British Fantasy Award-winner: Best Short Fiction
Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma is a horror novelette about a strange woman living in luxury with her lover, but irrevocably tied to her childhood of deprivation and dark secrets in northwest England. The woman recalls the unravelling of the family upon her uncle's release from prison.
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About the Author
Priya Sharma is a doctor who lives in the UK. Her short stories have appeared in several magazines including Black Static, Interzone, Albedo One, and On Spec. She's been reprinted in Paula Guran's Best Dark Fantasy and Ellen Datlow's Year's Best Horror Volume 4.
Read an Excerpt
By Priya Sharma, Jeffery Alan Love
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Priya Sharma
All rights reserved.
"Eliza, tell me your secret."
Sometimes I'm cornered at parties by someone who's been watching me from across the room as they drain their glass. They think I don't know what's been said about me.
Eliza's odd looking but she has something, don't you think? Une jolie laide. A French term meaning ugly-beautiful. Only the intelligentsia can insult you with panache.
I always know when they're about to come over. It's in the pause before they walk, as though they're ordering their thoughts. Then they stride over, purposeful, through the throng of actors, journalists, and politicians, ignoring anyone who tries to engage them for fear of losing their nerve.
"Eliza, tell me your secret."
"I'm a princess."
Such a ridiculous thing to say and I surprise myself by using Kenny's term for us, even though I am now forty-something and Kenny was twenty-four years ago. I edge past, scanning the crowd for Georgia, so I can tell her that I've had enough and am going home. Maybe she'll come with me.
My interrogator doesn't look convinced. Nor should they be. I'm not even called Eliza. My real name is Lola and I'm no princess. I'm a monster.
* * *
We, Kenny's princesses, lived in a tower.
Kath, my mum, had a flat on the thirteenth floor of Laird Tower, in a northern town long past its prime. Two hundred and seventeen miles from London and twenty-four years ago. A whole world away, or it might as well be.
Ami, Kath's younger sister, lived two floors down. Kath and I went round to see her the day that she came home from the hospital. She answered the door wearing a black velour tracksuit, the bottoms slung low on her hips. The top rose up to reveal the wrinkled skin that had been taut over her baby bump the day before.
"Hiya," she opened the door wide to let us in.
Ami only spoke to Kath, never to me. She had a way of ignoring people that fascinated men and infuriated women.
Kath and I leant over the Moses basket.
"What a diamond," Kath cooed.
She was right. Some new babies are wizened, but not Tallulah. She looked like something from the front of one of Kath's knitting patterns. Perfect. I knew, even at that age, that I didn't look like everyone else; flat nose with too much nostril exposed, small eyelids and small ears that were squashed against my skull. I felt a pang of jealousy.
"What's her name, Ami?"
"Tallulah Rose." Ami laid her head on Kath's shoulder. "I wish you'd been there."
"I wanted to be there too. I'm sorry, darling. There was nobody to mind Lola. And Mikey was with you." Kath must have been genuinely sorry because normally she said Mikey's name like she was sniffing sour milk. "Where is he now?"
"Out, wetting the baby's head."
Kath's expression suggested that she thought he was doing more than toasting his newborn. He was always hanging around Ami. Just looking after you, like Kenny wants, he'd say, as if he was only doing his duty. Except now that there were shitty nappies to change and formula milk to prepare he was off, getting his end away.
Ami wasn't quite ready to let Kath's absence go.
"You could've left Lola with one of my friends."
Ami knew better. Kath never let anyone look after me, not even her.
"Let's not fight now, pet. You're tired."
Ami's gaze was like being doused in ice water. It contained everything she couldn't say to me. Fucking ugly, little runt. You're always in the way.
"You must be starvin'. Let me get you a cuppa and a sandwich and then you can get some sleep."
We stood and looked at the baby when Ami had gone to bed.
"Don't get any ideas. You don't want to be like your aunt, with a baby at sixteen. You don't want to be like either of us."
