6730 words, short story
The Governess with a Mechanical Womb
It rains thin sharp drops like shattered glass. Saga and I won’t go out today. We might not go out tomorrow. There is nothing but time to kill, and yet I don’t seem to be able to get started in the one task that is more important than the others.
Saga plays with a red wooden horse stolen from the past. I fidget with the quill. I need to write down everything now before I lose courage, before the embers in the fireplace die or the governess returns.
“Agneta . . . ” Saga lowers the horse down on the floor. Its carved hooves gallop a hollow clip clop tune. My little sister glances at the horse, then at me, biting her lip. Her gray eyes glint with curiosity. “Were all horses this small?”
I’ve seen pictures of real horses in the glossy magazines the governess doesn’t allow me to bring with me from the places she takes us. I’m pretty sure horses were huge animals, larger than reindeer, and that there were multiple breeds and even within a breed, multiple colors. But horses are extinct now, and with this thought, my stomach knots. The magnitude of everything lost nauseates me.
“Agneta?” Saga studies me from under her pale brows with the merciless attention of a six-year-old.
I force myself to smile as if nothing whatsoever had ever bothered me. Saga doesn’t need to know the truth. Not yet. “Some might have been.”
I pick the pen up again, but my hand shakes. I won’t be able to take this much longer. I dread the empty pages, but not only them. These days I’m afraid of everything, but I can’t talk about this with Saga. I have to protect her for as long as I can.
“When I grow up, I want to have one.” Saga brushes the horse’s back as if it really had a fur. “A real horse.”
My sister is still so naïve. I envy her for that. “I doubt the governess will provide you that.”
“She might,” Saga replies. “If I ask nicely enough.”
I dip the pen in the inkwell and scrawl the first hesitant words. This is exactly why I have to write. When I’m gone, my sister might be the last human left in the scorched world.
The day the Victorians killed Pa, they sent a governess to take care of what remained of our family—and possibly of the whole of humankind. The men in impeccably fitted tailcoats and towering top hats led Pa away from the weather-beaten farmhouse. The women in black crinoline gowns followed them to the barren hilltop overlooking the glacier-carved lake. No words were exchanged before they incinerated Pa.
Saga, I shivered with you on the farmhouse’s porch. I held your head against my chest to shield you from the sight. Though, since you were only three at the time, I don’t think you understood what happened.
Saga and I are in the root cellar when the super-sonic boom tears the day apart. The jar of apple jam slips from my fingers and shatters against the dirt floor. The sickeningly sweet tang mixes with the damp smell of the cellar, and I gag despite myself.
“Agneta . . . ” Saga chuckles, stepping back so as not to stain her bare feet. “I bet it’s just our governess returning.”
I rivet my gaze on the spreading, sticky stain. Perhaps my sister doesn’t see our governess as a threat because she’s so young. Or perhaps she’s managed to convince herself that there was never a different world, that the tales I’ve told her about the time before the Victorians burned every city and town to dust are just figments of my imagination.
“Should we not go and greet her?” Saga asks. Still staring down, I notice her wriggling her toes.
I kick what remains of the jar under the shelf. The jam that took so many hours to boil is lost for good, as is the world before the Victorians. “We should. But shouldn’t you be wearing shoes?”
Saga doesn’t reply to me, not when we leave the cellar, not when we make our way back to the house in silence that suits well the rugged landscape of post-apocalyptic Lapland.
Our home, a graying farmhouse, hunches against a rocky slope. I tense despite myself when I hear the metallic click-click of the knitting needles. My sister’s eyes brighten. I quickly take hold of her hand, to prevent her from dashing off. I hate it when she acts like an overeager puppy, as if she’d missed the Victorian. “You don’t have any shoes that fit you, do you?”
“Nope,” Saga replies. “None at all.”
We find the governess knitting on the porch. We halt before the lichen-laced stone steps and wait for her to acknowledge us. A tendril of cold, sharp air brushes my cheek, taunting.
