The Strange Case of Mary Carter

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By Toby Bennett

Blood tickled the edge of Mary’s lip; rough wood prickled against her back, snagging on the fabric of her school uniform. Her thin skin was already burning with the sun – a blazing ball of ultra-violet that sparked off the jagged rocks in the valley around her and brought an emerald brilliance from the silver grey of the low bushes and shrubs that clung to the boulder-strewn hills.

It always hurt to stare at the granite. At midday the rock was a mottled mirror, pulsing and burning her sensitive eyes. Only the sharp shadows, trickling from the time-hewn giants into the deep cut of the valley, offered any respite.

Mary closed her eyes against the brilliance, but that only sharpened her other senses. Not too far away, the excited buzz of bees whispered of honey and greed, a song she knew well and one that made more sense to her than the twittering of nervous birds. The dull smell of turned earth rose from beneath her heel; the dust they had stirred was settling on her skin and worst of all, the heat of Anton Swanepoel’s breath against her neck – a force as palpable as his weight holding her up against the barn wall.

At her worst moments, when the brightness and the stink of the mountains became too much, she would focus on her hazy memories of another sky. The people who called the valley home always said their land was beautiful. They thanked God for it every Sunday, but when the thin songs rang out and the creaky old organ played, Mary took herself to another place. A place with grey clouds running to pink and yellow in the mellow evening; no burning blues or shrill greens; no white light to make your eyes water and head pound.

Her pa always told her she couldn’t possibly remember these things – that everything in those fragmented scenes was just a dream, best forgotten, but Mary never quite believed him. There had to be somewhere better than this, where the sun didn’t hurt so much.

“You still here, rooinek?” Anton’s voice was heavy and his breath was coming quickly, a cloying warm sweetness that mixed with the dust and heat and coiled in her gut. Nausea oozed through her. “Or you got your head in the clouds again?”

“Look at her, Anton, skin that white she might as well be a cloud,” one of Anton’s friends said. The voice belonged to Piet Snyman. Her gut twisted just a little more. She’d always liked Piet, at least from a distance. No one wanted to get too close to the tall albino girl, but Piet had always seemed to have kind eyes. Mary was glad she was too dazzled to see them. Losing the illusion of that kindness would have hurt almost as much as the rusty bolt that pressed into the small of her back as Anton ground against her.

Mary tried to speak, but it was hard to get anything from her constricted lungs. Anton was big, only a head shorter than her, and his mother’s indulgence had ensured that he’d packed a lot of meat onto his growing body. Anton was always eating something, and he had a notoriously sweet tooth. Sugar was a rare thing in the valley, but Anton was spoilt enough that he got more than was good for him; his lack of dental hygiene didn’t make for a good situation.

Anton shifted. His weight intensified. Mary tried to press farther back, but the wall left her nowhere to go. The scent of soured honey wafted past Anton’s moist lips and the sweet he was sucking clicked close to her ear.

Anton gripped her jaw and let his thumb slowly trace the line of her cheekbone. The dust that had been trapped in the pads of his sticky fingers rasped against her skin.

“Feels like paper.” He laughed and his friends were quick to join him. “Looks like it too.” His other hand dropped into his pocket. Mary screwed up her eyes tighter – he kept a knife there.

They couldn’t mean to really hurt her! Could they?

The others didn’t like Mary, but her pa had always said that no boy would bother a lady if he knew what was good for him. Her pa was usually right, but there was a hunger in the boys’ eyes that hadn’t been there when Mary and her father had arrived three years ago. The others had always had an instinctive wariness of outsiders, even though they themselves had not been in the valley long. It was inexplicable to Mary how people, who knew what it was to run from bullies, could so easily become bullies themselves.

It was not a question she had ever been able to ask anyone, since she had no real friends. The community needed a blacksmith, and as long as her father fixed kettles, fabricated plough-blades or made shoes for horses, her family would be tolerated. Tolerated was not the same as being accepted. Most of the children knew they could only go so far; if they caused any real damage, there would be repercussions from the adults, who valued her father’s skills. Anton was different, though, he didn’t care. His father was important too, and any wariness he might have had had long ago transformed into meanness and contempt.

Instinct told Mary it wasn’t affection that motivated Anton’s interest in her. He pressed close, but she had no doubt that of all her tormenters, he was the most repulsed by her. It was the same as when someone couldn’t stop worrying bad tooth. She was different, disconcerting; for some people the urge to control came hard on the heels of not understanding something.

Anton rummaged around in his trousers as if he couldn’t find the knife. His belly bulged at the pressure from beneath and he offered her a yellowed grin. “Perhaps I should write my name,” he murmured. “What do you think, albino girl? You want me to write my name?”