Kathy always spoke to me like I was twenty-four, not four.
Tallulah stirred and stretched, arms jerking outwards as if she was in freefall. She opened her eyes. There was no squinting or screaming.
"The little scrap's going to need our help."
Kath lifted her out and laid her on her knee for inspection. I put my nose against the soft spot on her skull. I fell in love with her right then.
"What do you wish for her?" Kath asked, smiling.
Chocolate. Barbies. A bike. A pet snake. Everything my childish heart could bestow.
* * *
Saturdays were for shopping. Kathy and I walked down Cathcart Street towards town. We'd pass a row of grimy Victorian mansions on our way that served as a reminder of once great wealth, now carved up into flats for social housing or filled with squatters who lay in their damp dens with needles in their arms.
After these were the terraces, joined by a network of alleyways that made for easy assaults and getaways. This model of housing was for the civic minded when everyone here had a trade, due to our proximity to the city of Liverpool. The ship-building yards lay empty, and the 1980s brought container ships that did away with the demand for dockers. The life inside spilled out into the sun; women sat on their steps in pyjama bottoms and vest tops, even though it was lunchtime. Fags in hand, they'd whisper to one another as Kathy passed, afraid to meet her gaze. A man wore just shorts, his pale beer belly pinking up in the sun. He saluted when he saw Kathy. She ignored him.
I followed Kathy, her trolley wheels squeaking. The sound got worse as it was filled with vegetables, cheap meat shrink wrapped on Styrofoam trays, and bags of broken biscuits.
Kathy stopped to talk to a woman with rotten, tea stained teeth. I was bored. We were at the outskirts of town, where the shops were most shabby. House clearance stores and a refurbished washing machine outlet. I wandered along the pavement a way until something stopped me. The peeling sign over the shop window read "Ricky's Reptiles." The display was full of tanks. Most were empty, but the one at the front contained a pile of terrapins struggling to climb over one another in a dish of water.
The shop door was open, revealing the lino floor that curled up at the corners. It was a shade of blue that verged on grey, or maybe it was just dirty. I could see the lights from the tanks. The fish were darting flashes of wild colour or else they drifted on gossamer fins. I was drawn in. The man behind the counter looked up and smiled, but to his credit he didn't try and talk to me, otherwise I would've run.
Then I saw it, a long tank along the back wall. I went closer. The snake was magnificent, from the pale skin on her belly to the brown scales on her back.
She slithered closer, eyeing me and then raised her head and the front third of her body lifted up as if suspended on invisible thread. I put my forehead against the glass.
"She likes you," the man murmured.
She moved up the side of the tank. I realised that I was swaying in time with her, feeling unity in the motion. I was aware of her body, each muscle moving beneath her skin, her very skeleton. I looked into the snake's black eyes and could see out of them into my own. The world was on the tip of her forked tongue; my curiosity, the shopkeeper's sweat and kindness, the soft flavour of the mice in the tank behind the counter.
A hand gripped my shoulder, hard, jerking me back to myself. It was Kathy.
"Get away from that thing." Her fingers were digging into me. "Don't you ever come in here again, understand?"
She looked at the snake, shuddering. "God, it's disgusting. What's wrong with you?"
She shouted at me all the way home, for putting the wind up her, letting her think some pervert had taken me. I didn't realise just how afraid she was. That she was looking at me like she didn't know what she'd birthed.
* * *
The novelty of motherhood soon wore off. Ami sat in the armchair of our flat, her toenails painted in the same tangerine shade as her maxi dress. She was sunbed fresh and her lips were demarcated in an unflatteringly pale shade of pink. Her hair was in fat rollers ready for her evening out.
"Guess where I went today?" she asked, her voice bright and brittle.
"Where, doll?" Kath puffed on her cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke away from us.
