When the Slipling Comes to Call
by N.R. Lambert
She rises. The ache of eons and a cold night brittle her bones. She cracks them one at a time, and sometimes all at once, like tree branches snapping in an ice storm. The stone floor of the hovel is chilled with October’s first frost, but it doesn’t bother her, her feet never need touch the floor. She hovers over it, knotted fingers dragging tangles of dark hair from her face and eyes.
Her slick black tongue flicks the melting frost from her flaky gray lips as she goes about gathering the scraps of bone, hair, and skin she needs to make her Littles. One by one, she stuffs them with dead leaves and other rot. She ties off the dollies’ necks with gut string, then tops each Little with a smooth clay head–the vessel–blank faces reflecting nothing of their fates or those of the ones to whom they’re tied.
The Slipling fills her basket.
Madeline doesn’t need to see the ice creping the warped kitchen windows to know this will be the first night. She sensed its arrival days earlier and made herself ready. She’s not the only one who feels it. The children are already singing the old rhymes as she makes her way to the market.
“Bless your loveds and say your prayers
The Slipling comes tonight
To Harvest souls for the year
The Slipling comes tonight
Can’t hide your children, hide your loveds
The Slipling finds them all
To fill her basket with their breath
When the Slipling comes to call.”
Their voices drift against the stone houses, echoes collecting in the alleys leading to the village square. Madeline tugs at her shawl, wrapping it tighter around herself and the infant snuggled against her chest.
“The Seeding is the first night
Her dollies on your steps
The Harvest is the second night
The reaping of your breath.”
The morning fog hasn’t burned off yet; the children’s voices seem to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Madeline’s footsteps slip into the meter.
“Beneath the frost, beneath the shadows
The Slipling comes at night
To leave her dollies at your door
The Slipling comes tonight
So bless your loveds and say your prayers
And hope by morning’s light
That when the Slipling comes to call
She skips your door that night.”
By the time Madeline reaches the square, she catches herself humming along with them.
The market’s usual raucous buzz is a low murmur today, fear hushing the sellers and shoppers–all except for the Crone who peddles medicines and charms from beneath the arch of the burned out temple. Her curled fingers–tips missing from each of them–clutch knotted sacks of herbs, shaking them against the damp air.
“The Seeding’ll be tonight!” she calls out to tight-faced villagers hurrying past. The Crone has lived in the village longer than anyone can remember. But unless they’re in need of some doctoring–a salve for sore shoulders, a tonic to keep barren–the villagers try to forget she exists. They’ve already forgotten her name; and but for Madeline, they’ve also forgotten the Crone’s sacrifice, what she tried to do for them all.
The Crone targets another cluster of women. “Prayers won’t guard you none, but perhaps something else will…” Pinch-mouthed, they hustle past her, waving their hands before them as if she were smoke from a snuffed out candle.
As Madeline watches, the Crone casts her gaze across the courtyard, and meets Madeline’s eyes once before glancing away.
The villagers consider Madeline unlucky; most would even say cursed–at least when they think Mizzy Madeline isn’t listening. She is though, cursed that is. She’s listening too; she just doesn’t pay them any mind.
This Harvest will be different though, she’s seen to it. That is, if she lives to see it through…if they both do. Madeline watches the Crone a moment longer, waiting for a sign, but the old woman’s eyes don’t stray toward Madeline’s again. A message in itself, she supposes, turning to weave her way toward the farmers’ stalls.
As she passes the woodsmith’s stand, Madeline can’t help but touch the gleaming hull of a large burl bowl on display. His work is good, but not as good as her husband’s. She sold most of it after, except for the birds. There are five of them at home, on a small shelf perched over her hearth. Five tiny wooden thrushes, one to mark each child they’d lost in other Harvests. He carved them of hawthorn before he was taken himself in the last Harvesting. She had no bird to mark him, but his hand on the others was enough. That and the baby. A surprise, one final gift, only a few months old now. She’d lost them earlier than this…and later too. But this one would be different.