“Good afternoon.” The governess lowers a half-formed, poison green mitten on her lap and meets us with an emotionless gaze. She was once a full human, but never an attractive one. Her face is round, with eyes set too close and chin tilting inward right below her wide mouth. It doesn’t help that she always wears her pale hair in a tight bun atop her head. “How are you today?”
Saga and I curtsy, not much of a sight either in our battered jeans and hoodies. Once again, I feel tempted to rebel against the governess. A creature obsessed with routines, she will continue to stare at us until we behave according to her expectations. But since Saga needs new shoes, I skip the games and reply, “Good afternoon, governess. We are fine. How are you today?”
The governess nods solemnly at us and resumes her knitting.
Saga nudges me, her elbow sharper than it ought to be. My sister might not be afraid of the Victorians, but she never voices any requests either. That’s good. I don’t want her to grow too dependent on them.
“Governess,” I address the Victorian. I hate asking for help from those who killed Ma and Pa, but Saga can’t go shoeless once the temperatures drop. “We find ourselves in need of your assistance.”
The governess’ lips twitch up, but the smile doesn’t reach her colorless eyes. Pa once told me that in the early years of Victorian occupation, some lads in Oulu captured a governess, killed her, and cut her open to see what the Victorians did to converts. The governess’ veins were lined with an unknown silvery metal, and where her heart should have been was something akin to a battery. But neither of those findings was the one that left the men too horrified to sleep at night—the governess’ mechanical womb sheltered a black cube impossible to break open.
“Now do you?” The governess’ reply stabs like a broken needle. Not for the first time, I wonder if she, too, bears a black cube in her mechanical womb. That’s something I’ll never learn. The Victorians hunted down the men who killed the governess and incinerated them. “What would you need?”
Saga wiggles her toes. She’s got dirt under her nails. “I’m afraid my feet have decided to grow on their own.”
“Huh.” The governess tugs more yarn from her omnipresent satchel. Click, click, her needles go. Click, click. “Needless help passivates. Are there no hand-me-downs you could use?”
Saga glances at me. I wrap my arm around her narrow shoulders. Empathy might be a foreign concept to the Victorians, but they have no difficulty in understanding a well-formed argument. “I’m ten years older than her. I have worn all my old clothes, shoes included, thread-bare beyond repair.”
The governess blinks blankly as though someone else were making the decision for her. Then she stashes the needles and yarn into her satchel and rises up. “Very well, then. It is my duty to provide for you.”
Pa was born the year the Victorians arrived and nuked every city, factory, and highway to dust. The invaders never proclaimed their intentions, never showed themselves, and for a long time they didn’t even have a name. They shot beams of energy from the orbit, erasing Shanghai, Delhi, and Lagos in an eye blink. The populace of smaller cities held their breath, until they too, were incinerated one after another.
Pa’s family was lucky enough to live in Finland, a country so scarcely populated that it took a while before the Victorians paid any attention to it. His family fled from Helsinki to Tampere, then onward to what remained of Oulu. They lived in a bomb shelter dating back to the Second World War and scavenged the city ruins for food. The survivors of the cataclysm avoided one another—by then, they’d figured out that larger communities and anyone who dabbled with high tech or even electricity got instantly incinerated.
The first converts appeared a decade later, seemingly out of nowhere. The men sporting top hats, tailcoats, and silver-knobbed canes paraded down the ruined streets. The women in black crinoline gowns followed in their wake. They claimed they came in peace, and when asked what species they represented, they named themselves the Victorians.
Pa met Ma, a refugee from Sweden with eyes the color of ice about to thaw, when he was eighteen. Both hated Oulu and living by the rules the Victorians enforced, but never bothered to share with the mere humans. Some of the survivors disappeared, only to appear the next day converted. Others fled what remained of the city. And despite their parents’ pleas, Ma and Pa decided to seek a better life further up north.
Ma and Pa rode rickety bicycles through four hundred kilometers of dirt tracks. During the endless white summer nights, they encountered no other living souls, only forlorn, rusting car skeletons and hordes of starving mosquitos.
They stumbled across the small community of Sodankylä by accident. Though they were happy to meet other survivors, they couldn’t imagine staying. The Victorians walked amongst the humans, exchanging formal greetings as if that was all there was to good life.
