You have always been close to your youngest sister. Whether that is through love or duty is questionable, but the closeness itself cannot be denied. As the eldest, it was you who pressed balls of pemmican into her maw during the wintertime, you who let her watch the pouring of lead into blinding bullet crucibles during summer, you who cleaved her favorite hound’s skull in half with an ax when he began slavering and staggering in the spring.
Your mother made Carolina, but make no mistake: you crafted her. Not the plump, melancholic woman who thrust Carolina’s care upon you so she could tend to the six other children and the farm. Not the sow who rolls over for men’s advances between waves of sorrow and deep pits of torpor. Not the soiled damsel who wallpapered your father’s darker skin on you in the womb, then took it as proof you are a caretaker, or a grown thing in a girl-body.
Though eleven-year-old Carolina lies in a coffin two feet beneath the brittle soil, you tend to her still. Is that not devotion rivaling love?
You run short of breath as you lug a water pail across the yard. The sunbeams that stroke your sweaty locks and thinning, trembling hands are almost autumnal in their capacity for coolness, for bloodletting life while they pretend to grant it. It’s strange to feel their sucking warmth in early winter, when death has already homed itself in the landscape. Your lungs seize. You set your pail on the frosty mud.
When you cough into your handkerchief, no pearly molars come this time. No blood—though there is never blood. Despite what your watching mother fears, despite all the moments she spends searching your handkerchiefs for red splotches, no tuberculosis afflicts you. You feel her gaze as you seize the pail again, as you limp another half of the yard before you must begin your coughing anew.
It takes grace not to smile at your mother with the handful of teeth you have left. You sense her presence in the window of your crooked, creaking miscarriage of a home. Newborn guilt grants you restraint. After all your shared loss, it is difficult to continue despising the woman before you. She cannot escape the purgatory she knows she inhabits. That is a punishment greater than anything you could inflict. Forgiveness still stays difficult. Fondness, too.
I am not sick, you want to tell her. I am paying penance for my sin of destroying you. You taught me to do that.
But the doughy figure in the window won’t understand. She and the youthful ghosts of her that live alongside you in the house fear everything beyond death. They creep about the topics like rats clinging to walls. No practicality guides them. Not the way it guides you. You tip your gaunt chin up in pride, heft the pail up a final time, and stagger to the doorstep.
Take heart! your posture cries, even as your waning skin and waxing skeleton urges terror into your siblings’ hearts. Persist! you cry to your mother, while your waning strength sets her to crying into dinner’s soup. She flees to her slender bedroom. The children finish eating before they scatter into the pine-board shadows.
It’s a shame that you cannot tell your family what choice you have shouldered for them. Still, in your heart of hearts, you know this is a choice for you, too. The cure for your devotion would be unthinkable: an exhumation of Carolina’s grave, the burning of her heart and liver, a tonic of organ ashes funneled into your esophagus. The conjoining of your bodies even as you lost your sister forever.
Settler medicine, your father would say. Whether he would help the doctor pry open your jaws or fistfight the man to prevent that, you don’t know. He has gone too. The sole person to return to you is Carolina.
Maybe out of duty. Maybe out of love.
She comes at night.
She always comes at night, ravenous for care. You hear her nails scraping at the clay seams of your room walls. The three children in your room murmur restlessly in their sleep. Darkness adorns every crevice of your room, of the mattress, of the spider and thatch-cluttered ceiling that strains beneath the roof’s tomb of snow. The scratching at the windowsill belongs to this darkness. You gnaw your chapped lip as surprise strikes you alongside tired dread. She came last night. Why has she come again so soon?
The scratching at the window latch starts inscribing nightmares in your other siblings’ dreams, so you resolve to stop it. “Come in,” you mutter, despite the exhaustion corroding your bones. You are not sure if you speak aloud or not. Your words sound in the paralytic space of the night where sleepwalkers live.
The window creaks open in sound alone.