The grain seller keeps his face lowered as he hands Madeline a sack of oats and takes her coin. She senses nearby villagers eyeing her as she pockets the change. Cursed. Unlucky.
Madeline turns toward home. The baby’s heartbeat flutters against her chest, a determined moth beating against the windows at night.
This one will be different.
With a basket full of dollies, The Slipling cuts a path to town, parting the night like a blade lancing a boil, filling the space she opens with something darker, more wretched. The moon overhead, a bright shard of ice, scores a sky pockmarked with fast, low clouds. She flickers between the forest shadows, gliding at the periphery of dusk.
Until they got close, folks might think the Slipling was just a bitty child who’d wandered off; and in the early days, many a good-souled neighbor was lost trying to help her find her way home. But most folks knew better by now, especially on a night like this.
The Seeding is nearly as enjoyable as the Harvest itself. The Slipling’s dollies are her eyes to every grief stricken face–the fear, the screams, the agony. If the souls within the Littles are her supper, the suffering is her salt and spice.
She smacks her lips and swings her basket, back and forth, back and forth.
The empty Littles rattle.
The Slipling can hardly wait.
Madeline is not surprised to find the dollie on her threshold the next morning. It is the seventh time her home has been Seeded. The doll’s smooth clay face mirrors the low morning fog. It smells like a weeks-gone rat, hot and vile.
Shudders of motion from the alley and from behind the neighbors’ curtains flick at Madeline’s attention. They’re watching. Waiting for her reaction. Poor, cursed Mizzy Madeline, seeded again.
She closes her eyes, recalls six other Seedings. Six times she clutched that hideous thing in her hand, six times brought it into her home as she was supposed to do. Six times watched it take her loveds; and six times–contorted with grief–placed the dollie back on the threshold for the Harvesting.
Faint wailing drifts down from another alley. Madeline is not the only one to receive this unwanted gift.
The baby cries and Madeline opens her eyes. This time will be different.
She lifts her skirts a little and brings her heel down hard on the hollow clay head, grinding it into the stone. She steps back into the house and closes the door, leaving the doll where it lays and the neighbors where they hide.
The Slipling collects her Littles, each one ripe with a soul, each house oozing terror and anguish like runoff from rotted fruit. She doesn’t wait to sample the first one. Sticky grey saliva drips from her mouth as she reaches into her basket and plucks a dollie from the top. She sinks her black, spiny teeth into its head, sending crunching shards of clay spilling over her chin as the fresh life trapped within it slides down her throat.
She chews, pleased with the Harvest so far. But when she arrives at the last house, her pleasure curdles. Her hands shake as she picks up the ruined Little, its head crushed to dust.
The Slipling lifts her face to the moon and shrieks with rage. They have an understanding, she and this town. They don’t interfere none and she takes what she wants. What she needs. This kind of defiance won’t be tolerated.
She flings the dollie’s remains back on the threshold and melts away into blue shadows of the alley.
When she returns to her hovel, The Slipling drops her brimming basket at the door and digs around in her kit, yanking out a slick fistful of rotting mice and other bits.
She works all night.
This time, the neighbors do not bother to hide. When Madeline opens her door, they’re gathered in a loose crowd, grumbling to each other. They don’t understand how Madeline’s baby was spared. She knows the rules better than any of them. The Harvest should be over by now, the living safe for another year. Why does Mizzy Madeline have to go and make trouble? Why should her bad luck be spread about the village like a blight?
Madeline looks down. A new dollie on her threshold. She tries to stomp it again, but this one’s head is solid–enchanted or made of stone–and Madeline’s heel jumps from the sudden sharp pain of her effort. No matter. She plucks the gruesome thing off the ground and with half the town following behind her, marches it over to the lake and flings it in headfirst.
It sinks, barely leaving a ripple in the dark water.
The Slipling’s fury shakes the trees and rumbles over the mountains.
This will not stand.