At that point, Ma and Pa realized they could never pedal far enough. As a sort of compromise, they set home to an abandoned farmhouse about fifty kilometers away from Sodankylä. I was born a year later.
I guess that for a while our parents were as happy as two people ever can be.
The portal remains open behind us, a shimmering oval between two tall pines. In this time and place, the air smells of wet bark and bent grass. It must have stopped raining just moments earlier.
The governess glances at her golden pocket watch, then at Saga and me. “We have thirty minutes exact.”
“Sure,” I reply. When I first stepped through a portal, the governess warned me that those who remained behind after it closed would simply cease to exist. If it hadn’t been for Saga, I might have . . . But now, I won’t even entertain the idea, no matter how I hate my life.
The governess produces a red-checkered mitten from her satchel and hangs it at the tip of a pine branch. Without sparing us another glance, she strides through the forest of young trees, up a slope thick with shrubbery. Lingonberries squash under her heels, but she doesn’t notice that.
Saga and I follow the governess as fast as we can, but not quite fast enough. After we lose sight of her, we follow the mittens. I idly wonder if this is the reason she knits them in the first place. Perhaps. Who can tell how the mind of a convert works?
The forest gives way to a well-tended clearing, an ochre-painted, two-story holiday house with plain, white window frames and a black mansard roof. A gravel road leads through the forest toward north. The governess is nowhere in sight. Her kind comes and goes as they please.
“Let’s go and see what we can find,” I say to Saga. I have no clock of my own—clocks without plastic and batteries are difficult to find—but I estimate the hike took five or so minutes.
“Anything you’d need?” Saga asks.
Another human being. Preferably a boy of my age. Give or take a decade or two. Barring that, a life far away from the governess would be nice. And if that isn’t possible, something to make me forget everything. However, my little sister doesn’t need to know about the things I yearn even though I know I can never have them.
“Books,” I reply. It’s better to give her something to hunt, to keep her out of my way. And besides, it’s about time I teach her how to read.
I hold my breath as I push the front door open. I know to expect the jarring sense of unease, and yet it turns my limbs leaden. Though we’ve never seen anyone during our visits, that doesn’t mean this house’s owners couldn’t return at any moment.
“I’ll be fast,” Saga promises as she dashes past me toward the stairs. It’s late summer in this time. Winter clothes are most likely kept stored in the attic.
I pop into the toilet under the stairs, not that I would ever dare to use it, just as I don’t dare to turn on the lights. With arms extended before me, I shuffle my way to the cupboard above the sink. I search blindly.
By chance, I come across a small brown bottle. I squint at the label. The big red triangle tells me everything I need to know. I unscrew the cap and swallow two gulps of the cough medicine. I’ve done this more times than I care to admit. But the governess seems to be blind to the wonderful drowsiness that’s bound to follow.
I return the bottle in the cupboard and continue my hunt. I find a box of tampons. Praised be whichever god still exists! Though, I’ll either have to remove the plastic wrappings or risk the governess confiscating the box.
Feeling pleasantly lightheaded, I stuff the box into my backpack. It feels good to defy the rules for even a moment. To celebrate my decision, on my way out, I snatch two rolls of the luxurious, triple-ply toilet paper. Those can’t possibly count as high-tech!
I ignore the kitchen—the governess doesn’t approve us taking food unless we’re starving. I drift through the spacious living room occupied only by a massive white sofa and a huge tv. On the far side, two doors whisper promises of a better life led by luckier people. I open the door on the left.
The room isn’t particularly big. A teddy bear, sitting on the pink duvet with limbs askew in all directions, guards the bed at the back of the room. Ill-tended books, notebooks, and piles of paper cover the desk to my right. Jeans, t-shirts, and various accessories litter the floor. The posters on the wall proclaim ownership. Skinny men and women in scant clothing scream, sweat dripping down their faces.
No, I realize, they aren’t screaming but singing.
