“Come quick,” she said, in a voice so leaden, each word took a year off my life. “Bring the black bag . . . There’s been an accident.”
The call woke me up, and I knocked over a water bottle getting out of bed. For an instant, the glimmer of my ex-husband’s terrified countenance flashed through my murky thoughts. Shaking his horrible visage off, I realized that the cabin was freezing, then I began to worry about what really mattered: getting to Madame fast enough . . .
I had only been in town six months, struggling to make a name for myself when Madame Dioskilos had called the first time. I had already heard that she owned a large barn and twenty-four horses, but that she was a rather difficult client, and stingy. She and her charges did all the routine medical work, and she’d had the same blacksmith since opening the Academy.
I found her to be demanding, but fair; I kept her secrets, and she—so far—kept mine.
I was all packed before I woke Tonio. He had only been with me for a few months, and I was afraid of spooking him, but he got dressed and helped me load the truck, then climbed in with his sketchpad and box of colored pencils. I told him only that we were going to see a sick animal. A ward of the state for almost all of his ten years, he was well trained to follow directions. I knew Madame Dioskilos would become irate about the boy—no men were allowed on the estate after dark, unless sent for—but I was more worried about him waking up alone in an empty house.
Anyway, it was time, if this was what I thought it was, for Madame to see—
I brought my special kit bag, though I doubted if it would do any good. She would have the only sure cure loaded and propped beside the stable door, like always.
We didn’t pass any cars going through town to the coast road. My windshield was frosted over, and it was freakishly cold for Big Sur, even in winter. The lights were out at the Yogic Retreat at the end of Main Street and the few streetlamps lit only coronas of sleet, but I had to keep myself from driving too fast. The road spilled out of the trees and clove to the sheer cliffs over the Pacific, surfing the uneasy edge of the land for sixty unlit white-knuckle miles. The state hadn’t replaced the guardrail where the last car had gone over, only a week before. Nearly ten years prior, I’d learned, Greta Spivak, a local vet who’d worked for Madame Dioskilos before me, drove over the edge during a winter storm. They found no body in the truck, and it was blithely assumed that the sharks got her before she could drown.
Tonio fell asleep, rocked by the swaying, serpentine highway. I turned the radio on as loud as I dared to keep myself from thinking.
Only four other emergencies had called me up to Madame Dioskilos’s house after dark in the whole seven years that I had worked for her. That first time, she had explained our situation: she had found me out, and we both understood that her leverage meant that I could be trusted with what I must do.
There are many veterinarians between Big Sur and Monterey who would have done the work and had no qualms about it—bitter, middle-aged divorcees; born-again pagans; misanthropic bull-dykes . . . but, they were all too clean for her. Just as I needed her, she needed someone like me.
The entrance to her estate is nestled in one of the box canyons that the highway wanders into, seeking an escape from the sea, only to veer away in a panicky hairpin turn. The gate itself is formidable, shrouded in veils of coastal live oak and laurels, wrought-iron barbs ten feet high, a press conference’s worth of cameras fixed on the road.
I always paused to look at the sculpture in the grove, just outside the gate. Most thought it was a modern piece, the angular severity shaming the mathematical fascism of the Italian Futurists; but the sculpture was symptomatic of Madame Dioskilos herself: so easy to completely misread. Like her, it came from the Cyclades Islands, and was a forgotten relic before Athens had erected its first temple.
It depicted a lithe blade of a human figure—somehow, undeniably a girl—riding the back of a rampant chimerical beast Madame told the curious was a centaur, though its hindquarters seemed to be broken off and lost to posterity. It might have been Nessus’s abduction of Alcmene, the bride of Hercules, but when you got to know Madame Dioskilos, you figured it out. The centaur was not broken, and it wasn’t a centaur, and the myth depicted was not in any storybooks.
The gates were swinging open as I turned up the drive, braking cagily on the slippery driveway, one arm out to brace Tonio. They’d let me adopt him with no problems, glad to empty a bed at the struggling group home in Oakland where we met. Though they did a thorough background check, the authorities never found any red flags in the short, happy life of Ruth Wyeth. Of course, they hadn’t dug half as diligently as she had . . .
