Eyes of a Child
by C.S. Fuqua
Editor and author Karl Edward Wagner was a fan of Patsy Cline’s music, something I discovered when he recognized the title of my story, “Walking after Midnight,” as a nod to the Cline song by the same name. “Eyes of a Child” also shares a title with a Patsy Cline song, something Karl would have appreciated.
In memory of Karl Edward Wagner
A CLUCK. Smack. A child’s face muddles with pudgy curiosity. Dwarfed ﬁngers (Where’s the arm?) wiggle in a half-wave. Sense of spiraling. A twitch to rise, to ﬂy, thick muscles rippling. A scream builds and chokes. That face smiles. Dry, burning throat. Agony slices through the shoulders. A candle ﬂoats before the child, idiot grin widening, ﬁngertips shimmering in the ﬂame. Darkness. *** It woke, gasping from the ﬁre raging in Its back. It clamped its jaw against pain It had before only observed in others. Its eyes opened as the pain eased slightly by degree. The idiot-faced girl—eight, nine?—grinned, head angled curiously. “You a angel. Daddy said.” Three stubby, deformed ﬁngers wriggled within a crater in the girl’s left shoulder. She lay on her side amidst a tangle of yellowed sheets, her right leg a withered stub poking out from multicolored shorts. It opened Its mouth to speak to the girl, but only a rasp of sound escaped. It grimaced and shifted, pain drilling through Its shoulders. With the pain came the realization of unfamiliar lightness. It squinted against the dimness of the room. A single light shone before a blank concrete wall. Its gaze circled, found all the walls windowless. Beyond the girl’s bed, stairs led into deeper darkness. A door opened, and the girl’s grin broadened as she grunted and ﬂoundered onto her back, her head twisting toward the stairs. Footsteps clumped down the steps, and a man entered the pale light at the base of the stairs. He stood only a few inches shorter than the ceiling, his head a tangled bush of gray, his face weathered and glutted with wrinkles. He asked the girl, “She ‘wake?” It blinked and swallowed—she? The man stepped closer to the girl’s bed. “Angel scared, Daddy.” The girl waddled back onto her side, lifting herself with the good arm until she was nearly sitting. Her tiny eyes, sunken above ﬂeshy cheeks the color of chalk, glittered. A faint scent of sweat hung in the air—and something more, a pungency It had sampled while pondering tragedies, the piercing odor of rot. “Angel think we gonna hurt her, Daddy.” You already have. The girl’s grin faltered.
It groaned against the paralyzing slices of pain through Its back. It squinted into the dim light, gaze resting ﬁnally on the wall beyond the staircase. Fear crept into Its chest. “You best stay put,” the man said, stepping around the end of the girl’s bed, stopping barely out of reach. “I had to cut them off. One got blown half-off anyway. I didn’t think…” He looked away, his eyes going to the girl. “I really didn’t mean to shoot you.” “You shot me?” Its voice rasped. Another glance at the girl, a nervous shrug. The man shoved his hands into his pockets. “I didn’t know you was…you know.” It closed Its eyes, unwilling to accept fully the lightness of Its back. It heard music playing faintly above, a woman’s voice singing. It swallowed against the pain, the violation. “I was hunting back in the ﬁeld. I shot.” It clamped down on its anger and reached into the man. The air is thick with settling dew. Hollis thinks about the girl at home, wonders how it would be if he were to ﬁnd her dead when he returns. He has prayed countless times for guidance when he was strong, for relief when he was weak. He has even placed his mouth over the end of his gun’s barrel, but he was too much of a coward to pull the trigger. Buster bounces ahead through the waist high grass, stops suddenly and points, his nose nearly straight up. Hollis raises his gun, sights the smear against the sky, holds his breath, the stock snug against his shoulder. His ﬁnger tightens. The air explodes. Wings arch. It hovers for a moment, suspended. He squints down the barrel, ﬁres again. He expects a burst of feathers, but half the wing slices away with the shot. The thing begins to plummet, spiraling toward the ﬁeld. Buster bolts through the grass, barking, feverish to retrieve the thing his master’s brought down. It hits the ground with a soft shoomp. Hollis’s feet fuddle, scraping through the high grass. Then he’s running, his breath pufﬁng small clouds in the morning chill. The dew soaks through his jeans, but he doesn’t notice the damp cold as he races in time to his heart, a chant escaping, “Dear god, dear god, dear god…” The dog sniffs, bristles back as the thing’s arm twitches. Buster sets to pounce. The man grabs a handful of neck and slings the dog backward. “Git on!” He slaps his leg at the dog. Buster snarls. “I said git on!” Hollis shouts, and he smacks the