When she felt the first contractions mamma lay with her back brushing against the rough, splintery floor of our one room clapboard shack.
All through the pregnancy something felt wrong. I stopped kicking in the sixth month. That’s when she started having the pains; dreadful, gut-wrenching cramps. Two months later I was born.
A poor orphan girl of fifteen had no money for doctors—even when I came out cyanotic blue, with the cord tight around my neck.
My body was frail; I was slow to walk, to speak. When I did it sounded like a hoarse, throaty rattle. With mamma’s loving encouragement I pulled myself up to the furniture. Though I moved stiffly and stumbled a lot, her arms were always there to catch me. Cradled on her lap by the wood stove, she would read to me or sing while rocking me on her knee.
Whenever I was hungry, mamma would leave late at night. Because of my weak constitution, it was difficult for her to find things to feed me that wouldn’t make me sick. She’d go down the railway tracks that ran past our ramshackle hovel to a place called Westhaven; the name had a sacrosanct ring, like a mission or convent where kindly nuns help those less fortunate.
After she went I had to replace the board barricading the door. She was adamant that it stayed locked. The board was heavy in my tiny, feeble hands. Teetering on my tiptoes, my little legs quivered under the strain as I reached high above my head to fit it into the slots.
While I waited, I’d push the frayed curtain aside and glance out the cracked windowpane to try to sneak a reassuring glimpse of mamma in the distance. I had to be careful not to get caught again, like I did when I was watching the other children play kick the can in the empty lot next door.
“You have to be sure no one sees you,” she hissed. That was the only time mamma was ever mad. My heart broke. I wanted to go outside. To run, play, make friends.
Of all the stories she ever read to me, my favourite was The Ugly Duckling. I wished I could grow up to be a handsome swan like the duckling — spread my wings and find others like myself who would think I was beautiful. We didn’t own a mirror so I had never seen my own image, but I knew I was somehow different; a thorn among roses.
Last time mamma came back with food she wasn’t well. As the days grew shorter the window glass glittered with frost. Wind whistled through our slatted walls and her tattered coat didn’t keep out the chill.
Wrapped in our only blanket, she lay shivering on the floor in front of the stove. I stoked it with more and more wood, but in the end it did no good.
When mamma was alive she always kept the fire lit, even in the summer. She was forever saying how cold I felt to her. Now that she’s gone, I let the fire burn out and haven’t felt anything.
I laid her on the mattress in the corner. It wasn’t easy for me to drag her there by myself. I know I need to bury her, but it will have to wait; she’s too heavy for me to carry on my own. I’m lucky there was a lot of food in the house when she died, so I wouldn’t starve.
It’s been a long time now since mamma went to Heaven. There is nothing but bones, hair and teeth left of her. I put them into a rucksack, and then wait for the sun to sink before unbolting the door.
I know I’m doing a bad thing. Mamma always told me to stay inside. She said people could be mean; they wouldn’t understand if they saw me and might try to hurt me. I’ve never been outside before, but I have to go. There isn’t anything left to eat, and I promised myself I would give mamma a decent burial.
Slinging the sack over my shoulder, I set off down the railway tracks in the same direction mamma used to trudge. The moon is full and bright. I pass vacant fields and an abandoned boxcar with weeds shooting up through its threadbare bottom before chancing upon a winding, desolate road.
It’s very dark here, but I decide to follow along, to find out where the mysterious lane-way will take me. There aren’t any houses, just thick patches of gnarled trees on either side, so wildly overgrown their branches intertwine to form a canopy overhead.
The treeline ends at a fence. Through the lattice of rusted metalwork I see silhouettes of peculiar shapes glowing in the moonlight. Some of them have figures with wings that resemble those of a swan.
A little way further is a crumbling stone archway with an unlocked gate that hangs slightly ajar. Over top are elaborately chiseled letters. Big ones I can make out, even in the gloom.
It says Westhaven Memorial Cemetery.
© Magdalene St. Vitus
Magdalene St. Vitus is the nom-de-plume of an intensely agoraphobic Ontarian who has had her work featured in several local and internet publications, including a stint as feature poet in Toronto’s Outreach Connection Newspaper, in 1998. Currently she’s feverishly toiling on her first novel, Eyes of Innocence; a conspiracy theory set in a dystopian, post apocalyptic future.
You may read the HP Lovecraft story that inspired “Not Like the Others” by following this link.