I close my eyes as my heart pangs with envy. This room belongs to a teenage girl. In another time and place, it could have been mine. The concerts, heartbreaks, and fashion disasters. The heartbreaks . . .
It would be so easy to get lost in sorrow. But the drowsiness dulls even the strongest of emotions, and I manage to push self-pity aside for a moment more.
I wade to the table. This girl from the past is of my age. The books might be schoolbooks. I need to check if I can take any of them with me. I need to learn whatever there is to learn. Perhaps one day I’ll figure out what happened to my world, why the Victorians came, and how I can best protect Saga from their arbitrariness.
But every single one of the books contains plastic in one form or another. I can’t take them with me. I force myself to fumble through the clothing, to get something else to think about. As my luck has it, the clothes are made of polyester and acrylic. I run my fingers along the paisley print of a particularly pretty sleeveless top. Even if I could take it with me, I would never have any use for it. I need warm and durable clothes that can stand the elements and mangling by washboard. I toss the top aside.
My vision is already blurry around the edges when I come across a pair of snowflake patterned woolen socks, no doubt knit by the girl’s grandmother. I clench my teeth as my hands curl into fists. I sway to the bed and sink down so heavily that the teddy bear keels over. It’s not fair! I’ve never seen and will never see my grandmother!
Tears well in my eyes, and I can’t hold them back. I snatch the teddy bear and clutch it against my heart. The Victorians have denied me everything. Family, friends, the chance of ever meeting someone I might fall in love with.
“What is it, Agneta?” Saga has appeared into the doorway without me noticing. A slightly too large fur cap lines her delicate face. The lamb fur coat she’s donned looks old, but warm, the winter boots three sizes too large.
The teddy bear drops from my numb fingers. I can’t allow Saga to see me this weak. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Saga parrots me. She picks her way through the mess to the bed, sits down next to me, wraps her arm around me, and leans her chin against my shoulder. “I thought that lying was a bad thing.”
As Saga grows older, it’s getting more and more difficult to mislead her. Perhaps the time has come to stop even trying. I wipe my eyes dry with the back of my hand. “I found something I really want, but can’t take with us.”
Saga squeezes her arms tighter around me. It’s as if she were my big sister, not the other way around.
“Now, did you indeed?” The governess rolls into the room, the black hem of her gown swallowing everything like a monstrous wave.
I freeze, but my heart pounds unsteadily. My careless comment has placed both Saga and me in grave danger. What can I say and do to remedy the situation? It’s difficult to think straight, with the cough medicine clouding my mind.
“Well?” The governess seems to float before us, over the clothes and magazines. She motions toward my bag. I demurely hand it over.
Despite all the winter clothes, Saga shivers as the governess rummages through my bag. She thinks I’ve decided to snatch something forbidden. I second-guess myself. Have I?
The governess tosses out the toilet paper rolls. She pouts her lips as she notices the box of tampons. She turns it in her hands, opens the package, and pulls out one plastic-wrapped tampon. “What is this?”
Saga stares at me, still silent. I haven’t yet talked with her about the inconveniences of growing up. I want her to lead a carefree life as long as she can.
“Something to make my life a little easier,” I finally reply. How victorious I felt just a while back! Now defeat tastes bitter and sharp.
“I can’t let you have them,” the governess says, placing the box on the table.
I boil inside. And despite knowing the danger in debating with a Victorian, I spring up and retrieve the box. I pull out a tampon and brandish it at her. “The wrapping comes off.”
“Is that so?” the governess asks.
Glowering with fury, I unpeel the tampons, one after another.
Pa believed the Victorians could access cached moments. To prove his theory, he followed a convert through a portal once and brought back newspapers that Ma promptly used to start a fire. Though he and Ma could have received supplies from the Victorians, they preferred to scavenge the cottages scattered across the abandoned valleys.
Ma and Pa spoke only rarely of the world before the Victorians. I gathered from the clues left behind—magazines full of pictures of impossibly beautiful women, exotic cities of architectural wonder, and delicacies I’d never get to taste—that their parents must have led a life of abundance and extravaganza. Though at the time I blamed them for not telling me everything, later I understood how much it must have pained them to almost have it all.
