By Annette Ong
Clouded by disbelief, he follows close behind. He had to see it with his own eyes.
The flame wavers; casts dancing shadows on the limestone corridor, like spectres they lunge to and fro, diving at each other’s necks.
His breath: irregular, short and urgent. Ascending the stairs, the rush of cool air flows from above, whispers at the nape of his neck, travels down his spine and pimples his skin to gooseflesh. Approaching the attic, he shivers. The Land of the Hidden: where forgotten things go to die.
Silence pervades, as his breath thickens and escalates. Cautiously, he pushes the door further ajar and takes his front row seat at the top of the stairs, sitting with the dying flame at his feet. The stairwell: a bottomless void.
Her dress lies ripped and ribboned at the entrance. Sweat on his brow, breath like lead in his lungs, he waits, watches. Full of fear; for himself, for her.
Her naked ashen body is curled in the foetal position. Her spine protrudes. A ghastly ladder of enlarged vertebrae, straining against skin. There is nothing of the softness, the sweetness, familiar to him. The moon cut bars of silver light across the floor. It slices through the window and lies in fallen shards around her. She shivers and shakes, quakes from within, begins to claw at her skin, leaving ruby red ribbons of blood on her flesh. She closes in on herself, grasps her knees to her chest. She gasps, takes in air, short and sharp.
He trembles with her. He wants to reach out but fear keeps him on the stairs, a weakening flame the only other witness. She sweats it out, writhes on the floorboards, aware of what’s happening but unable to quell the heat. The Heat. It builds, boils her blood. She is gripped from every angle. There is no escape, no relief. Just scorching Heat, bearing down on her bones, crushing them like chalk. Her body contorts, assailed by invisible phantoms, by unrelenting beasts. They clamp down on her skull, rattle it, ravage it. Her every cell under attack, cowers into submission. Suddenly, she is on hands and knees, her back arched. The floor creaks with the strain of her shape-shifting body. She moves, jerks forwards and sideways to throw her assailants from her frame. She jolts; an electric current coursing through her animal veins. Covered in sweat, a fever grips her, throttles her. Shuddering, her nerve endings are frayed, shred raw. Synapse collapse.
The smell of blood and musty sweat fill the attic.
The sweat covering her body, melts away, becomes a blanket of downy grey hair. She fails to muffle a growl. She hopes he has not heard but is still soundly sleeping downstairs. She is not afraid. This is her heritage. Her ancestors revived through her convulsing frame. They rush towards life; bound for liberation through transfiguration. Her breath becomes a low, slow rattle emanating from expansive new lungs. She shakes out her mane of soft grey fur. Standing on all fours, she pads, paws softly at the ground. Her tail unfurls beneath her. Finally, relief has come. She stretches in her body, feels the strength in transformed limbs. Blinking icy blue eyes at the moon, she sees as if for the first time. New Sight: lucid, brighter, and potent. Objects around her become sharper; their precise edges slice at the space they inhabit.
She hears a trapped moth beat against the window, eager for freedom. Every beat of its translucent wings reverberates like a thunderclap in her ears. Over and over, it meets its reflection against the glass, leaving a dust outline, evidence of its efforts.
Everywhere, noise clamours to be heard. Every movement, deafening.
Uncomfortably he stirs; slides closer to get a better view.
She peers towards the door. The subtle movement of his body on the staircase: inaudible to mortal ears. To her, it is amplified, akin to the buckling of tectonic plates, shifting, shattering the earth’s surface with a quake. She knows it is him.
Nudging the window open with her nose, she breathes the night air. Sitting at the ledge, she surveys the land below. This is freedom. She leaps out the window, slips through onto the balcony and charges towards the woods, causing him to push the door open and shout Christine!
Hurrying over to the window, the flame is extinguished. With human eyes, he scans the trees, and sees her in the distance, a darting shape of grey. She turns back, drinks him in with her icy blue eyes. And with a flick of her tail, she’s gone.