True Names

By Stephanie Burgis

I'm so tired and frustrated, I could bust. Between Emmy caterwauling every time I set her down, the dogs breaking into the pantry again, and every inch of my big round belly tugging at me like fire every blessed time I turn, I'm hardly halfway through the housework by the time the sun starts to set. Any minute now, Sam and his brothers'll come piling in from the farm, expecting their dinner, and you know Sam'll be making his usual comments about how his own ma always had dinner and a smile at six, come rain or shine, and that with five growing boys all pulling at her skirts.

This isn't what I bargained for, I'll tell you that. When I let Sam sweet talk me into moving out here to the back of beyond to be his wife, it was all about the romance of the wild, the two of us standing at each other's sides against mountain lions and poisonous snakes, and me learning to be just as fierce against them as any man. Days like today somehow never got mentioned in any of his stories, back then.

But wanting and having are two different things, as my own mama always told me, and tonight's dinner isn't about to go cooking itself just because Carrie L. Gibbons, Carrie Landry as was, wants to sit down on the floor of her own kitchen and cry her eyes out like the brainless girl she used to be.

Emmy's clinging to my shoulder like a baby monkey, one plump fist stuck inside her mouth to gnaw away her teething pains. Her eyes look big and suspicious in her little pink face, and I don't dare set her down now, not when her screams of outrage might trigger even louder wails of my own. So I waddle around the kitchen with only one hand free, lighting the oven and slicing up the steak, doing my best to ignore the aching of my heavy belly and back, and when I hear the dogs start barking outside, I curse under my breath because I know it must be Sam and the others heading in already to find me lacking—especially when the barking cuts off after no more than a minute.

But then the doorbell rings.

Now, that doorbell hasn't rung more than four times in the last two months. None of the men on the farm would think to ring it any more than they would fly, and the neighbor women all just give a knock and a holler as they open the door themselves. We're close as cats around here—with only ten families farming out this way, if we didn't talk to each other, we'd have to whistle Dixie for company. It's only the preacher's wife from out East, on her rare visits of state, who's fussed enough to ring the bell; and even she's got to be slaving over her own man's dinner at this time of day.

The bell rings again while I'm still standing rigid as a rock in pure astonishment, right in the middle of the kitchen with a frying pan in my hand. I look at Emmy on my shoulder, and she looks back at me, big-eyed.

"Well, darlin'," I say, "the only way to know's by seeing," and I wipe my free hand on my apron as I head for the door.

It isn't the preacher's wife outside, but a dapper little man with the last of the day's sunlight shining on his slick, copper-colored hair and a fancy leather sales case by his side, made of some kind of mottled snakeskin. The dogs have always barked at strangers, but not this time. This time, they're sitting way, way back, watching him from a respectful distance. They stay right there even after they see me, though Red, the oldest, lets out a soft little whine.

I'm so startled by the way they're acting, I haven't said a single word of greeting. But the little man's smile is as bright as the fading sun over the mountains.

"Ma'am," he says, and he gives me a bow the likes of which I've never seen before. "Herbert Huggins, at your service. Hot day, isn't it?"

I hadn't thought so, before, but I realize he's right—it is hot, much hotter now than it was this afternoon even at the height of the day, and now that I've noticed it, the heat presses down against me like a branding iron until I can't hardly breathe, and the sweat pops out all across my skin.

The heat doesn't seem to be affecting Herbert Huggins, though. His neat, tan-colored suit is almost the same color as the dry ground around us, with not a single tell-tale sweat-stain in sight, and he looks every bit as comfortable in it as a lizard sunning himself on a rock. His smile gets even toothier as he points and says, "That's a mighty fine baby you have there, Mrs.—?"

"Gibbons," I say, and I make myself smile back—but when I look down, I see my free hand's crept up of its own accord to cradle Emmy's head, and I'm pulling her tight into my chest, after spending all day trying to get myself free of her.