Artemisia Dioskilos, Madame’s mother, was a fiery vamp and celebrated equestrian from a tiny Greek island. She married an ancient Italian count who died in WWI, then fled to California with his wealth and title. The Countess ran a riding school in the Hollywood Hills until 1926, when she retreated from society under a shameful cloud and purchased an estate on the Central Coast of California to raise her only daughter, Scylla. No inquiry was ever made into the identity of the child’s father.
Alone on the estate with her mother and servants, the young Scylla Dioskilos must have pined for friends as a child. When her mother died in 1960, she went back to the Old Country to live for three years. When she returned, Scylla opened a new private school.
For forty years now, she’d run the Delos Academy, and if there were occasional problems with the state, no one had ever raised an eyebrow. She boarded no more than twelve children at a time, taught them to read, do sums, and shoot arrows at deer from the back of a horse. She could have charged ten thousand a semester to the snots in Carmel and gotten it, but she didn’t need money, and she avoided publicity like the plague.
She selected abandoned and orphaned girls from Bay Area cities, and she didn’t discriminate by race, so they tried to stuff kids into the trunk of her Rolls Royce as she drove away. They were all smart, strong little girls; the rest she could make over.
A certified teacher educated the girls, who had only each other for society. Most stayed through puberty, and came out fearless, aglow with eerie confidence and destined for bright futures. The whole west coast was peppered with Madame’s prodigies; a sorority that had helped girls obtain scholarships and entry into Ivy League schools, interviews with Fortune 500 companies, and even temporary financial assistance once they graduated university. Counted among the Delos alumni were many powerful women: one of San Francisco’s most successful defense attorneys; a sitting assemblywoman in Sacramento; even a U.S. junior senator. They also help keep the secret. Madame Dioskilos wanted no awards, no media attention; most people in town didn’t even know about the riding school.
I rolled up the drive and past the whitewashed Cretan villa with its showcase equestrian stables, over the ridge at the top of the canyon and around the front of the austere pine-log hunting lodge. The garage was locked down, motion-detector lights and security cameras triggering each other. Seeing no lights on, I drove on down into a stand of oaks, where I knew she would be, in the other stables . . .
I parked under the awning and told Tonio to stay in the truck. I gave him my cell phone and told him what to do if it rang, then got out and stumbled through the dark to the golden glow of a lantern over the stable door.
Only the oldest girls at the school came anywhere near here, the ones who had been initiated into what Madame called “the Mysteries.” I didn’t pretend to know what she meant, but I sensed what lay at the root of her fanaticism.
I pushed open the stable door and stepped into Mediterranean heat and the awesome stink of Madame Dioskilos’s steeds.
“Ms. Wyeth?” Her voice, from the tack room. I responded and went to the little door beside the corridor that led to the indoor arena. If there’d been an accident at this hour, it would have happened there. I didn’t see the shotgun anywhere about, and was both more and less uneasy as I ducked into the tack room.
Madame sat in a rocking chair in a corner of the tack room, beside a mountain of dusty blankets. She was wiry and much stronger than I was for her age and size. Her hands clutched each other, shaking.
“An accident,” Madame Dioskilos murmured, “an ill omen.”
“Which one was it?”
“I was a fool to trust her with him! I thought, in her, I saw something . . . Ah! Actaeon,” her wounded voice faltered, and I felt my own heart race with distress. Her prized stallion—
“Well, where is he? What can I do for him here?”
“He is . . . unharmed. I will deal with him later, myself. But I need your help with another matter . . . It is not for him, that I call you.” She leaned forward as if to get up again, and pulled back the top blanket from the pile.
A girl lay curled up on her side with her knees tight against her chest, and bound up by her arms. She wore a few rags of the short white chitins that the girls always wore when riding. Blood smeared the inside of her legs down to her knees, soaking the blanket under her.
“Oh God! What do you want me to do?” I felt sick to my stomach with the tragedy of it; I say tragedy, because it was so inevitable.
