The Mixed Children
Elle’s mother tells her that the only worthwhile thing they ever got from Puss is the pair of magic boots she keeps locked up in a glass cabinet. They’re for when Elle is older, and they’ve been growing along with her, starting out as little baby shoes and working their way to a size 7. Her mother insists that life is better without Puss, and most of the time she won’t talk about him at all. She was once a king’s daughter, before she fell in love with a silver-tongued cat, and she prefers to think of the old days.
Elle’s mother is friends with Red. They have a lot in common, except for the fact that Elle’s mother made a bad choice, whereas Red didn’t. Puss ran off, but Red’s husband, Wolf, has always stayed with her. And he takes care of everyone. Right now, for instance, Wolf is out hunting. It’s because of him that Elle gets a steady supply of fresh meat, and sometimes he lets her eat the raw innards. He understands her. “There is nothing worse than fighting your own nature, Elle,” he says, and then he gives her a look that scares her.
As she grows older, Elle’s thoughts turn to the hunt. She gets so excited looking at birds and flying insects, and sometimes she goes out in the forest by herself to stalk birds. She hasn’t killed one yet, but she has held one in her hands. That was when Wolf found her.
“You shouldn’t act like this, Elle,” he told her. “It’s unseemly in a young girl. Let me teach you to use a bow and arrow, at least.”
She shook and wept. “You don’t understand, Wolf. I didn’t just want to kill it. I didn’t just want to eat it. I loved it–I really loved that little bird.”
“I do understand, Elle,” he said. Then he held her in his arms as she begged him not to tell her mother.
(Her mother is a problem because she does not understand Elle. She does not seem to understand mixed children at all even though she has one of her own. She does not know what life is like for her daughter: the continual seeking, the mystery presented by every mirror.)
Red and Wolf have a daughter, Roslyn, who is Elle’s best friend. Like Elle Roslyn has pointy ears, whiskers and a tail. But she also has gray hair sprouting all over her torso, and she hates it.
The girls are not alone; all of the children in their building are mixed. There’s a little girl with a frog head who lives on the ground floor with her mother, a delicate beauty who never ages. The little girl can’t even talk, and she makes Elle nervous. The mother is likewise silent and has never said a word to Elle. The father was a frog, but nobody likes to talk about him because he was crushed to death under the wheels of a carriage.
Beast Junior is a nuisance. His parents insist on calling him Prince, which makes Elle and Roslyn laugh out loud. After all, he looks just like a beast, with a prominent snout and hair all over his body. But he is very proud of his human parts, especially his boy-parts.
Elle, unlike her friends, likes being mixed. In fact, she hates the plainness of mere humanity. She wouldn’t mind being a mermaid, like Stella’s mother on the second floor. Stella herself has gills, so she can breathe underwater, which makes her a good playmate for the frog-head girl. Stella’s mother says that it’s very confining, having to stay in water most of the time, and sometimes she wishes for legs. She doesn’t like depending on the other parents to carry her up and down the stairs, but Elle and Roslyn are always glad to help her. They carried her back to her bathtub once after a party when all the parents got drunk on dandelion wine. While it was hard holding onto that slippery tail, Elle enjoyed herself, savoring the ocean smell that rose up from the mermaid’s body. I could love her the way I love the birds, Elle thought to herself, growing dizzy with the violence of her own thoughts. She tried to remind herself that the beautiful mermaid was just another lonely woman whose man ran off with someone else.
How to keep a man from running away? How to get one in the first place? Beauty is not the answer. Beauty is the problem, and Elle knows this. All of the mothers here are beautiful. Their beauty is what led to these sad couplings, these mixed children.
The other problem is freedom, or lack thereof. The children are allowed to wander only as far as the pond to the north, or, sometimes, down to the little village to the south. Wolf is very watchful. Somehow he sees everything. He is the one who calls them back home before dark.
The parents claim that the world wasn’t always so dangerous, not before the Troubles. They used to be free to wander for miles and miles, but now there are gangs of giants who roam around with knives. There used to be woodsmen who protected everybody, but they died of a disease that made them waste away. Elle’s mother says the Troubles started because the land itself became ill. She claims one can still see traces of the illness in the world around them.
“You’re better off at home, Elle,” her mother tells her when she sees her daughter’s growing restlessness. “You’re not missing anything. We have a nice, warm building. There’s the pond, and there’s the village, for when you get really bored. We’re surrounded by this lovely forest. And we have plenty of vegetables. What else do you need?”
Still, Elle lives with the feeling that her own body wants to kill her. She runs and climbs trees all day, yet she has trouble sleeping at night. She is looking for something, something that is missing and nameless.
Solstice is always good for excitement. Last year Puss came back, which he does from time to time. Now Elle hates him more than ever, but she understands why her mother fell for him. The thing about Puss, he really knows how to talk to women. He convinced Elle and her mother that he would put the three of them on a ship and take them around the world. Yes, that same world that’s supposed to be so dangerous, but when he talks about it, even her mother agrees to pack up and leave. And so they packed and made plans. Elle gave Roslyn her favorite silver locket as a token of their friendship, a spell for remembrance. And then one morning Elle heard her mother crying and knew that Puss had slipped away in the night.
