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Sorcha stands alone and raises hand to brow, her dark curls discing down over her fingers as she squints into the falling sun, her heart become so light she fears it will not withstand even the weight of her own blood for much longer. It’s always like this when her sister wanders off: the lightness, the dread.
In her left hand she holds a pellet. It is one of several such that she found clustered in the dust beneath Ann’s empty bed, its compacted ash slivered through and through with sucked-dry beetle shells and who can say what else. She’d known at once what it had meant, of course, known at once there must have been the usual signs as well: the words unsaid, the eyes not met, the bread uneaten. It meant—it means—that she has not been watching closely enough.
But then Ann had seemed much better lately.
The pellet gives way beneath the pressure of Sorcha’s touch, crumbling in her hand and scattering to the ground. She drops her eyes to where the ashes fall and thinks of Ann’s feet planted where she now stands, the roots of foxglove and delphinium at her heel, the earth scratched and dry at her toe. The track stretches out beyond and into the forest. Ann’s there, she’s sure, in amongst the alders’ looming dark. Above the trees, a shock of sparrows sudden-clouds the sky, as if startled by some unknown beast.
Sorcha frowns and touches the charmed knife belted to her waist. She tries to picture Ann returning with the dawn, unharmed, her words all knew-I-shouldn’t truths, her smiles all won’t-again lies. But the image slips and fades, however Sorcha tries to keep it fixed. Wishes. Prays.
Heavy-hearted, she steps onto the track and starts to trace her sister’s steps into the wood. There is no need to wonder if she’s chosen right; this is the way, she’s sure, though she does not recall the branches being broken back like this, nor the bracken trampled down. She thumbs the handle of the knife and hurries on, pausing only at the sight of a familiar, clumpen mass that lies beside the path. Squinting, she can just make out the shards of bone and matted feathers within the clot of regurgitated ash.
When the light fails, Sorcha slows her step, picking over root and stone. She’s drawing close, or so her memory says, as much as she might wish there were a hundred yards to go instead of ten.
Glade’s edge. She stops.
Draws the knife.
A pale figure crouches up ahead.
Oh, she breathes. Angel eyes.
Even in the gloom, she cannot ignore the mangled sparrow half-alive between the creature’s teeth, nor how the bird—feathers all at horrid angles—makes no bid to fly. Ann—
The name tears from Sorcha’s lips and rings throughout the wood, loud enough to wake the marrow-spiders. Yet the creature does not move, does not look up.
But neither does it flinch when Sorcha’s fingers light upon its shoulder.
Her heart. Her answer and her ask.
She kneels beside her sister, picks a bloodied feather from her hair, and gently prises the mangled fledgling from her grip. Sorcha slides her blade across the bird’s throat and sets its dead and broken body down among the fallen leaves, just beyond Ann’s reach. She wants to shout—
This bad again?
But, knowing better, lets her questions go unmouthed. So she’s surprised to see Ann tilt her head as if she’s heard, as if considering a response. And then she notes Ann’s pale eyes are fixed so wide they are almost lidless, tracking something that moves amongst the trees but that Sorcha cannot see or guard against; will or no, knife or no. She watches helpless as Ann flinches back, rips apart her lips and screams.
Sorcha reaches out to pull Ann from her waking terror. Angel eyes it’s me it’s safe it’s only me and no one else it’s just the dark I’m here I’m here I’m here.
She does not think that Ann can hear her rough incantation but the words are, perhaps, enough to scare away the creeping formless shades and soon the scream dies to silence. Then Ann just sits, staring. A husk.
Enough. Sorcha sheathes her knife and wraps her arms unfelt around her sister’s frame. Lifts.
Straightens. Grips tight.
Stumbles on with fierce, unsteady steps, not stopping to breathe or dream of end but only step and step and step till gasping, panting, she gains the open air beyond the trees. And all the while her sister hangs limp between her arms, unspeaking and unseeing.
The sun has nearly set.
Sorcha staggers through the garden and on into the house. She sets Ann down and does her best to clean away the forest; scrubs the dirt from off her sister’s face and arms, takes the knife and traces each nail of each finger on each hand, lifting the caked dirt with the blade’s edge. Ann whimpers a little, but does not resist.
And then Sorcha guides her into bed, takes the chair beside and sets to watch. Ann looks from corner to corner, her eyes never lighting on Sorcha for more than a moment, restless, unable to settle.
This, too, Sorcha recalls more clearly than she cares for.
She gently takes her sister’s hand and brushes her fingers with kisses.
Thinks: Please don’t please don’t please don’t.
Whispers: I’ve got you, angel eyes.
Ann slowly stills; her breath steadies and deepens, her pale eyes flutter closed. She murmurs something that could be ‘Sorcha’ or could be ‘sorry’ and might be both. Then, releasing Sorcha’s hand, she turns onto her side and gives herself to sleep.