Clearly, she’d already been sedated, or was in shock; her eyes half-lidded, her tongue protruding from her teeth. She was twelve, maybe thirteen, with caramel skin, and straight, shiny black hair in a boyish bob. Her elbows and knees were torn and blotted with sawdust, her lip split, and bruises bloomed on her neck and shoulders. The horrible wound between her legs still bled. She was ready for an ambulance—
One had to look very long and hard to see her breathe.
I wasn’t breathing at all. “He—he did this?”
“Trista is a vigorous rider, a natural hunter . . . When her first bloodletting came, she embraced the Mysteries, and hunted the hunter. She rode Minos like a high priestess—but she trained too hard. Such girls, one cannot always see it, they are wanton . . . “
“Where is he now?” I demanded. It was only for the girl’s sake that I didn’t shout. “Where is the shotgun?”
The other ones had never done anything like this, but the others were all geldings. They’d only wounded each other or been lamed in accidents. Although they were bred for the steep terrain and rocky cliffs of Greece, there were other dangers here. One was bitten by a rattlesnake; another snarled in razor wire. Madame always went back to Greece and got more, though how she got them into the country always puzzled me.
The lights were dim in the arena, but I heard him, snorting and pawing the muddy turf. I couldn’t find the shotgun, but I wasn’t to be denied: I found a shovel.
In the Greek myths, Actaeon was a hunter who stumbled on Diana bathing in a sacred pool. For stealing a glance at her divine nakedness, the hunter was transformed into a stag, and ripped to shreds by his own dogs.
I went into the dark faster than I could see through it, with the shovel cocked over my shoulder. I followed the wall of the big round arena, wary of the hidden obstacles the girls jumped to train for the Hunt.
I heard him before I saw him, chains rattling as he came charging out of the shadows, but it gave me no advantage. The chains ran back to stout rings in the wall, giving him more than enough slack to get me. I swung the shovel as hard as I could, but he ducked under it and drove his head and massive shoulder into my gut. I fell hard on my back and lost the shovel.
I curled into a sobbing ball, with no breath to do anything else. His eyes reflected the moon glow from the skylight as he looked me over, trying to decide what he wanted most.
He was still saddled. His bridle was twisted around so it hung from his muzzle, which he’d already half-chewed through. His silver fighting spurs glittered in the moonlight.
A whip cracked between us, the tip raking his face so he leapt back and barked, submissive.
“Is not his fault!” she cried. “Trista rode him too hard . . . Her sisters say there is—carnality—in her, but I pay no heed; they are jealous, naturally. She rides him too hard on the course, driving with her hips, but with ulterior motivations: she pleasures herself upon the saddle! Such girls often break their maidenhood on the pommel, and this she did . . . nature ran away with them both. It is not his fault—the blood—”
“Well, what the fuck did you expect, Madame?” She looked as if she’d never been yelled at before, so I resolved to make it memorable for her. “He’s a man, for God’s sake!”
“No!” She shouted, and crossed her arms in negation between us.
“Not a man: a beast . . .”
“All men are beasts,” I said. And most women, I thought.
“Let me tell you,” she growled, and approached Actaeon. He shifted from foot to foot and studied us both. They’d always been sedated or sequestered when I came before. I had no problem killing them. I did not see their faces in my dreams. Thanks to them, I hardly ever dreamed about my husband.
Madame Dioskilos coiled the whip taut around one gloved fist as she spoke. “When my ancestors came to the island of Dioskilos three thousand years ago, they were set upon by beasts in the shape of men, who killed and ate our men, and raped our women. The drunken gods often rutted with animals, and sired monsters such as these, here and there in the dark corners of the earth.
“The goddess Diana heard our prayers and appeared to the girls of the tribe, who alone could tame them, so long as they remained chaste. And they did tame them, Mrs. Slabbert, but they have ever been beasts.”
Throwing my real name in my face, Madame untangled Actaeon’s reins and tugged his huge anvil of a head down to the dirt. He bowed with a snort, one sturdy knee extended out, and Madame stepped up on it, swung her leg over the saddle and sat erect with her boots in the stirrups. At a clipped shout from Madame, Actaeon rose to his full height. His hooded eyes leered at me over his bloody muzzle.