dog across the snout with the gun’s barrel. The dog whimpers and skulks back. Hollis stares at him for a long moment, remembering his Rose. No matter what preachers preach, she’d said, animals are as innocent and as holy as children in eyes of the Lord. He kneels, clucks, “C’mere, boy.” He reaches for the dog, but Buster shies back. The thing twitches again, and Hollis twists around. Buster nudges up beside him as Hollis shakes his head in wonder at the body. “I thought you things was invisible,” Hollis said. The girl wiggled excitedly, the bed creaking. “She a angel, Daddy. You said. She can do anything.” It lies face down with legs splayed, one arm underneath Its body, the other hidden by wings larger than Hollis. The man reaches out tentatively and touches the injured right wing. He yanks back, but then touches it again. What he thought at ﬁrst to be feathers, he realizes, are overlapping ﬂaps of leathery ﬂesh. He feels a slight pulse in each fold, weak, uneven. The wing is sticky with blood that continues to ooze from where the shot has severed it. Hollis cranes his head suddenly skyward, half-expecting to ﬁnd God itself descending to exact revenge. But the sky is clear, brightening with the rising sun. Hollis shifts the wings off the body to examine the creature more closely. The long hair, fair skin and features suggest female, but Hollis ﬁnds no reproductive organs. It moans and tries to roll. Buster growls, and It settles with a soft sigh. Hollis lays the gun down, hooks his
hands under the thing’s arms and wrestles the body onto his shoulder. He grunts under the being’s weight as he stands. He decides to return later for his gun. “I had to cut ‘em off. They were no good to you.” “Daddy?” the girl said. “Why don’t she want to stay?” *** “I’m pretty. Daddy told me,” the girl said. “You got a name?” “No.” It sat on the bedside, dizzy with pain, weak hands clasping the edges. “Daddy said Mama wanted to name me Patsy after Patsy Cline. She a singer. Mama liked one of her songs a lot.” Patsy’s lips pouted. “I don’t remember the name.” “’(If I Could See the World) Through the Eyes of a Child’,” It said. The girl’s face brightened. “How you know?” The sullen look abruptly reappeared. “Daddy don’t play it ‘cause it make him sad.” The girl rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling, the deformed trio of ﬁngers tapping the empty shoulder of her blouse. “Mama was real pretty. I seen pictures.” The girl twisted her head around. “I wish I was a angel. Then I see Mama in heaven. I touch her.” The girl’s eyes glazed. “I touch her,” she whispered. It bowed Its head. “Daddy think…” “He believes I can change you,” It said with a sigh. It looked up, gaze leveling with the girl’s innocent stare. “I can’t.” The girl writhed onto her side and nearly rolled off the bed, catching herself with her good leg, bracing against the edge. “You want a name?” It swallowed, stared into the girl’s shallowness. Name? Deﬁne me. Diminish. “You like ‘Brenda’? Mama did. Daddy said it real pretty name. I call you Brenda. You like Brenda?” The door opened and footsteps thudded on the stairs. The girl’s head swiveled, her body rolling, the empty sleeve ﬂapping from the uncontrolled frenzy of the deformed ﬁngers. Hollis stepped off the last stair and bent to kiss his daughter lightly on the forehead. Brenda registered both love and loathing. It closed Its eyes, returned within, drew the curtain. Hollis straightened and came around the end of his daughter’s bed. “Why did I see you?” It—Brenda—sensed slight remorse buried within hope and design. “I thought angels was something people never see ‘cept when they die.” “I can manifest, have substance,” Brenda said. It looked at the girl, narrowed Its eyes for a moment at the sleeve, calm now, the girl’s attention intent on her father. “The only way I can smell or taste is to become like you. I can only see this side otherwise, but it’s like looking through fog.” “Show me,” Hollis said. “Go back to your own world.” It held his gaze. It—Brenda, It told Itself—had tried to dematerialize time and again, but It didn’t have the energy. Perhaps after fully healing… If I can. Hollis took a step closer. His desire burst into Its mind. “I can’t do what you want me to.” “You’re an angel. You could leave if you wanted. Angels can…” “I can nudge people out of the way of a moving car, yank the steering wheel a little to the right to avoid a head-on, pull a toddler from the pool she’s fallen into, but I can not recreate people.” It rolled Its right shoulder slightly, amazed by the control It had learned in the days It had been here. The massive back muscles responded gently now, generating less pain in the wounds left by Hollis’s knife. Hollis clenched a ﬁst at her. “I prayed for you!” he shouted. “God sent you to help us. You have to.” Brenda’s mouth twisted. “You shot me.”