Sorcha pulls her chair closer still and watches as the last of the light fades. The knife lies across her lap, a guard against the shadows.
She struggles to stave off sleep herself.
Dreams that she is flying.
Wakes sometime later to see moonlight falling across the bed. The covers are smoothed out flat and lying at the centre of the sheet is a single clotted mass of ash and bone.
Her heart understands before she does, battering violently against the inside of her ribs. Not daring to believe the warning of her blood, Sorcha slowly turns her head to inspect the room.
On the window sill perches a monstrous, pale-eyed owl.
Sorcha’s eyes fall from the lamp-like eyes to the curled talons. The owl has the knife, grasped in its left foot. A low moan escapes Sorcha’s lips. She starts and tries to stand but her legs will not obey. She falls back limp in the chair, tears streaming silently down her face.
The owl, indifferent to her plight, merely sits and watches. There is not long to wait. They both know the charmed blade cannot protect her now, cannot keep her bound from such a distance. Sorcha closes her eyes, unable to bear the sight of her body as it diminishes into its true form; the bones fluted and air-light, the feathers dusty brown.
At last, the owl lets the knife drop forgotten to the floor. Spreading its wings, it launches itself from the sill, dreadful talons outstretched to catch the fluttering sparrow.
“In the Alder Glade,” by Natasha C. Calder, was first published on November 5, 2020 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe: Volume 1, Issue 2.
Interview with Natasha C. Calder, Author of “In the Alder Glade”
What inspired your story?
Reflecting on my relationship with my twin sister. She’s much braver and stronger than I am in all kinds of ways and she’s rescued me on more than one occasion. Her stoic heroism was the starting point—I did my best to translate that into something gothic and (hopefully) moderately compelling.
Wow. What an ending – I’m gutted. So powerful. How did you decide that this would be the conclusion to your story?
Thank you! I find endings incredibly difficult to write, so it’s gratifying to know this one lands. As it happens, I wrote the first draft of this story during my last week at Clarion West in 2018. Back then, the ending was more vague; a gesture towards some kind of relapse on Ann’s part and nothing more. Feedback from my classmates and instructor helped me to see that as the cop-out it was. But I didn’t have the faintest idea how to fix this critical flaw, so I ended up putting the story aside for two years. When I finally came back to it, I saw it was missing any sense that Ann’s condition was a real danger to Sorcha. It was definitely an oversight—those who take on the burden of care so often risk their own mental and physical health. Once I realised that, it became the focus for the ending and everything fell into place.
That said, I did also practise writing endings a lot during those two intervening years—armed with Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook—and I think having more emotional distance from the story helped too.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
It’s technically gothic-inflected SF, but I do find myself returning to H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau time and again since first coming across it as a teenager. The atmosphere of dread is unreal and it sparked an abiding interest for me in the intersection between the animal and the human. Well, that’s vivisection for you.
As a more left-of-field recommendation, I think a lot of the songs on David Bowie’s album 1. Outside are fine pieces of gothic writing.
How long have you been writing?
In some ways, since forever. Probably all bookworms write occasionally. But I didn’t get serious about it until I got accepted into the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2018, which proved to be the most intense, transformative six weeks of my life. I was lucky to have a fantastic cohort, to whom I am indebted in more ways than they can possibly know. I owe particular thanks to Clay Greene for coming up with the title for this story.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
As a twin who grew up in the fens of East Anglia, I do probably end up writing about sisterhood and/or watery worlds far more often than I should.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
This might be an odd one, but I’m a big fan of John Finnemore’s radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. One of its main characters is Martin (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a pilot who simply isn’t very good at flying. He speaks about this towards the end of the final series:
It’s not second nature to me. On your scale of one to ten, if one is the bare minimum of competence, I’m … about a four. And I used to be a one – no … I used to be a zero […] and then I was a one, and then a two, and then a three, and now I’m a four. And I’m not finished yet. […] if you’re not naturally good – if you can’t rely on just knowing how to do it like […] some people can, then you have to… well, you have to be a perfectionist, actually – and I am one. […] flying is the perfect job, and I won’t settle for a life where I don’t get to do it.
I try to remember this whenever I need to shore up my resolve—I’d count myself lucky to have half Martin’s determination and certainty of purpose.
What are you working on now?
I have a book coming out with my writing partner and dear friend, Emma Szewczak. It’s about a world ravaged by climate change where reproduction comes with a brutal condition: on their eighteenth birthday, every child must select one of their parents to be killed. Think The Hunger Games meets Sophie’s Choice. We’ve still got some editing to do, but we’re very excited. The book is called The Offset and will be published by Angry Robot next year under the alias ‘Calder Szewczak’.