Mother was the seventh of nine born to my Nan, but the only one to survive infancy. ‘This chick’s a fighter,’ the midwife had said, helping the town’s next Chanticleer latch onto the current one’s breast. And when Nan felt the newborn’s gums clamp round her nipple, when she heard strength in the little hen’s snuffling, she was compelled to agree. ‘A real fighter,’ she’d said, so named the baby Claude—not after the girl’s father, Argent Attell, but after Claude “One-Shot” Kilbane, the man who KO’d Argent at the coronation bout, securing him the district’s featherweight title—and Nan’s respect—once and for all.
Claude Jr lived up to expectations. Her tongue was quicker than Pop-Pop hitting the canvas, her singing voice rich as the champion’s purse. She was lithe and feisty—a real pugilist child—and when it came time to take Nan’s place, she did it with her namesake’s surefooted grace. Claude governed with a loosely clenched fist, as liable to wallop a person as she was to chuck him under the chin. Her timing was down-pat: she knew when to act pretty, when to strong-arm, when to bed men into boxing for her causes. Wily thing also knew which situations called for all three.
Most seemed happy with Mother’s version of even-handedness. At least, any who weren’t hadn’t the stones for an open challenge. But whether they loved Claude or not, everyone played sad after the bloat took her last week. Her gut swelled so big, seemed she was starting a new round of life, not hearing the clang of its final bell. Ballooned as she’d been two decades earlier, when she’d brought me and Nettie into this world. What luck, all had agreed then, having two hens at once. What a feat. She’d pushed us out in the swelters of August—barely breaking a sweat—and was back tending her garden that same afternoon. She was a force, our Claude. Prevailing and permanent as the elements.
Nettie got Mother’s looks. Plump in kissable places, lean everywhere else. Right iris the colour of sunshine, the left one dark as Jim Gallant’s homebrew—and one pupil horizontal, like a goat’s. My sister had no trouble with her sideways-slit eye, but Mother’s wept constantly. At dawn each May Day, we’d find a basket of hankies on the stoop, stitched with roosters, rings, nosegays; finery that would spend the next year getting scrunched into the Chanticleer’s canthus one after another. In her final hours, steady streams had trickled down both of Claude’s cheeks, but even through the blur, Mother still saw more than anyone.
On the first of three funeral days, people remembered this all-seeing orb, hidden now beneath blue-tinged lids. They dissected Claude in tributes, raised gourds of Gallant’s best, and tied giblet garlands around her wrists and ankles. Remember how tight she was in that swimsuit, way back when? Small but curvy—fitter than other ring-girls. And the length of those legs! The span of those far-reaching arms… Mother basked in the compliments silently, death locking away her voice but not her get-up-and-go. You’re full of it, the lot of you, she seemed to say with a girlish flick of her hand. Then she’d grin and pinch cheeks and bottoms, her brittle fingers rasping on denim. Even lying on a cold hard bier, Claude knew how to rub warmth into rough-bearded fellows.
And who’s next? someone asked. Crass and disrespectful, given the context. Nettie or Regina?
My sister painted herself bashful by blushing, but I could see her eyeing the gents, currying favour the way Mother taught. Swishing her skirt absentmindedly. Perking her cute arse. Frumpy in coveralls, I put on my best tones and simply said, ‘Me.’
Soon enough, mournful talk and flirty gave way to touching eulogies—touching and fondling and prodding. Mother’s scalp was smooth as custard, her skull so compact it could fit inside a gutted half-cantaloupe. Powdered with chalk and cinnamon, it practically begged to be stroked; so I stood back and let them. Many had waited so long to cup that bareness in their palms, to feel its naked power. No harm in giving them a grope, I thought, letting them paw for luck.
Nan’s white crown, a faded full moon, rested on the slab near Mother’s blue-brown shoulder. It used to fit perfectly, snug as gloves. But in the past couple of months, it had started to loosen. Beneath its rim, shadows had yawned at Claude’s temples while she chewed. When she laughed, it’d slid up her forehead. Sometimes, as she leaned forward in her rocker to peer across the boxing green, it clunked against her binoculars. Mother thought doctors were quacks; flat-out refused to see them, even though her bones were contracting. Her skin obviously sagging. Her flawless half-melon withering bit by bit.
