Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Midwife

Though his estate had fallen upon difficult times, my husband Geoffrey retained the midwife to nurse me through my delirium, for Marguerite Willette had knowledge of the illnesses which come upon a woman who has borne and lost a child. Marguerite little resembled the crude, dull-witted folk who lived in the town, but her humble breeding was evident in the cast of her face, which revealed her French ancestry, and in the swarthy hue of her complexion and raven darkness of her tresses, which betrayed the blood of the savages that once inhabited this land. Her eyes, however, were as green as a wildcat’s, and they possessed a gaze of such penetrating quality that, when I opened my eyes and found her looking upon me, I gave a startled cry.

My husband was in my bed-chamber, and at once he was at my side. I spoke his name and reached out to him, and he embraced me with all the gentleness one must show an invalid, thanking God I had been restored to him. At length he said, “I cannot express my relief, Emily, that you recognize me! For a month you have lain in delirium. How I feared your mind would not recover! We owe much to Miss Marguerite Willette.”

At his words, I recognized the keen-eyed woman as the midwife who had attended me through the long hours of my confinement, and remembered the discomfort I had experienced at the intensity of her gaze. She bowed her head, and I felt an unwarranted relief that she had averted her disconcertingly acute eyes. But she looked frequently to my husband, alert, I thought, for any direction he might give her.

In the candlelight, I saw how thin and wan Geoffrey’s countenance had become, marked deeply by grief for his lost son and concern for his wife; I resolved to do all that Marguerite directed, to recover my health, and cease to burden my husband with anxiety for the continuance of his family. Neither must I trouble him with my grief, though it lay on me with an oppressive weight; I would pray for strength. I reached for my cross, which I have worn since childhood, but it was not at my throat.

“Geoffrey!” I cried. “Where is my cross?”

“Emily, your voice shakes as if you think it lost forever. You were restless in your illness, and we feared you might harm yourself, so we removed the necklace from your throat.”

“Where is it?” I cried. “I have always worn my cross! I must have it, Geoffrey.”

“It is here,” he said, and opened the drawer of my night-table. Then my cross depended from his hand, twisting in the candlelight. Astonishment filled me as I saw an expression of distaste pass across Marguerite’s face; then I realized my cross must be too plain for a Frenchwoman. The Papists favor a questionable ornamentation, images of Christ upon their crosses.

Geoffrey clasped the gold chain about my throat, and with the cross once more upon my breast, I felt a measure of comfort. I knew our son was safe with God, and God was watching over us, as my husband watched over me.

As Geoffrey slipped his arms about my shoulders, Marguerite spoke. “I beg pardon for this interruption, Mr. Sylvester,” she said in her barbaric French accent, “but you must not keep your wife from her rest. You imperil her recovery.”

Geoffrey was stricken at the thought of doing his wife harm, and he apologized to me, and took his leave.

Marguerite cared for me with all the solicitude one expects of a nurse. Her eyes retained their piercing quality, but she maintained a modest and respectful demeanor; I was grateful for her attention, and knew Geoffrey was grateful, as well. Weakened by my delirium and my nine months of bed-rest, I could stand only with Marguerite’s or Geoffrey’s assistance, and, despite this support, I could walk but a few steps.

Geoffrey visited my chamber and assisted me as frequently as his duties permitted. They are considerable, for he is an attorney with a prominent Augusta firm. His business takes him regularly to Portland, and sometimes to Boston, which is where, with God’s blessings, we chanced to meet. He is the scion of one of the oldest families of the New World, the Sylvesters, who built their fortune with the tall pines of the land they wrested from the savage Kennebecs. But by the time Geoffrey’s father passed on, all the pines had been cut for masts, and most of the land had been sold; so Geoffrey entered a profession that might restore his fortunes.

Geoffrey Sylvester is the last of his line; the son I bore died within the hour of his birth.

I was naught but a burden to this fine man, too frail and sickly to fulfill a wife’s duties; yet Geoffrey remained as considerate as the day he asked for my hand in marriage. I prayed to God for a lightening of my husband’s burdens, and for the restoration of his fortunes; I prayed for a lessening of my grief, and for the swift return of my health; and I prayed I would learn to bear all my duties cheerfully, as a wife should.

I apologized to Geoffrey for my debility, and told him that if he thought it necessary to put me aside and take a new wife, to assure the continuance of his line, I would understand. At this, his care-worn face went white as new-fallen snow, and he said, “I shall never put you aside, Emily! Do not trouble yourself with such foolish worries. Your strength improves with every passing day. We will have another son.”

