Consumption by William Tanner
She awoke to the warm feel of a body insinuating itself between the sheets. She allowed the familiar form to thaw her, flesh numb and lifeless from the winter’s night.
“Charlotte,” it whispered. “Charlotte, wake up now.”
“Sarah?” she murmured.
“Come on now, get up,” Sarah told her. “I’ve something to show you.”
Head still awash with dreams, Charlotte muddled into a dress while Sarah paced impatiently.
“The sisters will wake soon, we must hurry.”
Charlotte made an incoherent protest as Sarah dragged her from the room by the wrist, hushing her as they slid by the beds of the other girls. Charlotte saw how many of the beds lay empty now and bit her lip nervously.
The doors would be locked, of course, so they left the South Wing by a window in one of the classrooms. Sarah seemed to know just which one wouldn’t latch rightly. Charlotte could hardly see, the heath still shrouded in night, the frozen grass crackling with every step. Charlotte shuddered, leaning into Sarah. They crossed in silence, towards the low rise and fall of the hills. The brush was denser here, and a few naked, emaciated trees stood guard, their gaunt forms ominous in the dawn mists. The climb became increasingly difficult, the damp clods giving way beneath their feet and hands, and Charlotte fell behind a few steps, breathing hard. She wanted to ask where they were going, but her lips trembled too fiercely, whether from cold or fear she could no longer tell.
Something snatched at her hem and she panicked. With a shriek, she heaved herself free, pale hands clutching wildly for purchase in the wet earth. The fabric tore and she scrambled away from her invisible assailant.
Sarah turned back, eyes blazing, and pressed a hand to Charlotte’s mouth.
“What is the matter with you?” Sarah hissed. “We’ll be lucky if the sisters don’t come after us this minute, and you with your dress all mussed. Look at you!”
Charlotte turned back and saw the knotted bramble that had snagged her dress. She felt her face grow hot in the chill morning air. Sarah stood and peered through the mist across the gentle hills sparsely populated with patches of trees that seemed huddled together for warmth. The listless winter sun hung indifferent on the horizon, in no hurry to light their way.
“Where are we going?” Charlotte managed.
“I told you, I’m going to show you something,” Sarah said, “and then maybe you’ll believe me.”
Charlotte had known she was going to pay dearly for this adventure before they had left the hall. Now that she was mud-bespattered and her dress torn, her backside burned in uneager anticipation. Still, she dutifully followed Sarah through the grass and damp earth. There was something frighteningly unfamiliar about the heath in winter, and Charlotte wondered briefly why the sisters bothered to forbid crossing it. — Because of girls like Sarah, Charlotte supposed.
A hill emerged, taller than the ones before, and they struggled up the slope, Sarah pulling Charlotte along by the hand. Charlotte was grateful for her forceful grip as her heart pounded in her ears. She shivered and drew closer to Sarah’s warmth. At the top of the hill, Sarah paused dramatically and then tugged Charlotte along behind her. There was a sewage smell to this place that Charlotte didn’t like at all. The smell of stagnant water and rot. The two girls nearly collapsed as the muddy ground gave way beneath their feet, and both found themselves on their hands and knees at the bottom of the hill.
“Well then,” Sarah said, wiping at the mud on her knees, “now we’re both a mess.”
Once she had regained her footing, Charlotte took in the shallow basin strewn with wooden shapes she could just make out in the dim morning light. Confusion melted into comprehension and the blood drained from her.
“What is this place?” she asked, already knowing.
“It’s a cemetery,” Sarah said, a humorless smile tugging at her lips. “It’s very old; the sisters might have been using it for centuries, maybe. This is where they bring the children.”
Charlotte made her way among the graves, running her fingers along the rough wood where names and dates were rudely etched. “Is she here?”
“Yes, but don’t look for her.”
“It’s so lonely.”