Carolina’s outline scrambles through the window in a flurry of knees, lacerated palms, and torn shifts. No chill accompanies her. Though her outline is not the fat of her, you recognize it. The gaunt, heart face is hers. The knobbly elbows. The twisted back. The coils of black hair, coarse with corpse grease and lack of combing. This sister shade slinks from the windowsill on all fours and clambers to your bedside. She kneads her claws into your quilt. Presses her torn cheek to a paisley drunkard’s path. Her bead pupils devour you.
“Lucy,” Carolina trills. “I’m cold. Can I sleep with you?”
Her voice, too, is hers, if choked by curdled blood. It succeeds in closing your throat. She is gone, but you haven’t lost your little sister to eternity. Not the way you lost your father, or how the others lost Carolina. Her presence nearly empties the well of tears inside you.
“Yes, Lina,” you say. “Come here.”
She does not wait for your pat on the bedspread to invite herself in. Carolina wiggles into the snarl of covers headfirst, seeking the warmth of your side. The dirty soles of her feet glint at the ceiling. Her leather boots shoe her corpse, but her hungry outline rid itself of them months ago. It doesn’t need them.
You drive an arm into your covers, pinning a fold of quilt beneath your side. Carolina whines in disappointment when her face does not meet the velvet curve of your armpit. She kicks her feet, settling close, like a dog. You wait for her chin to prick your breast. No pulse tints her veins.
“You’re back early,” you say. You swallow every fearful second that you behold your sister in the murk, hoping to store this glittery etching of her deep in the cellar of your memories, a place where it can cure with all of Father’s pemmican and recollections of dressing her as a baby. An untouchable store. If you are to feed her, she must also feed you.
“I got hungry.” Carolina chews at a sprig of yarn on the quilt. Stale blood stains her mouth. Rings her collar. “How’s Mother?”
“She’s the same. Still sinking in and out of herself. Still messing with men she shouldn’t. She misses you terribly.”
“Mm,” Carolina says. “That’s good. I’d be devastated if she didn’t. And nôhtâwiy?”
“Father’s ceased coming around. Grief over giving you his sickness brought him low. Or… tuberculosis has.”
“Terrible. I’ve missed him.” She sighs.
Carolina’s breath is rich. A combination of moldering pine needles, fermented lung blood, and moist particles of throat. It twists your innards in remembrance. You hewed the pine boards for her coffin, after all. Emptied her chamber pot of retched blood when Mother couldn’t bear to.
Your siblings twitch in their cots around you, unaware, distorted larvae in differing stages of growth with some of your features baked into their faces. White maggots that writhed out of your mother’s body. The half-fond leeches in your care. They don’t deserve to see Carolina; it is imperative they don’t. Their need for care kept you from boarding school. They fill you with pitying hatred.
Carolina’s broken claws tug at your quilt.
“I’m hungry,” she says.
“Not yet.” Desperation cleaves you open. Her impatience has doubled. You feign an older sibling’s annoyance, swatting away her decay-softened hand. “I want to talk more.”
Concern tightens its snare about your neck. Rage, too. The girl who read you fragments from Father’s English primer, who talked for hours on end until Mother despaired, is fast vanishing into this shimmery, offal gilded sketch. This beast who cannot entreat or jest—only eat. Fury commands you to grab her by the bonnet, to tear out her hair pins and tamp coins into her eye sockets and hurl her onto the yard, mewling, by her scruff and spine. That hungry gaze will bother you no more.
Yet whenever you look again, you see the sister who clung to your leg as a toddler, who stole your maple syrup candies as a child, taught you to read several letters, declared you her favorite over Father, shared a handful of his words with you. Your heart caves beneath the weight of these memories. Your anger ebbs.
Carolina runs her tongue across her shattered palisade of teeth. Her skin clothes her skull as dun muslin, fabric that has long forgotten its orange undertones. One of her hands finds yours above the quilt. Her digits have bloated into imitations of your mother’s, but necrosis has hardened her fingers into withered, purple tips. She is, at once, viscera sap and bone. A wispy nightmare. Another draft whistles through the house.
“What do you want to talk about?” she says.
“Mother,” you say.
Carolina’s not-body settles against you.
“What of her?”