I must have pulled her too tight; she lets out a squawk, and Herbert Huggins's lips turn down in sympathy, like a sad-faced clown.

"Ah, the little ones," he sighs. "Now, the truth is, Mrs. Gibbons, I'm here today to help you out with some new discoveries in domestic science—innovations that will no doubt make all the difference in the world to a hardworking lady such as yourself. But I surely do hate to see you or your lovely daughter suffer any discomfort from this terrible heat that has come upon us. So perhaps we'd be better off sitting in your own comfortable kitchen—which is neat as a pin, I am certain—rather than bandying words in the open air. Ma'am?"

He gestures like a gentleman for me to go ahead of him, and trapped in his flow of words like a fish caught up in too strong a current, I turn to walk straight down the hall.

But as I turn, I see the dogs: see Red, the oldest, staring at me.

If Sam's cursed Red once for his lack of brains, he's cursed him a thousand times—and it's not three hours since I had to chase Red and the others out of my clean pantry, hollering unladylike imprecations at the bunch of them.

But I see Red staring with all his might, while he sits quiet and still ten feet away, and something inside me wriggles free from that current that's trying to carry me down the hall without thinking.

"I can't," I say—and hearing the truth pop out of my mouth, I can't believe that I'd forgotten it, even for a moment. I stop and turn back with my big round belly blocking the door, holding Herbert Huggins and his sales case safe outside. "My husband and his brothers'll be back any minute, and I haven't even started cooking dinner. I'm sorry, Mr. Huggins, but—"

"No need to fear, Mrs. Gibbons. I ran into Sam and the boys on my way in, and they said I should go straight ahead. Why, Sam bragged all about your cooking skills, and said I might just as well stay for dinner." As I blink, Mr. Huggins adds, "After our conversation, Mr. Gibbons gave me permission to use his given name."

"Oh." I look back at Red. "Well, I suppose . . ."

"The heat, Mrs. Gibbons," says Herbert Huggins, and he sets one hand on my shoulder to nudge me gently down the hall.

I might have said something else—something's nagging at my brain—but a knife of pain stabs up through my belly as he touches me, and I double over like a tree struck by lightning. I have to bite down hard on my lower lip to keep myself from crying out; it's a good thing Emmy's clinging so hard to my shoulder.

"Oh, dear," Herbert Huggins says, all kindly concern. "I do hope you're not unwell, Mrs. Gibbons. Is it—?"

"It's nothing," I say, and I straighten like an old woman, feeling every bone pop in my back. I don't like the look in his eye as he watches me. It reminds me of a rattler, waiting to strike. "I'm fine," I say, brisk as a sweeping broom, and I hurry ahead of him to the kitchen, feeling his eyes on my back the whole way there.

"May I ask," he says, as he follows me in, "how long it will be before you and Sam have another little charmer come to join your family?"

He can ask, but I don't have to answer . . . or, at least, not with the truth. "Less than two months!" I say, like it's the best news in the world. It's more like four months, actually, but I've swelled up so fast this second time, you'd never guess it—and even though Sam'd surely call me crazy for thinking this, less time feels safer right now, somehow more secure, under Herbert Huggins's hungry gaze.

I nod at the chairs gathered around the kitchen table, and I reach back for the frying pan. "You can take a seat anywhere you like, Mr. Huggins. I'm just going to start frying up potatoes to go with the steak for dinner. If you want to tell me about those domestic science innovations of yours—"

"Soon," he says as he sets his leather case down on the table. He straightens the creases in his trousers, finicky as anything, before he sits. "Soon," he repeats, smiling. "But it can wait on coffee."

I pause with my fingers just brushing the pan. "Coffee?"

"Sam said you make a real smooth cup of coffee. Almost as good as his own ma's, he said."

And that's when it hits me, what's been niggling at the back of my mind.

Herbert Huggins saw Sam first, out on the farm. But the farm is nowhere near the road he should have traveled. The road comes straight to our house, with the farm spilling out behind. There's nothing but bare rock and mountain behind that, and no one foolish enough to live there.