Bile burned at the back of her throat. The cruelty of the sun was suddenly welcome; perhaps it would burn away the filth on her cheek. She opened her eyes and stared down at the fat boy in front of her. It was Anton who looked away. For an instant defiance flared, but her father had been clear – no fighting, no trouble at all costs.

Mary closed her eyes again and Anton pushed in harder, eager to avenge his small defeat.

Sies, man, don’t get so close. She could have something catching!” Jacques chimed in from behind Anton. “Besides, her pa might be coming home soon.”

Anton laughed. “The Uitlander isn’t coming home for a while. Got important business with my pa this afternoon, I heard.” Anton turned his attention back to Mary. “We both know your father isn’t going to say no to a little something from the still, once they’ve talked business ?”

Mary all but choked on her disappointment. She wanted to believe her father would come back and save her, but Anton was right. Her father’s taste for liquor had intensified over the years and it was unlikely he would be back anytime soon.

“What do you say, hemel besem, want to go somewhere out of the sun?” Anton’s meaty hand closed on her wrist and he began to drag her before she had time to answer. “Hey chaps, you coming?” he asked.

There was nervous murmuring from the other boys. Everyone but Jacques took a step back. Piet looked around at her father’s sheds and the low house beyond. “Na, it’s creepy around here, weird just like her.”

Anton snorted. “Bangbroek! Besides, she’s not so bad.” Anton looked at Mary as if she should be grateful for the meagre acknowledgement; all she could register was gratitude that Piet had chosen to leave. The boys melted away like shadows into the heat of the afternoon.

“Just the three of us, then.” Anton smiled and offered her his arm.

Mary didn’t take it, but she was feeling the effects of being out in the sun for so long – she used the wall for support. Jacques stepped in behind her and Anton fell into step alongside. They were ready for her to bolt, but they needn’t have worried. Mary didn’t have the strength to run. All she could think of was getting inside.

Mary allowed herself to be taken to the door of the barn. Each step was an effort and her throat was so tight she didn’t dare speak. Even so, she had to try when Anton made to open the door.

“Please…” The word came out high pitched and rasping, “Please you mustn’t go in there.”

Anton made a sour face. “But why not? Everyone wants to know what happens in the smith’s workshop.” Anton reached for the handle, Mary closed her eyes in anticipation of what must follow – her father guarded his secrets and…

To her surprise and horror, the door gave way. A year ago her father would never have left the workshop open. Even Mary only saw the inside of the barn because her father brought her here to take her medication.

The door creaked and swung open. If she had not felt so sick, Mary might have used the momentary distraction to try run for the house. She could even have gotten away; at the very least she might have made them forget the idea of looking into the barn. But, in the end, the momentary safety offered by the barn’s gloomy interior proved too alluring. She broke from the two boys with a sudden burst of speed and scurried into her father’s workshop. Her instant relief as she slipped into the coolness of the room faded as she remembered where she was.

The workshop had been a normal barn when her father had taken it over, but it had changed significantly since then. Metal surfaces gleamed and small devices ticked and turned on shelves. Her senses sharpened almost as soon as she stepped through the door. The hisses and pops of the hundred little projects that her father was working on were loud. The whirling fan blades and extractors couldn’t quite remove the smell of her father’s work.

As her mind cleared in the gloom, Mary understood the gravity of her mistake. She spun around and tried to force the door closed.

Too late, Anton was already stepping through, using his weight to keep the door open.

“What’s all this, eh?” Anton was peering, struggling to make out anything in the relative darkness.

“You have to go.” There was new stress in Mary’s voice. If she had been worried for herself before, she was past panic now. Her father had said that none of the villagers must ever see his work. It wasn’t exactly her fault, but he’d say that she’d led the boys here.

“Go?” Anton asked. “But we only just arrived.”

“She’s right; we shouldn’t be here, Anton.” Jacques sounded nervous.

Anton laughed. “You wait outside if you like, Jacques. Miss Carter and I have things to do.”

Anton made a sudden grab for Mary, but she avoided it easily. She was slow and clumsy in the sunshine, but in the cool dimness of the workshop, she was faster than the fat boy could ever hope to be.

Anton was left standing in the doorway, holding her shawl as she fled farther into the workshop.

Anton took her escape with good humour. “And where are you going to go, meisie?” He chuckled. “There’s no other way out of here.”

