She Must

by A.J. Fitzwater

The house at the edge of town in the forest on the hill, the one with many rooms one room throne room turrets; she must go there.

She must not stab destiny in the back, for that is a thoroughly beastly thing to do.

She must put on her best suit best dress big girl pants, her best face, though none of them fit anymore.

She must stab the For Sale sign into the lush expanse of grass dirt crack in the concrete, avoiding the weeds. She must straighten her seams and knock on the innocuous but grandiose door drawbridge hatch.

The house’s maw opens wide and swallows her whole. She must not make a sound. She must taste good.

After a decent amount of time, her real estate licence must not be renewed.

Happily ever after.

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She didn’t plan to become a real estate agent, but she must not have plans. And really, it was what she must be best at. For Sale signs in the front yard, on the back fence, the alley, the porch, where everyone can see. Eyeballs on at all times.

She must have a name. Her name must mean ‘beast’ in the language of the people, and she must not utter it in the language of beasts because it means ‘people’. It must mean It Girl, beloved, dazzling, temptress, devourer. It must be a little name, though, and she must not question or change it no matter how it slouches or slurs off a tongue or skin. Real names have too much power, and none at all if they must be repeated shouted whispered sighed. And if they say her face wrong, even with all the evidence of other lips, she must smile and know better.

She must be a master of the gab, the grin, the grab, the get-out-of-jail-free card. Going once, going twice, sold! Congratulations, you now own the best trimmed lawn and hedges on the block. Just don’t bury your face in the lawn and peek through the hedges.

She must not know and love the language of the beast. She must not worry that she pronounces the words all wrong, weaves the spells incorrectly, even though she has no evidence to the contrary. She must concentrate on weaving stitches smiles dance steps instead.

You must go up there, her boss says. The house on the edge of town on the hill in the forest is ripe for the picking. No one has seen the owner in years. You must make a killing on the commission!

Why must it be me? She asks.

Must you ask? He asks, eyes travelling the circuit of her face.

She must sigh, pack up her briefcase, delete her browser history, cancel her data provider.

She must kill that commission, she must think. Must kill. Must kill.

And she lived.

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She must not comment on the cliché that is the darkness as she must peer into the maw.

Hello beast, my pretty, she must say. Do you have a moment to discuss being saved by the delicious blood of our people? My fee is most decent, it must be.

What must you know about me, groans growls sighs the darkness. It is all tails and tales made up in absence of the light. And absence is no substitute for your truth.

She must test the weight of this on her tongue, roll the idea around like fine wine. She must enjoy fine wine, but not too much; just enough to have a decent palate, a love for all things fluted and gobleted and stemmed, and a comfortable absence of memory in the morning.

She must probe around the edge of the darkness to find a place safe to stand. By virtue of its beastliness, the maw is all pointed aphorisms, carrion breath, and soft midnight words. She must prick her finger on a broken tooth. She must suck the wound as if her saliva contains magical healing properties, not the poison the village people tell her must be there. She must not enjoy the copper sweet nectar.

What are you? She must ask, even though all her books tell her she must know.

Whatever you need me to be, the darkness must reply.

The sunlight aches on her back, bows her already tired tense broken straight shoulders.

She must step forward into the house castle maze hovel. Happily. The way back has too many hedges, too high a fence.

*

Gathered around their teacups, the grown-ups watch as the condo cloister manor citadel shines up real nice. Rooms inflate to the side and above, balloon animals, soft and unctuous.

None of the local carpenters or interior designers or antique dealers report the extra workload. They grumble into their wine, but say little more. The house on the edge hill forest has been a lost cause for years. Better to knock the whole thing down than try to do something with that old dump.

She must be making him flourish under that deft soft iron touch, the grown-ups say, clicking their tongues. Winks are exchanged.

Why do you say it’s a him? The children ask, they who have been braving the hedges, the fence, scribbling graffiti on the For Sale signs and marvelling how they return clean and pristine each morning.

Why else would she go there? They say, with winks aplenty. Why else would she stay?

I hear he’s ugly, says one.

I hear he’s rich, says another.

I hear he eats little girls for breakfast, says yet another, and the children squeal with delight.

Better it must be her than them, they say.

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The maw darkness beast gives her the grand tour. No room is off limits, even the attic. They are all well lit, clean, the carpets smelling fresh. Tchotchkes and talking points litter every corner and wall.