My husband was right, of course. My strength improved, and within a month I was walking without assistance. Despite the numerous and exigent obligations of his employ, Geoffrey witnessed my accomplishment, standing ready to give assistance if I should need it; but, with God’s help, I did not. Joy transformed Geoffrey’s face, almost obscuring his weariness, and when I returned to my bed, he tenderly drew the blankets over me.

That night, Geoffrey returned to my room, whispering my name, and speaking of his happiness that I had recovered. I was startled to find him in my chamber, for I still had much need of rest. He placed his candle on the night-table and embraced me, telling me how much he loved me and missed me, and slipped his hand into my night-clothes, touching me intimately. I knew it was my duty to submit to my husband’s desire, but I could not help myself: I tried to push him away. My arms were weak as mist; he never noticed my efforts as he cast back the coverlets and pushed up my nightgown. My anxiety increased at the shock of the cold air and the cold hand on my limbs, and I screamed.

“Mr. Sylvester! Have you no care for your wife’s health?”

Geoffrey leaped up from my bed, his face twisting with consternation, and he cried, “Emily, I thought you had recovered—oh, God! Can you ever forgive me?”

Marguerite stepped between Geoffrey and my bed. “She hasn’t the strength to be a wife to you now, Mr. Sylvester,” she said sternly. “And it will be months before she has the strength to carry a child. Go, before you do her more harm!”

My husband’s face filled with shame and remorse, and he obeyed my midwife’s command; but she hardly noticed, for she had turned to me, to smooth my nightgown and draw up the covers, restoring my modesty. So great was my relief that I barely noticed the discomforting intensity of her regard. Indeed, I fell immediately into a deep and dreamless slumber.

Thenceforth, Marguerite watched Geoffrey with unblinking eyes whenever he visited me, but she had no reason for concern; he had realized how much strength I had yet to regain, and did nothing which might hinder my recovery. And soon a morning came when I felt stronger at the conclusion of my exercise than I had at the beginning, and, as my husband embraced me with exceeding gentleness, I was emboldened to say, “I am not weary, Geoffrey—might I walk with you to your carriage to wish you Godspeed?”

His tender expression changed to one of concern. “It would not be wise for you to venture outdoors so soon, Emily.”

“I have no intention of exhausting myself,” I assured him. “I was confined to bed for so many months, I shall not risk a relapse by remaining long outside. I will do no more than see you off on your journey, and say my farewells to our son.”

“Emily, you mustn’t risk the return of delirium!” Geoffrey said. “You haven’t the strength to bear the sensations which visiting the grave will excite. I cannot permit it.”

“Geoffrey, I missed the funeral! Almost two months have passed since our child was buried. What sort of mother am I, who does not visit her son’s grave?”

Marguerite spoke. “A short walk in the fresh air will do Madame Sylvester good. I shall accompany her, of course.”

“If you believe she has the strength, Marguerite,” Geoffrey said, “I shall permit it.”

At last I would say goodbye to my son.

When we stepped outside, I found that autumn had taken the land. The morning air held a damp chill which penetrated wool and flesh to make the bones ache. The elms which lined the drive stood stark and black against the grey sky, and the spruce forest surrounding the estate formed a dark wall which seemed impenetrable. The lawns of the estate were unmown, and in the dull light filtering through the low, unbroken layer of cloud, the limp grass had an odd, unwholesome aspect, as if it were an old man’s hair grown long in the grave. Disquieted by my morbid fancy, I kept my gaze elevated, and my attention upon my husband.

Beside the waiting carriage, Geoffrey embraced me, and we exchanged farewells. He apologized that he had not the time to go with me to our son’s grave; but he must hurry to Augusta, as urgent business required that he make the train to Portland. He climbed reluctantly into the seat beside his stableman, and the carriage moved away. As my husband disappeared into the black forest, my grief became heavier with sudden loneliness.

I told Marguerite I must visit my son’s grave alone. She studied me with her bold green eyes, to ascertain whether my strength were faltering, and agreed I might have a few moments to myself. As she moved away from me, walking silently, her long hair unbound, and glossy as a raven’s wing, it seemed to me that I looked upon a wild animal, a creature of the night.

