power if she let him proceed. If only for a little while.

Maybe if she’d spoken up then she could have stopped it. Maybe she missed her chance. But as the numbers grew bigger, so more of the children picked up the mantra. By the time they reached fifty-six, all of the boys were at it—by the time they reached ninety-eight, all the girls were at it too.

“All right,” she said. “Very clever. That’s enough.”

But it wasn’t enough, was it? Because numbers don’t stop at one hundred. “Fifteen times seven is one hundred and five. Sixteen times seven is one hundred and twelve.” And for a moment Susan was floored, it was almost as if she’d forgotten you could get any higher than the little abacuses allowed her! “Nineteen times seven is one hundred and thirty-three. Twenty times seven is one hundred and forty.” And by now the voices were in utter concert, all keeping the same pace exactly.

“Please stop,” she said.

They didn’t stop.

She got out her cane. “You know I can use this,” she said.

They didn’t care.

Susan stared at them in silence. She put the cane down.

The numbers reached seven hundred, and showed no signs of stopping, chuntering on towards the first millennium.

Susan left the room and went to get help.

She didn’t know whether the nearest classroom would be Miss Bewes’s or Mrs. Phelps’s. On the whole, she was glad that it was Miss Bewes’s. She could at least trust her to want to help, and when she saw Susan through the glass panel door she beamed in delighted surprise and was quite prepared to abandon her own class in an instant.

Susan’s pupils were no longer sitting down. By the time Susan and Valerie got to the classroom, they had pushed all the desks and chairs to the back, and now stood in a rough circle. Susan could no longer pick out boys’ voices or girls’ voices—it seemed to her more like a sexless chant, something almost monastic; indeed, there was a cool emotionless to it all that made it sound strangely reverent. Valerie strode into the room, Susan trailed behind her. The children turned to them. “Two hundred and forty-one times seven is one thousand six hundred and eighty-seven,” they informed the teachers.

“Sit down! Sit down, all of you, and shut up!” Valerie Bewes raged at them. Susan hadn’t realised Valerie had such fire in her, and for a second she was quite impressed. Only for a second, though; it was quite clear that that the children weren’t going to obey her, or even take any notice of her—they all turned away, and looked back into the circle. Valerie had no further fire to offer. She was spent.

“Which one started this?” she asked Susan. “There’s always a ringleader.”

It was a boy, Susan knew, but she couldn’t remember which one. Now they were standing up, uniformed from head to foot, they all looked eerily the same. She pointed vaguely at one boy, thought he would do.

“Right,” said Valerie. “You’re coming with me.” She grabbed at the boy. He might have struggled, but Valerie’s fat piston arms were strong, and she pulled him out of the circle, pulled him out of the classroom.

As soon as he was free, the boy stopped chanting. He looked baffled by this turn of events, and then frightened; he jerked in Valerie’s grasp like a fish on dry land.

“What are you playing at?” Valerie demanded to know.

But the boy looked at Susan, and gave her one long despairing glance—help me, it seemed to be saying, but help him with what?—and then the boy lashed out, he kicked at Valerie’s shins. Valerie grunted with surprise, and let go. In a trice the boy had rushed back into the classroom, and slammed the door behind him.

“The little bastard,” Valerie muttered, and rubbed at her legs—but Susan had no time to waste on her. She was looking through the window at the boy. He was back in the circle now. He was starting to chant. But he’d lost his way. The other children were up to two hundred and eighty-three times seven, he was still only at two hundred and sixty. He croaked and stopped. He looked about, confused, as if woken from a dream. He walked slowly into the middle of the circle. Without missing a beat, as one, the children closed in on him. Susan couldn’t make him out through the press of bodies. And then, soon, too soon, the children parted once more, they stepped back and let the circle widen—and the boy was gone, and no trace of him was left.

“Two hundred and ninety-nine times seven is two thousand and ninety-three,” they intoned. “Three hundred times seven is two thousand one hundred.” If three hundred were any sort of landmark they didn’t show it, there was no hint of achievement. On they marched to three hundred and one, and beyond.

“Go and get Mrs. Phelps,” said Susan.

