by Jonathan Lewis Duckworth
It began with sparrows, finches, and swallows. Little dead birds Magritte would find littering her lawn. It didn’t trouble her at first, for songbirds died all the time. But then in successive weeks she’d wake to find entire flocks of birds littered on her property, under the shady sycamores and in her rose garden, their flight feathers plucked and their delicate necks broken. These birds had menaced her garden in the past, but still she’d cry to see them killed, so pretty they were. She didn’t know what to make of it all, whether it was the work of cats or a man with a disturbed mind and brutish hands. Four years after her husband died at the Battle of the Somme, Magritte may have felt like an old woman, but with her golden hair and bright green eyes, she was still young and pretty enough to attract that sort of attention.
She was on the verge of contacting the local police when early one morning she found a huge magpie left outside her bedroom window. There was a patch of semi-firm mud there, where she’d emptied her chamber pot the night before. Crisscrossing the muddy patch were prints—humanlike footprints no bigger than postage stamps. Seeing the prints, Magritte recalled her grandmother’s stories of the lutins, the little people of the forest. They were mischievous imps who played tricks on people, and especially loved tying women’s hair into knots as they slept. Even as a child she’d never believed the stories, despite the gravity with which Grandmother described them.
“Never chase a lutin into the forest,” Grandmother, a crooked old woman with a frightening mole on her elbow, had said. “No matter how peeved he makes you.”
Magritte spent the rest of the morning doing whatever she could to calm herself. She ate a simple breakfast on the terrace while listening to a record—Bornholm’s Third Symphony, which always eased her nerves. She then buried herself in chores, sweeping the cottage, beating the dust from the rugs, and checking out all the rat traps, which had been strangely untouched of late, after two years of constant warfare between Magritte and an army of vermin.
She felt at ease here in Plournec, a small village in the foothills of western Brittany, situated between a rocky, brine-kissed coastline and a gorgeous wooded mountain. She lived in a quaint stone cottage that sat on six acres of field and woods, spacious enough that she never felt cramped, but not so large that she couldn’t keep it clean. Three days a week, she’d ride her bicycle to the village bank, where she worked as a typist. Her salary was modest, but paired with her widow’s pension it was enough to get by. She liked it in Plournec, so far away from all her memories of Paris: her childhood, her courtship with Clement, and the seven trips to the hospital that had all ended in bundles of bloody sheets and helpless tears.
After cleaning the house, Magritte felt better. As it was a pleasant, breezy day, she decided to go out and tend her rose garden, for early July was the best time to prune rose hedges. Shears in hand, Magritte stepped out of her cottage and beheld something horrific.
“Stop, you awful dog!”
She ran toward the rose garden, waving her shears and shouting, but the dog, her neighbor’s sheepdog, Gignac, kept digging, uprooting one of Magritte’s lushest rose bushes. Gignac was a wild flash of black and white fur with the grinning, pink-tongued face of an angel but the heart of a brigand. This was not the first time Magritte had caught him at mischief on her property.
And maybe that’s why, in a moment of frustration most unlike her, Magritte threw her shears at the dog. She couldn’t tell if the shears struck Gignac handle-end or blade-end, but either way the dog let out a frightened yelp and took off like a dervish toward his master’s property.
It was near noon when Magritte walked to the edge of Monsieur Renard’s property. The ocean winds were blowing in from the coast, salting the air, and the leaves of oaks and sycamores susurrated while the summer grasshoppers and cicadas thrummed in the tall grass and on the trees. Magritte enjoyed walking the little swept paths that snaked through the fields, woods, and farms around Plournec, enjoyed the little mysteries the land afforded, mysteries like the ring of stones on the top of the hill, which Monsieur Renard claimed were Roman ruins, but which Magritte suspected were older, for she knew a bit of Latin, and the etchings on the north facing stone were not Latin. But it was in Monsieur Renard’s nature to think he knew better.
She found him resting in his barley field under the shade of a persimmon tree, his back to the low wall of piled shale that marked the boundary between their two properties. Renard was in his early fifties, not quite old enough to be her father, but close to it. He was always red from the sun, with a fat neck that hung under his jaw, and a crooked nose.
“Monsieur Renard, good day,” she said, coming to stand at the edge of the wall.
Lounging beside Renard, innocent now as a lamb, was Gignac.
Renard waved with the back of his hand and didn’t look up. “Whatever’s broken, I don’t have time to fix it today.”
Magritte rolled her eyes. She held back a remark about his valuable time, and instead addressed the matter at hand. “Monsieur, your dog was in my rose bushes again.”
Renard tipped up his hat and gazed with a lazy fondness at Gignac. “Yes, there’s dirt under his claws.”
“Well what, woman?”
Maybe he hated her because she bought the cottage that had once belonged to his dearest friends, the Bergnacs. Or maybe he hated her because she was a woman, or because she was Parisian, or because there was no law against hating her.
Taking in a deep breath, Magritte persisted against his surly stare. “I think you ought to be more mindful of your dog, perhaps keep him on a chain.”
“A chain? Chains are for beasts. Gignac isn’t a beast, he’s a philosopher.”
“A philosopher who digs up rose bushes.”
“If you want to keep him out of your roses, maybe build a fence around your property. It’s what practical people do.”
“You mean like the fence you built that your dog leaps over whenever he wants?”
Monsieur Renard sat up a bit. “Now you’re calling me a shoddy workman. Listen, Gignac is a very smart boy, if you’d just talk to him and tell him not to bother your roses, I’m sure he’ll listen.”