Red came over to their place with a pot of tea and some butter. “He has trouble with commitment, Princess,” she said. (Her mother likes it when people use her title.) “Some cats are just that way. He always does this to you. You’re going to have to learn not to fall for it next time.”
“I’ll never speak to him again,” her mother swore. “I’ll never let him see Elle. Think about it, Red: he left his own child without saying goodbye. Again.”
And of course Red couldn’t think of anything else to say. She’s the lucky one in the building because her Wolf is so good to her. Elle sees that everyone is jealous of Red and Roslyn. The only other dad around is Beast Senior, who stays inside smoking his pipe all day, but nobody seems to like him. Even Beauty, his wife, can be heard crying when she’s outside hanging up the laundry.
Elle and Roslyn sit in the big window seat in Roslyn’s apartment and brush their long hair while they philosophize. If love is so painful, why have all of these women fallen for it?
And why does nobody learn from the mistakes of the parents?
Lately Beast Junior and Stella have started going off into the forest together. It’s not that Elle and Roslyn are jealous of them–for who could envy a hairy boy and a girl with gills?–but they do wonder how they will ever find lovers of their own.
And then they wonder, because of what happens between Roslyn’s parents on the night of the full moon, if they really want to find lovers. Maybe they should run and hide instead.
Roslyn’s parents are so loud when they’re together. They sound like they’re killing each other. It starts with screaming and howling and a lot of furniture being knocked over. Then the chase begins. One by one everybody who’s home clears out of the building because nobody can stand the noise. Elle always expects their apartment to be covered in blood and tears afterwards, but it’s just Red and Wolf having tea and looking very relaxed, surrounded by that telltale smell.
That’s their love story, repeating endlessly and publicly, until everyone has learned it.
But as for the story of her mother and Puss, that’s very hard to get to. And even though Elle only wants to hear the beginning, the happy part, her mother is reluctant to tell the story at all. Elle’s mother could have been the Marquise of Carabas, but she chose Puss instead for his charm and his wit. His words alone, his intelligence, won her heart. Love makes one do unwise things. Still, her mother claims she has no regrets. She likes her life here, with her daughter, surrounded by single mothers and mixed children.
When Elle and Roslyn can’t stand this life anymore, they tell one of the parents and then head out to the village. It’s frightening, which appeals to Elle, but Roslyn doesn’t much care for it. Still, it’s the only place there is to explore. Wolf claims it is filled with ghosts. The smells there are odd, long dead, melancholy. Every dwelling is empty. The girls can walk right into the little cottages where people used to live. And inside the big buildings with the golden, glittering domes there is nothing but darkness and dusty candles and pictures of women with babies, babies who are not mixed.
Elle likes best of all to be in one of the little cottages when the shutters and doors are closed and everything is dark. Back when they were little, she used to hide in them so well that she would fall asleep, and then Roslyn would have to find her and drag her out. These days Roslyn gets tired of the village quickly and begs to leave.
“Come on now, Elle,” she cries until her friend relents.
But it is hard for Elle to leave the comfort of a dark, hot, tiny space, a space all her own. The only thing worse than her craving for solitude is her hunger. The food that Wolf brings her isn’t enough.
She wants to kill her own food. Every little noise, every little movement in the bushes makes her jump. She thinks to herself, what if I start with a mouse? Will anybody miss a tiny mouse? She is compelled to inspect every sound, every smell. Her nose winds up in everything. She can’t let Roslyn know how she feels. Roslyn is nothing like her. Roslyn hates her animal side and lately has taken to covering her ears with her mother’s red hood. It’s like she’s hiding all the time.
But she can’t keep that hood on forever. The next solstice is coming, the hot one, and all the mixed children will take off their clothes for the ceremonial swim. Elle has high hopes for the next solstice. It has to be better than the last one, the cold one when Puss left them behind after stirring their hopes.
Beast Junior stops Elle on the stairwell and offers her a chance at true happiness if she will only come into the forest with him. He is confident of his prowess; he tells her that Stella will vouch for him.
“I don’t want to,” she says, lying. Her blood is boiling. She wants the knowledge, the experience, without having to go off with Beast Junior. But what can a girl do by herself in the forest?
When she walks through the door of her apartment, her mother is waiting.
“What?” Elle asks. “What’s wrong?”
“Who were you talking to on the stairs?”
“Beast Junior. Why?”
“Elle, you know that you are changing. You should be careful. Your body… don’t you feel it?”
And now she is worried that her mother is on to her. Her mother knows she is a killer, that must be it. Surely her thirst for blood hangs like a shroud over their little home. With each rejected bowl of bland soup or morsel of flat bread, Elle breaks the bond between them. It is hard to look her mother in the eye.
“Elle,” her mother continues, “soon you will begin a great change. You’ll embark on a journey, only you won’t even need to leave this building. You won’t be a girl forever.”
“You’re wrong,” Elle protests. “Wrong about everything.”
“Elle, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
Her mother is mistaken. For what she needs to do, Elle must leave the building and all the mixed children and their pretty mothers and even dear Wolf. She must go out into the forest on her own. But not to find a mate.