“You don’t want to involve Mrs. Phelps,” said Valerie. “Not on your second day!”

“Go and get her.”

Mrs. Phelps looked angry when she arrived. “What is the matter, girl?” And then she looked through the glass door, and listened to the children, and frowned.

“One boy has already gone missing,” said Susan.

“They ate him,” said Valerie. And that seemed such a ludicrous thing to say that Susan wanted to laugh—but then she realised Valerie was perfectly right.

Mrs. Phelps peered at the circle of cannibals coolly. “What would be interesting,” she said at last, “is finding out how high a number they reach.”

Susan didn’t know what to say to that.

“If you can, make a note of it,” said Mrs. Phelps, and then she walked away, and was gone.

Valerie tried to open the door to the classroom again, but pulled away with a cry. The handle was burning hot. And now, yes, they could see there was a certain haze to the room, as if the children were standing at the heart of an invisible furnace.

Presently, another boy lost his place. He seemed to stumble, and then couldn’t find his way back into the chant. He gave a sort of smirk, as if to accept the fun was over—and it was such a human thing for him to do, and cut clean through all the madness, and Susan felt that it was going to be all right, whatever this was, it was just a children’s game after all. He walked into the centre of the circle, and he was eaten alive, the jaws of his killers bobbing up and down as the seven times table reached ever higher numbers, they tore into him with mathematics on their lips and not a single one of them broke rhythm and the sound of their calculations was loud and crisp and clear.

Some fifteen minutes another child perished: a girl, clearly weaker than the rest, she’d been hesitating for a while, Susan was amazed she had lasted that long. After that, there were no more casualties for several hours, not until it was dark.

And the numbers kept on growing, into the tens of thousands, into the hundreds of thousands. She watched the numbers. She watched how beautiful they were, she could hardly tear her eyes off them.

Valerie came back for Susan. “We have to go,” she said. “There’s nothing to be done here.”

“No.”

“You don’t understand! Mrs. Phelps has gone. Her class has gone, my class, all gone. We’re the only ones left!” Susan didn’t know what she meant by gone, she didn’t want to think about that—didn’t need to, they weren’t her class, weren’t her responsibility.

“These are my children,” said Susan. “I won’t leave them, not this time.” And until she said those words she hadn’t realised how true that really was.

“Then I shan’t leave you either.” And Valerie took her by the arm, hard.

“Let go of me,” said Susan, flatly. “Let go, and leave me alone. Or I’ll hurt you.”

Shocked, Valerie released her grip. Her bottom lip wobbled. Susan turned back to the classroom window, watched her children play. She heard Valerie go, didn’t see her.

Once the children began to tire, then they fell in quick succession. They’d put in a good effort. They had nothing to be ashamed of. And as the numbers continued to multiply, so the children seemed to divide; the greater the number chanted the fewer the children left alive to chant it.

They became expert at eating the stragglers without losing time. Swallowing the frail down in the little gasps taken between words, and in three bites. Three bites, that’s all you need, even to consume the very fattest child.

The boys were long gone. Four girls were left—then, in a minute, one faltered, and another faltered in response. The two survivors continued to chant in unison for hours, one as soprano, the other’s alto playing descant and giving the song such depth. And the numbers were so vast now, Susan had never dreamed numbers could get so big, or so wonderful—before them mankind seemed like crippled fractions, vulnerable and so very petty and so very very easy to crush. Those numbers—each one took a full ten minutes even to enunciate.

The alto stopped. Just stopped. She didn’t seem in any difficulty, one moment she was enumerating, the next she’d had enough. The last little girl ripped her apart.

And still, impossibly, she kept the circle, now just a circle of one. She had her back to Susan, and she was still staring into the heart of that circle she was creating, a void at the very heart of herself. Still singing out the numbers—and Susan wanted to tap on the glass and let her know she had won the game, let her know she wasn’t alone if nothing else. But it was still so hot, and the glass had warped with the heat, through it the little girl was distorted and inhuman.

At length she reached the final number in the world. And when Susan heard it she knew that it was the final one—ludicrous, but true, she had reached the limit of the seven times table, there was no higher she could go.