Saga, you must understand, Ma and Pa did their best to provide for us. We farmed beetroot, potatoes, and onions. We fished for trout and pike. Sometimes one of them would jump on their bicycle and pedal away, while the other stayed with you and me.
Back when Sodankylä still existed, it harbored an underground marketplace. There, behind the Victorians’ backs, people bartered with what they’d found from the ruins or on their trips through the portals. They exchanged alcohol for food, medicines for clothes, luxuries of olden days for everyday amenities.
I remember always feeling anxious and restless until the parent who’d braved the journey returned. On that happy day, we’d cook a celebratory meal, no matter how meager their loot. We’d pop open tin cans and rip open plastic containers. We’d laugh, though sometimes the food left an ashen aftertaste.
I realized only later why.
Frost has bitten the landscape bloody. I chop logs in the small opening by the woodshed, but my mind is elsewhere. Saga is gathering the nets. The governess went with her, but rather to keep an eye on her than to help. She never participates in household duties.
My stomach aches and will ache for days still. I’m afraid of many things, but not of my periods. I know now that I won’t die of the bleeding. When the time comes, I’ll explain how a woman’s body works to Saga, but not a day sooner.
I swing the ax to split another log. The wood parts with a satisfying crack. If I hate something almost as much as the Victorians, it’s the damned inconvenience of having a womb. Why do I have to bleed, when there’s a decent chance that I’ll never meet another human being beside Saga, let alone a boy to knock me up?
I yank the ax free from the log. It’s getting late. Hopefully, come next summer, Saga can already fend for herself, and I can pedal to discover what remains of Sodankylä. Perhaps my fears will prove unfounded. Perhaps . . .
Enough with wistful thinking.
I return the ax in the woodshed and pile the chopped wood to dry. Then I stride down the rocky path to the narrow jetty that age and elements have turned gray. The jetty squeaks under my boots long after I’ve halted to survey the lake.
Saga and the governess are still at the north end of the lake, perhaps a half-kilometer away. My sister is hauling the net into the boat all by herself, while the governess knits mittens no one will ever use. Just as I expected.
“No, I don’t buy it.” Saga’s voice carries over the open water. “You can’t have always been a governess.”
I flinch despite myself. I avoid addressing the governess when I can get away with it, but my bold, six-year-old sister has just asked the very question that has always puzzled me. What was our governess like before she chose to convert? Why did she choose to welcome alien machinery into her body rather than remain a human? For isn’t that the ultimate betrayal one can commit against one’s species?
“No.” The governess straightens her back. Her reply sounds mechanical. “That I was not.”
“Why become one then?” Saga leans over the boat’s edge to better grasp the net. The boat tilts to a threatening angle. I’m about to call out a warning, but before I can do so, the governess shifts to balance the boat.
“The children must be looked after,” the governess says.
Saga sniffs as she heaves the last of the net and day’s catch over the boat’s rim. She dislikes being called a child. Even though that’s what she is. “You were a child, then?”
“A child is a boy or a girl,” the governess replies.
“A girl.” Saga nods, self-satisfied. “You were a girl.”
For a long while, neither of them speaks more. The gray clouds thicken, and shadows grow taller. On the shore, blood-red birches shiver. I can’t see any birds flying, but I can hear faded cries of terns.
Eventually, Saga picks up the oars and expertly maneuvers the boat around. She rows toward the jetty, but still doesn’t notice me. It really is getting dark and colder, too.
“You are a girl,” the governess muses as if she’s realized this for the very first time.
“You’re funny.” Saga giggles. She splashes water with the oars. The governess ducks to avoid the sprays. My sister laughs. “You know, we have something in common after all!”
I spit in the water, shattering the surface. Saga and I have nothing whatsoever in common with the converts. I’ll need to make sure she remembers that.
But I can’t bear to face my sister now, not with the governess present. I flee up the path to the farmhouse, kicking every pebble on the way. Saga and I belong to the second post-invasion generation, but it seems to me she’s forgot what the Victorians did.