I turned away from her, and my gaze fell upon the Sylvester house, which I had not looked upon in nearly a year. In comparison to the rude shacks of the town, this gabled mansion must seem a grand palace to Marguerite Willette, for all its neglect. It had withstood an hundred and more northern winters, which stripped the paint from the weatherboards and turned the exposed wood grey as cloud. Shutters dangled from broken hinges, revealing dust-dull panes; the few intact shutters were closed. Many windows had been boarded up, to cover broken glass, and keep out the winds of winter. Altogether, the house presented a sinister aspect which I had not noticed when Geoffrey had brought me here last year through the bright forest of early autumn; I had seen the neglect, but joy in arrival at my new home had prevented me from perceiving the extent of decay. It seemed almost as if some malign force were acting upon the Sylvester family, and I wondered for a moment if a pagan spirit were seeking to avenge the dead Kennebecs for the loss of their land.

The garden had once been orderly and beautiful in the English manner; now the paths were buried beneath dead leaves that sank wetly underfoot, releasing a fetid odor, and rank weeds and crawling vines covered the garden like a shroud. No evidence of the garden remained save a few thorny sticks which bore dark rosebuds lured forth by the treacherous warmth of an Indian summer. I bent close to the barbed black stalks, searching for a bloom, and found the buds had all loosened their petals, but only in frost-stricken death. The lacy tatterings of decay made it seem that worms had gotten into the buds, and, though I searched every corner of the garden, I could not find a rose fit to lay upon my son’s grave.

I emerged from the garden near a fence of black iron spears which enclosed a small plot: the Sylvester family cemetery. With effort, I opened the gate, which protested with a hideous screech, as if it had been opened rarely through the years, and I stepped among the gravestones. The more distant were of marble; their chiseled letters were worn, and obscured by leprous patches of lichen. Most, however, were of polished granite, and the letters were as sharp as the day they had been carved. I read the name upon the nearest granite surface, and my legs went soft as melting beeswax; I would have collapsed, had I not seized my son’s gravestone.

Grief threatened to steal my senses as well as my strength, but I gripped the gravestone so its sharp edges cut my palms, and the painful sensation revived me. I saw that my husband had placed flowers on the grave, a bouquet of red wildflowers which shone to my tear-bright eyes like splashes of paint. I blinked, and found myself remembering my midwife’s aversion to my cross as I saw that the wildflowers were mixed with pine tassels and bound with a knotted cornhusk, in a crude Indian fetich.

Marguerite Willette was neither midwife nor Papist, but a priestess serving the pagan spirits of her ancestors. It had not been lingering illness which had caused me to think a malign force sought the downfall of the Sylvesters; a vengeful Indian demon haunted the estate, and its evil acts were manifest in my ill health, and the deterioration of the estate and decline of the family. Even the death of Geoffrey’s heir had not satisfied the demon: it must desecrate the innocent infant’s grave!

Marguerite was the most loathsome of mortals, a willing slave of devils. A witch. I thanked God for directing me hence to discover the fetich, and, grasping my cross in one hand, I raised the fetich and cast it out of the hallowed ground.

I realized then that the witch had not confined her evil to her attempt to desecrate the grave. In the guise of midwife, that servant of demons had killed my child!

I rose, intending to flee to my husband’s house and lock the witch outside. But I was overwhelmed by the weight of my awful discoveries, and I swooned at the cemetery gate.

When my senses returned, I found myself in my chamber, with Geoffrey sitting beside my bed. The flickering candlelight revealed that the lines in his gaunt face were graven more deeply than they had been when I had revived from delirium.

“In your fragile state, I should never have allowed you to visit the grave!” said Geoffrey. “Marguerite says you have been unconscious all day—I feared you might never awaken!”

The witch must be near, lingering to pretend concern for her charge, and to hear whatever words passed between my husband and myself. Therefore, I gestured for Geoffrey to lean close, and whispered softly in his ear. “Geoffrey, an evil spirit is haunting your family! It—“

“Emily, what are you saying?” Geoffrey exclaimed. “There are no evil spirits!”

I realized I should never have told him of my discovery. My words must seem to Geoffrey to indicate only a relapse into delirium. He is an attorney, a servant of law and logic; he sees the world as a place of order and light. He could not see the manifold evidence of the demon’s efforts to destroy his family.

“Geoffrey, I apologize for the confusion of my speech. I spoke of an evil dream that came upon me in my swoon.”

“God forgive me for allowing you to endanger yourself!” Geoffrey cried. “As I feared, the visit to the grave has revived morbid and dangerous memories. Emily, promise me you will venture out-of-doors no more!” He grasped my hands. His felt hot as coals. “I could not bear to lose you!”