Judging by the recent trills in Nettie’s singing, she’d noticed it too. Mother’s lessening. No other reason my mouse of a twin would pipe up so conspicuously, so regularly. Asking Jet the blacksmith and the boys if she might front their band, inviting them over to practise one evening—then suggesting extra lessons alone with the blacksmith. Just like that, Jet was coming round our cabin more than the milkman, armed with a tuning fork he’d forged himself. Nope, no doubt about it: Nettie was gearing up to succeed Mother. And with her scrawny figure, she’d be stiff competition. I mean, Claude could wizen to a cornhusk and still be bigger than Nettie. Lovely, tiny Nettie.
It was a real worry, this diminishment. This dwindling. Soon, I’d thought, Mother’ll be wearing a walnut shell instead of Nan’s crown. A fine enough legacy for my twig of a sister, but for a lumbering oak like me? No way. No how.
I needed every inch I could get.
I did what I could to stall the shrinking. Plied Mother with tisanes steeped overnight, new-and-improved elixirs and cordials. Brewed teas by the bucket-load, herbals plucked from Claude’s own plot, guaranteed to stop her from wasting. Toward the end, I kept her so hydrated it’s a wonder she didn’t float.
Don’t go overboard with the sugar, she’d instruct, sicker and sicker by the day. You make it so I can’t taste anything but sweet. Give me something tart. A bit of lemon, a bit of juniper.
Handing her a steaming cup, I’d told her to hush. To watch she didn’t burn herself. To sit up and avoid spilling. To trust, for once, that I knew what I was doing.
Before the bloat stole it, her voice had been hollow; vowels blown through a reed-flute. I heard echoes of Nan whenever Mother spoke.
Blunt that tongue of yours, my hen, the two said. Like as not, you’ll cut yourself on it.
I’d pressed the cup to her lips, tilted.
While she drank, I clenched my jaw and did my best impression of Nettie. Gentle smile, gentle tune to lull the woman to sleep. Music and charm always were my sister’s forte; mine were bargaining, tactics. By fourteen, I’d negotiated trades with the Taskers upriver: six Jersey calves per season for as many bouts with our bantamweights; a brace of our foxes for every barrel of their trout; a cartload of bones for six months’ worth of darning needles. Important deals, the lot of them. The promise of continued prosperity, clinched with a Chanticleer’s cunning. That’s what a town needed in its leader. The willingness, the ability to inspire change. A firm hand when stability was needed.
Nettie, however, only offered distraction from the day-to-day. She didn’t improve our lot in life; she entertained. Saccharine plays, sonnets, sestinas, Sunday carolling—our Nettie was a regular nightingale, and just as useless. What good were songs when the dark season came? Show me a poem that could stave off starvation. By nineteen, parleys had won me three boxers, including Thom, the butcher’s son—southpaw, welterweight, ugliest harelip you ever saw—who I’d picked for champion on account of his know-how, his scars. Nettie’s talents had earned her nothing but fans.
Words are the Chanticleer’s greatest power, Mother always said, so much like Nan, if I closed my eyes I couldn’t tell them apart. Words spoken, I’m sure she meant, not warbled. Unlike Nettie, I’d paid attention when our dams shared their wisdom. I’d worked hard. I’d listened. I’d learned.
But as Mother slurped down my tonics, I knew it wouldn’t be enough. My crown will never fit you, Regina, she’d said, as if reading my thoughts. From birth, my head had been shaven, like hers, and bound in strips of silk—Mother’s fondest caress was a razor blade rasping my stubble. I had her wits and, yes, her sharp tongue. But mine was a brawler’s build, stocky as the bull that killed Argent last spring. Firstborn I may have been, older than Nettie by a full hour, but I was ungainly for a Chanticleer.
And I couldn’t negotiate myself smaller.
For three days and two nights Mother’s body stayed in the smokehouse.
The roof was sound, slatted with a single vent, and the door had a sturdy lock. Every family in town had a key, of course, but they respected our privacy, entering only when we gave the say-so. Small and dry, the space was infused with scents of peat and salt, cod and winter herring. Whenever I could, I’d pop in to remind Mother she wasn’t alone.