Carolina’s outline hasn’t reckoned with the devastation rot has brought upon her corpse, but she has changed. Tendrils of rot have spread her preteen body in a mimicry of maturation. Her thighs and arms have thickened, brimming with cities of little live things forbidden to appear in the outline; her belly hangs pregnant with gasses. Death’s doing. He stole her maidenhood in every way possible.
Though you fed Carolina yesterday, her gums are already receding again, her widow’s peak sharpening, her sinews creaking in anguish.
“I fear I’m being too hard on her,” you say, pinning your arm over the quilt more tightly as Carolina tries to tug it free. “She’s been plagued by demons most of her life, and they worsened while she carried me. Something about my birth loosened her grip on their collars. I’ve realized this after watching her grieve. She’s incapable of caring for herself. That is why she almost sent me away.”
Carolina’s knee prods your calf. She gulps in your heartbeat. Fans her filthy hair across your chest in an attempt to hide her impatient wiggling. You dwarf her. The blood between you ties you together less than proximity.
“Perhaps my hatred of her is misplaced,” you murmur. “Do you think so?”
“You used to voice many, many theories about the source of Mother’s sickness.” You try again, doubt consuming you. Where has Carolina’s passion gone? “You defended her, Lina, even if I didn’t listen. Surely you have something to say now.”
“Don’t really,” Carolina says. “Mother got eaten by the imps she birthed alongside all of us. Erred and let us suck her brains and happiness out of her breasts. Hate her or love her, it doesn’t matter: she’s gone. Just a shell. The way you’d be if she had sent you to Carlisle.”
“It’s naught but a school, Lina.”
“It’s naught but a coffin.”
“At least if she’d have sent me there,” you say, nauseated by the knowledge in her voice, “I would have known she thought I needed care.”
“They would’ve cared for you as death did for me.”
Carolina—tender, sharp, unblinking Carolina—tugs at the quilt once more.
“Hungry,” she gurgles. “Hungry.”
Despair braids with your resentment. Carolina’s translucent hands snag at your wrist and your bicep. The others roil in their beds, still more your children than your mother’s, and the unfairness of your constant giving wrings you in half. Pain sits copper-heavy in your mouth. Did your mother intend on making a revenant of you too? All the hatred you fend off in the daylight comes easily in the dark. The promise of agency burns your palms.
“Nisîmis,” you say, “make me a promise.”
Carolina’s nails pierce the quilt.
Her words hiss free from a blend of collapsed lung and loam, though neither weighs her body constellations. Your sister putrefies cleanly. Saline wets the corner of your eyes. It is unfair that you are both half-made things: conqueror and conquered, monster and child, daughter and mother, undead and unalive. No wretched pioneer parent can fix you.
“Promise me, Lina,” you say, “that you will feed from Mother next time. So she finally nurses you when it matters.”
Carolina laughs. It is an echo of you. Mother could never laugh like this. Broken pride clutters your chest until you cannot breathe.
“Anything for you, nimis.” Desire animates Carolina’s dead gaze. “But it’s not next time now. Lucy. Hungry.”
If you feel guiltless, if you feel nothing at all, have you really committed a transgression? Have you done anything? You are a brittle collection of fifteen years and paltry pounds of muscle when Carolina yanks at the quilt again. Everything begins sliding away from you.
This detachment must be victory.
It is duty, not love, that leads you to unbar your arm from the quilt. Carolina burrows into your armpit, hissing in pleasure. The November night clenches your heart. Jagged teeth find the familiar, bruised circle of skin beneath your arm that they love—your witch mark. But you are no foul witch nursing her familiar. You are an eldest daughter committed to the holy practice of tending to your family. This is dutiful and good and natural.
Carolina’s fingertips graze your ribs. Your jaw clenches.
Her fangs slice through your nightshirt. They do not touch you at all. You flinch. Life waterfalls out of you into Carolina’s lapping mouth. No blood. There is never blood. Carolina drinks spiritual marrow. Star clusters lace your vision while you stare at the ceiling, paralyzed, skin sallowing, strength fading, muscles weakening. Carolina croons the way she did as a babe. The frost laden grass outside shudders in its casing.
