Six this time. Six places where the blood pooled too close to the surface, the sick, purpled mottling blooming across pale flesh. She was hungry, but she would not eat. Beneath, her bones pushed against wasted meat. It didn’t like when she went without food.
Her palm pressed tight against her chest, she traced her fingertips along her sternum, let them drift across the protruding rib bones. She counted them, wondered if with enough pressure, she could draw them out, release them from her thin cage of skin. If she did this, would it finally stop? Or would the marking linger on her decomposing body, a reminder even to the dirt that she was different, a thing separate?
Once, when she was a girl and the bruising had just begun, she’d found a slug and carried it home, her fingers aching from such a delicate touch. Later, she would eat it, taking small, neat bites. If she could fill her body with something else, something distinctly not Violet, perhaps the marking would pass over her, but the next morning the bruises had multiplied, and her mother smiled to see them.
How old had she been the first time? Five? Six? There were flashes of dark woods, the trees stretching jagged limbs against blackened sky, and the moon always absent. She could not remember it all. Hushed whispers, grunting. A great slab laid out before a hulking figure carved from stone. It would be years before she knew the correct word. Altar.
“Marked,” her mother said each time, her fingers tracing the marred flesh. Over the years, Violet learned to hate her mother’s touch, but she willed her body to hold still, to curl into itself, a small quiet thing in the face of her mother’s fever bright eyes.
At first she had asked questions, but her mother would go silent, her eyes twitching away, searching for something beyond the physical space they occupied. But at night Violet listened. She tiptoed through shadow to her mother’s room, pressed her ear against the door, and waited. If her mother ever dreamed of it, of the thing, its name never manifested. There was only silence in the great house, the rooms too large and menacing in their emptiness.
She would think of the woods then, those dark trees pressing down against her as she looked into the ancient stone face of something that had once worn the flesh of humans. But it had never been human. Even in her faded memory, Violet had the sense that it was much, much older than man. Older perhaps, than even her mother had ever imagined.
But she wasn’t a girl any more. Had not been, in fact, for many years. She had moved out of her mother’s house at seventeen, worked double shifts down at Fast Eddie’s to cover rent on a shitty one-bedroom apartment that smelled of cooked cabbage and cigarettes. Somehow, fifteen years passed, but the marking had never stopped. Starving herself seemed to keep it at bay, but the markings had begun coming closer together. What had once happened once or twice a year was now happening once a month. Fear curved like a hard stone in her belly.
• • •
“Violet.” The voice filled the room, came from both beneath and above her. The shadow was on the ceiling now. Had it come from the window, or had it always been there? Watching, waiting for her to finally notice its slow, calculated creeping?
“Hello, Mother,” Violet said, and the voice chuckled, a deep, rasping wheeze.
“Never could fool you. Always watching me with those big eyes. Like you were drinking the whole world with them.”
“I haven’t eaten, Mother. For a long, long time.” She offered up an emaciated arm.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. Be a good girl and take off the blanket.”
For a moment Violet considered not obeying, thought about running from the room to her car and driving until the tank ran empty or until her organs finally shut down. Flesh and bone mangled up with steel and rubber. But it hadn’t mattered in the past. Certainly, it wouldn’t matter now, and there was so little of her left. She had made sure.
She kicked at the quilt that covered her, pushed it down so that her naked form lay exposed. Warm, fetid air wormed over the soles of her feet, up and across her thighs, the concave bowl of her belly.
“Flesh of my own. Blood of my own,” her mother said. The shadow was no more. Only her mother pressing against her, stretching her form to fit into Violet’s. Her dark hair flowing across Violet’s chest, spilling over her face. Their palms flat against one another, and then her mother’s mouth forcing her lips apart. She smelled of earth, of something that had come from beneath the ground.
“Feed me. This last time,” Mother said.
• • •
Her mother ran on all fours, on impossibly long limbs with joints crooked upward. Violet wanted to scream, but she feared that if she did her mother would turn back, would look at her from a face that she didn’t recognize. The thought terrified her. She kept moving. She knew the way.