If Ami was slim, Kath was scrawny. The skin on her neck and chest was wrinkled from the lack of padding and twenty-five cigarettes a day. She wore a series of gold chains and her hands were rough and red from perpetual cleaning. Her face was unbalanced: nose too small and large ears that stuck out. Round eyes that never saw make-up. I forget sometimes, that she was only twenty-four then.
"To see Kenny."
Tallulah got up and I thought she was leaving me for Ami but she was just fetching her teddy. When she sat back down next to me, she wriggled against me to get comfortable. Ami bought Tallulah's clothes. Ridiculous, expensive things to dress a toddler in, old fashioned and frilly.
"Kenny always asks after you." Ami filled the silence.
"Does he?" Kath tipped the ash from her cigarette into the empty packet. God love her, she didn't have many vices.
"He never says but he's hurt. It's all over his face when I walk in and you're not with me. You're not showing him much respect or loyalty. All he wants to do is look after you and Lola, like he looks after me and Tallulah."
"I don't want Kenny's money. He's not Robin Hood. He beat a man to death."
"He's our brother."
Which was funny, because I didn't know that I had an uncle.
Kath's face was a shutter slamming shut.
"He loves to see pictures of Lola."
"Photos? You showed him photos?" Kath was blowing herself for a fight.
"I only showed him some pictures. He wanted to see her. What's up with you?"
"Lola's my business. No one else's."
"Well, I'm taking Tallulah for him to see next time."
"No, you're not. Not to a prison."
"She's mine. I'll take her where the fuck I want."
"You've done well to remember you've got a daughter."
"What's that mean?"
"You're always out with your bloody mates. You treat me like an unpaid baby sitter. She spends more time here than with you and then you've got the cheek to tell me to mind my own."
"So it's about money?"
"No," Kath threw up her hands, "it's about you being a selfish, spoilt brat. I'm your sister, not your mum. And it's about how you treat Tallulah."
"At least I know who her dad is."
Kath slapped her face. A sudden bolt that silenced them both. It left a red flush on Ami's cheek. Whenever I asked about my dad, Kath told me that she'd found me in a skip.
"I'm sorry, Ami ..." Kath put out her hands. "I didn't mean to. I mean ..."
"Tallulah," Ami snapped, holding out her hand.
Tallulah looked from me to Kath, her eyes wide. Ami pulled her up by the arm. She screamed.
"Be careful with her."
"Or what, Kath?" Ami lifted Tallulah up, putting her under one arm like she was a parcel. "Are you going to call Social Services? Fuck off."
Calling Social Services was a crime akin to calling the police.
Tallulah was in a full on tantrum by then, back arched and legs kicking. Fierce for her size, she proved too much for Ami who threw her down on the sofa. She lay there, tear stained and rigid. Ami had started to cry too. "Stay here then, see if I sodding care."
* * *
There are times when I feel lost, even to myself, and that what looks out from behind my eyes isn't human.
I'm reminded of it each day as I go to work at the School of Tropical Medicine.
Peter, one of the biochemists from the lab downstairs has come up for a batch of venom. He watches me milk the snakes when he can overcome his revulsion.
Michael, my assistant, tips the green mamba out of her box. I pin her down with a forked metal stick, while Michael does the same, further along her body. I clamp a hand just beneath her neck, thanking her silently for enduring the indignity of this charade. If it were just the two of us, she'd come to me without all this manhandling. I'll make it up to her later with mice and kisses. She's gorgeous in an intense shade of green, her head pointed.
"You have to stop that work when you get too old," says Peter, "you know, reflexes getting slow and all that."
The deaths of herpetologist are as fabled as snakes are touchy. There's no room for lax habits or slowness. Handled safely for years, a snake can turn on you, resulting in a blackened, withered limb, blood pouring from every orifice, paralysis and blindness, if not death.
Peter's a predator. He's been a swine to me since I knocked him back. I turn to him with the snake still in my hand. She hisses at him and he shrinks.