She could make a good argument for her case without words. Though he stood on two legs and had hands, he had no thumbs, whether from selective breeding or post-natal surgery, I didn’t care to guess. His barrel torso was rudely muscled, covered in sleek black hair like a goat’s, and his shoulders were broad enough to carry a full-grown woman up a mountain on the elaborate saddle perched upon his slightly hunched back. That those mighty shoulders produced such puny, almost flipper-like arms screamed selective breeding over hundreds of centuries from proto-human stock, perhaps even the last Neanderthals. A Greek myth that Bulfinch left out, for better or worse, though Madame’s ancestors might’ve been the grain of sand that grew so many pearls: the Amazons, who made impotent slaves of their men; Circe, who made pigs and asses of Odysseus’s crew; satyrs and centaurs—
“This one, you will not kill.” From the saddle, Madame reclaimed her regal bearing. The whip uncoiled, now, for me. “It is his nature.”
“How many girls will you let him rape?”
“This has never happened before . . . It will never happen again. The girls will be trained—”
I raised the shovel. “Get down off him, Madame—”
“When you kill them, Phyllis, do you imagine that they are your husband?”
That stopped me cold, but I didn’t take the bait. I could see where she was leading this, and I brought it back. “What’s to become of the girl? When’s the ambulance due?”
Actaeon took a few hopping steps, stalking in a lazy, tightening spiral around me. He balanced himself and Madame effortlessly on the balls of his feet—splayed, talon-tipped toes like a mountain lion, the heels augmented with curved bronze stiletto spurs, like a gamecock; and, peeking out of the blood-matted black thicket between his powerful legs—the weapon. He couldn’t have gotten his chastity belt off by himself—nature ran away with them both . . . His monstrous appendage bobbed and lengthened visibly as he circled; slavering and twitching to have done with Madame’s games.
She dug her heels into his scarred flanks and tracked my eyes with hers, stroking the back of his head. “She ran away from us, went back to the city, where—small surprise—she was attacked. We will be heartbroken, but resolute. She brought this upon herself. The heart of it is the truth.”
“So I—you want me—” It was beneath words. “But when she talks—”
“You are not to hurry, Mrs. Slabbert.”
Actaeon gave a gibbering gurgle from deep in his throat and strained with his stunted forelegs to stroke his cock, still crusted with Trista’s blood. I tried to stare him down. Menopause makes you think you can pull shit like that.
He shook his head. His muzzle slipped off. He grinned at me. Each yellow tooth was the size of a big man’s toenail, and the moray eel of his tongue lurking behind them. His breath raised welts on my skin.
I still had the shovel. “Hey, cut this shit out! I am not going to help you kill that girl!”
“Of course not, but you are going to get yourself out of what we are both in, no?” She snapped the reins and Actaeon reared up, his spurred feet kicking in the air, flinging sod and sweat. He bent down low, craning his neck until his head was between his knees to sniff my crotch. Madame dismounted to stand between us. “I know that what you have done for me in the past was not wholly out of necessity. You knew how others would judge you. You are a part of the Mysteries, now.”
I stepped around her and reached out to stroke Actaeon’s bristly black mane. He twitched and unfolded warily from his rigid dismounting stance, and an alarmingly powerful musky scent suddenly filled the arena. Madame gripped his reins in one hand, the whip in the other.
I scratched behind his ears and the base of his skull, where all animals like it. His jaw went slack, but his eyes never left mine. I leaned in closer, holding my breath. I knew what I’d find, but it was the least dangerous way into the subject.
“What do you do?” Madame Dioskilos demanded, jerking his head back by the reins.
“Nothing . . . I was only counting his teeth. You told me once that they have four more than us—”
Actaeon obliged by baring his fierce dentition. The extra bicuspids and molars were there. Along with the outsized mandible muscles and projecting palate, they were made to crack open seeds, shellfish and bones. I wondered who had given him his four gold fillings.
“Like jackals,” Madame said and led Actaeon away from me. She didn’t know where this was going, and so it had to stop.