It’s not a matter of hunger. She always takes more than she needs–already Harvested plenty to feed now and sleep until next year. Her basket is overfull, but she will not be defied.
She thought she’d learned them with the last one who tried to undo her. The one who almost did. Made them all watch as she bit off each of the shrieking witch’s traitorous fingertips so she’d never work her lore again. Wanted to chew up the rest of her too, but the Slipling figured a crumpled heap of woman would make a goodly reminder for the rest of them to stay in line. Even gave the witch a bit of the black touch to keep her around an extra long time, make sure she didn’t try ending herself.
It worked too. The Crone had made a fine enough warning, until now.
The Slipling sniffs the air for her Little, tracking it through the town’s winding alleys; she drags her hand along the walls, clawing deep scars into the stones.
Most folk are smart enough to be afraid. This fear is delicious–their feeble attempts to hide from her are as sweet as fresh baked bread on the air. But the Slipling can’t enjoy it until she has all her Harvest in.
She sniffs again, catches a whiff of algae and growls. The Slipling turns for the lake.
If they’re scared enough, the villagers might even put an end to this little uprising themselves. It wouldn’t be the first time one of them fell beneath a storm of stones at their neighbors’ wrathful hands.
But no, the Slipling wants to learn this one herself. She considers taking each and every one of the villagers, as punishment. But that would seal her own fate as well, being so tied to this place as she is. That was the deal she made with the darkest one, the deal she lived by for a millennium. Though it was a lot more effort in the early days.
There was that plague that nearly rotted her whole flock while she slept. Didn’t stop her from Seeding, but she had to keep her Harvest small. Went to bed hungry that year and for quite a few years after. She didn’t like that one bit.
Nor did she enjoy hunting down the strays–there were a lot of those early on. She spent too much of her sleeping time shadowing them through the woods. Had to make them believe she could still Harvest them even if they fled. But snatching up runaways wasn’t a proper Harvest. It was just her following and waiting for their vigilance to sag, so she could creep into their tents and ever so quietly pinch the lights from their eyes. A waste of souls, for certain, but worth it for the fear she gained.
If she lost her flock, she couldn’t Harvest; if she couldn’t Harvest the darkest one won’t get his tithe, and the Slipling didn’t think he’d like that. Not one bit.
The fear is what keeps her flock in check. Keeps him happy. Keeps her fed.
She supposes it’s time for another lesson; she’s been too easy on them. And maybe after she deals with this one, she’ll take all the mamas next year, or all the bitties and babies, make the whole town watch her feed…
Her rotted grin turns to a grimace as she draws near the lake.
The Slipling hates the water. But despite the raw burn of it against her flesh, she dives down, pushing herself deeper with furious kicks until she finds her sunken Little and drags it back to the surface. Huffing, she pulls herself above the water and glides over the lake, coalescing with the shadows at the edge of the woods.
She never notices the woman watching her from the rocks above.
Madeline has so little; still, she leaves most of it behind. Only the tiny shelf over the hearth is emptied. Some embers left glowing in the fireplace so it will look as if her house is still a home…
She watches from the charred shadows of the ruined temple as the Slipling glides to her door. Using her little fist as a hammer, the Slipling nails the dollie to the heavy wood; then, biting into her palm with an apple’s crunch, she smears a series of runes on the worn beams with sticky black blood.
The Slipling tilts her head back, opens her jagged mouth and screeches. Windows light throughout the village–they’re all awake, but no one dares go to their sills or doors, let alone goes to check on Mizzy Madeline.
Finally, the Slipling melts into the dark, as quiet as the weak moonlight.
The baby stirs, but does not make a noise as Madeline is gently drawn back into the ruins by the Crone’s mutilated touch.
Just one night remains.
The Slipling barely waits for the bluing hour to pass before she sets forth for town. This soul will be her most delicious. After she consumes every morsel of it before the grieving mother’s face, she’ll peel off the wench’s skin–strip by strip–and save it to be used for next year’s Littles. She’ll make certain every living creature in town watches. Hears. Knows.