And in her room, the room the house lets her choose, everything is well polished.

They sit and speak over tea.

Why must this all be philosophical? she must ask, sipping from her finger-bone cup.

Because we must be ready, the quiet replies, because reinventing the wheel gets so tiresome. It stirs and shifts and alters the tea leaves. You must be small when the darkness needs you to be, it says, and large when the light does not.

She must sway in the wind, break in its breath. The house does not inspect her teeth. They are not as pointed as the maw’s but give it time.

I do not recognize this monster you have been made out to be, she must say.

It is not a skill you have needed to call upon, the beast replies. It prefers to keep all surfaces shiny, and carries a polishing cloth on its person at all times. It polishes its glasses now, peering at her through their celestial gravities.

She must sit and contemplate a while how she came upon these skills. They are nothing but whispers or shrugs, sideways glances or I-expect-you-to-know-better. She must shiver as the breath of their warning passes over her skin.

The darkness offers her an embrace. She must accept. The darkness’s embrace is warm, though. She must not expect that. She must remember that the absence of light is always cold. There must be no glimmer, no spark to huddle over. No tasting, testing, running fingers and tongues along the angles and curves.

Her fingers must fumble for the light switch just inside the door. She must remember that the switch is always either on or off. It’s code.

You need to be more subtle, more direct, says the darkness. Them down there have to know where you’re coming from, and not. Ever after is not all it’s cracked up to be.

She must turn her head away from the window, from the promise of lights just twinkling on at the end of the day.

Must there be cracks, she must ask.

Always, the darkness says. It would smile for her, but smiling makes its face ache.

At this, she must sit in silence for a while, and must not be worried that her face is at rest.

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The villagers know how this goes. They’ve watched the books, experienced the play, read the movie. There’s that creepy minstrel who pops through town at least once a year to mime his way through something grim. The grown-ups love it, the children yawn their way through it.

Context, they say. You’ll get it when you’re grown-up too.

Maybe we don’t want to be grown up, the kids say. The grown-ups glare them down.

When the kids shrug and wander off to play knucklebones, the grown-ups squint towards the house hill forest.

The lights are not on.

She’s been up there an awfully long time, they say. How long does it take to work that commission?

Hey, don’t look at me, her boss says as they all look at him. Those For Sale signs aren’t up to code anyway. I might have to take it up with Advertising Standards.

And then there’s This Guy who says: Has anyone actually seen the owner king hermit?

They pause, shuffle, murmur, decide.

I hear he’s ugly, says someone.

That shouldn’t stop him from earning himself a real estate agent, says another.

How many fresh young innocent real estate agents have we sent up there over the years? says yet another.

They pause, look at each other, look away. They can’t remember.

I hear he’s rich, someone whispers.

Then This Guy says: why should he get all the best real estate agents? It’s a community service!

That’s right, that’s right, the villagers murmur. How can property in this village exchange from one to another without a good real estate agent helming the transaction?

This Guy hands out masks of sorrow. I have some prime pieces of far away land that deserve her deft touch, he says. It’s not fair.

It’s not fair, they all echo.

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She must inspect her teeth, her nails, her back daily. But she must not do it for too long. There are reflections, and then there are the mirrors.

The lights are on.

All doors are open in the house, all surfaces yield to her touch. She must not look too hard into the shadows and corners, beyond the dancing furniture. They must come to her, break their secrets to her gently.

These four walls promise not to lie if only she must not do the same to herself, the darkness says.

Her skin must not lack for sunlight. There is plenty to be drunk in the garden orchard theme park outings. Her flesh takes the shape it must, though she must put in the effort not to appear making any effort at all.

The darkness, in all its soft sharp fragile star-heartedness, tells her to stop that.

Stop what, she must ask. She cuts a glance sideways; any reflective surface must be good for a perception check.

That, says the little whisper in her ear.

But weren’t mirrors invented for just this thing? She must ask.

What are you looking for that wasn’t there yesterday, last year, a decade, a hundred, a thousand years ago? Comes the whisper in the other ear.

Symmetry, she must reply. Abundance.

Decided by whom? The whisper enters into both her ears.

By me, she must answer, poking the darkness in the chest.