“Eskimos and American Indians have different dentition from Europeans. How much ‘less human’ does that make them?” I should have gone to the girl. Madame trusted me to let her die, it would have been so easy to save her and deliver her to the hospital, and we would both get what we deserved. But first, I had to show her—
She flicked her whip at me by way of dismissal and led Actaeon to the grooming stalls. I went to look at the girl. Her breathing was shallow, pulse shocky, and she still bled. If I dumped her out in the cold somewhere up the coast, like Madame ordered me to, she’d never revive. Madame would never dirty her patrician mind with an explicit request that I help her along, but when you work for someone long enough, you learn to read them.
Cruel, surely, but in Madame’s world, nature was a serial rapist, and unfit children were left out for the wolves.
I tried not to think about it. I had treated Madame Dioskilos’s livestock—her men—for seven years, and put down four of them, and I knew that what I did wasn’t the worst of it. I knew about the High Hunt at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and what they hunted. Drifters, illegal aliens, men nobody missed. Anybody with a gun would have killed all of her creatures because they were less than human, but I had let her use me to kill only the useless ones, because they were men.
Madame’s school—the Hunt and the Mysteries—made these cast-off girls into women the rest of the world respected, envied. It empowered them to reach for undreamed of heights, and liberated them from ever becoming a man’s creature. And I guess I was one of them, from the day I killed my husband.
We had a thriving vet practice in Maryland—clients in Chevy Chase, contracts with stables that bred Triple Crown contenders. For such a smart man, Dan Slabbert got very, very stupid around money. He did things for it, just to get close to it, to dream of belonging to it. They let him think he could someday be one of them, so he started doping horses for them. Whatever they promised him was enough that, eventually, he killed a champion thoroughbred for them. Insurance paid off, and Dan must’ve got a healthy cut in a hidden account. He started getting consultant work across the country from rich friends who could afford to fly in a witch doctor to see to their sick investments.
He killed three more before I found out, but I didn’t do anything. I found out he was fucking call girls the clients threw his way, but I said nothing. Then I found out what they’d promised him, in return for becoming their equine hit man: they were going to make him a rich widower.
I confronted him with the insurance policies and the rest of it, and he took it like a man; he tried to kill me himself. We fought; I won.
I left the country, laying a convincing trail to nowhere, then quietly snuck back in under an assumed name I’d bought with Dan’s blood money. I knew my new identity wasn’t airtight when somebody deposited fifty thousand dollars into Ruth Wyeth’s new checking account. I suppose, in the end, I did the horsey set a favor.
In Big Sur, I was just another dumpy misfit who had sublimated her miserable lack of sex appeal into a gift for animal husbandry. I thought I could start over. It took Madame Dioskilos to show me how fucking mad I still was, how many times I still wanted to kill him.
I packed surgical gauze into Trista’s wound and wrapped her up in a blanket. I left the tack room and found Madame locking her prize stallion in his stable. I hit the speed dial on the spare cell phone in my coat pocket and went to meet her.
“I’m ready to take her,” I said.
The barn door creaked and a solemn ten-year-old black girl in a spotless white tracksuit slipped in through the crack, a big flashlight in one hand, my phone ringing in the other. Looking back at someone outside, she bowed and whispered, “Madame, there’s a boy—”
Madame Dioskilos hissed in outrage and reached for the bullwhip coiled on the wall. I moved to stop her.
“He’s mine, he’s just a little boy. I adopted him. Leave him alone—” The girl swung the flashlight at me. It smashed my forearm and the arm went limp.
“A boy, here?” Madame Dioskilos spat, eyes locked imperiously on mine until I looked away. “And on this night, of all nights!”
“I didn’t know I’d be dumping a—” He was on the other side of the barn door. I begged, “Oh God, let me see him, please!”
“You know my rules!”
“You must’ve rubbed off on me,” I pleaded. “I took him in to have somebody to teach the trade . . . I couldn’t leave him at home, could I?”
“If you have taken in a boy, you have learned nothing from me.” Her strong-gloved fingers worried at the silver lunular clasp holding her long white hair. She never looked so old to me before. I thought it was fear over what happened; it had never occurred to me she was disappointed in me.
“Let him come in, please, Madame. I want you to see him.”
