"And she never let on how insane it was,
In that tiny kinda scary house,
By the woods,
By the woods,
By the woods."
Tori Amos, January Girl (Black Dove)
Salvation was a girl with a scar on her lip.
Tara had seen it in a dream. Or maybe in a book. Grubby pages illuminated by weak torchlight under the bedcovers when the night was unnervingly still, and the animals didn't shift in their stalls, their strange, wise eyes staring forward. She'd tuck the blankets securely around her head, not entirely sure whether she was keeping the darkness out or the light in. Her blunt fingernails would scratch the surface of the paper, tracing each sentence as she read, reciting the words softly under her breath, the hot concentration of her breath curling the pages. So quietly her mouth moved, stumbling occasionally over consonants, stopping abruptly at the slightest noise; the ambiguous creaks of an old house, the whisper of a breeze rattling the window, footsteps pausing outside her door, the painful squeak of a turning handle…
In those moments she would fumble with the torch, back rigid with fear, praying that just this once the off switch wouldn't make a sound, and she'd squeeze her eyes shut, until the blackness behind her eyes was denser and darker than the night.
She had to believe in angels, and fairies, and good witches. She had to believe in the girl with the scar on her lip.
The Family didn't want her to know that there was a world outside of the farm - Out There was full of darkness, and full to brimming with the Heathen. She caught glimpses of it sometimes when Pa let her accompany him to the supply store but she wasn't allowed to show her face, let alone talk to strangers. Eyes downcast, don't speak unless you're spoken to, keep your gloves on - her father's reedy, rough voice swam in her ears.
She'd read about The World in the books that she sometimes filched from the store; she'd collect adventurous yarns about strong-willed heroines, girls who could fight and speak their minds and roam as they pleased. Girls who climbed trees, who had scrapes on their knees. Once she borrowed an atlas, (because it was never stealing, she had always intended to return what she took) marvelling at the names of foreign places, unpronounceable even to someone without a stutter. Still, she tried. Tried to get her clumsy tongue around those alien names.
The Family burned the books and the atlas when they found them. She wasn't allowed to read anything but the Good Book. Her penance - to copy out the passages most pertinent to her Sin. Her hand ached and her mind drifted to something beyond the dusty farm, starched clothes, and the sound of a heavy hand on the door handle.
She wondered if her mother was an angel now, watching her.
She dreamt of a place, a city, though she'd never set foot in one. At night the creatures emerged, striking down the Heathen, like instruments for the righteous wrath of God. Screams, crunch of bone and cartilage, splatter of blood, then… astonishment. An inexplicable whoosh of air and dust falling away in mid-air. The girl with a scar on her lip stood in an alleyway, tensed like an animal, all instinct and reflex, with a sharpened piece of wood in her hand. Saviour or harbinger, Tara couldn't determine at first. There was such cold hatred in those flinty eyes, and the flicker of youth and innocence numbed by painful experience. That scarred slip curled in a bitter smirk.
The girl was poised, her ear turned to the night, listening for the call.
The dreams frightened and thrilled Tara. She had the Gift, the same as her mother and a cousin on Pa's side of the Family, both their names spoken only in hushed whispers full of foreboding. There were always eyes watching her, looking for some mark on her or a sign that she too had the Affliction. So she kept her dreams secret and her mouth shut. She worked harder at her chores until her nails were worn down to the quick and her skin hardened like leather.
That balmy summer Pa started to lock her in the house, no longer letting her tend to the fields and the livestock. The hearth became her prison, cooking for her greedy brothers and uncles, mending their clothes, allowing their filthy hands on her.
She endured it for months, and the dreams plagued her, calling to her. One night, late in August, when the evenings were becoming cooler and closer, she could endure no more.
On her tip-toes, she crept through the house -- avoiding the noisiest floorboards that she knew now by heart -- to the closet under the stairs. Pa kept the gun there -- a long, sleek rifle that he'd bought when he was a boy. He spent every evening cleaning it, sitting in front of the fire, meticulously polishing the barrel with a rag until it gleamed like a jewel. Every night she'd watched him hide the key to the closet under the honey jar before he went to bed.
