I was a kindergarten teacher at Sir Edwin Bower in Stratford for six years. It was a good school. Catholic. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than living a life without God. But it was there that I saw Sarah Walker draw the most inappropriate thing I’d ever seen.
Funny how that’s the word I used when I saw it because it was absolutely the wrong word. Force of habit, I suppose. Let me tell you: I’ve seen more inappropriate crayon drawings than I can even begin to recount. Bombs and bullets. Witches and warlocks. Dinosaurs, for Christ’s sake. We didn’t tolerate that kind of crap in a school of the Lord. Usually I could get the kids corrected with a time-out and a prayer. But this drawing was so beyond inappropriate that I knew I’d have to intervene outside of school hours. And … there was something else.
It was in late-November, during art time, while I was making my rounds of the classroom. I’d been contemplating the meaning of inappropriate a lot that day and my nerves were going all haywire, writhing and twisting like severed power lines. Prayer that morning and ten recitals of 2 Corinthians 12:21 hadn’t even helped. So when I passed by Sarah’s desk and caught a glimpse of the thing she was drawing, my eyelids — which were hanging rather low from lack of sleep — flew up like two window shades. I wrapped my hand around my cross necklace so hard that my fingernails which I forgot had been manicured the day before (first time in years) bit into the meat of my palms like a row of teeth.
Sarah had drawn a picture of a woman … or what appeared to resemble one from the neck down. This ‘woman’ was coloured in Banana Mania Crayola. Entirely. Do you know what kids use the Banana Mania crayon for? It’s a yellowish beige, just like — you guessed it — a peeled banana. Nine times out of ten they use it for the colour of skin.
And, oh, if that wasn’t enough, something was coming out of this woman.
“Sarah,” I said, “this is entirely —” I swallowed a hard lump as I processed the revolting image. “— inappropriate.”
“But that’s my mom,” she said, innocently enough.
My upper lip twitched. I slowly lowered myself down to one knee, attempting to not make a scene in front of the other kids in the classroom, and tapped on a particularly concerning component of the image with my fingernail.
“How come Mommy has such long fingers?”
“They’re not fingers,” she said sweetly, “they’re wings. Mom says I’LL have wings when I grow up, TOO.” She placed the worn tip of Banana Mania against the paper, upon Mommy’s twisted, scowling face, and then began scribbling in erratic strokes.
“And …” I forced another lump down. “… is that a baby?”
“Yup. It’s ME, Miss Moser.”
Now my hands began to shake. I stood up as a certain unwelcomed thought entered my mind. “Where … where is your mom now?”
She murmured her answer, almost too low to catch:
I’ll admit it: a sinful urge swelled up inside me right then, an urge I’d never had before. The drawing was inappropriate enough. This conception she had of her own mother, though, was unacceptable. I raised one open palm, and …
What’s gotten into me?
… swiped the repulsive picture away. Sarah protested of course, but I got her a Prince of Egypt connect-the-dots and she became complacent enough. Then I rushed to my desk and sat down with my hand covering my eyes, fondling the crucifix on my necklace as I scanned the grotesque drawing over … and over … and over …
Can’t be, I told myself. Just can’t.
That’s when I decided that after mass that evening I’d visit her father and have a good talk about the whole matter.
You might be wondering why I reacted that way, a teacher of all people twitching and trembling over nothing but some child’s weird drawing. Well, I knew Steven Walker, you see.
He had told me his wife was dead.
Listen: I could have done standard procedure. I could have brought the drawing to Principal Todden, and we could have set up a parent-teacher interview to talk about original sin and the meaning of marriage. God’s plan. Never too early to give a girl The Talk, you know. But I told you there was something else. Something that tugged at my core — well, no, that’s an understatement; it was gnawing away at my mind. I had to know.
It was half past sundown by the time church ended and I began my walk to Steve’s. I don’t own a car, and his house wasn’t that far (follow Lakeside Drive from the church, pass Queen’s Park, cross the bridge and you’re there). But I hope you can appreciate how spooky a solo-stroll is in Stratford, at night, in late-November. Stratford is a century town that sits way out in the middle of Perth County — a sister city to one of the same name over in England. It’s known mostly for its Shakespearean theatre and Gothic Revival influences. People come out here from pretty far away for our festivals; it’s a modern slice of Warwickshire. The only thing is that when the sun goes down, when those felora fernandinas on every other building light up like impossibly unwavering candles, this whole town becomes rather … well, listen: a colleague once showed me some images online that showed how the city hall here looks eerily similar to the Danvers State Insane Asylum — especially at night.