“Go away, Anton!” Mary shouted. What could she do to make them leave? It wouldn’t matter to her father that it was his fault the workshop had been left open, and it didn’t seem to matter to the two boys that she wanted them to go. She had only the vaguest notion of Anton’s intent. Come to that, she doubted the boy had much idea of what he was doing either. It wasn’t something they discussed in the books her father gave her to read or that Mrs Venter might mention during their arithmetic lessons.

There has to be something he wants!

Metal clanged and clattered behind her, punctuated by the shattering of glass. Anton must have knocked some of her father’s engines to the floor. There would be no hiding that the boys had been here now, but perhaps she could persuade them to go before more damage was done. Before Anton hurt her.

“You make sure she doesn’t get out through the door,” Anton shouted to his friend.

The walls closed in, stirring a dreadful claustrophobia, as time narrowed to an inevitable point. Anton was getting closer, and the bully was right – there was nowhere to go. He was going to hurt her. She could still feel the stickiness he had left on her cheek; she could not bear the thought of him touching her again.

Stickiness!

The idea hit her as she reached the end of the barn – where her father’s forge stood. It wasn’t a forge as most people would understand it; rather it was a large, battered metal box with a sliding panel on the front. Mary’s father had made a habit of calling the box his ‘forge’, since he didn’t want the other inhabitants of the valley guessing what it actually was.

The outside of the box was stained and blackened, as if it had been in a fire. A casual observer might take it to have no value, but the forge was the most valuable thing in her father’s entire workshop. If you fed the right details into the dials next to the sliding door, the forge could make anything.

Her father would no doubt call what she planned madness, but with Anton bearing down on her, she felt she had no choice. There was only one thing Anton liked more than scaring people and that was sweets.

Anton’s footfalls sounded close behind her. There was no time to think it through.

“If you leave me alone, I will give you sweets!” she shouted.

Anton stopped, she had his attention at least. “What are you talking about?”

The back of the barn had no lighting. Mary didn’t have any problems with the lack of illumination, but she could hear Anton shuffling around behind her, groping for her in the dark. His breathing was ragged with excitement.

“If you promise to go away and not tell anyone, I will give you all the sweets you could ever want,” she repeated. “You and your friend.”

Jy jok, there are no sweets.” Mary turned in time to see a nasty smile spread over his face. “And we can take them anyway if there are.”

“No! No you can’t, because I still have to make them.” Mary hurried over to the panel on the side of the forge and spun the dials as her father had shown her. She turned the dial that controlled the amount of the substance produced all the way up, and began the process.

Anton opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came. Light blazed as the forge’s door slid open and candies began to hit the wooden floor. Spun sugar shattered like stained glass as it spilled onto the ground in a wave of blinding confectionary. Mary had no idea where her father’s machine had learned about so many types of candy, but every permutation of the sweetmakers art seemed to be flowing from the forge in a ceaseless wave, lit by the white brilliance burning within the battered old box.

Anton’s eyes bulged and he snatched a treat from the dusty floor.

Mary wasn’t sure if she should be worried or relieved if the whole batch turned out to be poison.

“Anton? Wat gaan aan?” Jacques had come half way into the barn, a moth drawn by the light pouring from the forge, but he dared go no further. “Wat is dit?” He stared at the abating tide of candy with obvious distrust.

Anton swirled the sweet in his mouth and beamed. “It’s good.” The candy crunched. Anton was too impatient to suck.

“But how do you know it’s safe?” Jacques blurted.

“It’s safe. Right, Mary?” Anton started to fill his pockets. “Mary and I are friends.”

Anton smiled at her. He kept looking at her, even as he scooped up the sweets from the floor. His unwavering attention told Mary her gamble had not paid off. nton meant to take his sweets then finish what he had started.

Jacques clearly lacked his companion’s determination. He opened his mouth to say more, when the forge began to shudder violently and the illumination spilling from it intensified. This was part of the shutdown process, but Mary decided to make the most of it.

“There’s something wrong, we have to get out!” she shouted.

Jacques turned and fled. “Anton come on, boet, let’s get out of here!” he shouted as he ran.

Anton’s eyes narrowed as he looked from the shaking metal box to Mary.

Mary pretended to ignore him and turned to the dials as if trying to bring the device back under control. A slight adjustment sent a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke coiling out into the air. That was enough for Anton, who went thundering after his friend. Sweets clattered to the floor as they spilled from his overstuffed pockets.

As soon as he was through the workshop door, Mary ran after them. She slammed the door shut and locked it. Anton began hammering on the door almost as soon as he realized that he had been tricked, but the barn was impregnable. The forge powered down with a series of flashes and shudders. Mary sat drawing in the cool gloom of the workshop, when the banging on the door finally stopped she got up and started to clear the debris from the floor.

