FICTION: A Thing Made of Teeth by LC Elliott

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I was working late in the library translating an old manuscript when the blackouts first rolled in. The sharp-scented musk of ancient books has always made me feel at home, and in the subterranean stacks it’s easy to imagine yourself elsewhere. The brittle pages of the Aesopica crackled beneath my white-gloved hands, and the dim lights leant a strange kinetic energy to the illustrations, such that once or twice, I could have sworn I saw them move.

Access to the underground catacombs is my special privilege. My admittance into the labyrinthine corridors, brimming with ancient writing and hidden knowledge, is an honour afforded to me by the title on my laminated nametag: Dr Diana Neso, Classicist. It’s only temporary for now, academic budgets being what they are, but I pursue the fabled full-time position as tenaciously as Artemis once hunted Actaeon through the trees.

The first I knew of the storm was as a deep grumbling that disturbed my reading. In the shadowed vaults, it’s rare to make out sounds from above, and I’m ashamed to say my first thought was that an animal had somehow found its way inside. The growling of the imaginary beast vibrated through the shelves, making the pages of my books tremble, and echoing with a distinctly sinister quality that set my teeth on edge.

I peered into the shadows, the back of my neck prickling as though I were being watched. Another rumble shook the walls, and my mind began to conjure images of snow leopards and panthers circling my desk in the dark. I laughed at my own foolishness, but the sensation of something lurking just beyond the disc of light didn’t diminish, and so, feeling chastened, I re-shelved the volume and hurried upstairs to the public floors.

The dull roaring followed me as I surfaced, and an apocalyptic thunder clap overwhelmed the air and put paid to my beastly fantasy. I stood in front of the centre’s east-facing windows and watched the bruised clouds gather like soldiers along the horizon. The very atmosphere seemed to shake, and night drew in so quickly it was as though the storm were hounding the sun across the sky, compelling it to abandon its post too soon. Aelous, I thought to myself, is having his merry way.

It was as the hills were burnished with an angry red that I made my first mistake. It was still early, contrary to the opinion of the sky, and on any other night I would have returned to my books and wrung out a few more hours of work. But since I never learnt to drive, and I try not to take public transport after dark, I took the risk that I would beat the rain home on-foot if I hurried.

The streets had already emptied by the time I left, and the wind was warm and strong, roving in corkscrew whorls that probed for the gaps in my clothing. I bent my head into Euros’ breath and braced myself against the squall, my red coat billowing like a cape behind me and my eyes squinting through the haze. Alone in the electric power of the tempest, my hair stood on end, and I hardly managed to contain the urge to cheer and whoop at the sky. It was in this distracted state of mind that I made my second mistake.

In my rush to leave work and beat the weather to my door, I hadn’t realised I was still wearing my white archivist’s gloves. As the first heavy drops of rain began to fall, I raised my arms over my head and the fabric brushed roughly over my hair. I could, at that point, have turned tail and ran back to the library. But the clouds seemed to shadow my steps, and so I ploughed forward, through air that was thickening like treacle in my lungs.

As I hurried, twilight gave way to a purple-hazed storm glow, and it felt as though the Earth were holding its breath. I paused at the corner of Figtree Road and Nameless Park, debating whether or not to cut across the green space or to take the longer route through the streets. A moment of indecision. The sky roared. I turned into the park, and sealed my fate.

The space we call Nameless is a worn field of green encroached upon by gnarled boughs of ancient woodland, and beneath their olive canopy the air was still static and soft. It was darker than I’d anticipated beneath the leaves, and I felt my sixth sense, which men call women’s intuition and women recognise as a conditioned response to danger, tingle at the edge of my nerves.

My footsteps were silent over the grass, and as I quickened my pace a surge of anticipatory adrenaline rippled down my spine. I saw the streetlights winking from behind the trees, like a lighthouse longed-for from the deck of a sinking ship, but I knew I wouldn’t reach them in time. As I had always known I would, I felt my hunter before I saw him; a life-long spectre of possibility made corporeal in an instant. I broke into a run, but he’d noticed me far earlier than I’d seen him.

Something gargantuan and solid slammed into my side and my body was lifted from ground. Time slowed down. I twisted in the air, feeling my breath halt in my throat as though deciding whether or not it was worth the fight. And then I hit the earth, white gloves scrambling over roots trying to find purchase on the slickening moss, and the smell of the decaying forest like poison in my nose. I didn’t scream. I writhed.

The beast fell heavily against my back and I brought my elbow into its chest. I had never been so aware of myself, nor so torn between power and fragility. My veins hummed with fire, mind and body for once in perfect unity, combining in a primal desire to hurt, to flee, to escape. The beast was stronger. Something woollen and sodden was forced into my mouth and I felt myself lifted and turned onto my back as easily as if I’d been a child.