Hollis drew back. “Daddy?” He spun away, bolting upstairs, taking the steps in threes. The door slammed, the lock sliding into place. *** Hollis stared down at his sleeping daughter. Her ﬁngers twitched like a sleeping dog’s paw. He drew a heavy breath. “I wanted a girl to pamper. I wanted to give her things, do things for her. But I wanted her—I wanted her whole.” “We don’t always get what we want.” He looked at Brenda. “You ain’t girl or boy, but you look like a woman.” Brenda grinned, a cold baring of teeth. “What does a woman look like, Hollis? Like Patsy? Your Rose? You beat Rose, didn’t you? Is that the problem? She died and left you with your conscience?” Its eyes narrowed. “What’s stopping you from hitting me?” Patsy whimpered in her sleep. His his mouth twisted with rage. “I asked God for help,” he growled, “and he sent you.” “Was it God?” Brenda hissed. “Or the devil? Does it really matter? I’m earthbound now, thanks to you.” Hollis glared. It peered into his mind, sensed his crippling desire for redemption, his determination to ﬁnd it through the healing of his daughter. Hollis turned away, knocking his shin against Patsy’s bed. He pounded up the stairs. The door slammed. Brenda sighed and lowered Its gaze to ﬁnd Patsy’s eyes open. “He just want me normal,” Patsy whispered. She blinked back tears. “I can’t make you grow an arm or leg,” Brenda said. Patsy’s stubby ﬁngers ﬂexed and stretched. “Then make me smart.” Brenda shifted stifﬂy and lay belly down on the bed. Moments passed in silence. Dull footsteps crossed the room above. The girl rolled onto her back and stared silently at the ceiling. Brenda’s eyes closed. The girl’s bed creaked. “I can do tricks.” Its eyes opened and It reached out with Its mind. Patsy twisted around, rising with her good arm, grinning with delight. “Don’t tell Daddy. He get real mad.” Another pause. “Promise? You got to promise.” “I promise.” Patsy’s grin widened, and she craned her gaze toward the far wall where the room’s lamp sat on a small, oval table. A plastic doll, whose face had darkened with time and dust, sat propped against the lamp’s base, its legs draped over the table’s edge. “See the candle?” Brenda’s gaze shifted and she— Brenda swallowed with realization that It had accepted she, that It had accepted deﬁnition. Brenda grimaced from the pain that persisted in her back. She felt the bandages that covered the strips of ﬂesh where her wings had once joined her body. She had never known another of her kind, had only observed them in distant passing. She could not recall her beginning, and she had never wondered about her end until now. Would she grow new wings? Would her powers return fully, or would she be as handicapped as the girl on the other bed? Would she wither? Would she die?