The door opened wider and Tonio crept in, hugging his pad and pencils to his chest. He looked scared to death, and I started to cry, but when I went to him, the girl brandished the flashlight. A lithe little Latina girl came in with a bow stretched and a silver-tipped hunting arrow nocked.
I screamed at them to back off. Tonio cried, and I hugged him. “Tonio, it’s okay, honey, you scared them as bad as they scared you.”
I turned him around to face the old woman. “Tonio, I want you to meet Madame Scylla Dioskilos. She’s one of the ladies whose horses I take care of. She runs a school for girls, kind of like a foster group home, but . . . nicer. Madame, this is Tonio. Smile big for the nice lady, Tonio.”
Scared, Tonio yet managed a thin smile at Madame Dioskilos, who barely glanced at him. “Hi,” he whispered.
“Show her your drawings, honey,” I said, but he only hugged the pad tighter.
Madame scowled and made some ancient cursing gesture with her fingers.
“You see, Tonio was born with severe cognitive disabilities, so bad that his mother surrendered him to the state. He grew up in a special group home in Oakland. I had a hard time tracking him down. There are so many, many children that nobody wants. I wanted you to meet him—”
“You have defiled my house with this—”
“They’re beasts, then, and can never be more?” I demanded, and Madame nodded.
“What is your point?” she snapped.
“Please, Tonio, show her your drawings, I want her to see what a good artist you are.”
Tonio looked warily around the barn, then slowly unclenched and opened the pad. Shy, slow, autistic, whatever the ignorant might call him, he could draw. Horses leapt across the pages like a storm, filling and spilling off the paper, rendered in every color in his box, and some others he’d cleverly blended by smudging them with his little fingers.
“So you were wrong,” I started, “and you lied to me before . . .”
Madame made a gesture of water flowing off her face. “You did the right thing bringing him,” Madame said. “You must be made to see.” She advanced on Tonio until she stood between him and me. Something she took out of her belt made him scream.
From somewhere in the barn came an answer. The lowing roar and crash of wood and metal froze the room. My heart leapt into my mouth. The jaundiced whites of Madame’s eyes gleamed all around her violet irises. The knife flashed in her hand.
“Chandra, go and see to the beasts!” Madame ordered. “Marina, shoot her if she moves.” The black girl edged around the awkward scene and stalked into the stables. The girl behind Tonio aimed the arrow at me and drew the string back. Tonio sank to the ground, took out a pencil and began to draw.
Madame hovered over Tonio, the knife behind her back, intrigued. “You adopted this boy? Do not tell me lies, Phyllis Slabbert.”
“You lied to me, when you said this had never happened, before . . .”
Madame blinked at me. Tonio whimpered and sketched. The bowstring creaked.
“Look at him, Madame: I want you to count his teeth.”
Madame whirled on me and brought the knife up to my chin so quickly, I couldn’t even flinch. “What is this game?”
My muscles locked up and I just stared at her. “Actaeon’s done it before, hasn’t he? Maybe you even let it happen, part of the ‘rituals,’ or a breeding experiment? And you made Greta Spivak, your old vet, dump the girl—”
“Who is this? I know no one by this name!” Madame’s wounded innocence was silent movie acting at its finest.
“Bullshit! She worked for you! I think it was because you both knew the girl was pregnant—”
“You lie!” The knife slashed at my face. I ducked away, but the edge flayed my scalp. A big flap of skin with hair on it came away in my hand as I cradled the wound.
Sobs of pain welled up in my throat, but I gagged them back. Whether or not I could go on, it had to come out. “The girl was only twelve, you remember? She couldn’t keep him, so they put him up for adoption, but nobody wanted him. He’d retreat and draw on everything, then have violent fits of rage. His hormones are all screwed up and no one’s ever tried to reach him, let alone love him, but he’s a sweet, sensitive little boy.”
Madame looked from Tonio to the bloody knife in her hand. “Look at his teeth, Madame. He’s a strange little boy, no doubt, but is he an animal? Do you want to put a saddle on him?”