The handle to the door was cool to the touch. Susan pulled at it. She entered the classroom.

The girl didn’t seem to hear her, and it was only when Susan touched her shoulder that she turned around.

“Hello, Clara,” Susan said.

Clara didn’t reply.

“Where’s your brother, Clara?”

And Clara didn’t reply, Clara didn’t reply—and of course, she couldn’t reply, could she? She couldn’t speak. Once shy, now struck dumb. But—she had recited all those numbers, the long numbers, all that weight of mathematics had come out of her mouth—she must be able to talk, she would talk, she would tell Susan what she needed to know. Clara gestured that Susan lean forward. She wanted to whisper in Susan’s ear.

It came out like a hiss.

It was one word. It was an impossible word. It could not be spoken aloud. It had too many consonants, not enough vowels, it was a hateful word, it could not be spoken. It was spoken. It was spoken, it was in Susan’s head now. It was there in her head, and the head tried to fight it, tried to expel it, this word that no human being was ever meant to know, a word that had nothing to do with humanity or any of the physical laws that make up their universe.

She felt the ground rush up to meet her, and that was welcome.

When Susan awoke she was safe, and lying on her bed, and Valerie Bewes was looking down at her.

“Oh, my darling!” said Valerie. “My poor child! Your breathing was very strange, I was worried sick!”

Susan’s breathing did feel a little shallow. Breathing was something she’d always done without thought, but now she seemed to have to want to do it. How odd. She sucked air into her mouth, tasted it, blew it out again. “How did I get here?”

“Oh, I carried you! Carried you in my arms! If anything had happened to you, I . . . I’ll go and get you some brandy.”

“What about the girl?”

“I shan’t be long, you just rest,” said Valerie. She left the room.

“What about the girl?” Susan called after her, and then realised the girl didn’t matter anymore. She had delivered the message. The girl was done.

She did another one of those breaths. It seemed such unnecessary effort. She decided to stop breathing for a while. That felt better.

She got up from her bed, went to the window. Through the heavy rain she could see, standing in front of the house, Edwin. He was looking up at her.

He raised a hand in salute. She raised hers back, and it clunked awkwardly against the glass.

He spoke to her. She couldn’t hear what he said. But it was just one word, and as his lips moved she knew precisely what it was.

She whispered it back, that impossible word, the name of her new god.

She dimly heard Valerie return. “What are you doing out of bed?” she asked from the doorway. Susan didn’t even look at her, she thrust her hand out somewhere in her direction. She was too far away to reach her, but as her arm moved she was aware of wings and claws as sharp as knives. Valerie gave a quiet little croak, and then shut up at last.

She wondered at her arm. Looked at from one angle, it was thin and fleshy and weak. From another, it was something glorious, something of power and great age. She tilted her head from side to side, so she could see it one way then another. It made her laugh. Her laughter was silly and girlish. Her laughter was a roar.

She could hear the flutter of wings under her bed as the birds flapped their excitement.

Susan left the room, stepping over the spilled brandy, the smashed decanter, the body, and went downstairs. She stepped out into the rain.

There Edwin was waiting for her. He was a little boy, but he looked so grown up, she felt so proud of him. He was a little boy, trying to look big before his time. He was a creature of scales and horns and misshapen flesh.

She took him by the hand. And, as the dream had promised, she made the rain stop. Or maybe it rained, but she just didn’t feel it any more.

Susan looked down at her hand in his, and saw that it was dripping with blood. She saw that Edwin’s hand was sticky with blood too.

And slowly, they walked into town.

Robert Shearman

Robert Shearman, photo by Ellen Datlow

Robert Shearman has written five short story collections, and collectively they have won the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize and three British Fantasy Awards. He began his career in theatre, both as playwright and director, and his work has won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, the Sophie Winter Memorial Trust Award, and the Guinness Award for Ingenuity in association with the Royal National Theatre. His interactive series for BBC Radio Four, The Chain Gang, ran for three seasons and won two Sony Awards. However, he may be best known as a writer for Doctor Who, reintroducing the Daleks for its BAFTA winning first series in an episode nominated for a Hugo Award.