The Innkeeper’s Daughter
by Jessica Alexander
The Innkeeper was jolly and gentle at first. He bounced the child upon his knee. He gave the child coins and candy. He told the child, “Don’t worry. Mommy and Daddy will come back.” But Mommy and Daddy did not come back, and the Innkeeper stood red-faced in the doorway. A woman peeled off the portrait behind him. He beat her back into its frame and kicked the child down the staircase.
The Doctor had rolled up to the inn five years or more before. The child was convulsing on the carriage floor. The child’s mother, who was also the Doctor’s mistress, sat swaddled in furs and shuddered. The inn sat black and birdlike on a copse of oaks, whose dark and gnarled branches stretched skyward as if to choke—
“To stroke,” the Doctor corrected, “the heavens.”
She didn’t like it. The child needed a bed, the Doctor insisted. Lightning split an oak in twain. One massive half crashed down, took a horse out. That settled it. The child was dead. The Doctor knew, but his mistress didn’t need to. The Doctor carried the child upstairs. His mistress stood over the bed.
“She doesn’t look like herself,” the mistress said. She wrung her hands. “The green froth around her lips,” she asked, “is it normal?”
The child snapped and caught her mother’s necklace in her mouth. She snarled and yanked at it. The necklace burst. Beads bounced off the floor, rolled under the bed. The mistress fell down.
“Her breath,” she said, “so terrible! I need—”
“A drink,” the Doctor nodded. “I’m sure, we could both use a drink.” He peeled a few bills from his clip and pressed them into the palm of her hand. “I’ll be down shortly,” he promised. He’d study the child a bit longer while his mistress waited at the hotel bar.
“A scotch,” she said.
Her child. That creature. She shuddered. Ice rattled in her glass. Entirely different. The Doctor, too, different. He saw things different. She could not see glory in this pit, genius in his elixirs, her child in a beast. Oh, God, what had the Doctor done?
In the basement, the Doctor sat furiously scribbling at his desk. He did not look up. Beyond the candlelight his mistress lurked. She spoke, but her words, in his stuffed ears, were no more than beating wings on thrushes.
“I am leaving you,” she said.
He heard nothing.
She’d flung her trunk down the steps. The servants had long since left. She would too. The mighty crash and thud of the trunk shook the mansion. He did not look up.
“I’m leaving the child too.”
She snapped the clasp on her clutch open. Turned the clutch over. Its contents scattered like dice on the floor. A handkerchief. “I’ll come back for her, of course,” she sobbed into it, “once I’ve secured lodgings.”
“Of course,” he muttered. “Of course,” he said, “I’d be happy to.”
He had not always been like that. It was his Father’s death, perhaps, that did it. His Father frightened him. He said he’d bring him back, if only for a second. The carriage rattled on. He had not been himself, as if inside another person. What does that mean? Should she have left the child with him? “The child is fine,” she said to no one. The light flickered through the trees. That old mansion, so gloomy, had once impressed upon her a sense of its magnificence. It was simply dark, drafty, and in disrepair. Northanger Abbey. She’d heard of it. A shit-box. She’d tell her friends.
“The elixir!” The Doctor stumbled up the steps, holding a bubbling vial above his head. “By God, the elixir!”
The house was somehow different.
“Darling, darling,” he shouted. “I’ve done it!”
Was she gone? She was gone. Nothing but walls and shadows now, which suddenly looked somewhat demonic.
He’d bring her back to him! And the child? Where was that brat? The child would bring her back!