She wore the cotton nightie I’d scrubbed for the occasion. Tansy dust still stained the ruffles, though I’d bleached the fabric as best I could. In our house the fatal herb’s leaves and petals were everywhere. It kept pests at bay, Mother had said, clustering the weeds to hang from the rafters. As they dried, seeds rained from the bunches and she’d sweep them up for replanting; wild thatches now grew all over town, easy to find even after the snows. On my way across the boxing green, I’d plucked several of their snap-frozen stalks. Fingers clumsy with cold, I’d plaited them into a circlet to slip over Mother’s head, an offering and a reminder. But when I ducked inside, she was so tranquil, so composed, I changed my mind. No point in riling her yet.
Palms yellow, I trudged down the lane to the fox pens. Wire mesh enclosed an area five times the length of a horse trailer; nowhere near big enough for the number of skulks Old One-Shot had crammed into cardboard dens. The vixens sniffed me coming a ways off. Nose-first, they hurdled the reynards, brush-tails flailing. Red fur flew as they snapped and snarled. I picked up a pail of feed, scattered a handful of the rancid meat through the fence, saw the gobbets devoured in an instant. Another few chunks through the gaps and the bucket was empty.
‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘Greedy guts.’
The foxes licked their chops. Kits yipped, appetites scythe-sharp. Scrubbing my hands in the snow, I kept an eye on them through the links. They could smell the blood on my fingers and wanted a second helping.
‘Too slow,’ I said to the pups. ‘Got to be faster off the mark, else you’ll be left wanting.’
They barked as I scoured my flesh deep pink, unable to get the stink out.
Twilight at the smokehouse, the third of our vigil. Once more the room was packed, but tonight there were no gourds filled, no canons sung, no tears shed. Avarice made everyone serious as they filed past the bier, saying final farewells, grabbing mementos of the Chanticleer. The young and ambitious had lined up from midday, hoping a wasted afternoon would nab them the most potent keepsakes. At sundown, Nettie and I’d gone to make sure Mother was ready. Once we got the nod, we let the rest of the town in with their scissors and knives.
No one dared touch Nan’s crown; it belonged to Mother, and would be cremated with her remains. Next, the Chanticleer’s tongue was most prized—but my sister got there first, greedy as a fox, and pried it out with the blacksmith’s tongs. After that, any detachables were fair game. Teeth, ears, nipples, fingers, toes. One by one, they were snipped and snapped and stuffed into reliquaries, tucked inside censers and jewel-boxes and lockets. Latecomers settled for leftover moles, birthmarks, a sizeable wart on the back of Claude’s neck. Curls were yanked from nostrils, underarms, cleft. Tradition kept the mismatched eyes in their sockets, but brows and lashes were plucked bare. Finally, Jade Pilvery took pinking shears to the nightgown we’d peeled off earlier, clipping it into postage-stamp squares for children too short to reach something better.
Mother didn’t resent these pilferings.
‘It’s a real honour, hens. A real gift,’ she’d said, when we’d gone to Nan’s picking-over. ‘You should be so lucky.’
Now, skin greyed and slack as lard, body stripped thin, Claude waited patiently for the scavenging to cease. She’d never looked more regal.
‘Go on, Net,’ I said to my sister, after the vultures had gone. ‘I’ll meet you down at the Bingo.’
For a moment, she feigned deafness. Stringing Mother’s tongue on a cord, she averted her eyes and tied it round her neck. Runes appeared and disappeared in the tastebud florets; Nettie froze, reading Claude’s last words.
‘Regina,’ she breathed at me, startled-deer. ‘What—’
‘Go on,’ I repeated. ‘Get the banquet rolling.’
Hell, Nettie was a good actress. Clutching the talisman, she sniffled and pecked Mother once on each cheek. Shaking like a tambourine, her sorrow almost believable.
‘You think I can eat? Now?’
‘Have a cup of tea then,’ I said, talking over Nettie’s yelp. ‘It’s the least you can do.’
‘You’re a real piece of work,’ she mumbled, and I laughed to take the edge off her jealousy. My sister could fight me for the crown all she wanted, but she’d have no part in this. As eldest, it was my duty—mine alone—to escort the Chanticleer to her unravelling.