I haven’t, and I harbor enough hate in my heart for two.
Ma was visiting Sodankylä when the town got obliterated. I was playing with you in the orchard when the beam of light split the sky, so bright I couldn’t see for hours afterwards. Pa found us crying, curled under an apple tree. He didn’t need to tell us that Ma wouldn’t return.
Pa changed after Ma died. He sat on the porch, staring in turns into the distance and at his hands. He hunched there, muttering about electricity and how people should have already known better, for so long that even the mosquitos grew bored of his taste.
That autumn, the fields went untended, the apples unpicked. You were two and half years old at the time. Between looking after you and Pa, I had no chance to go and scrounge for myself.
We ran out of tin cans when the first snow fell. On the third day that we had nothing left to eat, the Victorians came to pay us a visit. Pa pretended he’d invited the serious men and women and thanked them for the provisions they brought.
I think that if there had been any alcohol to be had, he would have emptied every single bottle and flask.
Every Saturday—that is, every seventh day, since there’s no way to be sure of time and date anymore—Saga and I heat up our little sauna, wash the laundry, and scrub ourselves clean. The governess never joins us; rather she often leaves via portal to a different time and place, perhaps to visit her own kind. I’m unashamedly glad of that.
“More?” Saga asks as we sit naked on the wet pine bench, knees pressed against chests, arms wrapped around shins. She twirls the copper ladle absent-mindedly as she stares out of the soot-laced window.
It’s dark and cold outside. It should have snowed weeks ago, but it hasn’t. The new world follows different rules, and amidst the change, Saga and I are alone. I seek solace from what little tradition remains, from the scent of burning wood, the warm comfort of the tiny sauna, the closeness never shared in any place else. Saga and I were both born in this very room. Here we’re safe.
“Sure,” I reply just as the sonic boom tears through the windowpanes. Glass hums. I fear it will crack. “Shit.”
We’ll never be safe anywhere.
“Agneta!” Saga hits me with the ladle, not particularly hard, but hard enough for it to sting. “Don’t curse in the sauna!”
I should stay stronger before my little sister, show her example by being unafraid, but . . . I can’t. Not anymore.
Saga tosses a scoop of water on the stove’s stones, but the soft hiss does nothing to set me at ease. She notices that. “That’s just our governess returning.”
I bury my head in my hands as if I were protecting my ears from the steam, not trying to hide my shame. My stomach clenches, cold fingers squeeze my heart. This fear, it’s impossible to live with, too embarrassing to admit.
“Agneta?” Saga brushes my shoulder, her skin clammy against mine. That’s it then. She’s seen what I’ve tried so hard to hide. There’s no point in continuing to lie.
“Sometimes . . . ” The words, I don’t want to say them. But I have to. “I grow so tired of being ever so afraid of the Victorians.”
“I’m not afraid.” Saga’s reply is the last thing I expected to hear. “Got no reason to be. I’ve broken no rules.”
Anger surges inside me. Sure, Saga is young and ignorant. But to dismiss my words, to accept the situation as it is, that’s unacceptable!
“Who knows what rules they follow?” I whisper hoarsely. Does Saga really think that she understands how the Victorians think? Does she think she’s safe because she plays best friends with the governess? Does she? And I shouldn’t have to remind her that . . . “They killed Ma and Pa.”
Saga flinches. No, she hasn’t forgot Ma and Pa. That’s good, but I feel ever so slightly ashamed that I thought so even in passing.
For a long while, neither of us speaks. Saga stares at the stove, the logs in the firebox succumbing to flames. I rivet my attention at the stones. As the water evaporates, the dry patches on them grow larger. Gradually, the sauna cools. The air should have become easier to breathe, and yet it doesn’t feel that way.
At last, Saga says in a barely audible voice, “So you’ve told me, but what if . . . ”
I glare at her sideways. What is she after now? “What if what?”
I’ve told her what came to pass many times, and there’s no way she could have misunderstood. Pa acquired and hid the gun to protect Saga and me.
“Nothing.” Saga wraps her arms tighter around herself as if she wanted to close the whole word, me included, outside.