But I didn't see a motorcar pulled up outside. I didn't even see a horse.

"Are you all right, Mrs. Gibbons?" Herbert Huggins's eyes are bright and beady and fixed on my face. Again, I think of a rattler, curled up gray against gray rock and rattling its tail softly, while it holds its jaw wide open.

I swallow hard on the thought, and I lift my hand from the frying pan. "Coffee," I repeat, and I try to sound perky. "Coming right up!"

Any minute now, Sam and his brothers'll be home. All I have to do is wait.

I start a pot of water boiling, and I'm trying to move like I'm as graceful and strong as those sleek mountain lions that come prowling down around our house at night, but I swear, my belly feels like it weighs a hundred pounds, and I can't help grunting with effort as I lift the pot, more like one of Sam's great cumbersome cows from the farm.

"I do hate to put you to extra work," says Herbert Huggins. "Can I lend some assistance by holding your sweet baby for you?"

"No, thank you," I say back, just as sweet and smooth as syrup. "It's no trouble, really."

And even Emmy must realize something's wrong, because she doesn't let out a single squeak when my arm tightens around her.

"So, these innovations—" I begin, and I'm so eager to turn his mind away from trouble, I actually reach right across the table like I have no manners, to open up his sales case myself for some distraction.

He snatches it away before I can touch it, something nasty flashing in his eyes. "Not yet, Mrs. Gibbons. I told you, not until after coffee!"

I have to stop myself from dropping my eyes and backing away like a cow being herded without a peep of protest. Show no fear, Sam told me on our first trip 'round the farm together. That's how you deal with danger out here, whether it's a big old bull trying to turn itself master or a snake paralyzing a mouse with the power of its gaze until the poor little thing can't even remember how to run away. So I keep my head held high and my eyes fixed on his as I say, "So you did. I just forgot."

"Never mind." Scowling, he sets the case down on the floor, out of my reach—then adjusts it another few inches, as he eyes the hot oven like it's right about to leap at him. I swear, he makes as much fuss setting down that case as a tomcat hunting out the perfect spot of sun to lie in. Finally, though, he lets it go and smoothes down his slick, coppery hair as if he's calming himself with the gesture. And when he looks up at me again, I wish he hadn't.

"So tell me, Mrs. Gibbons. What brought you out here in the first place, to such an . . . isolated locale?"

I don't like the way he says "isolated," like he's running his tongue up and down the word. So instead of giving him the quick answer—which would be Sam—or the long answer, which might still start with seeing Sam across that crowded dance floor, but would have to go winding past all five of my married sisters along the way, and even take a pause to confess how my daddy's house felt smaller and smaller every day after he re-married, with my own mama less than six months in the grave . . . instead of giving him any of those true answers, as sorry as they've all turned out to be, I just say, "You seem pretty cozy around these parts yourself. Have you been out here before?"

His tongue darts out in his sudden grin. "Oh, I've been around these mountains a long time."

"Is that right?"

The water's starting to boil on the stove, so I lean over to drop in the coffee grounds, measuring them out real careful, the way Mama taught me, and twisting to keep them out of the way of Emmy's grabbing hands. But I can still hear the way his smile deepens as he talks.

"Hasn't your husband ever told you about the dangers in these hills?"

Mountain lions, rattle snakes, the adventure and romance of the wild. . . . "He's mentioned one or two," I say, and I keep my voice light as air. "I guess every new place has some dangers."

"Ah, but this is an old place, Mrs. Gibbons . . . and I've been out here even longer than your husband, if you can believe that." He pauses and then adds, soft and measured: "I was in these mountains before any man ever thought to farm here."

My hand tightens around the coffee scoop, but I don't turn. My mind's whirring like an engine, and all I can think to say is, "Is that so, Mr. Huggins?" But my voice is shaking like a leaf, ignoring all of Sam's wilderness lessons.