“That’s why they come for the other children.” There was that odd look in Sarah’s eyes again, a perturbing sort of look, and Charlotte could never decide whether Sarah was just trying to scare her, or if she really believed what she was saying. “They come back to the hall in the dark, when the sisters are asleep, to bring their friends back with them. There isn’t much left of them besides filth and decay, but you can still hear their voices. You can even piece together their faces when they get close enough. Have you ever seen someone who died, Charlotte? I mean, died a while ago. You can’t imagine. There really is nothing left — the eyes are gone, and most of their hair, and there is nothing but this sewage clinging to bone that even the worms won’t eat.”
Charlotte pulled her hand from Sarah’s grasp and twisted away. “Stop trying to frighten me, Sarah.” She looked nervously at the marshy ground, afraid that the images bubbling to the surface of her mind might emerge at any moment.
“I’m not, it’s —” A cough cut her short, and she buried the rattling sound in her handkerchief, stuffing the coarse cloth back into her coat.
She put a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “That cough doesn’t sound very good, maybe you should go see Sister Kiara in the medical wing.”
“I’m fine,” Sarah snapped.
“Sarah, the others, they just get sick and they die. The dead girls don’t have anything to do with it.”
“They do, Charlotte. Why do you think so many girls are getting sick? There are always a few girls who don’t make the winter, you’ve seen it, but so many? Ask them, ask them if they saw anything before they got sick. Ask them who whispered to them.”
“What do you mean? Why are you saying these things?”
“Because she touched me. It was Emily.”
Charlotte started back up the hill, keeping her back to Sarah. “I’m not listening to you anymore, Sarah. Just stop it.”
But Sarah was still right behind her, whispering to her. “I saw her, Charlotte. They’re going to come for me, and maybe someday I’ll come for you, too.”
“That’s not funny!” Charlotte screamed, pushing Sarah to the ground. She fell into a deep patch of mud, and the earth seemed to swallow her up for an instant. Then bloodless fingers gripped Charlotte’s ankle, a grime-streaked face peering from out gnarled hair.
“Get away from me,” Charlotte shrieked, wrenching herself away as Sarah’s nails slid across flesh, and then she was free, racing up the hill.
She ran across the heath, stumbling in the mud and dead undergrowth. She lost her footing suddenly and felt a sharp pain in her ankle, then the ground struck her a blow that made everything gyre and wheel. When she picked herself up, she saw that she was only a hundred yards from the school. Two of the sisters stood outside, hard eyes watching as she limped toward them.
She sat gingerly on the bedside. Slowly, excruciatingly, she slipped into her nightclothes. At any other time, the girls in her bunk would have laughed at the red slashes that marked her bare skin, but a somber hush had fallen over the sleepless girls the past month, as more of their friends went away. A whole wing had been taken over by the sick, and the girls from that wing had been forced haphazardly into unfamiliar bunks. The bunks left empty by girls who had gone away.
She slipped under the covers and tried to sleep. She couldn’t, of course. She tried repeating French conjugations in her head for next day’s classes, but she couldn’t concentrate and that only made things worse. There was a feeling in her breast, like something sucking the air from her lungs. She knew that she was breathing, but at the same time she felt she was drowning. Her thoughts clamored like voices chasing her, and she couldn’t stop them coming. She could only toss from side to side, tangling herself in the dreamless sheets.
Finally, she got up and paced to the window. Outside, the moon hid behind thick, blue-grey clouds. The grass looked black and sharp and menacing. Shadows lurked beneath withered, wasted trees.
“Thank you, sister,” she whispered. “Thank you, Jesus.”
The litany Sister Mary Thomas made the girls repeat on each alternating stroke. She wondered at God’s perversity, that He would want her to thank His son for her pain. But if it was true, then what was happening to the girls started to make sense of a kind. God probably expected them to thank Him for taking away their friends, too.
The shadows were moving. It seemed to her that they were coming towards her. Coming for her, the way Sarah said. Fingers were forming, and long flowing hair, windblown tatters inked on the night in murky brushstrokes. The wind carried their whispers. Would she recognize them, before they touched her? Would she be happier beneath the soft loam with her friends?