The discoloured sky snarled. I choked on water and air. The weight against me was suffocating, a thing of teeth and nails tearing at my clothes, raking tracks through my skin. I fought back, but my gloves, those soft white honours meant only for the tender caress of parchment, betrayed me. I couldn’t leave a mark, and so my mind abandoned my body to its fate.

I saw, as though through someone else’s eyes, the leaves of the grandfather oak quiver in the wind. I thought of the Grecian Dryads, of the nymphs bound to their trees, and wondered if one were watching me now. I prayed they would bear witness, and as my thoughts grew wings and took flight, the heavens opened, and the sky began to weep.

Pain lanced through me and lightning flashed, illuminating the hulking shadow above my face, its dark eyes shining from behind a tangled mess of hair. It shuddered, and I plunged my gloves into the ground and closed my eyes against the torrential downpour drenching us both. At last, its weight shifted, moved, and then lifted away. I kept my eyes closed, listening to the rain brutalising the leaves, and the aggravated wind wailing a lament through the trees.

I thought it would leave, but then the sound of a footstep at my side quickened my senses, and I lurched as though electricity had leapt through my limbs. The beast bent over me. My heart raced. And then tenderly, as though soothing a frightened animal, it reached down and removed the gag from my mouth. Anger, virulent and alight, overwhelmed me. I opened my mouth, and with a snarl, I sank my teeth into its flesh.

It howled. Thunder rolled like an ocean through the clouds. I clung on, a primal instinct awakened and baying for blood. I tasted metal, sweat, and a sharp sweetness like burning sugar as its skin tore in my mouth. It leapt away from me, and I rocked forward into a crouch, my jaw still clamped down and my muscles trembling. I felt feral, out of control, as though I’d been released from the carapace of humanity and taken flight as a being made purely of rage. I didn’t notice it raise its fist. With a flash of pain, my jaw went slack, the lights went out, and the beast was free again.

 

*

The soft patter of raindrops brushing the trees. The crunch of leaves beneath my skin. The distant hum of traffic. I surfaced into consciousness as though rising through water, only to discover I was already choking on it. I gagged, spitting blood and dirt and phlegm into a globulous puddle on the ground. Pain bloomed like filaments within me, pulse points of hurt thrumming inside my body and shimmering like oil in water through my veins. My vision blurred. My water-logged clothes pressed me down into the earth. I didn’t move. The storm was over. I had been easy prey.

I think I slept. At least, that’s the only explanation I can summon for my dreams. The grandfather oak slipped from its bark and emerged before my slumbering eyes as a crying woman, ancient and astounding. Her skin was deep brown and cracked like wood, her eyes churning liquid, the colour of moss. She spoke to me, but I don’t remember what she said. I thought I saw thousands of eyes leer out of the woods, yellow and sharp like headlights, and startling as an oncoming car. I imagined that claws burst from my fingers and turned my gloves into ribbons, and whispers drifted like a lullaby on the air.

When the visions withdrew only I was left. My gloves were muddied and bloodied, but intact, the grandfather tree loomed silent and still, and night had fallen like a landscape from another world. I got to my feet, my body as fragile as a snowflake and my mind as cracked as glass. I didn’t think. I only moved. One painful step followed by another, tempered by water and loss. Somehow, I found my way home, through streets that glowed silver in the moonlight and reflected the light from the stars.

Inside, I stripped out of my clothes and dropped them with a resounding thwack onto the floorboards. My flat appeared vulgar to me for remaining exactly the same. The same photos smiled at me from the sideboards. My half-drunk cup of coffee mocked me from the table. Everything I had left was exactly as it had always been, and seemed now derisive because of it. Only I was different, and in the comforting folds of my home I felt like a virus, infecting the tranquil air.

I was still wearing my gloves. For some reason, this struck me as funny, and as I pulled them away to find my own blood pooling in the fingers and my nails impotently torn, I dissolved into terrible cackles that bounced between the empty walls. I had fought, it seemed, but only to rip myself into shreds.

 

*

I didn’t sleep that night, my atoms reforming themselves into something new as I paced like a caged thing between the walls. I thought at first that I’d been diminished – that something had been taken from me – but I can still taste its flesh, hot and sweet in my mouth. There is something different inside me, an emotion both ancient and newborn shimmering just beyond the limits of my perception.

The air is now light, the day rising to meet itself in a wave of red that spills over the horizon like blood leaving a slaughterhouse. I am hungry, but food crumbles to dust in my mouth. It is a hunger of the soul, a craving for something I can’t place. While the sun bleeds I will burn my gloves in a fire and stand naked in the open air while they flame. I have cleaned the flat, smashing the coffee mug and turning my photos to face the wall. It was a good thing to do, I think, since the woman in those pictures doesn’t live here anymore.

