Death and the Women
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"My most sweet Jesus,
I accept the death Thou has destined for me;
with all the pains that may accompany it;
I unite it to Thy death, I offer it to Thee.
Thou hast died for love of me;
I will die for love of thee
and to please Thee."

Anouk Hofmann unfolded her hands, crossed herself, and stood, knees creaking. The sky above the tree branches through her window was a deep Prussian blue - late enough for an old woman like her to be awake. But then again, it was not every day an old woman's sweet granddaughter came to visit her, either, and she and Isobelle had sat up late watching one of Isobelle's favourite shows on the cable while Anouk had completed her crossword. It would be even later for Isobelle, she was sure, who had already taken out her computer and been plugging into Anouk's wireless when she had sent herself to bed. Teenagers, always staying up late on all their devices and wearing themselves out for the next day.

Anouk supposed she shouldn't be too hard on her, though. She remembered enough to know her mother had been exactly the same at Isobelle's age, and her own self too - although in her day it had been novels under the covers with the electric torch instead of wireless.

She adjusted her scapular and slipped herself into bed, satisfied and shriven. Father Caravoy had discussed the prayer in his sermon last Sunday, saying that people were all too often willing to say they would give up their lives to the Lord once, but habit made certainty. And that their hope extended beyond death - they were a people of resignation and yet of hope.

Tap tap tap.

Anouk woke to a sound at her door. She fumbled for the switch of her bedside light and clicked it on, transforming the room into its usual warm enclave and the window into black polished glass. "Hello? Isobelle, is that you?"

The knob slowly turned, and the door creaked open. "Yes, Grandma." Isobelle's hand appeared, followed by her head. "I'm sorry -"

"Nonsense, child. What is the matter?" Isobelle already had her nightclothes on as well and had taken her hair from its braid.

"Do you suppose - is it possible I could put a towel or something over your clock? I can hear it all the way up here, and I can't sleep."

Anouk's husband, were he still living, would have likely responded with a rousing tale of his time in the war, where he had learned to fall asleep in the stomachs of cargo planes and therefore nobody else had any excuse for insomnia ever. She strove to be more compassionate. If Isobelle had grown up in too much peace to need to learn such things, let her be grateful. "Of course. The linen closet is just around the corner there."

She heard Isobelle open it - she might need to oil those hinges too - and rummage around, then tiptoe downstairs. After a space, her footsteps returned, then hesitated. More rummaging.

"What are you doing?"

"I can still hear it. Getting another towel."

"Oh, for heaven's sake -" Anouk rose, put on her slippers, and went out into the hallway. Isobelle was elbow-deep in her sheets and blankets, trying to pull one out without the rest toppling down onto the carpet. "Child, be careful with that." She lifted off two blankets from the lower shelf. Isobelle embarrassedly tried to shove her armful of blanket back into the closet. They would need to fold that in the morning again. She was tempted to tell her off, or make her fold it right now, like she had done to train Isobelle's mother, aunt, and uncles.

But of course, Anouk was striving for compassion. That was what grandmothers were for, after all: to be sympathetic where parents were not.

She heard it as soon as they came onto the downstairs landing: cllick, cllliick, clllliiick. Trailed by Isobelle, Anouk navigated through her nightlight-lit living room to her mantel clock. It was a clumsy mahogany thing, a wedding gift from her husband's parents; she kept it because she felt it made the house feel more lived-in. Already draped in a towel, its muffled hollow sound was still audible.

Together, they wrapped the clock in two more layers of blanket, folding them for more thickness and tucking them around its foot to leave no gap for the sound to escape.

Cllick, cllliick, clllliiick.

Isobelle stood back. "I don't think that's doing anything."

Nor did Anouk, now that she listened. She frowned, bent to press her ear against the swaddling.

The faintest of tickings from the clock. But cllick, cllliick, clllliiick filled her exposed ear.

"Hhrmm," she said. "I don't think that is my clock doing that. Isobelle, darling -"

"Yeah, I know. Maybe outside -?" She moved to the sliding glass door that opened into Anouk's small garden and peered out. "Do you gotta trim a tree or - oh!"


"There's something moving in your garden - there!" She grabbed Anouk's wrist and pointed in the direction of the hydrangeas - or where they would be, if the glare inside the glass hadn't been wiping out the view of everything outside it. "See?"

Anouk squinted. Probably just another one of those awful deer, eating her plants. Well, she'd scare it off soon enough. She reached out with her other hand and switched on the porch light.