She ran from the window and pulled the covers over her head, trembling. She hadn’t really seen them out there. — Dead girls don’t walk, she knew that. But she didn’t really believe it. She huddled beneath the covers, listening for the whispers, until her fear lulled her to sleep.
“They call it consumption,” Sarah said, piling her plate with more potatoes. “I heard the sisters speak of it.”
“Please, Sarah,” Charlotte said, picking at her food.
Gretta leaned over, eyes wide with morbid curiosity. “What is that, consumption?”
“It’s what you are doing right now, eating your food,” Sarah told her. “It means something is eating the girls, from the inside out.”
“No.” Gretta made a face in disgust. “That’s not true. Is it, Charlotte?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“It’s true, I read it in the dictionary,” Sarah said. “I told you, didn’t I, Charlotte? How there is nothing left of them. Something gets into the girls and starts to eat away at them, until all that remains is a putrid mess that hasn’t yet figured itself for dead.”
Sarah had lost weight, Charlotte realized. She ate more than any other girl at the table, but there was hardly a morsel left of her but skin and bones. She imagined something inside of Sarah, slithering beneath her flesh and tearing off bits of lung, wrapping coiled round her heart. She could almost believe it. That sudden stab of fear returned, and she couldn’t swallow the mouthful of meat she was chewing. She spat it into her napkin, careful not to let the sisters catch her at it.
Gretta’s voice had dropped to a whisper. “You mean all that’s left is…?”
“All that’s left,” Sarah echoed, “is refuse and rot. That’s all there is to us, when it comes down to it.”
Charlotte made her way quietly along the hall, past the classrooms, to the East Wing. She heard footsteps and ducked quickly into the dark breach between the columns. Sister Mary Thomas passed inches from her, the French teacher Sister Kenan at her side, and she watched their great black profiles swish by. She was sure that Sister Mary Thomas’s all-seeing eye would pierce her instantly, but the two sisters entered the wing without a backward glance, and Charlotte allowed herself to breathe again.
The hall deserted again, Charlotte crept from her hiding place and walked silently to the doors of the wing. She paused, steadying herself. There were no nightmares behind these doors, just sick girls, girls she knew. She had come to this wing, Emily had, weeks ago now. Emily had been taken in by the school the same year as Sarah and Charlotte, and she could remember Emily’s soft, sincere smile. Charlotte ached for the reassurance of that smile now.
She pushed one door open a crack, just enough to slip her thin form inside. It was difficult to see, and the sounds were like a vast human machine, the whole building breathing in shuddering sighs, the shuffling, shifting susurrus of fingers on fabric. Charlotte saw Sister Mary Thomas and another sister speaking in hushed tones, and Charlotte slunk through the shadows as close as she dared, hiding in a doorway. She could just make out their voices.
“Then we are lost. There is nothing we can do.”
“The mind can make a heaven of hell…”
“Those lines are given to Satan, Sister,” said the sister. “It would be prudent to remember it.” It was Sister Gertrude of the quick ruler. Charlotte rubbed her knuckles unconsciously.
“The decision is ours to make. There is no one else.”
“You can’t possibly; the Church will never sanction it.”
“The Church?” said Sister Mary Thomas. Her voice was laden with a tenor Charlotte had never heard. “The Church understands that in time of need the niceties of tradition must sometimes be overlooked. Father Patrick is not returning to us this winter, Sister. No one is coming.”
“But Sister Mary —”
“Already we hold service and even give communion in the Father’s stead. These are dire times, Gretta, and these girls’ souls are in our charge, ours alone. They are our children to cultivate, and they are ours to put to earth.”
“Yes, but confession, the…the last rites?”
Charlotte stumbled back at the words, striking something soft, a mattress. Fingers grasped her wrist, and Charlotte tasted blood as she bit her cry short.
The grip was weak, but Charlotte was too terrified to pull away. On the bed lay something she knew was once human. It was emaciated, the white gown draped like a shroud across a skeleton, colorless hair in clots falling across a sallow face. It could have been a photograph, in still greys and whites, but for the thing’s lips, smeared a harlot red, fervently, wordlessly whispering, and the ruby-red flecks, on its chin, across its breast. The hand released her, dropping feebly to its side.