Without a second glance, Nettie lifted her grey hood and hightailed it out of there, boots squeaking across fresh-fallen snow.
‘Watch your step,’ I called, repeating the warning as I eased Mother off the table. Elbows linked, we shared the burden of balance while crossing the icy threshold. I guided her along the dark lane outside, a slow careful shuffle. In no time I was huffing and Claude was purpling to black, her corpse growing heavier by the foot.
‘Nearly there,’ I panted. ‘Don’t give up on me now.’
I blinked fat flakes from my lashes and peered at Mother sidelong. Wan moonlight strobed through flurries, glinting off the powder on her skinny shoulders. Oh, what a sight. Gouges and gashes rimed with frozen lace, she hobbled like a troll. A rising snow-cap made her seem taller and taller.
Nearly there, nearly there, nearly there . . .
I didn’t realise I was smiling until Mother started to chuckle.
‘I’ve earned this,’ I said, face falling. ‘You of all people should know that.’
She patted my arm, condescending even without fingers. Save yourself the headaches, her touch said. Give Nettie the crown.
‘And what would you have done,’ I snapped, ‘if Nan’d said the same to you?’
Mother raised her chin, defiant. A true Chanticleer.
I snorted. ‘Exactly.’
She smirked, but held me tighter.
As we approached the pens I signalled for One-Shot, who’d long ago hot-footed out of the ring and into the gamekeeper’s racket. Orange flared at waist height on the yard’s far side, guttering until he put flame to wick. The lantern bobbed towards us. Iron jangled on his leather belt.
‘Evening, Claude,’ One-Shot said, rattling a cough, singling out the rustiest key. ‘Reg.’
Mother mimed an uppercut, gently clocking him on the jaw. Then she palmed his jowl, punch turned pat. Gave him a look that said, Guard up.
We opened and closed the gate in one swift movement so the foxes couldn’t skip out with Mother’s entrance. Undaunted by their excited, ethereal barking, she turned and faced me through the fence.
Arms crooked in position, she smiled. Guard up.
‘Nettie stopped in on her way past.’
Lamp held near his chest, One-Shot’s face was lit ghoulish. His cauliflower ears and truffle nose cast weird shadows, obscuring his expression.
‘Is that so,’ I said. My thick legs kept pace with his nimble ones as we traipsed down the road to the Bingo. The double-peaked hall was decked out in streamers and paper lanterns; golden light spilled into the parking lot, turning slush to lemonade. Later on, Jet and the boys would sing Mother’s soul to the hereafter, but for now, cutlery clinking against crocks was music enough. It seemed One-Shot agreed; his belly growled louder than mine.
‘She had some thoughts on the Chant’s sudden passing,’ he continued. ‘And on the outcome of tomorrow’s bout.’ He picked at his teeth with a sprig of rosemary then chomped the needles. His breath was no less rank for it.
‘Nettie’s a singer,’ I said. ‘She makes all kinds of empty noise, just to keep her vocal chords limber.’
One-Shot shrugged, never one to engage in a fight he wasn’t sure to win. ‘Guess we’ll see, won’t we?’
Behind us, the foxes’ howling reached a crescendo. Wincing, I hunched into my coat and kicked my boots against the Bingo’s scuffed steps. Before climbing up, I stomped and thudded until every skerrick of snow was knocked loose. It did little to muffle the caterwauling.
‘They’ll make quick work of it, Reg,’ the gamekeeper said. He snuffed the lamp and hooked it on the railing beside the others. ‘Vicious fuckers. Winter brings out the worst in them.’
At the door, I waited. Warm scents and sour wafted from within. Spit-roasted lamb, onions, yams. Gallant’s ale, unwashed bodies, lavender perfume. Smoke from a hundred Zig-Zags.
‘They’re just famished,’ I said, peals of laughter inside blending with feral yowls. ‘They’ve been waiting on this feast a long time.’
At cock’s crow, Nan’s cauldron was simmering on the hearth. I skimmed dross from the surface—old shreds of bryony, tansy, belladonna—and tapped it onto the grate. When the water was boiling pure, I replaced the lid and went outside to fetch pail and barrow.