“Watch,” Patsy whispered. Patsy’s face tightened. Her eyes dilated into black marbles as she concentrated on the table. A sudden smell of burning wax brought Brenda up slowly. The candle burned brightly as it hovered in its glass holder, a foot above the table. Brenda turned to the child and reached out with her mind. A wall. Patsy blinked and drew a deep, sudden breath. The candle dropped to the table, the glass holder clunking spastically. She turned to Brenda, her face foggy with fatigue. She lay her head on the pillow. “Brenda?” the girl whispered. “Yes?” “You seen God?” *** “You have to let me in,” Brenda said. She sat on Patsy’s bedside, her hand on the girl’s shoulder. One of the tiny deformed ﬁngers nudged Brenda’s palm, and she smiled. “Daddy don’t like it,” Patsy whispered. “He said it devil work, but ﬁre’s pretty. I think God gave it to me.” Her eyes clouded. “To make up…” The ﬁngers wriggled. “Concentrate on the candle,” Brenda said. “And let me in.” She helped the girl to sit up, her hand sliding down Patsy’s back to ﬁnd the skin warm and wet with sweat. Her nostrils ﬂared at the biting odor. She thought immediately of her wings, the hollow disbelief on Hollis’s face as he had carried them out. Brenda’s hand slipped under the girl’s T-shirt, her ﬁngers raking across folds of fat and scabs. “He clean me when he can,” the girl said softly. “He got a lot to do with the farm and nobody to help.” “Do you ever go outside?” Patsy grinned. “When Daddy can take me. I love trees. One time, they was red and yellow and purple, and leaves was blowing ‘round.” Her eyes blazed with visions. “They was like ﬁre.” Brenda glimpsed ﬂames sliding up trunks, raging through underbrush. “Sometime I wish…” “Concentrate on the candle.” *** Brenda leaned carefully against the door at the head of the stairs. She heard Hollis cough on the other side, followed by a weary sigh and approaching footsteps. She started down the stairs, nearly tripping in the pants that he insisted she wear. She’d refused to keep the clothing on at ﬁrst because the material scratched at her skin. She acquiesced only when she glimpsed the desperation and hatred seething inside him as he recited “Now I lay me down to sleep” with Patsy after having bathed her and settling her back in the rancid smell of her soiled sheets. “…pray the lord my soul to keep. If I die…” He swallowed and looked at the grinning face of his daughter. “If I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.” Brenda turned away from him, trying to draw back, but she could not ignore the deep betrayal he felt. Why had God burdened him so? Why had God taken his Rose and not Patsy? As Hollis closed the door at the head of the stairs that night, Brenda tried to dematerialize, to fade into the abyss from where she could observe and drift among humans without detection. She’d felt a ﬂicker within her body, then nothing. The door opened as Brenda reached her cot. She eased quietly down on the cot’s edge, the pain in her back now a persistent dull ache. Hollis came around the end of his daughter’s bed and sat to face Brenda. Patsy shifted under the covers, her withered leg lying at a limp angle toward the edge.
“I made a promise to my wife when she died,” Hollis said in a low voice. “I told her I’d take care of this girl until she died. I never thought she’d live so long.” “She’s surprised you,” Brenda said. “She’s surprised the doctors too.” The man frowned deeply and bowed his head. “I went in last week. I got cancer in my lungs. Doctor said he can operate, but…” He sighed heavily. “What can I do? She ain’t got kin, least none who’ll take her.” He looked at Brenda with accusing eyes. “God sent you. Why don’t you help me?” Brenda held his glare. “Now I lay me down to sleep…” *** The chair thunked to the ﬂoor. Patsy giggled, wriggling in delight. Brenda sat heavily down in the chair. “Now do it with me.” Patsy tilted her head forward, and the chair began to rise. It hovered two feet off the ﬂoor for several seconds and then settled easily down. “Okay, it’s my turn.” Brenda closed her eyes and thought of the other place. “What happening?” Patsy squealed. Brenda opened her eyes and saw the room through a silver haze. She held a hand before her as it shimmered brieﬂy into nothingness before becoming whole again. Patsy stared at her in disbelief, her lips parted. “You…You…” “Almost.” Brenda wondered suddenly why no other of her kind had been in this room since her arrival, for, if one had, it would have surely materialized to help her. Wouldn’t it? “You gonna leave,” Patsy blurted. “Daddy dying. He ain’t said, but I know. And you gonna leave me.” The girl abruptly began to sob. Brenda