Charlotte ran. Her breast heaved and she could not see through the tears in her eyes as she careened through the doors. She heard the sisters making chase, calling for her to stop, but she did not care. She ran blindly, quickly outpacing them, but no matter how far her feet carried her, no matter how her veins burned with exertion, she could not escape that half-dead husk of a girl close behind her.
Charlotte had to stop up her ears as she passed Nora and Fanny whispering on the way to her bunk. As Charlotte had known it would, Sarah’s story spread faster than fire through the oaken halls. The girls were in a panic of half-belief, and the rumors were becoming more repulsive with each telling, until Charlotte could not stand to listen. She could see the sisters watching the girls warily, the way one might attend a rabid animal, uncertain what to make of this new fervor.
She passed the lavatory, feeling suddenly ill. She had stopped eating almost entirely, and hunger gnawed at her entrails, but she could not stomach entering those stalls. She refused to believe Sarah’s stories, yet even the thought of that stench conjured up those excremental beings, the dead girls of Sarah’s nightmares. No, her nightmares. Every girl’s nightmares. The distinction had melted away, had lost meaning; the terror belonged to them all now.
She threw herself onto her bed and shut her eyes tight, trying to squeeze every thought from her mind. If she could just stop thinking — about Sarah, about Emily, about all the dead girls — it would be all right. If she could stop thinking, she could bury her fears and last out the winter. She would become dead to the world and in that way survive. Not like Sarah, who was too much alive to let the horrors slough off. She knew Sarah would not see the winter through; she had almost given herself up to her nightmares already.
Charlotte realized she was crying, hot tears soaking her sheets, and she knew why. She no longer even wanted Sarah to live. Some small, sick part of her believed that the more of the other girls who died, the more likely it was that she would survive. She burned with shame and knew that a thing like her did not deserve to live. Smart, gentle girls like Emily deserved to live. Strong girls like Sarah deserved to live. Not her.
Embarrassed, she sat up, wiping her red eyes on her sleeve. For the first time, she noticed the heaped form of another girl asleep beneath the covers. It was Helen’s bed. She walked over to her, wondering if her crying had disturbed her.
Helen’s eyes were open. Charlotte started to apologize, but Helen did not blink or move. Blood pooled around her cheek and spattered her tangled sheets. Helen, she knew, was no longer breathing.
Another Sunday came and the girls allowed themselves to be herded into the school’s small chapel. There was hardly a sound but the heavy, echoing footsteps of the silent girls. Sarah clung to Charlotte’s arm, and for the first time Charlotte found herself leading Sarah rather than the other way around. Sarah seemed much weaker now, her eyes hollow and frightened.
Sitting in the pews, the church felt even emptier. A third of the seats were vacant; only the shadows of the girls who once sat there remained. Sister Mary Thomas tapped on the podium to get their attention as usual, but it was an empty gesture. Except for a few scattered coughs, the children were mute and glassy-eyed, like dolls. Sarah’s cough joined the chorus and Charlotte felt a quiver of nausea pass through her empty stomach, but she said nothing. Charlotte had not spoken in days, and even Sarah had stopped trying, sitting by her side in silence as they studied or performed the few chores the sisters still set for them.
Sister Mary Thomas’s homily was different this Sunday. She did not quote in Latin at all, or imitate Father Patrick’s ominous lectures on the suffering of sinners. This was something different. Her voice was soft, and the girls strained forward to hear tell how there were more angels in heaven than one could count, and every one unique, a species unto itself. She told them how beautiful heaven was, so beautiful that beauty had a different meaning up there, which wasn’t really up at all, but all around them, and yet not around them.
