It’s just a little late. My apologies. Carpal tunnel is evil.
Gobsmacked is a great word, the only word that surpasses surprise, shock, and bewilderment. It manages to convey a high level of astonishment while sounding witty and fun, and fits perfectly with the phrase “knocked me over with a feather.” In this case, however, there were no feathers involved; a single puff of air, expelled from my own mouth, was enough to disrupt my equilibrium, and send my head toward my knees to kiss my butt goodbye.
“You’re my who what now?” Kenzie asked in a tight, agitated voice. “No, no, no. You’re my…no. Just…no.” The kid pulled a knit hat out of one of hir many pockets, and jammed it down over hir head, hiding hir face.
Jelly─Jelia─took a sip out of her trusty paperbag-covered treat, and belched loudly. “You know I ain’t the one to be tellin’ no stories, ‘Lanta, so I’mma need you to do the honors.”
All eyes shifted to my mother, who, I saw as I sat back up, was still peering into the room from the relative safety of the See-Through spell’s portal. She sighed deeply, a sign that she was tired and that her burden was heavy. Before she could speak, the ghost woman spoke again.
“Gather ‘round, children,” she said, in a remarkably clear and sober-sounding voice. “Big Sister is gonna tell us a story. Pay attention, now; this will be on the test.”
“What test?” Kenzie interrupted. “Ain’t nobody said nothin’ ‘bout no test!”
“It was a joke, Kenzie,” I snorted.
Jelly smirked. “If you say so.” She plopped down right where she stood─hovered─legs splayed open in front of her and keeping a tight grip on her bottle. She shot a sad, interested glance toward Kenzie, then shrugged, and took another swig of whatever poison she had chosen to spend eternity guzzling down. She caught me looking, and shrugged again. “Wasn’t exactly my choice, you know? Still coulda been worse.”
My eyes narrowed as I ruminated, hoping that she didn’t mean what I thought she did. Some spirits and various undead, usually ones tied to people and used as servants, had what we called Exchanges mixed into their curses. When their bodies died, their blood and essence was replaced with something else, typically a different liquid but often smoke or food, that they would need to imbibe in order to stay lucid and functional. For Jelly to walk around taking swigs of what I assumed to be whiskey meant that she had, at least originally, been cursed into unlife as a member of the servant class. The only person who could have specified the Exchange was the witch who owned her. I wondered, briefly, if my mother was responsible, but she’d honestly seemed surprised to see her old friend.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” I murmured to myself.
I heard Atlantia sigh. A rustle of material and then a squeak of springs indicated that she had seated herself on her bed, or a soft chair. “Where do I begin?” she queried though I understood that she really wasn’t asking us.
“The beginning is fine,” I called out, craning my neck in an attempt to catch my mother’s eye.
“There is no true beginning, child. Have you learned nothing under my tutelage?” I gasped and sputtered dramatically at the insult, trying to buy time to think of a witty comeback, but she ignored me, like always, and continued with her tale. “As I said once before, I was the first child that Blue placed upon the beach. I know this to be true because she told me so.
“I was raised in Blue’s village, on that island with no name. I grew up reviled and revered. I was proof of something supernatural, of the existence of the gods. Some small-minded people were certain that I was the harbinger of some darker, nefarious event. Neither group was completely wrong─or right. Strange, unexplained things happened around me. Cooking pots, then made of clay, would fly into the air, then shatter. I would walk along the water’s edge, and fish would leap into my arms like sacrifices. Long dead trees would bloom, and healthy animals would fall ill and die.
“I was 12 when blue appeared to me. I was beset with a fever, aching cramps, and an issue of blood from my most private of areas. No one, not the midwife, not the other girls, certainly not the elderly tavern owners that fed and housed me, had told me about my menses. I assumed I was dying, or suffering some punishment for my unnatural… I hesitate to call it a ‘birth’, as I, for all intents and purposes, simply ‘appeared’ on the beach in Blue’s arms. As the Blood Moon rose, I lay on my pallet, sweating and cursing. A beautiful woman, with skin so dark it shone almost purple, with eyes so deep I feared I would drown in them, appeared before me. I thought she was a messenger of Death, come to name my sins and claim my soul.” She stopped. A faint tinkling sound rang out into the room; I imagined she was taking a sip of some soothing liquid, kept cool with perfectly-shaped cubes of ice. My mouth watered, and my stomach gave a low rumble. Heat crawled up my neck, and I refused to met the gaze of anyone around me. Jelly snorted softly, but looked away when I glared in her direction.
“I will not recount the things she told me that night,” Atlantia went on, “but I will tell you that her words boggled my mind. Was it possible that I truly had a purpose, that the inexplicable happenings around me were not the work of evil, malicious spirits taking their anger out on me? She reached for me, and I, without thinking, grabbed her hand. A jolt of electricity ran through my body, warming my empty, barely mature womb, and swelling my breast with power and glee. My body lifted from my pallet, and in that instant, I Knew everything. This woman was my mother, and my future.” She chuckled. “I won’t bore you with the details of my long life. I will tell you, however, that I did, indeed, found the first haven for those I gifted with parts of Blue’s power, and their descendants. And those who Hunt our kind were later organized into their current incarnation by the one man I ever loved. Your father, actually,” she casually remarked to me, as if it was a trivial thing and not an earth-shattering revelation.
I choked on the mouthful of spit I’d been holding as I dreamed a little dream of grilled meat and cheese. My heart would have stopped had it been beating in the first place. What did she say? My…what?
“My what?” I half-rose from the floor. “Are you going to tell me that I’m some weird, immortal hybrid after all?”
“Shush. You’re perfectly human. Mostly. As was your father. Fine specimen of a man. It’s such a shame that I had to kill him.”
“Do not dare to take that tone with me, child. I had to kill him. You see, it was he that murdered Jelia.”