The Doctor remembered, stomped flowers, and forgot again. The dawn or the dusk was something. What? The elixir! He kicked a clump of lilies. He fell down, angry. What for? The elixir was not meant for little girls! It was meant for the Doctor’s Father! O, the Doctor, he was something. Where was he? The Inn. What time was it? Night? No, day, then, night again. He was thrashing in midday sheets, the sun, the heat! An elixir for outside, for night! He was outside. It was night. Elixirs are not meant to bring the dead to life, Lord no! Lord, he’s cracked, the mistress said and, once again, she packed her bags. He did not want to bring his Father back. Did not want the child to ride up on the box. He wanted only a moment of his Father’s sentience. The child was insistent. The elixir! He’d finally done it! The Doctor would shake his Father by his rotten shoulder. The child’s mother inched her trunk across the floor. Father, the Doctor would say, who’s perverse and hopeless now? His Father would clutch him, stunned, say son, you’re God, and die again. Then, more elixirs! Elixirs for every man and all intents and purposes! For potency and madness! Elixirs for light and love and happiness! His mistress left. The Doctor woke midday, the sun, his life, a man on fire, hurled itself against his eyelids. What happened? He winced. He had her child, and that was something. Together, they’d bring her back to him, but, of course, the child fell from the box, bounced off the jagged rocks. What good were her little white lips, her mangled neck, and twisted hips? A little elixir and the child’s eyes sparkled with joy. The box! The child shouted. She smiled angelically, coughed, and expired. The carriage rattled on. The Doctor poured a little more elixir on. The child sat up, said fuck, scowled—fitfully fell down. She died again. A little more, the Doctor muttered. The carriage approached. His mistress, trousseau, muffler, fur coat. A little more, the Doctor pleaded. The child snarled, snapped, and died again. His mistress left the child and him. He did not want it, kicked the damp sheets off, turned over, and forgot. He felt sad suddenly, terribly, unbearably aggrieved, and sat on the clump of lilies. But what was it? An elixir for the horizon! Now a convent sat beyond the inn. No, not really distant. Rather near, he thought. He’d go. Turn himself in. Confess he meant. An elixir for the convent! But the convent will be empty, save the Nun who, like his Father, won’t believe him. He’ll murder her and drizzle a little elixir on her lips! She’ll stir, she’ll sit, and say—
The Doctor vanished into the convent, never to be seen again.
Sometimes the child topples down the steps. Flames of wrath snap at the monstrous shadow always trailing after her. The inn is a furnace. The inn is a bottomless pit. From the stables, the Coachman watches a dot bob across the horizon. The Innkeeper beats the portraits back into their canvases. He needs a minute to think things over. The dot is the child, bobbing over the lawn. The Coachman thinks she’s haughty. Pretty, too, people say. He shakes their utterance away. The child grows. Swollen into womanhood, swelling still, until, until her skin splits and putrid juice leaks out her seams. The Coachman gasps. He blinks. What nonsense! The girl flits past. She’s beautiful, he thinks. She’s frightening. Of late, his senses have been playing tricks on him. She slips into the convent. She ducks behind the pulpit. The Nun stirs and tells the child: God has no body now but yours, which the child tragically misinterprets. Wear my habit, says the Nun, and die again. But the child, a grown ghost now, undead, will not don the Nun’s habit, not yet. She is waiting for something else. She has always been—as long as she remembers—at the limits of herself. As if her body were a great precipice, and she stuck eternally in the instant before flinging herself over it. She did not want to live, but live she did, or something like it. And now she is transformed.
The Innkeeper stands at the window. His eyes drift over the estate and settle on the stable. He had a daughter once. She died. He mounted her portrait over his desk, but now the frame sits empty. Strange things had been happening at the inn since the ghastly child’s arrival. As if the portraits were a grave or ditch and she a hand lowered into them. All the frames sat empty and the subjects, he knew, were wandering. The Innkeeper’s daughter could have married anyone, but she wanted to be a nun. She was to marry a count but died on the eve of their wedding. It was an accident. The axe was for the lap dog. An empty threat, filled too quick with his daughter’s idiotic neck. Now no spoils, no titles, no early retirement. In the shadows of the barn the Coachman is waiting for the girl to emerge again. He has mistaken the ghastly child for the Innkeeper’s daughter. The Innkeeper sighs, that child is—like a curse or an illness for which there is no physic—mine.
The Innkeeper’s daughter is beautiful but very strange, the people say. She is getting fitted for a wedding gown.
“Hold still!” says the seamstress.
The Innkeeper’s daughter wriggles. A pin pricks her thigh and she smiles. She is to marry the Coachman. She will not sit on the box beside him. She walks amidst the horses. She puts herself in the way of his whip.
“Stop it!” he shouts. He breaks the whip over his knee and flings it to the street. He’d looked forward to this outing, lathered his mustache and doused his organ. He jumps off the box. He holds her wrists and drags her to the carriage. “I will not hit you!” He shouts.
“Idiot!” says she and scratches his cheek.
“I love you!” says the Coachman and pulls her to him. He presses his organ to her hip, his lips to her collar. “Just love me,” says he, “like ordinary people!”