I gave Geoffrey my promise, and he gave me a kiss as light and soft upon my cheek as the delicate brush of moth wings. When he leaned back, I saw Marguerite watching us. Her bold gaze no longer made me feel as if I were under the scrutiny of a forest animal, an innocent beast. I had always seen it in her eyes, yet I had not known why her regard caused me such profound unease. But I had discovered Marguerite was a witch; and I knew God’s commandment concerning witches.

Marguerite stepped forward, her face a mask of repentance. “I have apologized to Mr. Sylvester, Madame,” she said, “and I must ask your pardon as well. I pray you will forgive me for so greatly misjudging the speed of your recovery.”

I spoke words of forgiveness, and assured her, “I will do whatever you think best.” I could not permit the witch, or the demon she served, to know that I had found them out.

Marguerite said my husband must not remain and weary me further when I had suffered a serious reverse. Geoffrey kissed me, and turned away. I glanced clandestinely at Marguerite, and saw that she was watching Geoffrey with a curiously intent expression; I felt a sickening chill as I recognized her look as one of undisguised ardor. The witch had immoral intentions toward my husband, and did not even scruple to hide her lust from the wife of the man she desired; she was no more troubled by shame than her hot-blooded French forebears, or the black-hearted savages with whom they lay in utter disregard of propriety.

When Geoffrey was gone from the room, Marguerite turned to me, and a look expressive of the deepest hatred passed across her face. It was an expression of inhuman intensity, and my heart quailed as I realized her depraved lust had allowed the demon to enter her soul and take possession of her body; her diabolic master could now wreak direct and grievous harm on Geoffrey!

The loathsome expression immediately vanished from Marguerite’s countenance, as if the demon had realized it risked discovery, and Marguerite exclaimed in tones of false concern: “Madame, you are so pale! You must rest!”

She seated herself by my bed, to wait until I fell asleep. I was weary; despite her terrifying gaze, my lids closed. But sleep was banished by the tumult of emotions in my breast.

My husband had not shared my bed for many months; indeed, I had felt relief that he had not. All men have needs, and the flesh is weak; I had given the demon the means to reach Geoffrey.

Terror for Geoffrey’s life and soul wracked me, but I held myself motionless; and at last I heard the scrape of a chair sliding, the scuff of footsteps retreating, and the creak and click of a door closing.

I lay still; I did not want the witch to hear me following. But at last I arose and went forth from my bed-chamber. My candle cast a small circle of light, and the corridor seemed limitless; the darkness pressed close on every side, as if the spirit sought to extinguish my light and my soul. I clasped my cross and prayed to God, and He gave me the strength to continue.

I came at last to my husband’s room, and found the door closed. But the knob turned quietly beneath my hand, and I found myself looking upon a blazing hearth, and upon my husband’s bed.

The sight that greeted my eyes turned me cold again—so cold I felt I had plunged through winter ice into the Kennebec River. My husband lay on his back, unclothed, with the witch upon him. Her face and Geoffrey’s were hidden by the straight black fall of her hair, and her bare flesh was dark in the hearth-light; she seemed her own Indian ancestress, restored to corporeality, as she comported herself unlike a woman, taking the man’s position upon Geoffrey. Her hands touched Geoffrey’s bare flesh, her fingers running down his arm, his chest, his stomach; and she seemed to welcome his touch, pressing her flesh into his cupped hands, her hips against his. I knew the demon possessed her, but still her shameful behavior sent a shock of horror shivering through me, and I fear I betrayed myself with a gasp.

Marguerite raised her head so swiftly that her hair flew back, exposing Geoffrey’s face; his countenance was so pale and drawn, it seemed the life was almost gone from his mortal flesh—I realized the demon was drawing the soul from my husband!

The witch turned her terrible eyes upon me. I averted my face and, pulling my cross from about my neck, I ran to the fireside.

She shouted; Geoffrey called my name; but I did not look at them. I dropped my candle to the hearth-stone and closed my hands on a sharp-tipped fire iron. There is only one way to treat a witch, but I could not do what was necessary unless she could not resist. A prayer on my lips and the cross against my palm, I raised the iron rod and turned toward the demon.

Geoffrey seemed in the grip of a profound terror, though he had no reason to fear me. Marguerite’s dark face showed the most startled expression; it was plain to see the demon had expected never to be discovered.