Wheeling deep ruts across the boxing green, I dodged corner-posts that wanted padding and ropes that needed slinging before this evening’s event. Yesterday’s clouds had fallen overnight; I trod on their fluffy corpses, the pale sky so barren I knew we were in for a cold one.
By now, I thought, repressing a whistle as I approached the pens, the starvelings will have gnawed her to sinew and bone. A couple hours in Nan’s kettle and she’ll be rendered clean for chopping and burning. Plenty of time for the square-circle to be cleared, stools for the cutmen to be found, the announcer’s table to be set up proper. Plenty of time to tighten my skin with witch hazel and cucumber. Plenty of time to practise my lines.
Everyone still talked about Mother’s coronation speech. How clever it was. How innovative. Instead of boring the town with platitudes, she’d dolled-up in hot bathers, scribbled her ideas on placards, and paraded them round the ring between bells. With Nan’s crown and Argent’s swagger, Claude was pure class. A real hard act to follow.
For weeks, I’d planned my own debut. I didn’t have the strut for Mother’s brand of show-ponying, but my voice . . . Well, she’d said it was honest. Reassuring. Trustworthy. A voice to smooth all manner of ills.
But also unyielding, I remembered, clanking to a halt outside the gate. And nowhere near as sweet as Nettie’s.
The foxes were sedate, dark copper patches curled around the carcass. Gluttons. Must’ve gorged themselves into a coma. To be safe, I slopped some meat from the bucket, made kissing noises to get the beasts’ attention. Fat and full, they didn’t move a muscle.
The body, however, sat up.
‘Mother,’ I said, heart spasming. ‘You’re still here.’
Every last giblet had been nibbled off; the flesh around them was slashed but not bleeding. Chunks were missing from her limbs, a wound yawned in her side. Her mouth was a coagulant mess. Otherwise, she was whole. Undevoured.
She crossed her arms as if to say, Obviously. Glowered like it was my fault she hadn’t gone yet. Like I had kept her waiting, shrivelling in the cold. Like I hadn’t done all I could to see her off. She held my gaze and, gradually, started to hunch.
‘Stop it,’ I said. She pulled her knees in close, flaunting how compact she could make herself. How small. ‘Just hold right there.’
I ran for One-Shot, who was supposed to help shovel the bones. He was snoring on an armchair by his cabin’s woodstove, shirt unbuttoned, pants puddled round his feet. The room reeked of stale goon and the old man was heavy with it, his legs deadweight as I rummaged for the keys. By the time I got back to the pens, Claude had huddled herself so tiny, even Nettie would seem huge beside her. ‘Mother, please.’
While she pretzelled herself, I snagged entrails from the bucket and launched them over the fence. Never trust a fox, I figured. Sure, they looked placid enough with their bellies bloated, but offer them a chance to bite and they’d gobble it. I raced in to wrangle Claude before the animals snapped—but they didn’t stir. Not even the vixen who usually had such a mouth on her. They just laid there in packs, thin veils of snow blowing over their russet fur. Not a breath among them. ‘What happened?’
Mother shrugged, impish. Seems I wasn’t to their taste.
‘Probably too tough,’ I said.
‘Mamma!’ Nettie ran to the front door when we came home, stopped just shy of hugging. She ushered Claude onto a blanket box, well away from the fire. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘Let me get you some tea.’
Mother shook her head, pursed what was left of her lips.
‘Oh,’ Nettie said. Last night, she’d pegged her new necklace by the mantle; now she retrieved it. Slow-traced a finger along the runes. Reading, the sunshine in her right eye darkened to match the gloom in her left. ‘So it’s true.’
‘We’ve got less than eight hours,’ I said, snatching the tongue, tossing it into the pot. It sank into the boiling water with a squeal. ‘We have to get Mother ready.’
‘You can’t—’ Tears spilled over Nettie’s delicate cheeks as she studied the flames. Her skin drank in the firelight, softly burnishing. She glowed with a veneer of warmth; but when I patted her arm it was more frigid than Mother’s.
Selfish Nettie. Taking everything in, giving nothing in return. Can’t even bring yourself to exude heat.
After a minute, she cleared her throat and gestured at the cauldron. The jars of bryony, tansy, belladonna. The truths blistering off Mother’s tongue. ‘You can’t expect me to keep this a secret.’