No one will be getting any more ideas after this.
She hungers. This foolishness delays her feeding, keeps her from slipping back into darkness and sleeping for another year–the eternal life she bartered for can be lived only a few days at a time. Her moon is shrinking; the Slipling must nest soon.
The town shimmers ahead.
Madeline’s heart cramps with every head she crushes. They appear hollow, but she knows what treasures they hold. At least these ones will go on to peace. Her baby murmurs against her chest as she works.
When the last one is done, Madeline checks for spaces where the Slipling might hide an extra store. But the hovel is barely more than an animal’s den, scratched out of the earth by necessity and nothing more. It stinks of rot and death. She wishes to burn it, but there is no time. Besides, that is the Crone’s right, her release. She wouldn’t take any coin from Madeline for her aid; this was all she wanted.
Madeline wishes to be present for the end, but she can’t return to the village, now or ever again. What she’s done will affect them all. She knows it’s for the better, but they will not see it that way, not at first. Not until at least another year passes. But long before that, they will have stoned her and her baby for her actions.
The dark is lifting. She must leave, there’s a long way to go before the next nightfall. She stops at the door briefly–the final touch–before hurrying into the waning night.
The Slipling rages through town, clutching the empty Little in her shaking fist. She slams against doors and shatters windows, a storm of fury and disbelief.
The door was sealed, no way for the wench and her babe to get past. The Little should be filled with the Slipling’s victory, but instead–
She smashes it to the ground and howls again.
The villagers quake in terror, huddled in corners and under furniture–she feels their fear washing over her, but it brings her no pleasure.
Only the Crone is bold enough to stand at her window. She seems to grin, though it could just be her toothlessness. No matter. The Slipling won’t be mocked. She’ll Harvest the Crone first next year. But it will definitely need wait until next year. She’s too weak now; she needs her souls and her sleep.
The shadows scuttle out of her reach as the Slipling slides toward her den. Normally they grasp for her, carrying her along, but tonight they shrink. The sky is lightening. The wench cost her too much time.
The hovel is still drenched in darkness and as she reaches it, the Slipling feels comforted, if not restored. But when she shoves the door open, something clunks to the floor at her feet.
A Little, grimacing up at her, with the Slipling’s own hideous features clumsily carved into its wooden face.
The Slipling barely has time to scream before she is drained away, pulled into the dollie. Her feet touch the floor for the first time in a thousand years, and are quickly followed by the rest of her body as it collapses–lifeless, and unlifeless–to the stone.
The Slipling’s screech rattles the forest, driving sleeping birds scrambling for the sky. Madeline pauses, waiting, but the quiet that follows is unbroken.
It’s over then. The Crone will burn what remains, free herself. Flee a different way.
The morning’s first thrushes call as a creeping breeze brushes through the thick treetops. Madeline bends to kiss her baby’s soft sweet head and steps toward deeper woods.
About the Author
N.R. Lambert grew up in New York City and learned early to avoid the empty subway car. Her writing has been published by Metaphorosis, Tor.com, TIME, LIFE, and Entertainment Weekly. In addition to her work as a pop culture author and copywriter, she volunteers with Read Ahead NYC, a reading-based mentoring program for elementary school students. She currently lives in Queens with her family and two saucy cats. Look for very occasional updates at www.nrlambert.com.
About the Narrators
M.K. Hobson recently decided to follow a time-honored authorial tradition and become a bitter recluse. She swore off all social media and left her website to go to seed. At the moment, she exists only as a voice on short fiction podcasts such as Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. She leavens the tedium of her vastly expanded free time with misanthropy, paranoia, and weight lifting.
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories. Her books have been finalists for the Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. Her stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many more.
Her narrations have appeared in audiobooks and podcasts including all the EA podcasts, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. She regularly hosts Escape Pod. Find her at tinaconnolly.com.
About the Artist
Geneva is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.