When I did reach Steve’s it was full-dark. His house was on a large farm property right next to Willow Street, one of those old Edwardians that you see all over the place around here — built a hundred years ago, easily. As I hurried down its long, crushed stone driveway, it’s one-door-two-window front face reminded me of a yawning old man. The moans of unseasonably warm wind against my face was like its breath, and that wind caused the bare maples around me to twitch. The half moon looked down at me like some mad, sleep-deprived eye. I couldn’t resist a shudder.
I brought myself up the front steps which were in desperate need of repair, knocked on the black paint-chipped door. As I waited I checked in my purse, where I had stored the drawing. I looked the kid-clumsy illustration over one more time in the dim orange glow of the lone porch light, half-hoping that maybe I’d simply jumped to conclusions, that maybe it was my own imagination to blame somehow.
And yet there it was, just as before: inappropriate, inappropriate Monster Mommy with the long fingers … deformed, scowling face … eyes like —
The door suddenly made a soft clicking noise and I stuffed the paper back into my purse. A moment later the door swung open and I was greeted by Sarah’s beaming, round face. “Miss Moserrr!” she sang.
“Hello, Sarah. Is your —”
(mother is your mother home)
“— er, is your Daddy home?”
“Nope. He’s at church. He’s gunna be home soon, though.”
That was odd. I hadn’t seen him at mass. And why would he leave his daughter home alone? Unless …
“Ohhh. I see. Well … then … is your —”
(is your monster home is your monster home is it home)
“— mother home?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Yup.”
“May I speak to her?”
Now she began fidgeting with the hem of her Lego Movie shirt, her eyes drawn downcast. “Mom isn’t allowed to come out. Not until she eats.”
I have to say that I was a little frightened now. Not allowed? Until she eats? Domestic abuse never even crossed my mind. Now I wondered if maybe what she drew had been the imaginative by-product of some kind of horror at home.
“Am I in trouble …”
I got onto my haunches to match Sarah’s height, just barely managing to hold back any indication of the panic that was coursing through me. “No, no, Sarah. I just need to speak to Daddy — about church.” Her eyes lit up and I caught a hint of relief. A needle of guilt pressed into my heart as I wondered once more what, exactly, had got into me; telling lies to a child.
“Wouldn’t it be okay if I came in for a little bit? Until Daddy comes home? It won’t be for long, sweetie.”
She looked behind her, back to me, shrugged. “Okay.” Then she simply skipped off into the house.
I stepped inside and nudged the door closed with one shoulder, opting not to take my coat or my shoes off. Dread scratched at my consciousness with a dark claw as I thought about what signs of home violence I might find; toppled furnishings, broken plates … or dried blood on the walls.
Presently, however, I was met with none of those things, but it was still quite an off-putting place.
Everything was old. There was a rusty fire stove in the kitchen, cupboards so warped that they rested ajar on their hinges, and all the doors had those latch-lever things — no knobs or handles. All the walls were bare; no family photos or paintings or decorations. There was a some modern stuff around — microwave, refrigerator, television set — but even they all looked long since neglected and uncared for. The air was redolent of old wood and old plasterboard which gave clear confirmation that, yes, I was standing in the throat of an elderly, centenarian structure.
Sarah herself had hopped over to the living room table, and now she was scribbling away on some paper with more crayons. Additional sheets of paper marked with her scribbles were scattered all over the table; more drawings. Curiosity called to me and I started towards her.
Instinctively I put one hand over my heart. “What — what was that? Sarah, what on Earth was that?”
“That’s Mom. She gets LOUD when she’s hungry.” Then she just continued drawing, utterly unfazed.
Oh, God, what if she’s tied up? Locked in a room? What if she’s starving?
“Sarah,” I said, “is Mommy okay?”
Now she stopped drawing. Oddly enough she turned away from me, to look out the night-blackened window of the living room, out into inky-dark countryside. And bless me if I didn’t hear her whisper something. Then she swivelled her head back to face to me with a deep shadow caught in her brown robin’s eyes as if they’d absorbed some of that darkness. “Yup. Even though she hasn’t eaten for TWENTY whole entire days.” Then back to drawing.
The wind whistling around the eaves outside as those words echoed unpleasantly in the corridors of my mind.
One thing I knew for certain, now, was that I had to look around and find out what was going on. I considered my words carefully, not wanting to traumatize Sarah in the process. “And where is she?” I asked.
“In her room.”
“May I see her?”
“Ummm … I dunno.”