Tonight, she'd swiped the key when he wasn't looking. Digging into the deep pocket of her dressing gown, she fished it out. The door creaked slightly as she unlocked and opened it. The gun was mounted on the wall and, holding her breath, she lifted it out with the utmost care.
It was heavier than she'd expected but not cumbersome. She prayed she wouldn't have to use it.
Treading lightly back to her room, she went immediately to her bed and pulled out the case from underneath. Inside there was a jewellery box with a handful of trinkets belonging to her mother. They'd been given to Tara, before her mother left her earthly life. Pressed into her palm by pale, thin fingers, as Ma sweated and shivered and Tara had promised to keep them with her always. The only things of value she had.
She began piling the rest of her scant belongings into the case - dowdy black dresses, spare pair of clogs, modest underwear, hairbrush. She paused at the Bible on her nightstand. Touched its cover for a brief moment, tracing her fingertips over the indentation of the cross.
She left it where it was, its mere presence a silent damnation.
Changing quickly from her bed attire, she lugged the case onto the floor, the rifle snug under her elbow. She didn't notice the black shadow that appeared under the door. When she opened it, the case immediately fell from her grip. She gasped and staggered back a few steps, fumbling to raise the rifle to eye level.
Pa stood in the doorway, his eyes hidden in the darkness beneath his thick-set brow.
"G-g-get back." Her aim was steady, even if her speech wasn't.
He took a step towards her, crossing the threshold.
"I mean it!"
He approached further. "The Lord will punish you, Child. You're just like your mother. Oh, I feared you'd turn out like her. Tainted, sinful." As he stepped towards the window, the moonlight fell across his face. Eyes glittering, full of religious indignation.
A shot rang out, and Tara heard herself scream. Pa's mouth fell open as he slumped to the floor, a bullet right between his eyes. The floorboards were speckled with blood, as were Tara's shoes. There was a commotion from the hallway and her brothers and uncles burst through the door, four men staring at her with fury.
But she wasn't afraid. She was in a cold, formless place beyond fear. Something inside her head clicked and she raised the rifle again. "I hated him, like I hate all of you." For the first time in her life, she didn't stutter her words. "You're going to let me pass freely or so help me God, I'll take my vengeance for everything you've done to me."
The men stared at each other dumbfounded.
Donny, her elder brother, spoke up. "You won't get away with this, Tara."
She didn't say anything, just levelled the rifle at his foot and fired. He screamed, tears streaming from his eyes, as he doubled over and dropped to the floor, clutching his bloodied shoe.
"That's for Cousin Beth, you bastard." She turned to the others, her voice quiet but clear as a bell. "You're going to carry my case down to the truck."
The other men shrunk back, ignoring Donny's cries of pain, and one of her uncles dutifully lifted the case. She followed them down the rickety stairs, out onto the porch, over to where the old vehicle was parked. The case was hefted into the passenger seat.
Tara kept the rifle trained on the men. "Get back into the house."
She jumped into the driver's seat and turned the ignition on. She'd seen Pa drive so many times. Silently, she'd watched and learned. The truck sputtered to life. Releasing the clutch, she pushed the gear out of neutral.
She poked her head out the window. "Don't even think about coming after me. I'll tell the police about what you did. To Ma, Cousin Beth, to everyone. Not even God'll save you." Her eyes flicked briefly over to the old, ramshackle barn that loomed beside the house and she shuddered, just for a second.
She put her foot down on the gas, and the gaunt faces of the Family disappeared in a cloud of dust. As the truck bounced down the dirt track road, corn fields on either side, she reached for the dial on the radio. Pa had never, to her knowledge, switched the radio on. She knew that there were music stations, and she wanted to hear.
She wanted to find that girl, to thank her, to kiss that scar that seemed somehow the most beautiful thing in the world. She'd never known beauty but today was as good a day as any to start.