Are you sure about that? Think of all the fairytales you were once told, all those slippers you lost. The beast turns its hairy smooth dark pristine porcelain face away.

Enough with your questions. She must lower her voice in case the plaster shakes from the walls.

She must turn away too, but the light, the spell, the silver-tongued beast catches her eye.

She must angle the mirror down, away, to the side. It becomes the window, and beyond there she must see a long line of light stretching back to the hamlet parish metropolis received narrative.

The villagers come. And at their head, This Guy.

She must not see their hands or their feet. She must not recognize their monstrosity. She must welcome them, smile wide, teeth blunt and buried deep in her paper-cut tongue. She must find the spell to soothe them, shake those hands, clean those feet.

But only a beauty can do that. And as she must wrap the beast in her limbs and lips and breath, she must admit she was sent here to fail.

Because failure is a must. How else must she be redeemed?

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The villagers congregation corporate entity are too polite to shout. They respect trespass governance and keep the kids off the lawn, sitting in circles beyond the fence hedge thorns police shields, singing Kumbaya and Sing Low Sweet Chariot and By the Rivers of Babylon. They don’t even know the words, but that doesn’t matter. They must sound nice.

This Guy stares up at the living room turret penthouse window. He must be hideous, This Guy says, not to come out and face us. All bent and twisted by those rose bushes she’s planted around this place. Look at them, the garden is positively tidy since the last time I saw it.

The children giggle and traipse around like hunched hallowed-out monsters. They touch the tips of their toes and fingers to the edge of the lawn, and squeal with delight when nothing happens.

Someone starts up a barbeque. Another person brings up their souvlaki van. The PTA huddles in one corner, Rotary in another, Ladies Tuesday Walking Group in yet another, an overlapping Venn diagram of cups of coffee that no one really drinks because they’re too sweet bitter hot cold. They cast sideways glances towards the shadows that are clicking spells they don’t understand.

Her boss stands at the gate drawbridge border, hands on hips, inspecting the garden and paint work. I must say she’s done a good job, he says.

This Guy says: You want to renew her licence and give her a pay rise for this? What with all the money he must have?

Her boss opens his mouth, but This Guy’s eyes are rinsed with daggers; he knows no spells.

Before height and weight can become an issue, the crowd parts, the clouds stir, and light stabs the porch courtyard balcony dirt stoop from all angles.

She must dangle, bloodied on the arrows of their eyes, breeze twisting her in the soft moonlight porchlight torchlight bioluminescence of the deep.

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She must not know she was searching for the beast’s room lair cave treasure trove until she finds it. She only had to turn her head. She must not flinch or cry out at its appearance, demand it remove its mask.

She does not need to. She knows what lies beneath.

She must look it full in the face, a little frown marring her almost perfect brow, then she must remind herself she must keep her brow even more almost perfect. The only dent can be made by a crown heavy with jewels that reflect slightly less than her hair or eyes.

The beast watches the knots in her tongue and the crows chortling at the edges of her eyes, and ask her not to go out to meet the mob petitioners subpoena stakeholders.

They will eat your soul, the beast sighs.

And would that be so terrible? She must ask. You seem to operate well without one.

The beast moves into the light of the candle Tiffany lamp sunlight heart to add emphasis to its angles and curves and lumps.

She must smile at the dirt smudged on its face and hands, grime she must have scrubbed off time and again.

I do have a soul, the beast says. See here, how I hold it up, a newborn, a chalice. See here its oily sheen, how uterus red it is, how its tumours and humours mistake its shape.

You are not a beast, she must laugh. You are a poet.

But my words are plain, it says. Do not go out there, for surely you are doomed.

But what of you, she must ask.

The beast begins to plait manes of hair just waiting for such a task hanging from shrunken skulls stacked ceiling high in the corners, feeding the braid out the window to the waiting arms of the swamp alley rift below.

We beasts have ways of surviving, the beast says. It’s not easy, and it’s not kind, and we avoid reflections a lot, but that’s how we do happily ever after.

Sounds wonderful, she must say, but not sigh.

She must straighten her seams, must hold her head high, must expose her throat in her demure-but-not-too-prudish neckline.

Give me a moment, she must say. I’ll put this right.

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The villagers body corp managers beauticians cold ears sweep her face. Their eyes hunger for each word that drops for her lips, waiting for the charcoal amongst the jewels.