I’m about to chastise her when a dreadful thought occurs to me. I fight to deny it even as a shiver runs down my back, sinking claws under my skin, all the way to my bones.
“Give me that.” I yank the ladle from Saga’s numb hold. I pour water on the stones. I pour and pour until both of us wriggle in steam.
And yet I can’t chase away the awful thought. What if Pa thought to protect us by putting a bullet through our heads?
We lived through the endless night of the winter only thanks to the Victorians. The somber men and women paid us a visit every single time we ran out of food. However, it was neither kindness nor any sort of regret that drove them. When Pa thought I couldn’t hear, he questioned them about their motives. They spoke of the survival of the species, of all things!
When the spring finally came, Pa left me in charge of the house and went foraging. You and I fished the best we could, but one can’t live solely on pike and trout. The Victorians must have been spying on us, because they sent us more tin cans and dried rye bread.
For two long weeks, I feared Pa would never return, that the Victorians had killed him too. Then he did return, though later I wished he hadn’t.
We rushed to greet him, braids bouncing against our backs. We leaned against the porch’s creaky railing and waved at him, eager to see what he’d brought us.
As the spring sun shone bright, Pa opened his backpack and pulled out an object wrapped in a red and white-checkered scarf. Carefully and slowly, he untied the knots. I caught a glimpse of metal, a hint of a barrel and grip.
“Soon,” he said, grinning at us, “you won’t have to be afraid ever again.”
The Victorians came for Pa the very next day.
The governess’ fingers curl around my shoulder, claws of a hungry beast. She shouts something incomprehensible to me, face too close to mine. As I meet her cold, emotionless gaze, thick smoke floods my nostrils and mouth. I scream, but the nightmare won’t go away.
“Fire,” the governess says. “Get out.”
Still not sure if I’m dreaming or awake, I stumble up from the bed. The governess drags me through the smoke-filled house, out of the door, down the porch’s stone stairs, into the freezing night. All I can do is cough.
“Saga . . . ” I retch black slime into a snowbank. Before us, the farmhouse spits flames. The doorway gasps acrid smoke. But my little sister is nowhere in sight. “I must go back!”
“No. Too dangerous. You are sixteen,” the governess replies as if that explained everything. As if in her eyes I’m more valuable because I’m older and more resources have been spent to ensure my survival.
“And . . . she’s but . . . a child,” I snap back at her, coughing between the words. I sway toward the house even as bright dots swarm my vision. At the stone steps, heat lashes against me, instantly blistering my face and forearms.
“A girl.” The governess pulls me back from the shoulders, her grip like iron. There’s a strange, distant quality to her voice, as if something deep inside her had just clicked. “I was a girl.”
There’s no time to lose, and yet I find myself staring at her. Her visage bears a look of utter sadness. It’s as if she finally remembers that she was once fully human and understood emotions, grief and despair.
“You stay. My clothes, they might protect me.” And without waiting for my answer, the governess thrusts her satchel at me and strides into the flames. For a moment, I can see her black, diminishing shape against the vicious orange. Then she disappears altogether, and all that remains is a faint whisper: “I was a girl.”
I stomp in the melting snow, as close to the burning house as I can without suffering more burns. A part of me wants to dash after the governess and find my sister. The rational part knows that I would die before being able to help her in any way.
Loneliness haunts me as I wait. There’s no guarantee I’ll see my dear sister, another human being, ever again. Her fate is in the hands of a convert. I fidget with the satchel. The governess has never let me touch it before. I need something to distract myself. I unclasp the satchel.
The governess’ most valued possessions seem to be her knitting needles, three balls of red yarn, and my notebook. Curious. I left that on my nightstand. Why did she opt to save it from the fire? Did she on some subconscious level . . .
A multitude of loud cracks. A terrifying shape emerges from the house. It’s the governess. She half falls, half slides down the stone stairs, her gown sprouting flames, a burning halo of hair around her head. My heart and hopes shrink, for she has returned alone.
Then Saga peeks out from under the governess’ hem, cheeks stained with smoke and tears.