She feels that she is running out of time.
The next morning the birds of the forest call to her, their song reaching all the way into her bed. She spends the day aching in pain as she tends the vegetables and then takes the sheets down to the pond to wash them. She tries not to talk to anybody, even though Beast Junior wants her attention and Roslyn keeps acting like she has something important to tell her. Elle is starving. Her back aches. Her head aches. There is cramping below her waist. She wants to sleep, so she crawls up into a tree and falls into one of the black naps she is known for. The others leave her alone.
She has a dream about Stella playing with the frog-head girl under water. Or perhaps it is not a dream, perhaps they really are playing somewhere in the depths of the pond. The frog-head girl is happy in her own way but she needs water. She cannot be denied what she needs.
When Elle wakes it is finally, mercifully, dusk. She starts walking away from the pond, sticking to the well worn path, so as not to attract attention. And then, when all her senses tell her it is safe, she leaves the path.
The important thing is to be as quiet as possible, to erase herself until she becomes part of the forest, to stop every once in a while so that she can really listen. To use her nose, which becomes even more important than her eyes. Her desire grows and grows. Her whiskers have a life of their own. She is so hungry it hurts.
The bird is blue and small, young. Elle leaps without thinking and misses it. Then it is gone, up into the orange sky. The bird may be gone, but now the hunt is on. Elle knows it will not end without a kill. She moves on to another part of the forest, one with new smells, new sounds. This may take a while. It will grow pitch black and she will be in trouble with her mother.
Soon she sees a fat brown bird with a broken leg. The bird is slow, easy prey, but this is Elle’s first time and she cannot be picky. Even in flight the bird is slow, yet Elle still has to leap far off the ground to catch her. The hot flurry of feathers and the sureness of bone struggling against her hands is exquisite. Elle wants to play with her, but she must be fast. She bites off the bird’s head, tears open the belly. What is she looking for? This is more about blood than meat. It is about heat. It is life, she understands: life is what she seeks to consume. It is the joy of swallowing a beating heart.
It is over too soon.
And then she is nothing but a messy girl with pointy ears and whiskers. Death is all over her face. Elle looks up and curses her father.
She is looking for a stream, somewhere to wash, when she sees Wolf, who is busy with the guts of a deer he has just killed. Wolf usually wears clothes and walks upright, but now he is undressed, crouching like an animal, drinking blood. Elle notices that his bow and arrow, which lie forgotten in the distance, are not a part of this kill. So Wolf is just like her: he controls himself at home, inside their building, when he is with the other parents and knows that the eyes of all those mixed children are on him. But out here things are different. Elle feels sorry for Red and wonders if Red knows what Wolf is really like. He is not the gentleman he pretends to be.
It is dark by the time she comes home. Her mother must be looking for her. Soon it will be solstice, and they will spend all night outdoors, but tonight everyone is inside, safely home, except for Wolf, who is probably washing himself off somewhere. Elle splashes her bloody face with pond water.
And then, as she rises from the edge of the pond, Elle feels something warm rush between her legs. She reaches down there with her fingers and comes back up with blood. Is this a part of her first kill? Has the prey run right through her body? She doesn’t know where to turn now. Where is Wolf? She needs to talk to another hunter. She would even settle for Puss right now if she knew where he was.
It is painful to think of going back inside. She knows she looks wild, frightening, but she has nowhere else to go. She wants to sleep, to forget who she is and what she has done, but first she must go home and face her mother.
But it appears she has underestimated her mother, who comes outside to meet her. Her mother already knows everything. She knows about the blood in and the blood out. She tells Elle that she used to spy on Puss while he was hunting; she knows what happens in the forest. Puss was always too proud, too calculating, to show her his true self, and that is why things could never work out between them.
Elle doesn’t want to share anything with her mother, least of all the blood. Her mother, however, is in a sharing mood. She tells Elle that the hunt, the sacred hunt, is not the whole story. She explains to her daughter that there are two kinds of blood, one for killing and one for making life.
This is something Elle has never considered before. “When will I make life?” she asks. “Is it a hunger?”
Elle’s mother looks to the moon and sighs, and in that sigh, Elle hears all the nights of Red and Wolf. She hears Stella and Beast Junior somewhere in the forest. All her father’s empty promises come back to her. When she turns to go inside, she sees Roslyn looking down at her from her big, beautiful window. Elle waves to her friend, but Roslyn is not the one she is looking for.
At midnight, while her mother sleeps, Elle breaks open the glass cabinet and takes out her boots, which fit like a promise kept. And then she opens the door and goes outside to begin the search for her father. This time, when she finds him, things will be different because she herself is different. This time she will make him stay.
Jan Stinchcomb lives in a purple house in Austin, Texas with her husband and daughters. Her work has appeared in PANK online, Luna Station Quarterly, and The Red Penny Papers, among other places. Her novella, Find the Girl, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Press. Visit her at janstinchcomb.com
Stella Rothe is 26 and currently studying English and philosophy in Rochester, Michigan. Her photography and writing has most recently been published in Ceremony, Pink Panther Magazine, Nain Rouge, and BAC Street Journal.