She bites his cheek. Blood stains her teeth. He shoves her from the box and rides off.
The coach sits outside the inn. The Coachman paces the parlor. Disgraced! Shunned! Ruined! She has ruined him! The Innkeeper listens. He has pinned his future on the Coachman. He must rid himself of the girl. His face reddens. He will fetch her, drag her down the corridor, fling her at the parlor floor.
The Coachman pulls his hair. “You haven’t been listening!” he cries. “She’ll relish it.” How then, he wonders, to punish? This conundrum. His mind, he feels, too slow, and grows angry. He wants to slap intention out of her. He eyes the fire poker. With every clout he wants to grow sharper and more lovable.
The Innkeeper’s daughter walks through the wall. The portraits lean out their frames and watch her as she passes them. She turns in the doorway. Green sludge collects at the corners of her lips. She blows the Coachman a kiss. Her face is childish and putrid. She turns on her heel, and the parlor door slams shut behind her. The Coachman cries out and impales himself on the fire poker.
“My God,” he says, “what have I done?” He clatters to the parlor floor. He dies.
The convent sits behind the inn. The roof is caved in, the windows broken. A nun was murdered. Her body is buried beneath the floorboards. Every Sunday her murderer returns. He swings his riding crop. He walks about. He calls her name. It is Sunday.
The Innkeeper’s daughter has been waiting for the Doctor. She kneels before him. “I cannot hit a nun!” he cries.
“Idiot,” she says. “Murder me!”
“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” says he and twists his mustache.
It’s true, she has. This man is not who she thinks he is. Nevertheless, she holds his arm aloft and brings down his riding crop.
“Unhand me!” says he. He has never been so misappropriated. “You’re mistaken, I say!” He is a nobleman.
“Dummy,” she says, “crucify me.”
He may well murder her! He will never take orders! His face emits sparks and spittle. He hits her, his fervor stirred. He hits again. He misses. A lock of hair blights his brow. He can neither get outside himself, nor inside her, and none of it is his anymore! Vile inn, vile village, vile world, where moments before a coachman nearly trampled him! All is disorder! He has never been so offended! He covers his face and flees the convent.
The door slams. The walls rattle. A medical bag, propped against the pulpit, flops to its side. The clasp snaps open. Its contents, countless vials, rattle over the stony ground and stop at the foot of the Innkeeper’s daughter. She kneels down and reads the labels. They say “MOST POTENT!” “BEWARE!” and “WARNING!” A white fist, severed at the wrist, is clamped about the handle of this bag.
“He won’t need it,” says the Nun, who is perched, like some demented bird, atop the Doctor’s headless corpse.
The Innkeeper’s daughter enters town in a nun’s habit. She lays her wrist on the Blacksmith’s anvil, her fist in the Miller’s quern-stone, her head on the Butcher’s block. She is known now only as the Nun. She is beautiful, the people say, but very strange.
The Innkeeper was hard-pressed not to notice the way the girl’s head kept falling off her neck. He’d had hard words for her. The villagers were talking again, and the inn sat empty. She’d ruined him. But how could he tell her this when her head sat on the carpet, looking glumly up at him? Which part of her would he address? She was back now, he told himself, and that’s what mattered. Was she penitent? He could not say. But different. Certainly different. For instance, her head rolled submissively to her feet. She stooped to lift it and placed it on her neck. Then, after a brief adjustment, she smiled modestly and blushed. It embarrassed him, as breasts and flatulence embarrassed him. A ribbon of ooze laced her throat and plopped roundly to the table. The Innkeeper swiftly dropped his handkerchief over it. She was sorry, she said, inured already to her mortification, yet, never before had she been so complacent. He did not know her. What, she wondered, had become of the Coachman? Dead, the Innkeeper said, and both regarded this as if he’d set an indisputable object before them, a book, completed without room or regard for their will. It occurred to him that they regarded one another this way too. And then it occurred to the Innkeeper that his daughter had come back to kill him. He said this. You’re going to kill me, he said. Again, each regarded the table as if another indisputable object had been placed there. Then the Innkeeper slowly raised his eyes to the window. It was snowing outside, and yet the world seemed somehow immutable, perfect as a snow globe and gently enclosed.
Jessica Alexander’s story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Fence, Black Warrior Review, PANK, Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where she teaches creative writing at Franklin and Marshall College.