“Emily, don’t!” Geoffrey cried, revealing how frightfully strong the demon’s influence was upon him.

“In God’s name, begone!” I cried, and swung the iron.

I was astonished that the skull caved in, with a sound like bird’s-eggs trodden upon in high grass; I had expected only that the blow would distract the demon long enough for me to thrust my cross into Geoffrey’s hand. But the witch’s flesh proved vulnerable to iron, or to the alliance of iron and cross, and the witch’s body fell at my feet. Blood shone bright red on my hands, and on the black iron, and on Geoffrey’s breast and face.

His countenance twisted into an expression of guilt painful to behold, and he slipped off the bed and sank to his knees before me. “Emily, I beg your forgiveness! I never meant to betray our vows—”

I lowered the iron and raised one hand to touch his face. “You must not apologize, Geoffrey,” I said. “You did not know what you did! The Indian spirit that possessed Marguerite exerted an irresistible influence upon your fallible flesh.” I pressed my cross into his unresisting hands. “You must wear the cross always, for the protection of your immortal soul!”

The body lay motionless upon the floor; but death can be feigned, so I struck the skull again. The body never stirred; I had succeeded in driving the demon from its mortal shell.

I dropped the iron. “Marguerite killed our son, Geoffrey.” I could hardly speak for the weight of grief upon my heart. “She killed him in service to a vengeful Indian demon which seeks your death and the end of your family! Marguerite was a witch! And we must burn the witch, as God commands!”

Geoffrey remained silent, but his expression was altered by astonishment and horror as he realized the dreadful fate he had so narrowly avoided. He had always denied the existence of spirits, yet now he had incontrovertible proof that a demon had commanded the death of his son and heir, and very nearly taken his own life.

I seized the witch’s arm with both my hands, and attempted to drag the body to the hearth. “Help me, Geoffrey! We must burn the witch, lest the demon reanimate her lifeless flesh!”

Geoffrey raised my cross and stared at it, then bundled me in his arms. “Oh, Emily, Emily.” He spoke my name over and over, and he held me tight, as if he thought I would run away from him. I could not help but notice how he trembled at the realization of his narrow escape from death and damnation.

I made him swear in God’s name to wear the cross always, for the safety of his soul and his family. Then he said I must return to my room. When I protested, he assured me that he would dispose of the body properly; and I felt so terribly weary that I allowed him to escort me to my chamber, and put me to bed.

Though I reminded Geoffrey that he must not delay burning the witch’s body, he stayed with me, sitting by our bed and holding my hand. In my exhaustion, and my knowledge that my husband had the protection of my cross, I fell asleep.

When I awoke, I was alone, and my cross once more lay on my breast. I ran to the door, and found it locked. Terrified, I pounded upon the door, calling to my husband in my loudest voice, warning him that his soul was in grievous danger. He came to the door and assured me that he had taken care of the body, and that he had God’s protection even as I did. A doctor was coming from Augusta, he said, to ascertain whether my health had been adversely affected by my exertions of last night. I assured him that I had recovered completely, and expressed how strongly I desired to be with him, but he did not unlock the door.

Though my bed-chamber is high above the ground, I ran to the window, desperate to escape the room and confirm that Geoffrey had the protection of a cross. But when I drew back the heavy drapes, I saw that my window had been entirely covered by boards. I shattered the glass as I struck the wood, attempting to loosen a board with blows of my fist; the sharp pain and bright splash of blood immediately recalled me to myself, and brought me to a realization of the foolishness of my actions. Why would Geoffrey tell me he had protection if he were not wearing a cross? He knew his immortal soul was at risk! A loving husband, he feared for my soul, and demonstrated the depth of his concern by returning my cross to me and sealing my room to ensure my safety.

But Geoffrey’s love is all the protection I need.

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Cynthia Ward

Cynthia Ward has published stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Shattered Prism, Weird Tales, Witches: Wicked, Wild & Wonderful (Prime Books), and other anthologies and magazines. Her stories “Norms” and “#rising” made the Tangent Online Recommended Reading List for 2011 and 2014. She edited the anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes One and Two for WolfSinger Publications, and has a pair of anthologies forthcoming in collaboration with Charles G. Waugh. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia co-created the groundbreaking Writing the Other fiction writers workshop and coauthored the diversity fiction-writing handbook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press). Her short novel, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press (2017). She lives in Los Angeles, where she is not working on a screenplay.