‘Grab her ankles.’
‘No, Regina,’ she said. ‘Enough.’
Mother once joked that Nettie must’ve been an out-fighter in a past life—always standing back, side-stepping, forcing her opponent to take the first jab. Whereas I, apparently, was a brawler. I got in close. I loomed.
And I jabbed, quick and hard.
My sister dropped on the third punch, still moaning. She had the figure all right, but not the gumption to be Chanticleer. On the sidelines, Claude rolled her eyes—You’re no One-Shot—but cowered when I reached for the tansy. Two handfuls stuffed into Nettie’s little mouth should keep her well-gagged, but to be sure I jammed in a hankie and tied the lot in place with another. Four more served as makeshift fetters, wrists and ankles hogtied with tatting and lace. I pushed Mother off the blanket box and shoved Nettie inside.
‘She’ll be fine,’ I said in my honest voice, lowering the lid. ‘Look: she can practically stretch out in there.’
Mother laughed as I dragged her to the fireplace. A few prods, a few twists and the corpse climbed into Nan’s huge iron pot, conceding defeat. Instantly, the reek of her was atrocious; offal with an undertone of bitter greens. It didn’t trouble Mother in the least.
Until tonight, hen, she winked, splashing me as she submerged.
Ringside at dusk. The town gathered to put Mother to rest, and celebrate her with a few black eyes and cut lips.
To my left, the announcer tapped his bullhorn, flinching as the thing screeched. ‘Lights,’ he boomed, sending the lampboys shimmying up skinned pines. They squirrelled from bulb to bulb, sky-high, weightless, fearless. Flashes of brilliance at their fingertips conjured an almighty glare. Half-blinded, I watched until tears blinked me back to the brazier on my right, to Jet stoking the embers blue-white. Cast-iron, three feet tall, the firebowl slicked the blacksmith with sweat while the rest of us were left shivering. The evening air was icebox. Folks folded hands beneath armpits, snuggled into scarves, tightened hoods. Fighters were puffed in down jackets, high-tops laced to the shins. Thom’s knees were blueing beneath his red satin shorts; he jogged on the spot beside me to keep the blood pumping before his bout. Behind him, everyone—everyone—was staring.
Where’s Nettie? they asked.
Mother was unrecognisable, just a pile of yellowed sticks on the announcer’s table, empty sockets gaping.
With the blacksmith’s tongs, I moved Nan’s orange-hot crown then stacked Claude’s bones on the coals beside it, making a tepee out of the ribs. Old One-Shot sidled up to pay his final respects.
‘Withdrawn,’ I said at last, throat seizing as I met those stares, saw the brown and gold badges on so many hatbands and lapels. My sister’s colours, ale and sunshine, in overwhelming majority. Murmurings and restlessness sifted through the crowd, separating red rosettes from the mottled. The crown is mine to try first, I wanted to shout, but tremors shook the words from my mouth.
Across the boxing green, shadows twitched at the front door of our cabin.
My gaze snapped back to the pyre, so small for such a large spirit. She is gone, I told myself, releasing a ragged breath. She is gone.
Mother’s skull had a porcelain tinge, more blue than cream, and was light as a teacup in my hand.
Door hinges creaked.
Thom the butcher-boy passed me a hacksaw, eyebrow raised. He’d spent a lifetime with bones, chopping them to fit into crockpots and stoves. He gauged the size of this one without even touching it. He knew it’d be a squeeze.
Please, I prayed. Let it fit.
I pinned Mother’s dried-melon in place. Hand spread over the nasal cavity, fingers plugging earholes. I cringed as the mandible wriggled, certain I was suffocating her. Footsteps thudded on our porch, hinges creaked. The tool slipped from my sweaty palm. ‘Focus,’ Thom said, ever the fighter. Exhaling, I nodded and tried again. Now metal teeth chewed an uneven line across Mother’s forehead, nibbled through the temples, bone dust went flying. Footsteps thudded, frantic as my sawing. Closer. Closer.
Nearly there, I thought, rotating to get at the back of the cranium. Steady.