Madame bent down and took Tonio’s jaw, almost tenderly, in her gloved hand. Tonio was too far gone to resist her. Still looking into his mouth as the silence dragged on, she called out, “Chandra, come here.”
In the stables, a metal pail hit the ground. The stable door groaned as it swung open. The darkness beyond yawned, absolute. Marina’s fingers grew sweaty and tired on the bowstring, and she lowered it. Blood stung my eyes, soaking my hand when I wiped it away. I needed to lie down. I had to get Tonio out of there. I wanted to show her, but I never meant for things to get so out of hand—
Madame seemed, all of a sudden, to decide. She rose and turned on Tonio with the knife out: he didn’t see it coming.
I dove after her, screaming. I grabbed her arm, but she slipped out of my blood-slick grip to stab him.
The knife scythed through Tonio’s down parka and came out amid a flurry of feathers. I’d fouled her attack, but she cocked her arm to stab him in the throat. I stepped inside her reach and shoved her as hard as I could. Tonio rolled away shrieking and threw his pad at her. Marina shouted, “Madame!” and raised her bow at me, loosed her arrow.
It never hit me. Sailing past my eyes, it hit Actaeon in the shoulder, but didn’t slow him down.
He came so fast I could only fall before him. Leaping over me, he dealt Marina a brutal kick to the chest. The girl slammed into the barn door and slumped to the ground. Almost in the same movement, he lunged after Madame who, in turn, dove after Tonio. His jaws snapped at her and she hung, howling, in midair, caught by his teeth in her long white hair.
Tonio crab-walked backwards into a corner between two walls of hay bales. Hanging by her hair, Madame roared commands in Greek, but Actaeon stood frozen, unable to parse the sticky situation with the stunted brute mind his mistress had given him.
Sounds of shuffling feet behind me made me turn, and I gasped. The rest of them had broken loose, and skulked out of the dark like madhouse inmates on Judgment Day, knees skinned and spurs bloodied from kicking down their stable doors. Their big black eyes rolled and they began to hoot, deep in their barrel chests, nostrils flared as they scented blood on the air.
Tonio’s blood. A trickle stood out on his green parka, studded with white down feathers, radioactive in its effect.
I knew, then, why Madame Dioskilos had always had someone else treat and put down her beasts. The smell of their own blood, the sounds of their pain, drove them mad. I thought, then, that I would die, and I lay still as death on the ground, but I did not exist for them. They stampeded over me and converged on Madame Dioskilos.
I got up, pointedly not looking at them as I crawled along the wall to Tonio. He pressed his face against the wall and chewed his lips, too scared to make a sound as I bundled him up in my arms and shuffled with my eyes closed for a thousand years to the barn door.
I raced home and packed bags in a panic. Tonio had fallen asleep in the truck. I was ready to flee again, when exhaustion set in. I had enough strength to bring Tonio into the house and lay him in his bed, before I passed out myself.
I awakened at dawn, and no sirens wailed, no police broke down the door. We would leave, but not in a hurry, not as fugitives. I couldn’t understand how the world couldn’t sense something so wrong happening, but then, how could it not have sensed how wrong things had been, all along? The sisterhood would smother it in secrecy, and that would be best. No one needed to know—
I only went back once, that morning. Of the beasts there was no sign, nor of any of the girls. Trista was gone, and there were opened pill packets and gauze bandage wrappers on the floor of the tack room. I still worry about them, but I think they will make out all right. After her fashion, Madame Dioskilos prepared them well to face the world.
I won’t detail what they did to her body, or where I found the head. The bloody paintings they made on the walls of the barn, in their stables, in the chapel of the Goddess at the barn’s heart, were what I will always remember. Though they had only one color to work in, the delicacy of the shapes of centaurs, satyrs and nymphs sporting across, filling and spilling off the cedar beam walls, spoke as no words could of what they might have been, in another life.
I burned the place down. I buried what I could find of Madame Dioskilos under the laurel tree behind the hunting lodge. I said a prayer for her, after I counted her teeth. Her extra bicuspids were filed down and the jaw surgically rebuilt, but she still had too many molars to pass for human, in her own book. I hope God sees it differently.
Spread the word!