I hook the mamba's mouth over the edge of the glass and apply gentle pressure. The venom runs down the side and collects in a pool.
What Peter doesn't know is that when my darlings and I are alone I hold them in my arms and let them wind around my neck. Our adoration is mutual. They're the easy part of my job.
"They like Eliza," Michael is offended on my behalf. There's not been a bite since I've been here.
"Concentrate." I snap at him as he brings the mamba's box to me. I regret my churlishness straight away. Michael is always pleasant with me. He never takes offence at my lack of social graces but someday he will.
Snakes are easy. It's people that I don't know how to charm.
* * *
Tallulah trailed along beside me. She looked like a doll in her school uniform; pleated skirt and leather buckled shoes. I didn't begrudge her the lovely clothes that Ami bought her. She jumped, a kittenish leap, and then she took my hand. We swung arms as we walked.
We turned onto Cathcart Street. Laird Tower was ahead of us, dwarfing the bungalows opposite. Those used by the elderly or infirm were marked out by white grab handles and key safes.
A pair of girls sat on a wall. They jumped down when they saw us. School celebrities, these playground queens, who knew how to bruise you with a word. They'd hurt you for not being like them, or not wanting to be like them.
"Is she your sister?" Jade, the shorter one asked Tallulah.
"No," Tallulah began, "she's ..."
"Of course not," Jade cut across her, keen to get out the rehearsed speech. Jade didn't like my prowess in lessons. I tried to hide it, but it occasionally burst out of me. I liked the teacher. I liked homework. I even liked the school, built in red brick, that managed to still look like a Victorian poorhouse.
Jade was sly enough not to goad me for that, going for my weakness, not my strength. "You're too pretty to be Lola's sister. Look at her ugly mug."
It was true. I remained resolutely strange; my features had failed to rearrange themselves into something that would pass for normal. Also, my sight had rapidly deteriorated in the last few months and my thick lenses magnified my eyes.
"Be careful." Jade leant down into Tallulah's face. "You'll catch her ugliness."
Tallulah pushed her, hard, both of her small hands on her chest. Jade fell backwards a few steps, surprised by the attack. She raised a fist to hit Tallulah.
My blood was set alight, venom rising. Water brash filled my mouth as if I were about to be sick. I snatched at Jade's hand and sunk my teeth into her meaty forearm, drawing blood. I could taste her shock and fear. If she was screaming, I couldn't hear her. I only let go when her friend punched me on the ear.
* * *
After I'd apologised I sat in the corner of the room while Kath and Pauline, Jade's mum, talked.
"I thought it would be good if we sorted it out between us, like grown ups," Pauline said.
Social Services had already been round to confirm that I was the culprit.
Has she ever done anything like this before?
No, Kathy was calm and firm, Lola wasn't brought up that way.
"I'm so sorry about what happened." Pauline lifted her mug of tea, her hand trembling a fraction. She took a sip and set it down, not picking it up again.
"Why?" Kath sat up straighter. "Lola bit Jade. I'm sorry and I'll make sure that she is too by the time I'm done with her."
"Yes, but Jade was picking on her."
"That's no excuse for what Lola did. She should've just walked away."
"It's time that someone cut Jade down to size."
"My daughter bit yours." Exasperation raised Kathy's voice a full octave.
"She was asking for it."
Kathy shook her head. Then, "How is she?"
Jade had lain on the pavement, twitching. Red marks streaked up her arm, marking the veins.
"She's doing okay," Pauline swallowed. "She's on antibiotics. She's a bit off colour, that's all."
"The police and Social Services came round earlier."
"I've not complained. I'm not a nark. I'd never do that."
"I didn't say you had."
"You'll tell Kenny, won't you? We're not grasses. We won't cause you any bother. I'll skin Jade if she comes near your girls again." We were known as Kathy's girls.
Excerpted from Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma, Jeffery Alan Love. Copyright © 2015 Priya Sharma. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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