Welcome to today’s open home, she must say. Please remove your shoes in respect for the owner’s freshly cleaned carpets, and make sure you record your details on the register.

This Guy is the one to notice her seams aren’t straight.

Where is he, This Guy says. Where’s the monster of the house?

The crowd shuffles their feet, checks the pitch on the torches, murmur. They didn’t want to ask that question, but now it’s flopping on the ground like a fish out of water, they better do something with it. Toss it back in, one neighbours says to another. No you, says the other.

She must tilt her head and blink. I don’t know who or what you mean, she must say. There’s nobody here but me, just your regular old fixer upper. Now, step this way.

Nobody moves.

You’re stalling, This Guy growls. His jaw muscle flickers perfectly, just like he practised watching the classic black and white movies.

I’m inviting you in to view this lovely redecorated villa retirement bungalow dungeon shack, she must say.

The mob cheap-seats balcony fruit-throwers gasp when she frowns, just a little. Now she’s done it.

Where is he, This Guy says slowly and clearly as if repeating himself makes all the difference.

Sweetie, her boss sighs, just let us have a look at the ownership papers. That’ll put all this straight.

But the house is mine, she must say, to do with as I please.

The mob steps back this time as it gasps. This Guy’s frown could give her such a sweet sharp taste if he would just kiss her. Kissing would solve this, yes it would, they all think. Except for the kids. The kids think kissing is yucky and boring. They think she should fight the beast homeowner proprietor love-triangle dude.

This Guy glares through the dim brightly lit carnival lights of the entrance. Is he in the turret? He asks. His torture chamber? The dungeon? The billiards room? You’re giving him time to get away, mingle, cast his terrible spell.

A bell must chime; her laugh. There is no he, she must say.

This Guy lifts her up gently and puts her to the side. It is the signal the mob has been waiting for. They file dutifully through the front door trap door side door drawbridge. This Guy smashes the first tea cup, and that’s the mob’s signal to set too. Half-heartedly, she must note, because she has done a superb job on the interior decoration.

The kids trail around after the grown-ups, turning over this or that broken piece, tasting it, whetting the tips of their fingers on it, putting it back where they found it. The little boys shrug and leave, pocketing this or that steak knife or torn copy of a decent novel. The little girls, made and unmade, take nothing except the exchange of knowing nods; this is why we can’t have nice things. One or two of them, she must think, she must believe, will become real estate agents too.

The grown-ups make it last. They linger. They search. But there is nobody else there.

Too late, too late, the beast is gone, the villagers sigh and shrug, happy to head back to a nice plate of steak and a cup of tea.

This Guy is the last to leave, after her boss who slipped her an envelope with the renewal of her licence in it. He doesn’t need to say good job. She must screw up the envelope behind her back.

She must look back at the wake of destruction behind This Guy. He must stand there, hands on hips, towering over her though she must be at least three inches taller than him.

There’s nothing here for you, This Guy shrugs. Come to my humble abode, and you’ll live like a queen socialite Hollywood wife dictator. You can even plant your roses.

He waves in the direction of the house whose roof angles fierce and cut throat above all others.

She searches around for the words, and the beast mouths them for her.

No, thank you, she must say. Look at all the cleaning up I have to do.

Here’s a spare key, This Guy says. Just let yourself in when you’re done.

This Guy strides off down the path, humming a little battle tune to himself. He feels like he’s been so fair today.

Did he not hear me say no? She must ask.

Could you not see the cotton wool stuffed in his ears? The beast chuckles.

She must turn to the hallway mirror scathed only by the lightest of fists. There she must see many of her self, her angles cut by the angles.

She says: there you are, you’re safe.

The beast smiles and she smiles back out of the glass, all fangs and black hole wormhole rift big bang maw to the centre of her universes.

Here you are, the beast must say.

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A.J. Fitzwater is a human-suit wearing dragon, living between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. They are a graduate of the Clarion class of 2014, and won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent 2015. They take a keen interest in the history and progression of feminist speculative fiction, and have been published in such venues as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres Magazine, Scigentasy, Heiresses of Russ 2014 and Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists by Lethe Press, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Letters to Tiptree by Twelfth Planet Press. Brain fluff can be found on Twitter @AJFitzwater

“She Must” (© A.J. Fitzwater) was published in Issue 1 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.