I cradle Mother at my breast until the conductor comes to stamp my ticket. The man doesn’t seem to notice her trembling beneath my coat.
“Where you headed, young lady?”
On the opposite bench, a grizzled older passenger wakes without opening his eyes, presents his ticket, then slumps back to sleep. When the conductor departs, I close the door behind him and unbutton my coat. Beside me, the raven spreads her wings and caws.
“Be still, Mother,” I whisper. “We’re going to the black water. We’re going to make you well again.”
I pull my suitcase down from the luggage compartment and retrieve the glass medicine bottle. “Just a thimble’s worth to dull the pain.” That was what the doctor said. The raven pecks violently as I try to hold her steady. I part the beak with one hand, and tip the silver thimble with another. Then the raven changes, and now a tawny bobcat is curled beside me. I stroke her spotted pelt and her ear twitches, and I listen to the rhythm of her laboured breaths.
The steam engine roars, and the carriage rumbles; the train whistle blasts. I struggle to withhold my tears.
I wake with a start in the dead of night, and the sickly bobcat is gone. Rising, I glance out the window. Beyond looms a skeletal wilderness of naked birch like some sprawling orchard of bones. All is dark and silent; the train isn’t moving. By the pale moonlight, I discover my grizzled fellow passenger isn’t moving either. His big lungs draw no breath. A trail of blue-black blood leads from his mangled throat out into the corridor. The tracks are like none I’ve ever seen.
I knew Mother was ill the moment her teeth sank into my wrist. She had gone out in her wolf skin to hunt for our dinner. When she didn’t come home, I scoured the woods and found her whimpering, scratching her head against the bark of a tree. I ran to her side, and she lunged at me; I tumbled backward. Mother soon realized her mistake and hoisted me up in her strong human arms.
“What have I done? My poor, sweet Matilda. What have I done?” My blood still streaked her mouth and chin.
At the homestead, she bandaged my wound with ointment and herbs then retreated to our bed. There was no dinner, and Mother didn’t rise for three days. On the third, I crept once again into the surrounding woods and followed the path into town.
I walked back with Dr Ellis under cover of night, lest any of the townspeople notice us. Dr Ellis wasn’t like other men in town—the godsmen who raised torches and cried “witch” or “devil woman.” I could see the way he looked at Mother, and I knew this was because he loved her. I’d read of such things in my books.
Once, when I was little, the men with torches had come to our door, and Mother greeted them as a great brown bear. The godsmen scrambled away, screaming.
Mother could still control her magic then and changed her skin at will, not at random (like she does now). Now, I can’t be certain what skin she will inhabit next. Raven. Bobcat. Monster…
The lamps in the corridor have all gone dark as well. I poke my head out and listen to the darkness. Amid the susurrant snoring of sleeping passengers, I detect another, stranger, sound. A low, guttural growl. A claw tapping gently on glass. Mother is hungry, checking the locks. One door, several doors away, clicks and slides open.
I pursue the sound with silent steps, parallel to the trail of blood. I grip the medicine bottle tight, prepared to wrestle Mother to the ground. My body quivers at the memory of her jaws clamping down on it. But I must be brave, lest anyone else be killed. Perhaps more than a thimble is needed this time.
When Dr Ellis came out of the cottage that night, he found me sulking under the tall willow. (Many nights I dreamt the doctor would ask Mother to marry him and come to live with us at our homestead and be my Father.) He knelt beside me, and held my wounded hand.
“I suspect your mama,” he said, “has a tumor in her brain. I’ve seen similar cases before. This tumor is making her very sick.” He said something else then about “X-rays” and a “radiologist on the coast,” but I’d become suddenly dizzy, disoriented. “Sometimes,” he continued, “sick people behave unlike themselves. But you must always remember: your mama loves you very much.” That was when he handed me the bottle, explained how to administer the medicine and how much and when.
“Is Mother going to die?”
He responded without saying a word. I sprang up and knocked his bottle to the ground. I told him I knew a place, Blackwater Spring, where the water healed the sick through magic—not with “X-rays.” Mother had said so when I was little. I told him I’d bring her there and make the tumor disappear.
I pause at the open door of the sleeper car. Moist chewing sounds reverberate within. “Mother?” I hiss.
A black silhouette rises up on its hind legs and turns toward me. My breath catches in my throat. I drop the medicine. I remember our last night at the homestead. It was also the last night I’d ever touch her human skin, gaze into her human eyes, and listened to the music of her human voice. Gazing now into these glowing noctambulant eyes, I recognize no trace of her at all.
Mother has gone out into that skeletal wilderness, and I don’t give chase. As I stare up at the ceiling and the blood pools around my head, I reach out for the thimble and broken bottle of medicine. “Just a thimble’s worth,” I think aloud. “To dull the pain.”
Kirk Bueckert is a young writer living on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. His previous work has been published by Scarlet Leaf Publishing House and the League of Canadian Poets. He hopes you enjoy reading this new story as much as he has enjoyed writing it.