She did a good enough job that her father didn’t notice when he got home, though Anton’s father’s brandy could be given some of the credit.

Her father was still bleary-eyed when they came for him.

*

Mary always had trouble sleeping at night; she almost heard the mob approaching in time, but her father was a heavy sleeper and the house was surrounded before she could rouse him.

The people called her father’s name and he went to meet them. He told Mary not to worry, that it was all some misunderstanding, but Mary knew it was already too late and that, when the worst happened, it would be her fault.

All it took was a thrown rock to show that her father bled blue – bluer than the royal families of Europe one of the mob later commented. The men said they had come about sorcery; the strange blood was all they needed to confirm that there was a demon in their midst.

 

*

“I am sorry to have made you wait so long, my dear,” Mr. Swanepoel said. The lantern light pierced Mary’s eyes. After nearly a week, she had become accustomed to the darkness of the cellar; she had even begun to like it. She was unsure if it was the lack of her father’s medicines or the long isolation, but light intruded on her senses now. They’d let her keep her bonnet, and she adjusted it to make sure the light didn’t blind her.

The grey haired preacher frowned. “You truly are a pathetic creature, aren’t you? I only hope that prayer and being part of a solid family can undo the damage that monster has inflicted.”

“What are you talking about, Mr.Swanepoel? Why are you holding me here? When can I leave?” Mary’s jaw felt stiff from lack of use.

The pastor’s hand blurred and pain exploded in the side of her head. “I told you already! You are not going anywhere,” Swanepoel snarled. “Bad enough that we have to–” He visibly forced himself to calm down. “You are lucky to have my protection. Many whisper that you’re as strange as your father. How long do you think you would last if I just let you walk away?”

Mary reached up to touch her burning face. “We didn’t hurt anyone. If you let me go, I swear to leave. No one would ever have to see me again.”

“No point dwelling on that, girl. You need to accept that things have changed. Best to do as I say.” He leaned in closer, lifting his lantern right into her eyes. “Lord, you’re not even crying, are you?”

“I don’t,” Mary said simply. Why would he want her to cry?

“To think that my youngest son might want to be bonded to such a –” Swanepoel reached into a pocket and drew out a handful of colourful sweets. “My son says you made this with your father’s cursed device. Is it true?”

Mary hesitated. Her father had been killed for merely owning the forge. Should she admit to any knowledge of it?

“Well?” the pastor asked impatiently. “Is my son a liar? I do not trust his word for much, but I must know.”

Mary remained silent.

Swanepoel blew out his ample cheeks. “Before he passed, your father confessed that this ‘forge’ of yours was what he used to produce all his metal. Is that true? We wondered how he always seemed to have a supply, but this infernal device would explain much.”

Mary stared at the pastor. She hadn’t realized that he’d spoken to her father before he died. It was possible that Anton’s father shared the outrage of his flock and that he was merely trying to trick her into admitting that she knew of her father’s ‘infernal device’. However, Mary read something different in the man’s eyes – a greed that echoed his son’s.

“Yes,” she confessed.

“Yes, what?”

“He used the forge to get his materials.”

The pastor’s grim expression shifted slightly. “And you know how to do this too?”

Mary could hear a tension in his voice. It would go badly for her if she said the wrong thing.

“I do. I can make you anything you want, if you’ll just–”

The pastor slapped the table, his mood visibly improved. “Then it’s settled.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There’s nothing for you to understand, girl. Your father is dead and you need a home. My boy has expressed an interest in you, so you shall be married and spared the indignity and danger you might otherwise face.”

Mary stared at him. She understood the words, but what she was hearing made so little sense.

The pastor plunged on. “Of course you will need a dowry and, while the rest of your father’s estate is forfeit, I shall make sure that his forge is brought here, where you can begin to repay your debt.”

Mary opened then closed her mouth. What was there to say that wouldn’t simply earn her another slap or worse? What would the pastor do when he realised she only had the most basic understanding of the forge?

Pastor Swanepoel took her silence as agreement and rose. “It will take a few days to smooth things over. People’s fears must be allayed. In the meantime, I think it best that you stay here.”

Mary looked around. How many more days would she have to stay in the cellar? He’d have to let her out for the wedding.

Swanepoel’s nose wrinkled as he caught sight of the bucket in one corner of the room. “I’ll leave the lantern and send Anton down to remove that,” he said and looked at her as if she should be grateful for his concession. “He’ll also bring some water. You should do your best to make yourself presentable. You will not be down here much longer.”

With that, the pastor swept from the room.