I took a step towards her and saw she was colouring with the Banana Mania Crayola once again. I didn’t need to see the pictures to know what she was drawing, and yet I found my eyes irresistibly drawn to them the way they do when you catch the sight of a spider in the corner of your vision.
More pictures of Monster Mommy. All grim in their characteristics, but seemingly senseless scrawlings otherwise. Some looked like Mommy was crying. Then others had various versions of Mommy looking oddly obese. None of them, however, came even close to the inappropriate nature of the one I had in my purse … except one. And oddly enough, that one had Mommy looking not like some devilish demon — but like a normal human.
“Sarah, it’s very important I check on her.”
No response. Only scribbling. Beige on white.
“… no one’s … see …”
“Dad says no one’s allowed to see her.”
I took a deep, shaky breath. “Ah-huh. Well, listen to me, sweetie. I’m just going to … check on her. Quick. And …” Suddenly it came to me and I blurted it out, another white lie. “… and feed her.”
She gave me a funny look, a mingling mixture of disbelief and amusement. “You’d do that, Miss Moser?”
“Oh, of course I would. Yes, yes.” I gave a small laugh that was more like a quiet cough. “She’s hungry, right?”
“So, I’ll just feed her so Daddy doesn’t have to. That would be a nice thing, huh?”
“Um, yah. I guess so.”
“Good, good. Then I’ll just go to her now.”
“But, Miss Moser, are you SURE you wanna give my mom —”
“Yes, I’m sure. Absolutely sure.”
Her voice went soft and she sang her words again, only this time it was like a clarinet in a nocturne. “Okayyy, Miss Moserrr …”
“Alright, good. Stay here, now, Sarah. Just stay here. I’ll be right back.” Then I made towards the staircase up to the second floor, where the master bedroom would be, where I assumed any mother’s ‘room’ was.
“Not that way,” Sarah said. “In the basement.”
I stopped in my steps as if my legs had suddenly turned to stone. “The basement?”
“Yah.” She pointed at an old door just next to me. Its red paint was chipped and it had an old latch handle was black wrought iron.
“Oh. Of course. Th-thank you, Sarah.” I managed to force movement in my legs, even though they were now numb, stupid things. Mere meat. I hoped this was all some fluke, that Sarah was mistaken somehow, that I wouldn’t need to call the police on Steve and get Sarah all involved in this madness. And perhaps that small hope had been enough. I put one sensationless foot in front of the other, kicked the door latch, and peered down.
The light from the living room afforded me some vision. There was a wooden staircase.
Just an overactive imagination, I thought as I slowly descended. Don’t be stupid. She somehow thinks her mom’s still alive, of course. She’s drawing only what she thinks her mother is like — was like. Bad memories. I’ll go down here and it’ll just be a washing machine that made that sound earlier. Or a bad pipeline. Or an old furnace.
Or a monster.
I was just about half way down the stairs and I had to grip the railing with both hands at that thought, not because of the thought itself, or how ridiculous I felt for thinking it, but because my mind had been firing off in about a hundred different directions and at that very moment a revelation occurred to me.
The ones upstairs, on the table.
I’d seen them. But I’d only seen them. Now I found myself inexorably putting them together. Hadn’t I saw a picture of Monster Mommy with long fingers? Hadn’t those fingers seemed shorter in some pictures, longer in others? And hadn’t it looked like Mommy was strangely fat in some, not in others?
I told you there was one picture almost as abhorrent as the one in my purse. Well, that one depicted a ‘normal’ version Mommy … doing things with Daddy … and both their pants were missing.
And from that one as the starting point, I followed the others to a logical conclusion, like panels in a comic book:
… Mommy’s face getting sadder and sadder, half-circle frowns, raindrop tears …
… Belly getting bigger …
… Fingers getting longer …
… Longer …
… Longer …
… Belly getting even bigger …
… Bigger …
… Bigger …
… Triangle-teeth sharpening, eyes widening …
… Scowling, long-fingered Monster Mommy with a big round belly …
And the image in my purse must have been the last in the series: little Sarah coming out from between Monster Mommy’s legs.
No, no, no. Filthy, inappropriate thought. That’s insane. If that’s true, then what —
That one sounded like it came from right under me and I nearly jumped out of my skin. “Oh, Jesus,” I hissed, clutching on the railing with both hands, and just like that I was out of breath. I had to take a moment to catch it as I listened to my heart thudding in my ears, a bass beat cranked up to maximum frequency. I brushed one stray strand of hair out of my eyes and then began fumbling around in my purse. “… Oh, Jesus … Oh, Jesus … Oh …” I found my phone, pulled it out, and holding it to my chest I reassured myself insanely that it was a real thing that could be touched and held and used.
