“Family” by Krysta Ellison

"They'll come tonight," my mother says, sitting and rocking in the old wooden chair. Rotting floorboards creak under her bare, leathery feat in a rhythmic crooning. "They'll come tonight," she repeats and laughs softly to herself. My brother and I say nothing: There is nothing to say. The noon sun brings unbearable heat but we are safe, sheltered under the porch roof. Empty flowerpots hang from a ceiling mottled with peeling, yellowed paint. My brother says he can remember the flowers - bright purple petals mixed with reds and yellows. I do not believe we ever had flowers.

A door slams shut inside the house. Curses drift through the open, desolate rooms. My brother and I say nothing: There is nothing to say. Heavy stomps approach, the echo flat in the stilled air but growing louder. Out father staggers through the doorway and sees us crouched behind her. The smell of stale beer drifts toward us as he orders my by brother and me inside. We rise and enter the house, leaving our mother rocking and muttering. My brother looks at me, his liquid brown eyes dark in shadow. "Will they come?" he breathes, a whisper so low that I, his twin, can barely hear. I do not answer: There is no need. He knows my thoughts as I know his.

Inside the house we move restlessly, sharing a feeling of being caged. I remember days when we never entered the house until after nightfall. Days we spent in the forest with our mother, days before the first fire. My father points to shattered glass and tells us to clean it up. The pieces are easily recognized as parts of empty bottles. We stand and watch him take the last of the money and leave for town. He spends his time drinking in taverns and cursing our mother for our lives. My mother says that he started when that first fire claimed the life of my young sister. She says he loved us before that. My brother and I say nothing: There is nothing to say. We walk back to the porch, uncaring of the glass crunching under our feet. We stand outside, facing her in the rocking chair and wait. After a moment, she looks at us. "Tonight." Her hand motions us closer and we slide gracefully to sit on either side, and together we watch the sky darken.

The crowd begins to gather beyond the hill before the sky is fully dark. Light from a dying sunset leaves the clouds a glowing blue against the night. The trees are black silhouettes. My brother searches the searches the crowd for our father. We know he is in it, holding a torch. They have come with torched two other times, and each time he has been one of them. The people move nearer and my brother and I stand to greet them. My mother is laughing to herself and the rocking pace of her chair increases. My brother looks at me, asking me to speak so he won't have to. For the past year, we have spoken to no one except each other, not even our mother. The villagers have forgotten we can talk.

"Why have you come?" I ask, as my mother has asked the previous times. The villagers hiss in surprise and the crowd surges forward a step. Their leader raises his torch and I turn away. The light hurts my eyes and I shift backward into shadows. My brother reaches out to reassure me, but I can feel him trembling.

The leader smiles at us, his eyes a cold blue fire. As a priest, he does not need the torch he carries. His words are fire and flame to the villagers. He starts to speak, reminding them of their purpose, their courage, their right. My mother is accused of being a witch, and us, her children, demons. Our father escapes persecution. The fact that we, brother and sister, are twins is given as proof of our mother's evil. My brother and I say nothing: There is nothing to say. We have heard this many times before. Our mother stops rocking as he finishes his speech. The first torch sweeps through the air to land behind us in the doorway. We tense and look to our mother, but she resumes her rocking. More torches are thrown as we wait, landing near the foot of the chair. She stops and stares at the hungry flames and notices, as if for the first time, the intense heat. Her head slowly raises to our faces. "It is time," she rasps, and coughs from the growing smoke. Carefully gathering the folds of her faded gingham dress, she stands and walks into the house.

The crowd subsides for a moment in silence. My brother leaps off the porch and darts away. My actions mirror his and we run swiftly in opposite directions. The villagers have no chance at catching us. We meet again in the forest we have known all our lives and watch the house burn to ashes. My brother and I say nothing: There is nothing to say.

Food disappeared daily from the village in the weeks that followed. People who tacked up signs to ward away evil spirits found their possessions destroyed, and many took to leaving offerings of food outside. During that summer, we were never seen and rumor had us transformed into the nearest crow, rabbit, and even tree. In truth, the villagers were so scared to come out at night that my brother and I strolled openly through the houses. Both of us knew our freedom couldn't last, but we reveled in it even more for it's brief sweetness. We spent the days sleeping and playing tag in the forest. At night we would enter the village to steal food. Our mother had forbidden us to kill any wild creature and the habit was deeply engrained in us. Days blurred into weeks and soon, the weather grew colder and we knew we had to leave. One last visit to the town, and we headed south towards our future.