As soon as he was gone, Mary put out the light.

*

Darkness returned, bringing with it the dreams her father had warned her of. Another day without the injections her father used to give her only made them more intense.

Her skin was tight and itchy… Burning.

In her dreams she saw flames – the same flames that had engulfed her father’s forge before he’d pulled it from the conflagration. There was the sour smell of flesh on that smoke. She saw infants, just like herself, sizzling in their green tubes. Her father had not been quick enough to reach anyone else. A new generation, destroyed.

The darkness was a cloak that hid and comforted her. Pain abated and the sickness that had overflowed the bucket they had left her, receded. When she was awake, she felt as if her body were covered in tiny insects that tickled and nipped. She plucked out her fingernails one by one with her sharp teeth. As she ran her exposed fingers over the rough plaster on the walls, it was as though she were feeling things for the first time.

The bright colours that had once only tinged her vision bloomed, edging every shape and highlighting the furthest corners of her dark domain. The sound of heartbeats from the floors above became like thunder. Her mouth watered when that sound came close, but the maids only left food and drink at the top of the cellar stairs. None of them felt the need to come further into her lair, and Mary was happy to be left alone to sleep.

***

“Wake up, Mary.” Anton’s voice was heavy. He held a single candle and was dressed in his church clothes.

Mary’s instincts told her it was morning, probably past time for his father’s sermon. Why was he here now?

“We’re to be married, Mary,” Anton said.

Mary started to get to her feet, but before she could rise, Anton crossed the room quickly and stood before her. “My father has said so.” He put the candle on the table next to him and stared at her. Mary didn’t look back. “I want to be sure you’re worth it.” His breath smelled worse in the confines of the cellar. That or her senses had indeed become sharper in the dark. “My brother said that you might be just like your pa. Said I should check you were a woman before I married you.”

“Please, Anton.”

He ignored her and his hand went to his belt. “Shut up.”

There was a dull clack as a well-sucked candy hit the back of his teeth.

“You can lie there or you can do something, but I want to know…”

He yanked clumsily at her stained skirts. Despite his promises, the pastor had not even sent a change of clothes. The fabric was stiff with the fluids that had leaked from her during her slumber.

Fear gripped Mary. What would Anton do when he saw her body? Her father’s medicines were wearing off quickly now; there would be no hiding how different she had become. Her father had been killed for having blue blood. What would they do to her?

She slapped his hand aside and tried to escape past him, but it was a mistake. His weight bore her down and they rolled across the cellar floor. Her dress tore and he pawed at her, his breath fast with unfamiliar exertion. His fumbling assault knocked the candle from the table. The last light sputtered for a moment then died.

“Anton, no! Leave me alone!”

The boy ignored her pleas and forced himself forward, tearing fabric aside until they were pressed together, skin on skin. Had he known more of what he was about, Anton might have noticed something was wrong, but the darkness and the boy’s lack of experience kept Mary’s secret.

Her transformation was almost complete.

The legs that Anton parted and the wrists he held were not her only limbs.

The tiny vestigial arms below her ribs had flourished without her father’s therapies to stunt them. The long elegant arms arched out, their chitin points quivering over her oblivious attacker.

Her thrashing dislodged her bonnet, and she looked up at him from unblinking compound eyes. Eyes that saw in the darkness as Anton’s could not.

There was pain as he entered her, but that was almost nothing to the sensation of her face splitting vertically from her chin to her nose. Three years of gene therapy had done much to curb her nature, but once roused, the mating instinct could not be resisted.

Earth had not been their intended destination, but Mary’s race was nothing if not adaptable. Her father’s serums had begun the process, but her body quickly shifted gears to accommodate her mate’s genome. Anton gurgled as fine spines pierced his groin, hunting the precious genetic material Mary required. His anguished moans stopped as her mandibles clamped over his head.

Her jaw shifted back and forth, mimicking the action of a saw. Without warning, the vertebrae gave way. Mary gagged on the hot spurt of blood that filled her throat. It seemed sweeter than any candy that she had ever tasted. Anton was warm, plump and full of juices; she kept sucking until she had all she needed.

When it was all over, she could feel Anton coming to life inside her, her body changing still further to welcome him. She scurried towards the cellar door, revelling in the freedom of using her new limbs. There was no fear now. Whatever concerns she might have had in her old life were gone – there was new life to protect.

A new generation, on a new planet…

End

tony bennet
Toby Bennett was born in 1976 in Cape Town, South Africa. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Cape Town. Like many writers, he has had a varied career that has included graphic and web design, database administration and technical writing. Much of his work can be found on Amazon Kindle.