knelt at the bedside and stroked the child’s forehead, trying to reassure, to soothe. Patsy sobbed harder, her chest hitching as she gasped for breath. The door at the top of the stairs burst open, and Hollis bounded down, rushing around the bed, shoving Brenda aside. She ﬂailed backward. Hollis lifted the girl into his arms, cradling her, caressing, patting. “Shush, baby, shush,” he chanted in a whisper. “Shush.” Finally, her cries faded, and she began to doze in exhaustion. Hollis eased her down to the bed, settled the covers over her. Hollis turned to Brenda. “What’d you do to her? What the hell kind of angel are you? You won’t help her and now…” Brenda closed her eyes and tilted her head slightly back. She imagined the wind against her face as Hollis’s ﬁst connected. *** “My daddy, he…” “He’s human,” Brenda said, and she saw acceptance in the girl’s mind. The child’s simplicity proved nearly crippling. “You gonna leave me,” Patsy muttered. A week had passed since Hollis had hit Brenda. He had returned only twice a day since then, to bring food and to take the girl upstairs to use the bathroom. Brenda had continued to teach Patsy how to concentrate her powers. She’d also concentrated on her own abilities. As the child slept, Brenda had moved increasingly in and out of the dimension where humans were unable to travel, until ﬁnally she had passed through the walls to explore her prison. The small frame house sat in the middle of a twenty-acre farm. The basement was given over to the
girl and Hollis’s angel. The walls upstairs bore dozens of framed photographs of Patsy’s mother, a fragile woman who had laughed every time the camera pointed at her, but not one picture of Patsy had been hung. Brenda found pinned to the headboard of Hollis’s bed a note in a quickly scribbled hand: Hollis, My water broke. I called an ambulance. Come soon, DADDY! I love you, Rosemary Brenda had drifted around the kitchen as Hollis stared out the window for hours one afternoon, a ﬁfth of whiskey on the table before him, his gun set against the door, a Patsy Cline record playing on the phonograph in the living room. When the song “(If I Could See the World) Through the Eyes of a Child” came on, he grabbed the whiskey bottle and hurled it across the room. He slid slowly from the chair to sprawl on the ﬂoor. Brenda slipped into his mind as he sank into sleep. What’ll happen, his thoughts droned, when she shows them what she can do? *** “If you can’t give her an arm and leg,” he begged, “at least give her a good mind.” Brenda drew a deep breath, her face blank. “I can’t give her anything.” “What about—” He stopped, his sallow face drawn with fatigue. “I’m sorry I cut off your wings. I thought…” He drew his hands up to cover his face and sighed heavily. Finally, he pulled his hands away, turned, and started upstairs. The door closed, locked. Brenda knelt beside the bed and stroked the hair from Patsy’s face. “Wake up, honey.” The girl stirred, and her eyes opened. She smiled. Brenda helped the girl to sit up on the bedside. Brenda’s eyes sparkled in the dim light as she kissed the child’s forehead. Patsy’s deformed ﬁngers danced. “It’s time…” “I see Mama?” Brenda smiled. “Concentrate.” Brenda straightened and stepped into the girl’s mind. She pictured ﬁre. Candles materialized around the base of the bed, ﬂashed, their ﬂames erupting like tiny blowtorches, licking up the bedsides. Brenda faded from the girl. Patsy giggled, her ﬁngers reaching into the ﬂames as the bed ignited. *** Hollis stood at the rear of the open ambulance as a paramedic wrapped his hands with gauze. Smoke rose in a diminishing plume from the charred crater of what was once his house. He stared with calm acceptance. The paramedic cut the gauze and strapped on tape. “You should let a doctor check you out.” Hollis nodded. The paramedic closed the ambulance’s rear doors. He got in and drove away. When Brenda touched his shoulder, Hollis did not look around. “I ﬁgured you was still alive. Did she suffer?” “No,” she said softly. “She was happy.”
Hollis nodded with a heavy sigh. As she faded, Brenda heard him begin to cry. Brenda eased into Hollis’s body… I can’t give, Hollis, but I can take. …materializing enough to gulp the cancer from his lungs. She stepped free and walked into the ﬁeld where Hollis had brought her down. You seen God? A breeze stirred, and she craved to feel it against her face. She shimmered, materializing fully. The tall grass caressed her legs. She stretched her arms toward the sky, and the tender breeze kissed her face. You seen God? She closed her eyes, and Patsy’s image giggled among the ﬂames. You seen God? She stepped into Patsy’s mind one last time.