The morning light filtered through the stained glass windows, casting a hazy crimson halo around the figure of the tall nun. She looked just like her namesake there, Charlotte thought, in those paintings the sisters showed them where Mary looked down at her son with sad, sad eyes, as though seeing in his infant gaze blood, agony, the salvation of suffering — such sacrifices as lay ahead for him. Charlotte imagined the scarlet glow emanating from the sister washing over her rapt girls watching. A kind of balm; not of healing, exactly, but the solace of ending.
Children, said Sister Mary Thomas, good Catholic children like her girls, went to this Paradise when God called them back early, and they were filled with the wonder of that place until they were brimming with joy and happiness. There was so much love in heaven that the little girls and boys lacked nothing for their short stay on earth, and could even be glad that their service to God was so brief for so great a reward.
Sister Mary Thomas sounded close to tears as she said this, her voice dropping so low that Charlotte wondered if she was telling the story to them anymore at all, or just whispering it to herself. The other sisters were observing her with a look akin to fear, as though at a loss what to make of this apparition before them. They moved quickly when she finished, delivering the Eucharist to each child, Sister Mary Thomas herself assisting for the first time. She blessed each girl she came to, kissing her on the cheek.
Sarah squeezed Charlotte’s hand as Sister Brigid approached. They knelt as one. As she took the wafer into her mouth, Sarah’s face turned suddenly pale, contorting so violently that Sister Brigid took a startled step back. Charlotte looked on in horror as Sarah’s body was racked with coughs that seemed to be tearing her small frame apart. When Sarah drew her hand from her mouth, threads of red spittle sewed her lips to her palm, where the shattered wafer was held together by a thick glob of blood. The jagged pieces seemed to be growing, becoming smooth and fleshy.
My God, Charlotte thought, it’s true. Sarah is holding His body in her hand.
And then Sarah ran. Sister Brigid called after her and everyone stared on as Sarah’s skirts vanished through the large chapel doors. Sister Brigid made no attempt to move, the corner of her mouth dancing some ragged parody to a tune only she could hear. Sister Mary Thomas rushed over and grasped Charlotte’s hands. Confused, Charlotte gazed at her long, white fingers.
“Go to her,” she said, eyes frighteningly human. “Speak to her, Miss Bell. She needs you now. I think she will go somewhere only you can find her. Do you understand?”
Charlotte could not even nod. She merely untangled her fingers from those of Sister Mary Thomas and walked the long aisle out of the church.
Those meandering, sibilant syllables wound their way round her consciousness as she slowly crossed the heath. Transubstantiation, the word they had worked so hard to memorize, though its true meaning had never been clear to Charlotte until a few minutes before. Sarah had taken the Lord’s flesh into her mouth and He had rejected her. Or had she rejected Him? Charlotte wasn’t sure, but she feared that Sarah’s soul was lost now, and she would never see Sister Mary Thomas’s paradise.
She raced across the light snow, between the dead trees with their skeletal limbs. The trees reminded her of the story Emily had told them, of the people who took their own lives and were turned to trees by a river of blood deep in the heart of hell, with their gnarled branches that bled when you broke them. Emily was the only one of them who had actually read Dante, and she especially loved to describe frightful passages from Inferno when they were supposed to be in bed. Poor Emily, who was one of the first to go away. Charlotte knew that Sarah had loved her stories, and she wondered sometimes if her own death would have saddened her near as much.
Suddenly, Charlotte felt giddy from hunger, her head airy, and the ground reeled under her. She stumbled, snapping off one of the dry winter branches, but it was bloodless. Maliciously, she broke another and another of the little tree’s limbs, imagining it was Emily, cursing her for letting herself die just so Sarah would love her more. But not a drop of blood spilled from the shattered boughs, and Charlotte knew she was being sinful and foolish. She hurried through the snow, wondering if when the time came she would let Sarah lure her into death, too, and they would all sleep forever in a forest of saplings who had simply stopped trying to live.
Sister Mary Thomas was wrong, of course. She meant well with her stories, her lies to frighten them or comfort them. Either way, death was something only the dead understood, and Charlotte wondered if Sarah would explain it to her when she found her. Charlotte was only just beginning to realize that there were more than scary stories and happy stories; she was starting to understand that there are also stories that can kill, and others that can keep us alive, and stories we can’t forget however hard we try. She just didn’t know how to tell which were which.