With a snap, the lid broke away. A smattering of applause from the reds as the crown skidded across the table and dinged the regulation bell. My belly fluttered as I picked the thing up—not even a cantaloupe, a half-grapefruit—and ran a finger along its jagged edge. The break could’ve been better, much better. It’d be torture until it wore smooth.
‘It’s supposed to hurt,’ Claude had told us, years ago. ‘Being Chanticleer. Speaking for these folks. Watching out for them. Bearing the brunt of their loves, their hates. It’s a right royal pain. And if it isn’t . . . Well. If it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong.’
Ring-girls shuddered in their dainties as I lifted the crown to my head. One-Shot fixed me with a rheumy glare, sprigs of rosemary bristling from his lips. Fathers lifted kids to give them a better vantage. Armed with enswells and balms, the cornermen crept up behind me, poised to daub. Thom, butcher-boy, boxing champ, judged the first lacerations impassively. Blood trickled warm on my brow.
Guard up, Mother, I thought. I glanced at our cabin. Shadows danced round the front door.
Gashing, forcing, I wrenched the flimsy cap on. Deep breath, lungs filling with charred air. Pulse throbbed in my head, footsteps thudded on the porch. Don’t crack. I twisted my fingers slippery, sight sheeting red. On the stoop, shadows wavered. Please don’t crack . . . I scratched and dug long after the crown was secure, my skull near-crushed beneath hers.
I did it.
The door slammed shut. Shadows and footsteps stilled.
Mother parried two beats later—and I didn’t have a puncher’s chance.
The world doubled, trebled. One-Shot half caught me as I buckled, my mind clobbered by Mother’s memories—bargains wheeled, trades brokered, lovers toyed, walks wiggled, ballads crooned—pummelled by thoughts of Nettie—singing, wooing, struggling against embroidered bonds—and KO’d by visions of me.
Mother’s little brawler, getting in close. Towering. Looming over the bed. Plying her with tea. Goat-gaze seeing everything in hindsight, Claude lowered her horns and bucked.
Hail, Regina, she said.
Head pounding, I staggered upright and shook off the gamekeeper’s grip. Had he heard her? One-Shot squinted, face unreadable. Footsteps thudded on the porch. Boxers shuffled near the ring, sloughing their coats, eager to get on with it. Leaning against the ropes, bookies butted their smokes, subtly giving me and Thom the once-over. Fingers twitched, heads bopped. Odds were accepted and rejected. The butcher’s kid will take the purse, given the shot.
‘Hail, Regina,’ said Thom. Mother chortled at this echo, laughing me nauseous as the boy genuflected. Down and up without wobbling, a circle of snow clinging to his bare knee. ‘The floor is yours, Chant.’ Ugly Thom strutted, impatient, flexing every visible muscle. My speech came first, then the champion’s bout. Symbolic gestures, promises before the fight, but necessary to seal the deal. ‘Grace us with a few words. Any bets on who’ll win?’
All my plain, heartfelt sentiments fled as the crowd livened, out-shouting each other’s wagers. The cabin door creaked, slammed.
Go on, hen, Mother said, triumphant. Poisoned fingers clawed down my throat, pried at my teeth. Death had stolen Claude’s voice; my coronation offered her a new one. Open up. I’m feeling downright chatty.
Beside me, Jet stirred the bones, fishing Nan’s red-smoking crown from the brazier. Breathing down my neck, Claude Kilbane rolled his shoulders. The old man hocked up milky phlegm. Cracked his bashed knuckles. One shot and I’d be down, just like Pop-Pop. One shot and my crown would be Nettie’s. Footsteps thudded on the porch, crunched across snow. Closer and closer.
‘Speech!’ cried the reds.
‘Speech,’ said the brown-and-golds.
Choking on bile—tansy-flavoured and rue—I stared at them all, and kept my sorry mouth shut.
Since 2008, Lisa L Hannett has had over 50 short stories appear in venues including Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Weird Tales, ChiZine, the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror (2010, 2011 & 2012), and Imaginarium: Best Canadian Speculative Writing (2012 & 2013). She has won three Aurealis Awards, including Best Collection 2011 for her first book, Bluegrass Symphony, which was also nominated for a World Fantasy Award. You can find her online at http://lisahannett.com and on Twitter @LisaLHannett