Two miles away, past chilled fields, barren brier thickets, falling fences, and crisscrosses of rutted dirt roads, Carolina’s cadaver writhes in its coffin. She kicks at the sagging ceiling in joy, reinforcing the earthen crust of armor above her legs. Fresh blood leaks from her pores. She fattens. Seeps. Your calves spasm at the thought of flesh Lina feeding. You washed that body, dressed her, sewed her in a sheet, encased her in wood, put her away. More than ever, she is of you now.
Carolina imbibes the invisible lining of your liver. You think of your mother weakening in mind and body as she nursed you. Shameful empathy cuts you.
“Enough!” You gasp, shoving the crown of Carolina’s moldering head away. Your breath comes in rattles. “No more, Lina! Stop!”
Carolina withdraws. She sits back on her heels and her tattered pile of dress layers. Wipes her mouth. A strand of spit snaps beneath her wrist. She slides that spittle-glossed hand atop your seizing one. Her visage smiles at you in the murk, bright with borrowed life, her eyes sunken, her skin ashen. The children shiver.
“Kisâkihitin, Lucy,” your sister says.
The potential that she means it kills you.
Carolina’s small figure fills your vision as it clambers out the window, heading for the woods that separate your home and her grave: the mistletoe-lumped hickory trees, the frozen ropes of poison oak, the slender grove of chestnuts wheezing beneath blight. A world of beautiful parasites you both learned of together.
Lina latches the ghost window behind her to prevent other starved things from creeping towards the rotting, weakening Host of your body. Tomorrow, you think, wheezing, she will sup from Mother.
Maybe out of duty.
Maybe out of love.
Samir Sirk Morató is a scientist and an artist. They draw much of their inspiration from their love of horror movies and their experiences in rural landscapes. Some of Samir’s work can be found in The Hellebore Issue #5, Color Bloq’s RED collection, and Somos En Escrito’s 2021 Extra Fiction Contest honorable mentions.
We loved STAND NOT AT YOUR GRAVE so much that we had to interview the talented Samir Sirk Morató to learn more about their inspirations for this story and who has influenced their writing.
TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?
Samir Sirk Morató: “Stand Not At Your Grave” is inspired by Mercy Brown, a teenager whose ritual exhumation was one of the New England vampire panic’s most famous cases. Mercy was a nineteen-year-old who lost her mother and sister to tuberculosis before following in their footsteps, yet due to coincidence, ignorance, and superstition, her town labeled her a vampire. Mercy’s older brother Edgar – the last tuberculosis-afflicted Brown child left – consumed a tonic made of her cremated liver and heart in an effort to break his sister’s purported spell on him. He died two months later.
There’s something terrible and intimate about the concept of consuming a sibling’s organs to survive, especially if you consider the old belief of one’s soul being in their blood, and the vampire’s tendency to pray on their family once reanimated. The questions of what hungry intimacy (or lack thereof) would lead someone to protect their sibling’s remains sparked the creation of this story.
TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this story?
Samir Sirk Morató: I’m a planner, so I wrote an outline detailing scene breakdowns and emotional beats before going back and filling in details. Then I wrote out any dialogue exchanges and key moments that I could visualize regardless of when they happened in the plot. After I had the rough draft of this story written, I spent time considering its themes and incomplete character interactions, then went back and added in details related to the new development I was thinking of. There was a lot of rinse and repeat here, but it kept me organized, thinking, and excited to finish writing, which is the most I can ask for.
TDS: Who has influenced you as a writer?
Samir Sirk Morató: R.L. Stine, Susan Power, and Dario Argento have all influenced me. I also want to give credit to the scriptwriters of all the schlocky horror movies I consumed as a kid. I would not be the same without having watched Squirm (1976) and The Killer Shrews (1959) at a formative age.
What did you think of Samir Sirk Morató’s story? Let us know in the comments below. And… if you want to learn more about Samir’s writing process and other works, come back to The Dark Forest on April 9 at 11:00 AM (EST) to read a more extensive interview with the author.
As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to submit to us: http://darksiremag.com/submissions.html.