Charlotte climbed the hill and stood overlooking the cemetery, almost expecting to see Sarah beckoning her towards two newly hollowed graves, but there was no one there. She tried to call out, but her lips refused to move. She knew she was still afraid that the children would hear her and they would come to see this strange new addition to their company, still too warm and too dimwitted to realize she was dead. She pulled her coat tighter around her breast and watched her soul escape her lips like dragon’s breath to shatter the frozen air.
Then the tree whispered her name. She spun, losing her footing on the slick sheen of rime, and her body tumbled down the hill. She struck one of the crude wooden markers and came to rest in the freezing, muddy snow. She heard them coming for her, but the fall had knocked the wind from her and tears of pain clouded her eyes.
“Charlotte, I’m here.” She could barely recognize Sarah’s voice, her breathing thick and labored. “It’s all right, Charlotte, I’m here for you.”
She felt cold lips touch hers, the taste of muck and decay filling her mouth. Something sharp and knotted clung to her wrist as she tried to pull away. She was screaming, she realized, ragged shrieks of panic. The dead girls were here, she knew, and they wanted her to stay.
“Please, Sarah, please don’t make me stay,” she begged, her tears streaking the mud on her cheeks. They were her first words since she had seen Helen’s body, and Sarah was silent a moment.
“I don’t want you to stay,” Sarah said. Charlotte felt an icy hand on her forehead. “I didn’t want you to come here again. I’m so sorry.” Arms wrapped around her shuddering form. “I’m so sorry, Charlotte.”
Her eyes began to clear, and she saw Sarah’s face, her gaze sad and compassionate.
“You have to go back to the hall,” Sarah told her.
“I’m not going anywhere without you.” Charlotte was shivering uncontrollably, and Sarah lifted her out of the mire, carefully extricating Charlotte’s wrist. Whatever dead undergrowth had caught her had cut into her skin, leaving behind several bloody gashes.
Sarah caught Charlotte under the arms and labored to help her up the hill, wheezing and coughing.
“Please don’t leave me, Sarah,” Charlotte said. “Please don’t die.”
Sarah paused to catch her breath at the top of the hill. “I don’t want to leave you, Charlotte,” she said. She touched Charlotte’s cheek and wiped away the muddy trails her tears had made with her thumb.
“Will you come back for me?” Charlotte asked.
“No,” Sarah told her quietly. “No, I would never do that to you.”
The sisters took Sarah to the East Wing when they returned, and Charlotte did not see her again. But she remembered the wafer. She imagined that Sarah was undergoing a kind of reverse transubstantiation, transforming inside from live flesh into a kind of spongy bread as the thing in her lungs slowly consumed her. By the time Sister Mary Thomas called her into her office to tell her that Sarah had “passed away,” Charlotte was ready. She cried that her friend had left her, but she knew that as her body turned to bread, the rest of her had become something else, too. Perhaps she hadn’t gone to Sister Mary Thomas’s paradise with the motley swarm of angels, but she was still something more than bread, more than flesh, and Charlotte knew that Sarah would be happy to be more than she seemed.
When spring came and the nightmares passed without a visit from Sarah, Charlotte did not go to the cemetery. — Because what use was there in mourning moldy bread? Instead, when the roses bloomed, she took a single red petal to each remaining girl and asked them to kiss it in Sarah’s memory. Maybe, she thought, some tiny bit of Sarah would be in those petals because Charlotte had touched them, and the petals would become Sarah’s lips as they kissed them, so that a small part of Sarah would stay with each of them forever. Maybe that would make Sarah smile, to know that she had been reborn in the hearts of a hundred little girls. In fact, each of their smiles would be her smile too, Charlotte realized, and so many smiles could only mean that Sarah was the happiest of little dead girls. Charlotte kissed a rose petal, and smiled.