The Night Children
We are good at finding the children. Their bodies give off a stink of moldy cheese and fresh sawdust—the smell of fear. It's not us who have frightened the children, but we would understand if they confuse us with their nightmares. We are not beautiful.
Feathers with sharp barbs and scales that clack their callused edges one against the other cover our legs and faces like plate armor. Some of us mat our fur to resemble the backs of grizzly bears emerging from the earth after a winter-long hibernation. All of us have claws, although some of us are satisfied with three to a paw, while others have five, and one of us has twenty. We decorate ourselves with curving spikes around our mouths that make us feel invulnerable. One of us has three rows of thorny teeth, another of us pincers where her mouth belongs, but it is the way we move that tells our story to any who watch. Slinking and prowling come naturally to our sinewed legs and the thick muscles of our hindquarters hint at the ever present possibility of a lunging attack. We all have large, shining eyes on the fronts of our faces—only prey limits itself to a depthless gaze through wary sidelong eyes. We are not prey. Remember this. And remember that even children wear their eyes on the fronts of their faces.
Frightened children learn silence, but they cannot conceal their smell. We find them in deserts and forests, towns and cities; wherever grownups make their homes, children's bones splinter and their bodies bleed—their hearts shrink to the size of almonds and become no more than bruises, stale blood the only remnant of the vital organ that beats in the chests of loved children. In darkness their fear grows and ripens until we catch their scent and come to them. When an unloved child turns her head to see us lurking at her window, we scrape our claws across the glass with a sound like a scream because pain deserves a voice. Other children have love; the children of the night have only us. We do our best.
When children have nowhere else to turn, they hold out their arms to us, begging for something they've forgotten how to name and that's when we burst through their windows, shudder the pebbles of glass from our fur and scales, and kneel before them. If the children are hurt enough, scared enough, desperate enough, they climb onto our backs. The little hands grasping our roughened, spiky skin sow sorrow in us wherever they touch. Only the most forlorn of children would choose to ride our nightmare backs to Far Away.
We take the children to our den and feed them soft white bread and cherries, then lick the pips from the warm crevices inside their cheeks lest they choke. We drip honey from our claws into their small, red mouths. Sometimes we give them the bitter tops of dandelions and loom over them until they've eaten every leaf because too much sweetness is bad for children, even such frightened children as these. When they are sleepy we wrap them in coverlets spun from the warmth of our breath, then watch over them while they rest. For a time this is enough, but these are night children, after all. They become restless, pacing the bounds of our home, searching again for the thing they cannot name, pursued by the memories that have followed them to Far Away.
When the time comes that we can no longer ignore their anger, we strap on our armor and kneel once more before the children. The sorrow of their touch takes root in us so that we can barely move as they climb onto our backs, but the high yip of their voices spurs us into battle. We rip and tear one another's flesh, visiting the fury of the children upon our own scarred and aching bodies. They urge us on with kicking heels and shrill cries. We bleed thick, red blood so that the children do not have to, twisting and leaping so that no blows land upon their vulnerable bodies.
For some of the children this is enough and in time they pull us away from the battle to tend to our wounds. Those are the ones who stay with us, growing their own protective fur and claws, learning to follow the smell of fear to where they are needed. In some of the children, though, their hearts have shrunk too small to release their anger. For those children the battle will not end until we have fallen, taking care even in the moments of our dying to ensure their safety. With a hard-eyed glare, they turn away from us, searching out the path back to the world of grownups to spend the rest of their lives seeking the answer to their nameless loss. We mourn those children even as we ourselves die.
Evangeline Wright recently completed an MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her fiction has appeared in Ghost Parachute and A-Minor Magazine.