The first reason the Mistress chose you from all the rest when she discovered you abandoned like a seed lost in the rye was because you were beautiful. That your hands were reaching out to her from your sack like you were welcoming her home was the other.
From there on in, she dressed you like the others: in fleecy jumpsuits to keep you warm on your walks to and from the ovens. For every morning up on her mountain, you baked cakes for the Mistress. All sorts of cakes — devil’s food, buttercream, fruit — you sprinkled with sugar and delivered to her bedside.
The Mistress ate these with her hands. Somehow she did it with such practice she didn’t make a mess; all the crumbs landed perfectly in her mouth. When you became an expert in cake, she set you up with a cantor who taught you how to open your diaphragm to belt all the good noises out. Morning and night, she invited you to her room; asked you to stand at the foot of her bed and sing.
* * *
As you grew, your curls became lusher, more vibrant: the color of wheat in a sunlit field. It was while scrubbing your head that you discovered the nubs on your scalp, and it was around this time, too, that you began to feel the tingle of desire. Soon after these nubs took to sprout, you could no longer comb your hair or go to bed without your head hurting.
The horns — these changed you in a wash; it was like being christened all over again, only with tar, and when gradually your fingers grew together and hardened into hooves, there was no sense to be made from anything. The cakes you baked turned out burnt; all that remained shriveled inside pockets of dust.
* * *
When one day you brought the Mistress her cake, she took one look at you and pulled her veil over her face, disappeared behind her door and reemerged with a sack filled with crabs. By the hand she led you down the mountain, back to the undergrowth, only this time there were no other babies there, only you all grown and alone.
Your new job was to set the crabs free, catch them in the sack the Mistress gave you, and pull yourself back up the mountain. Each time you returned, she would spit into the sack, and back to the undergrowth you would go.
* * *
You began to relish in your new vileness: the fur that grew from your chest in tufts; your red pupils you could see reflected in the dirty black stream where you made your home. Even your lullabies were lost to you, your voice box ripped from your throat.
* * *
Suppose one day you find your Mistress down in your hovel, lying still as a stone still clutching your sack, her veil covered in crabs. Suppose you feel more sorry for your keeper than you do for yourself. Maybe you pick all the crabs off her, maybe you don’t.
Somewhere back to the brine you drag her, for all along you knew she belonged down on the ground with you.
You release her like a message in a bottle, let the current take her where it will.
Suppose you remember relaying the hot cakes up to her bed; your voice that to release was like knitting a tapestry with your tongue. You’ve spent all your energy trying to undo yourself. You’ve tried everything you knew to reclaim all you’d made.
One thing that’s for certain: it’s your humanness that saves you.
Theodora Ziolkowski‘s poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Arts & Letters, Prairie Schooner, and Short Fiction (England), among other journals, anthologies, and exhibits. A chapbook of prose, Mother Tongues, won The Cupboard’s 2015 contest; Finishing Line Press published a chapbook, A Place Made Red, also in 2015.