The bass sound of my heart slowly faded into background, and, thump, thump! there came that banging from under the stairs again, only softer. Root cellar, I thought direly. Just get it together.
From upstairs: “Mom’s REALLY hungry today!”
I was overreacting — I could accept that. But what I could not accept was the growing possibility that there might be someone dying beneath my very feet. And … I had to know if … if Steve was really who I thought he was.
I turned on the built-in flashlight on my phone, and slowly continued down.
I turned the corner at the landing and the harsh neon white revealed a dank basement that was completely unfinished. This was a century home, remember, and this part of the house certainly revealed its rotting guts. There were cobwebs in every corner, uneven stone walls riddled with pores, and dust covering the concrete floor like a fine grey sand. An old white dresser stood a few metres from me with its middle drawer sticking out like a tongue. There was only one door, and it had the biggest lock I’d ever seen on in. That door was under the stairwell.
The air was totally devoured by the smell of aged stone and clay — exactly what I’d always imagined a crypt to smell like. By all accounts this was a place that was separate from the wide open, sort of invasive modern world; this was a place to store secrets.
thump! … thump! … thump! …
(help help help)
“Coming,” I whispered. “Just hang on, I’m coming.” I rushed to the door and grabbed the cold knob on the iron lock. I said this thing was big, but it was so big that it was actually more of a bar-lock; about the size of a two-by-four.
“Hello?” I said. “Who’s in there? Hello!?”
I gave a hard heave and the bar grinded across the thick hasps. I turned the handle on the door and threw it open. I held my phone up, its light flooding into the cellar.
Then horror came.
“Oh,” was the only stupid sound that came out of my mouth when I saw it there, illuminated and revealed in its nightmare entirely. The next moment it looked up at me. And when it did, I felt fear as cold as an undercroft cooled by a winter’s night, white and hard as bleached bone. Its eyes reflected none of the light. No gleam. No lustre. Less human than a panther’s. They were red as bloodberries.
I grabbed my cross necklace once more. Then a hand, more like a talon, reached out and ripped it from my grasp — along with two of my fingers.
I stumbled backwards and onto my back and the phone clattered onto the ground. Somehow the phone’s light was still shining from someplace on the floor. It stepped out upon digitigrade legs. Its face was skull-like, with milk-white skin pulled tight over it as if there was no muscle underneath; you could see all the contours and ridges of the eye sockets where those crimson eyes were embedded.
The thing lifted its arms. Two huge sheets of membranous skin, pulsing with tiny veins, stretched out from both sides of it.
Monster Mommy did indeed have wings.
And when it opened its mouth, I could see how long its teeth were. Especially the canines.
I shrieked. It grabbed me, talons sinking through my coat and deep into the meat of my shoulders. I shrieked again, and then it shook me like a ragdoll until I stopped. I felt those wings wrap all around my body. I heard a sickly cau-crack! and felt its hot carrion breath on my skin.
Its jaws were unhinging, you see. Like a cobra’s.
There was pain, so much pain. Before I realized what was happening, my sight began fading to black.
The last thing I remember is looking into the back of its wet, mucoid throat, and the sound of Sarah’s screams from upstairs, almost delirious with delight, just as I had heard on normal school days — days which seemed oh-so far away — whenever she played manhunt with the other kids during recess.
I am told that when I was brought to the hospital, I should have been dead. The nurses say that if I’d lost just another drop of blood I’d be a goner.
They said it was a miracle.
Do you believe that?
Apparently I’ve been catatonic for days. When I woke up there was a moment of deranged relief at the thought that it had all been some nightmare. That lasted only until I place one hand over my cross necklace and realized it was gone. Then I slowly ran my fingers along the rows of stitches on my neck. All the thirty-two of them.
A part of me kept absurdly hoping Steve would visit, almost longing for those dark, deep eyes — eyes that could make me feel the way I did when we first met; safe and secure. But I was only visited by the sheriff, Allen Halsey. He told me they found small amounts of my blood at the Walker’s residence. Near the root cellar. Then he asked me some very odd questions.
Was I aware of a certain religious group that had sprung up about five years ago? No. Did Mister Walker ever mention or do anything in the past that I’d describe as cult activity? Also no. Well was I at least aware, then, of the disappearance of Missus Kelly Walker? All I could admit to him, foolishly, was that I pray more than I read the news.