"Indeed it is so," he whispers, right behind me now, breathing on my bare neck. "Does that surprise you, Mrs. Gibbons?"

I'm staring out the window with all my might, my free hand still holding the coffee scoop half-tipped over the boiling coffee, and every purple band in the twilit sky is telling me that Sam is late, late, late. "It's past six, Sam, damn it," I want to yell, but instead I say softly back to him, "I guess I am surprised, Mr. Huggins. I wouldn't have taken you for an elderly man."

"Would you care for another surprise?" he hisses right into my ear.

No, I think, no, and I'm frozen still, like a trembling little mouse who thinks she can stay safe by not moving—but he's already whispering the truth into my ear:

"Sam and his brothers aren't coming home."

That does it. I've got the heavy pot in my hand, and I'm yelling a fierce battle cry as I turn and throw the whole damn pot of boiling coffee over his head.

He staggers back, but I keep the empty pot high. I can hear the sizzle of boiling water working on flesh, even over the hammer of Emmy's screams of outrage, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

But when Herbert Huggins lifts his head, there's not a mark on his smooth face, and I realize there are more dangers out here in these mountains than even Sam knew to warn me against.

"I've lived in these mountains a long time, Mrs. Gibbons." His lips peel back from his teeth into a mockery of a grin. "I preyed on the creatures who used to rule these hills, and I know all about the creatures who've moved here now, so arrogant and so slow-witted. They think of themselves as strong and fierce with their bows and arrows, their shotguns and their plows, but these new ones'll tell me anything I ask, only for fear of seeming 'impolite.' Why, when I asked Sam Gibbons for his name, he told me straight off, just like all four of his brothers had before him, and then I had him exactly where I wanted him, in my power. But more than that, he told me something else, too. He told me your name. And now I'm telling you, Carrie Gibbons, you may not move from that spot!"

My feet root to the ground like they've been painted there, and I can't even turn, though my daughter is screaming to high heaven on my shoulder, and Herbert Huggins's hungry gaze is fixed right on her.

"I've been here a long time," he says, "but the taste of a young child, from any species, is still very sweet indeed." His tongue darts out, quick as a lick of fire, and he turns to look down at my fat belly. "And the flavor of a babe not yet born . . ." His eyes narrow to slits, flashing yellow. ". . . now, that is beyond perfection."

Emmy bangs her fists against my shoulder in her rage, the baby inside my belly kicks so hard I almost lose my balance, and that is when I realize the truth. "You're wrong," I whisper.

"Wrong?" He blinks his slitted eyes. "I told you, you can't—"

I hurl the empty pot right at his head, so he has to duck, and I throw myself forward, pushing my big, cumbersome body right past him.

"I am not just Carrie Gibbons," I gasp, and I pull open the oven door, letting out a billow of heat that knocks me back.

Every predator has a weakness, Sam taught me that, and I've only seen one weakness, so far.

I grab his sales case with my free hand.

"I am still Carrie Landry," I tell Herbert Huggins, and I throw the leather case straight into the flaming oven.

There's a flash of light, and there are screams the likes of which I've never heard before in my life, but I have been a mother for over nine months already, and I have learned to listen to screams without flinching. When they're all over, there's nothing left on the floor before me but a little wriggling striped snake, glaring up at me with beady black eyes and hissing with all its might.

In a few minutes, I'll have to call for the dogs, and we'll go together out into the darkness to see if there are any remains left of my husband and his brothers. There'll be hard decisions to be made, and harder times to go through, and a lot of tear-filled nights along the way. None of this is what I bargained for, and that is the simple truth.

But right now, I tighten my grip around Emmy's little round body, and I lift my frying pan with my one free hand.

If there's one thing Sam taught me, it's how to deal with snakes.


Stephanie Burgis photo

Stephanie Burgis is an American who lives in Wales with her husband, baby, and border collie. More of her stories can be found in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other magazines. Her historical fantasy trilogy for kids, The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson, will be published beginning in 2010. For more about the author, see her website.