Fiction: First Kings

Read More: A brief interview with Ted Morrissey

The line between white sky and snow was a ghostly tracing along the horizon. Bitty blocked the icy specks pricking at her eyes as she tried to gain her bearings. It should’ve been a short walk to the Houndstooths’ farm, less than three miles, but she’d lost her way, as Papa and Bobby would’ve predicted, Bitty being a girl and little bitty at that. But Mama said go, her voice strange with pain and panic. Bitty tried to block out the bloody bedsheet Mama held between her legs. She tried to think of the cry and cuddle of a new baby, and Mama’s relief if she could bring Mrs. Houndstooth to her bedside.

The white horizon was no help, nor was the sunless sky. She tightened the scarf around her neck and chin, the wool scratching at her chapped lips, and tugged her loose, hand-me-down skully past her ears. Then she dug her mittened hands deeper into her coat pockets and set off again in a direction she prayed was right. Please, God, let the Houndstooths’ high chimney appear and let Mrs. Houndstooth be home, or at the Johnsons’ where Papa and Bobby went in hopes of retrieving her, for Mrs. Johnson was due before Mama. Papa and Bobby had to bet, and they bet there. They took the wagon and Old Psalter, also betting Old Psalt’s horse sense would keep him to the road no person had seen since the storm. If Mrs. Houndstooth wasn’t with Mrs. Johnson they would go on to town for Doc Higgins, even though he’d only delivered one or two babies in as long as anyone could remember, said Papa, as he was working his way into his coat. Bitty was helping him because Papa’s left arm had been hanging at his side more and more useless since September, a fact he would hide from Doc Higgins if he could. Papa didn’t care for Doc Higgins because he said wherever Doc went Mr. Michaels was sure to follow—once a body reached a certain age, he added, not wanting to worry Bitty in case she had to see Doc sometime. She knew what Papa was up to. She pictured Mr. Michaels in his stovepipe hat driving the black cart pulled by a painted gray mare.

Bitty hitched at the straps of the dungarees beneath her coat. They were Bobby’s, outgrown a decade before. When Mama told her to go to the Houndstooth farm, Bitty tossed her frock in the corner of the washroom and pulled on Bobby’s old overalls, which hung from a peg near the wringer. Mama’s voice said hurry. Bitty fretted about getting out of the dungarees fast enough. For a day or two she’d felt the ache that meant the blood was coming, like an unwelcome relation. It’d snowed on Thanksgiving, two months ago, and she’d made an angel by the henhouse, just finished with the morning’s gathering. She was lying in the new snow when she felt the warm rush for the first time. She bolted to her feet and saw the crimson stain, stark in the snow, where the angel’s private place would be. In the night, something dug the angel into a monstrous form which froze solid. Its claws had also left long trails on the henhouse door where it’d stood on its hind legs calculating entry like a human thief.

Bitty surveyed the horizon again. A dark shape showed faintly against the blankness. Could it be the Houndstooths’ chimney rising above the crest? There was no other point of note anywhere in the white, so Bitty began trudging toward the indistinct shape. The snow was over her knees.

Wind-driven pellets bit at her eyes, so she kept her gaze down and shielded her face with her hand, her fingers numb inside the mitten. When she looked up to check her progress, instead of finding the landmark closer and more distinct, it had disappeared, leaving only the white-on-white play of ground and sky.

Bitty stopped. She sensed how tired her legs were. Between the depth of the snow and the inclination of the land she’d been climbing, her legs trembled with exhaustion. Her stomach was empty too. She’d only had a bite of egg when she saw Mama struggle toward the day-room, almost collapsing before Bitty could reach her. Mama steadied herself against the wall with one hand and grasped her baby-swollen belly with the other.

Bitty searched for the dark shape. She shifted her vision to the right and saw the nebulous black form. She could not have strayed so far. It must’ve moved. She couldn’t say what it was—the blowing snow disrupted her vision—but she could say what it was not, and it wasn’t the top of a chimney, nor any squared-off manmade structure.

She thought of the specter of Plague who had haunted her nightmares and the nightmares of all the children, she imagined, and all the adults when they were children and maybe some still. She understood Plague was only a representation, a stand-in for death, yet also believed him a real thing too: a crowlike being, black-feathered and monstrous in his uncaring cruelty. Bitty stared at the figure, her heart quickening, nestled in its layers of clothing and her childish bosom, thin of flesh and avian of bone itself. The story said Plague had preyed on them since the arrival of the First Families, long ago. Perhaps he was an angry spirit left behind by the savage people who lived on the land before they arrived, one of their heathen idols, abandoned and brimming with malice.

She blinked against the snow, and when she looked again the figure was gone. There was only an echo space in her memory where it stood a moment before. […]

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Ted Morrissey’s essays, reviews and poetry have appeared in more than 70 journals. Ted is a lecturer in Lindenwood University’s MFA in Writing program and was winner of the International Book Award in Literary Fiction, as well as the American Fiction Award, from Book Fest, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Book of 2017. Morrissey is the author of three books of scholarship and seven books of fiction, most recently the novel Mrs Saville, winner of the Manhattan Book Award in literary fiction. A new novel, The Artist Spoke, is forthcoming in 2020 from Twelve Winters Press, as is a story collection, First Kings and Other Stories, from Wordrunner.

“First Kings” first appeared in North American Review and was runner-up in the 2020 Editor’s Reprint Award.

Read More: A brief interview with Ted Morrissey