He very badly wanted to know how I got injured. It was at the tip of my tongue to tell him. But what would have been the point? I certainly didn’t like the idea of being transferred from Stratford Hospital to the Perth County Sanitorium; I’ve heard too many wild rumours about that terrible place. So instead I told him I just couldn’t remember. I did ask him, though, if they found anyone else or any thing else in that house.
He said no.
I asked if he knew where Sarah was, then. If she was okay.
He shook his head, stood up, and headed for the door. Just before he stepped out he turned to me and said he’d been hoping I knew, because of a certain drawing found in my purse … and because it had been her father who brought me to the hospital.
I suppose there are still some things I don’t know, and I don’t think I ever will. Where Steve was on that night, for example. What kind of double-life he lives. What that creature was. What kind of person it used to be.
I suppose it’s a mercy that I don’t know.
As for why he brought me to the hospital … I think the letter without a return address I received today explains that:
dEaR MiSSUZ MoSER</b?
tHaNK Yo FoR FEEdiNG MY MoM
SHE SEd Yo aR REELY taStY BUt SHE kUdNt fiNiSH SHE Had to LEEV Yo BEKUz SHE SEd i HaV a SiStER iNsidE Yo
dad SES itS iMpoRdENt SHE GRoS Up So tHERE KEN b Lots oF HiBiRds LikE ME So I KEN HaF toNS oF FRENS But wE HaF to wait NiNE HoL ENtiRE MoNtHS
watS a HiBiRd MEEN MiSSUZ MoSER??
aN GESS wHat!! MoM SES iLL be oLd ENuff SooN tHat SHE KEN pRoLLy SHo ME How to EET LiK SHE doz
i dREw a piKcHER oF Yo i Hop Yo Lik it
There was a picture beneath that drawn in Sarah’s unmistakeable use of Banana Mania. I had long fingers — wings. And this time there was another colour I recognized; Germanium Lake.
Germanium Lake is red.
There was so much of it, so much. Scribbled all over my body.
And I was smiling.
After reading that I also was sure of something else. Steve never loved me. That’s why he hadn’t returned any of my calls. I thought I loved him. And I was so sure of it that I risked the Kingdom of God for him. Sex before marriage is a sin, you know. One of the big ones. Not to mention that I’m technically an adulterer, now, too.
But what god would make the fires of passion burn stronger than His will? And what god would allow a man to use sex as a way to transmit a disease? No, no. Be honest. Not a disease. A curse.
It’s incredible how naïve I was. I used to think that a good prayer and a good effort could make miracles happen. I used to believe that evil was this mute thing that, like darkness, could be staved off with light. But after that night at Steve’s … I think evil is far more of a living thing. I think, now, that the bad things aren’t reactionary; they don’t bend or burn with time or trial. Perhaps the truth is more disturbing. Perhaps evil is ingrained into this planet, like blood. Perhaps nothing can remove it, not even God, without ruining the natural order of things. Perhaps we are what’s reactionary.
Maybe bad things simply need to happen.
And maybe inappropriate thoughts like that are why my cross hadn’t worked.
No — I can think of much better words, now. Morbid. Chaotic. Hellish. Demonic.
I keep looking out the window of this cold white room. It looks more and more inviting every time. From the looks of it I’ve got to be at least ten storeys up. That should be enough.
Last time I saw something. It flitted across the full moon on large, pointed wings. Of course it could have been an eagle or something. A very big one. But I don’t know of any eagles flying around here in December. And I swear to you I heard a little girl calling and laughing.
I’ve had some bad nightmares about that night at Steve’s. Not about the creature so much as Sarah, and the way her eyes were almost black when she looked at me. The way she might look in a year. Two years. Four.
(“Mom says I’LL have wings when I grow up, TOO.”)
But I’m a grown woman. I can make my own choices — that’s certain — and now I choose to never have those nightmares again. If there is a God, then I’m His exile. If there isn’t, then I still can’t let what’s inside me see day. Either way, when I look at that window, mercifully dark with the promise of termination, I know I’m making the right choice.
To Allan: when you read this (as I’m certain you will), you may consider this as my new testimony. I’m sorry I left all this out. I was scared of The Sanitorium at that time … but … I won’t have to worry about that anymore. I suppose that’s why I wrote this now.
To everyone else: you may have an occasion to be travelling in southern Ontario. You may want to visit Stratford and go to the theatre. Well, have your fun. See the plays. I know that they do a phenomenal Hamlet. But when you’re done, my advice to you is to get into your car and drive. And keep driving until you get home.
Especially if it’s after dark.
There’s a little girl around this town who likes to draw pictures of monsters. And pretty soon she’ll have her wings.