The great stone loomed ahead of them, and her mother slowed. She turned away. She did not want to see its face.
“Look at Her, Violet.”
Some animal cried out into the night, a long screaming that set her skin crawling.
“The Great Worm,” her mother whispered and crept forward, curled herself against its feet, ran her fingers between her legs.
The statue leered down, the body and face of a woman, the mouth opening impossibly large, rows and rows of pointed teeth crammed into the space. A vortex of razor blades that went on and on. It was a mouth of violence. A mouth that hunted out soft flesh and attached itself there, suckled until it was satiated.
“From the beginning, She wanted you,” her mother said, “Marked you as Her own, and She paid me for bringing you. She let me see things.”
“Please. Don’t,” Violet said. She was so tired. She lay down, pressed her hands against the hard earth.
“There is a hole in the bottom of the world,” her mother panted, writhing under that gaping mouth.
“You know that moment before you fall asleep? That moment where you feel yourself falling? All the earth suddenly drops away into nothingness? That’s the hole opening. You’re feeling Her move,” she said.
The stars blazed, a piercing white light that bored into Violet’s skull, burned ghostly images against her retinas. She clawed at her eyes, and her stomach heaved.
“And now, it’s time.” Her mother grasped her, dirty fingernails pressing into pale flesh. “Feed me, my love. My little daughter. Feed me now.” She pressed her mouth to her daughter’s abdomen. An unnatural heat that pulsated in time with her heart grew under her mother’s tongue.
“It was you, wasn’t it? It was always you. The marking,” Violet said, and wrapped her fingers in her mother’s hair, tried to pull her away. Her arm was so heavy, and her mother was too strong. There was only the movement of her mother’s mouth, the baring of teeth as she suckled, the burning as blood rose to the surface.
“She’ll take me now. And the hole will open once more. Will open wide, and She’ll take it all, everything tumbling into that great void until She’s the only thing left. The way it once was. The way it should be. And I’ll stand with Her as the world implodes.”
Above them, the great stone eyes stared down, blank, unseeing orbs, and around them, all had fallen silent. Deep down, in the places where shadows slept, the world shifted, as something great and powerful came awake. Violet closed her eyes and let her hand fall from her mother’s hair. Her mouth tasted of blood.
“These are the small ways we die, Violet, her mother said, traced her tongue against Violet’s skin. “Every day, another part of us rotting. Bags of meat and bone. But you have fed me. You have fed Her.”
Then the great mouth opened, wide rows of teeth gleaming unnaturally white against the grey stone. The empty stone eyes looked down at the two women lying in the dirt. One crouched before the other, arms and legs tangled together.
When the entire world began to scream, Violet opened her mouth to add her own cry in the dark. Everything slipping away, land bleeding into sky, and something vast creeping toward the surface. She did not want to see, so she shut her eyes, closed them tight as she had when she was a child.
“It was always you. I didn’t even know to hate you for it,” Violet whispered.
Her heart fluttered against her ribs, a frenetic, broken pumping that hitched her breath, left her gasping, her head a light, airy thing. For a moment, she floated, her body untethered from the earth, and she opened her eyes and saw.
Everything She had ever wanted. The large eyes of a small girl, her pale, fragile body stretched before Her, a vessel to fill. Rebirth. A doorway. And the dark-haired woman so willing, so eager. She brought the girl, weakened her, marked her as Her own. And now, She would use the girl one last time.
“She never wanted you, Mother,” Violet said, and laughed. She whispered it again and again. She never wanted you. She wanted me.
“Of course She wanted you. From the very beginning,” her mother said.
Violet shook her head, the effort knifing through her. “No. It was only me. Only me. I can see now.”
Above them, the blank orbs stared down, and the mouth opened ever wider.
“Too late. Too late,” Violet said, and her heart shuddered, the speed too much to bear. Once. Twice. As the moment came, she smiled. There would not be enough left. Only a pile of skin and bone, a smeared reminder of what she had once been.
And then there was nothing remaining. Only a mother clutching her daughter to her chest as she screamed into a world fallen silent.