 

*

The phone is ringing. Its high-pitched caterwauling shreds my trembling nerves. I will not answer. There is nothing anyone on the other end can do for me now. Three days and nights have passed since the storm the news is calling Siren, and each time its name scrolls across my television screen I scoff. Siren, they say, because the wind made the church bells toll across the town. Like a siren’s song it brought people from their homes, and like a siren’s destruction it dropped the church roof on their heads when they arrived.

If anyone had bothered to ask me, the only Classicist in town, I’d have told them their premise was false. The siren’s song is a misnomer of the modern age, for it wasn’t beauty or temptation that made those seafarers abandon their course to listen; it was knowledge. The sirens had the gift of prophecy, and it was this they called like doom across the waves.

It wasn’t prophecy the Siren brought down upon me, although I suppose all storms are prophetic in their way. Better instead they call it Titan, the harbinger of destruction. Better still that they call it The Beast, for I saw something of the tempest’s chaos in those dark and familiar eyes.

Familiar. Yes. That was what they were. Familiar like a winter frost, or the cry of a child who finds themselves lost. I fear that I know them, and would be able name them but for the fact that our meeting was out of context, like a teacher seen outside the walls of a school. I wonder on it, behind closed curtains and inside rooms lit by screens. I wonder at the nature of the sirens, and at the crying woman in the grandfather tree. I wonder, as I shed my old skin, hide my face from my eyes, and lock myself in.

 

*

“Diana,” they call to me. “Diana, are you there?”

I am, but they won’t find me. I don’t answer to that name anymore. If I am to believe the news then I am not the only person to be reborn inside the storm. There is a peculiar magic coursing through this town since the sirens called us home. A sinkhole opened up and swallowed the shopping centre whole. Hundreds of people fell into the darkness and hundreds of cockroaches climbed back into the light. They were swiftly eaten by the snakes slithering out from the gutters, and the list of missing people keeps on going up.

They found the bankers’ reptile skins hung up on coat pegs in their office, and a local vicar was carted to the hospital still bleeding from the stump where his tail had been. He claimed it looked like a horse’s mane, but the forked tongue hissing from between his lips gave him away, if you ask me.

Yesterday, I passed an old woman carrying her husband in a cage, and his vulture’s beak squawked obscenities that echoed down the street. I bared my teeth in warning and she shook him like a doll.

“Careful, or I’ll feed you to the wolf,” she grinned.

I laughed while he quivered, but we both knew I wouldn’t pounce. There’s no hunt to be had from inside a cage and pets aren’t worth my time.

I have sharpened my claws on the cement boulders in the road, and tested my jaws on the butcher’s piggy feet. I would have let him alone but he kept stroking through my pelt, and after the fifth polite decline there was really only one thing I could do. I leapt behind the counter and scattered the pork across the ground, and while his trotters tried to flee I crunched them in my mouth.

Tonight, the moon is rising, and I can smell the beast in the air. The siren showed us what we were and now he reeks of fear. My wet nose twitches. Saliva drips from my teeth. My yellow eyes are spotlights prowling up and down the street. There’s a feeling like a fever now howling through my blood, and his pound of flesh is as good as a compass in the dark. I pad on swift paws and my claws click-clack like a dirge. He thought he was the hunter, but see how he trembles when I roar.

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LC Elliott

LC Elliott is a twenty-something freelance writer and journalist. Her short fiction and poetry has been published by Strix Magazine, Rhythm and Bones Press, and Drawn Poorly zine, and she hosts the monthly politics and disability podcast, Visibility Today. You can find her screaming into the void on Twitter at @TinyWriterLaura, and find more of her work on Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/InVisibilityToday

If you enjoyed ‘A Thing Made of Teeth’ leave a comment and let LC Elliott know.

You can read more of LC Elliott’s fiction at:

Strix Magazine, Issue 4
Short Story: Mixed Signals
(Mixed Signals also published in the You Are Not Your Rape Anthology by Rhythm & Bones Press, November 2018)
Drawn Poorly Zine, Issue 4
Barriers, Poem: Patiently
Strix Magazine, Issue 6
Flash Fiction: Foundations

LC Elliott’s Journalism:

The Establishment, October 2018: We don’t need more suffering re-packaged as entertainment (https://theestablishment.co/sorry-tnt-we-dont-need-more-suffering-repackaged-as-entertainment/)

The Establishment, October 2018: What’s so Scary About Disability? (https://theestablishment.co/whats-so-scary-about-disability/)

You can find and follow LC Elliott at:

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