Enjoy an excerpt from Jalyn Renae Fiske’s “Sweetbreads at Midnight” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
In other worlds and other lands, curses might come from gods or demons seeking revenge, but mine came from a lover. As a recent widow and mother of two, I craved someone to hold at night.
I prayed for it.
Syla found me in my darkest hour and brought light back to my life. She had certain appetites that I did not share, that I did not even know of. They say opposites attract, but they seldom end up together. To keep me, to keep us, she made a blackberry cobbler, my favorite, for our one-year anniversary. How had so much time passed, and so quickly?
And yet, how little I knew of her.
Sometimes, in the passing seconds, I wish we never met or that I had paid more attention to the little things in the little moments, but the seconds pass by, irreverent and unforgiving, and I am happy again.
Syla laced the black juices of the cobbler with a sorcery that I did not know she had the power to make. I have learned the hard way that the strongest curses are imperceptible and delivered over time. The blackberries tasted brilliantly tart, but I remember now a sweetness that shouldn’t have been there. Had I known of her plans, would I still have eaten? Would that mean I must admit I was wrong? With every decadent bite, I began to change inside—crumb by crumb. This was done in love.
I am Lamia, and my last meal was young and tender as cuts of veal.
I was aware that I had been changed, but the knowledge could not save me. Like standing in a maze with dozens of doors, each one leading to yet another and yet another, until I no longer recognized my surroundings or remembered where I’d been before. Yes, I was transformed, but only from within. I possessed the same eyes, lips, and voice; the same hands and hair.
The curse did not make me forget, not truly. Instead, it made me perceive things through a different lens—a lens not of my making. This is natural. Perception is how all change occurs, by increments and by years. Are we the same at age five as we are at fifty-five? And that was how it happened: the new lens through which I saw the world convinced me that what I did and what I thought was normal. That I was good and right.
This morning I woke to a full stomach, and I rubbed my belly with satisfaction. I think about what hangs in the pantry, raw and cured with salt. I can smell the meat even from the bedroom, and I lick my lips.
At first, the curse manifested as a revulsion toward food. Breakfast of bread and jam smelled like something sour and decayed. I could not eat it. Lunch of fish and sweet relish tasted like sand in my mouth, and I had to spit it out. Dinner was pork stew that I forced myself to swallow, though it felt like rocks and nails down my throat. Anything I drank, I immediately coughed up.
Syla reassured me through many days of my ordeal. She said I did not have to eat something I did not like. Listen to my body. What did it want?
“Blood,” I said, and Syla smiled.
I cannot imagine a life without Syla’s support and understanding. I lay in bed and listen to her soft breathing as she sleeps. My stomach churns, empty so quickly. We never dine apart.
When I said I wanted blood, I was mistaken. The blood was merely the sauce upon the entrée. Syla knew what I truly desired, though I myself could not yet place it. She took me from the house that night, twelve months ago, holding my hand tightly as we walked down cobbled streets and dark alleyways, and showed me where she liked to feed in midnight hours. Drunken sailors asleep on the dock. Death by drowning was common—and so much more readily believed than being eaten alive by human teeth. Blame it on the fish and the eel.
I rise to make breakfast for my love and walk past several doors in the hallway. I do not know what lies behind them. I do not even care. The curse whispers inside me, saying that no doors are even there.
Syla drew a long, sharp blade from beneath her cloak and quickly pierced the sleeping man’s neck. She held him over the edge, choking and gurgling. The blood fell into the black water and mixed with the darkness there. With the deftness of a butcher, she sliced long cuts of meat from the man’s back, right along the spine. Backstrap on top; tenderloins tucked beneath the bone. She saved the best for last: sweetbreads buried deep inside. We feasted there together, as ravenously as if I had been starving for weeks.
As if I had been waiting my entire life to eat.
Jalyn Renae Fiske is a high school English teacher and creative writing instructor in Midland, Texas. She serves as Fiction Editor for James Gunn’s Ad Astra magazine and earned her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College in 2017. She has a thing for dragons, musicals, Batman, cemeteries, and international horror films. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Overcast, Typehouse, The Future Fire, and in the Transcendent anthology from Transmundane Press.