The thing revealed could not have been less like a deer if it tried. Both grandmother and granddaughter jumped back in shock.

Anouk's first though, oddly, was of the Nutcracker. She had seen the ballet two weeks ago, and three of the performers had danced in stilts to evoke the magic of fairyland. The… thing outside her window moved like they had, on spindly limbs that hardly looked like they would hold its weight. From forelimb to forelimb, hindlimb to hindlimb it swayed. Its black and wrinkled skin gleamed nakedly in the bulb-light, and its jet-bead eyes were focussed directly on the glass - no, through it. On them.

A horse-sized head tipped with an evil-looking beak snaked out and struck the door. Anouk and Isobelle both flinched instinctively. The glass and frame creaked under the stress.

The head was drawn back, the monster's whole body swaying with the motion. And then - time seemed to slow down for Anouk as she watched that neck whip around - it was brought back for a second strike.

The glass shattered. Fragments fell onto their bare ankles, bit their cheeks. The creature's head snaked inside, followed by a forelimb.

Isobelle screamed, seized the first thing at hand - which happened to be a ceramic sculpture of a begging dog Anouk had gotten from a flea market - and swung it at the head. The dog broke in two, and the creature recoiled. It opened its beak and hissed angrily, revealing a worm-like and barbed red tongue, then darted forwards again.

This time, a potted begonia. Isobelle and Anouk were showered with soil. Another screeching hiss, right in Anouk's face - she got a blast of fetid breath.

This thing, whatever it was, was clearly not so spooked as a deer. Perhaps it was rabid, for it was continuing to try and scrabble its way through the broken door. Or - she had heard stories of man-eating tigers in far-off India, that preferred to hunt humans even when given other food. Maybe this was like that. “Isobelle,” she said breathlessly.


“Go fetch the police.” They would fetch Animal Control and get the creature tranquilized in no time. “Sneak out the front door. Wear my coat.”

“But grandma -“

“No buts!”

Isobelle ran. The creature’s gaze turned to follow her, but Anouk swatted at its beak. “Hey! You look at me!”

Her fireplace was gas, now, but she still kept the set of fire irons beside it for the look. She picked up the slice bar and smacked it down on the lanky forelimb embedded in the carpet. Something crunched, and the creature struck out again with its head, sending her stumbling against the side table. Embroidered tablecloth and candy bowl toppled and crashed. A shard of the bowl scored over her wrist, opening a red line.

Faintly, she heard the front door open and shut. Good. Isobelle safe; that was all she needed.

Back when she had been less than Isobelle's age, when she had still lived on the farm, Anouk had been, in her own words, "perfectly passable" with a gun. It had been her task to shoot away the hawks, foxes, other predators that came after the chickens. She'd shot a snake off a fence post. She'd killed a wolf once, crying kid still in its mouth.

And how much more precious than livestock and farm was her own home, and her own granddaughter? No wretched creature would invade Anouk Hoffman's house while she was living, no sir.

"All right," she said, waving the slice bar before those jet-bead eyes. "You want me, you bloody bastard? Come have me, then."

When the police entered the residence, they found no other traces of Anouk Hofmann but a large stain of blood and soil on the plush carpet, scattered with begonia petals. A missing persons alert was put out; nothing came of it.

Well - no other traces but a neatly-wrapped box labelled For Isobelle, tucked within a drawer of the kitchen island. This was provided to her in due course once the investigation was completed; she opened it sitting alone, in her own bedroom.

Inside was a small envelope, light in her hand. She unfolded the lip and poured out into her palm two small squares of brown wool joined with cotton strings. She pursed her lips and frowned at it, then peered back inside the envelope and drew out a small card. It read:

Scapular of Our Lady of Carmel
Take this Scapular. Whosoever dies wearing it shall not suffer eternal fire. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and pledge of peace.

Isobelle Düscher never did find out exactly what befell her grandmother all those years ago. She herself perished not in the middle of her living room, in nightdress and with fire-iron in hand, but in an uncomfortable hospital bed in a scratchy hospital gown and with nothing in her hand but a pulse oximeter, glowing brightly fuchsia. Too many tubes, too many drugs, too much bustle and sterility - she was tired of it all.

“Are you afraid, grandmama?” asked her own little granddaughter, perched on the edge of the bed in her visiting clothes.

“Oh no, love,” she answered truthfully, for her life had been long and it had been full, at least as she considered it. And furthermore, below her hospital gown hung on many-times-replaced cotton cords two squares of embroidered brown wool, in a promise decades old and transcendent of death.

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