“Saga!” I rush to them, pulling my sister up on her own feet, away from the fire. She wraps her arms around my thighs and cries.
“A girl . . . ” The governess staggers after us, but her feet slip on the slush. The flames on her hair wither. Her scalp has blackened, visage blistered. She looks like a monster, but that she is not.
“You’re hurt,” I say, feeling dumb and powerless.
A shudder runs through the governess’ body. She collapses on her knees on the snow. “She . . . she is six.”
I squat down next to the governess. I pat snow against her cheeks and forehead, and Saga follows my suit. But it’s too late to save her. Her dress disintegrates, the black fabric turning into white flakes, revealing more burns.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper as I help the governess to lie down in the snow. I was so very wrong about her. “I’m so sorry.”
The governess meets me with an unblinking stare. Though her lashes have burnt, too, the look in her eyes is one of utter peace. “I . . . was . . . a girl.”
Life flees her scorched body soon after.
Northern lights claw the cold sky green-blue as Saga and I drag the governess’ body up the slope. Our going through the knee-deep snow is slow, and the governess’ limbs leave behind sooty trails. Yet, we halt only when we’re a safe distance away from the smoldering ruins of our home.
“What will we do now?” Saga clutches the hem of her nightgown. The air smells of snow and flames, of sorrow and loss.
The Victorians can sense the death of their kind. They will come to claim our governess’ body soon. And then . . . I’m ashamed to admit it to myself, I expect the Victorians to continue looking after Saga and me. “We wait.”
“For what?” Saga’s voice breaks as she glances at the governess’ body. The governess lies on her back. The front of her body is charred. Her belly curves inward, hollow apart from the outline of a cube. She’s a convert, but also . . . “You know she was my friend.”
That remark hurts me more than anything else that came to pass that night. I’ve hated the Victorians my whole life and expected Saga to do likewise. But she bonded with the governess and the governess sacrificed herself to save my sister.
“I’m sorry. I truly am.”
“It’s all right. I guess.” Saga takes hold of my hand, her fingers already white-cold. “It will not be the same if they send another governess to take care of us. But I will try my best to welcome her.”
“I know.” I squeeze her hand. Saga will be able to adjust to anything and befriend anyone regardless of their species or origin. I . . .
The whiplash boom heralds the portal opening to our right. But this time, I don’t flinch, not even when four stern-faced Victorians stride through the rippling air, followed by a demure woman, our governess-to-be. They don’t look like they’re angry at us, not like they want a life in return for the loss of one of their kind.
I think of the cube inside the governess’ womb. I think of what I yearn and what I can never have. I can’t bear the thought of sharing my sister with someone I’ll inevitably fear, loathe, and hate. I’m not like Saga. My feelings have roots wedged so deep that no matter how I were to try, I will never be able to overcome them.
“Saga . . . ” I press the satchel in her hands. She’s the one who matters to me the most. I want to be with her forever, to be loved by her rather than eventually despised. “I’ll have to go with them. And when I return it will seem like I’m gone, but it’ll still be me. At some level, it’ll still be me.”
When I step through the portal, I still think of the vast city in the stars, looking through space and time at the white-shrouded, blue planet. For if my kind hadn’t intervened, it would have been forever lost.
“Agneta!” Saga runs to me, arms spread wide for an embrace.
I don’t respond to her call, for I don’t have a name anymore, only a duty. “How do you do?”
As I lead Saga to her new home, an abandoned summer cottage on the north side of the lake, I feel nothing but the strangest sort of empathy and sadness toward the one who treats me as if we were the same.
We are not and will never be. I have an important duty, and that duty fuels me. I must look after this human, this child. I must guide her and protect her from hurting herself.
I believe her kind calls this sort of devotion love. For some reason I don’t quite understand, I want to prepare her apple jam.
Leena Likitalo is a writer from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and at least as many untold tales. She's a Writers of the Future 2014 winner and Clarion San Diego graduate. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy's Edge, and Weird Tales. She's recently finished writing a fantasy novel, The Five Daughters of the Moon, and dreams of being a published novelist one day.