Was it possible that Renard was the one killing the birds? No, too much trouble for a shiftless lout like him.
“We see two different dogs, don’t we, Monsieur?”
“Perhaps we do. And for all I know, you’re hiding something foul under those rose bushes, maybe that’s why he keeps digging at them.”
She wished she had the shears so she could throw them again. “Keep your dog on your land, Monsieur.”
Wind blew through the field of barley, making undultating tides of the golden lake of grain.
“Keep your dog on your land.”
She turned away and began to march back to her cottage. The way back was a harder walk, owing to the slope her cottage sat on, and on the way she passed an ancient hedgerow that lined the old Roman stone path. It was there that she heard something rooting in the nearby shrubs. She turned, thinking she would see a rabbit or a pheasant, and was entirely unprepared for the flash of pale skin that skittered through the corner of her vision.
What had she just seen? A bird, she decided. Always there were new birds, birds she hadn’t seen before. You could never see every kind of bird, God had seen to that.
After getting home, she had an ordinary afternoon, which yielded to a restful evening and a quiet dinner. Her dinners were always simple, for she had no one to impress. Tonight, a watercress soup and galettes with goat cheese. She was eating her galettes, perfectly content, when all of a sudden she began to cry. The tears did not last long, the bout of sadness passing through her like a torch falling through a mineshaft and then extinguishing.
When she’d stopped crying, she heard something scrabbling in the walls. It was the familiar rustle of rats, and yet she’d not seen any rats in weeks. Magritte followed the sound across the cottage to the northern wall. The outer walls were made from stone, like most old buildings in Brittany, but inside there was a plaster and wood interstice to provide insulation in the winter. Magritte pinpointed the scratching to a spot of wall beside the pendulum clock, but as soon as she put her ear to the wall, the scratching stopped.
In its place was something else, a low, raspy chatter too animalistic to be speech, but too coherent to be the squeaking of rodents. She tapped a knuckle against the wall and there came a frantic crepitation that made her recoil. The sound moved across the length of the wall and then vanished.
Magritte stood stock still, breathing in and out until her hands stopped trembling. Then she went to the kitchen, took some flour from the flour bin, and began, with her hands, to spread it across the cottage floor.
The next morning, Magritte woke to find several trails of tiny feet left in the flour. The feet were nearly human in shape, but there were only four toes on each, and the toes were long and spread out like fingers. Magritte swept up the flour, erasing the prints. Far from being frightened, she was happy, for at least now she knew she was not going mad. And it wouldn’t be so bad having lutins in the house, would it? Grandmother’s stories had portrayed them as childish tricksters, nothing too dangerous.
She was finishing her breakfast when a fist began thumping at her door.
“Open up, open up this instant!”
It was Monsieur Renard, who, for the first time since Magritte had known him, sounded truly angry.
Still at her dining table, Magritte’s hands began to tremble. “Yes, Monsieur?”
“I said open the door,” Monsieur Renard said.
Magritte stood up and gingerly walked toward the door. The thumping continued, the door and the doorframe trembling from the onslaught. There were four locks on the door, one in the knob, two bolts, and a chain lock. Magritte unlocked the knob and turned the two bolts, then opened the door partway, still latched by the chain. Through the narrow slice of light Monsieur Renard’s face appeared, his eyes bloodshot, his normally ruddy face now an unhealthy shade of purple.
“Monsieur, what’s the matter?”
Monsieur Renard held up a hand to her. The old scars and lines of his palm were painted scarlet. “You know what’s the matter, you evil bitch,” he said. “I found Gignac in the field this morning, I—” while a vein pulsed on his forehead, the old man began to tear up, he paused to rein in his incipient sobs. “I found him gutted like a swine.”
“My God,” Magritte said, her stomach twisting up. Whatever she had thought about the hellacious sheepdog, she would never have wished death upon any creature. “Who would do such a thing?”
“Playing innocent, eh?” Renard said, one hand settling on the door jamb. He reached behind his back and produced a pair of garden shears that looked very much like Magritte’s, except that the curved blades were caked with dried blood. “I found these beside him.”
Magritte blanched. She felt woozy, as if all her blood was trying to run away from her body. “That can’t be,” she said, “I keep those shears inside the house, and the house was locked up last night. I’ll show you, I’ll prove to you those aren’t my shears.”
Magritte closed the door and walked toward the fireplace where she kept a toolbox. Monsieur Renard was back to pounding on her door when she opened the toolbox and found a hammer, a trowel, a small handsaw, a roll of gauze, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol, but no shears.
She returned to the door. Her movements felt strange and rigid, as if she was learning again how to walk. Cracking the door open again, she couldn’t find any words.
“Well, do you still deny it?”
“I’m not feeling well,” she said, her voice a thread-thin wisp of sound, “please, Monsieur, I think I must lie down.”
She didn’t hear what Monsieur Renard shouted next. Her ears still worked, but her mind had ceased to process intelligible sound. When Renard’s flabby, ruddy fist grabbed at the chain, trying to yank the lock loose, Magritte acted on reflex, shouldered all her weight against the door and slammed it shut while her neighbor’s hand was still in the way.
Once the door was shut again, Magritte slumped down, her back to the thin barrier. She felt Monsieur Renard’s blows against the door, less rapid now that he could only use one hand.
And then it was over. The pounding stopped. Magritte began to comprehend sounds again. Monsieur Renard was stepping away, cursing and breathing heavily.
“I’ll see you answer for this,” he said, “I’ll see justice is done.”
And then Magritte was alone again. She remained where she was, sitting on the floor with her back to the door for quite a long time. With the world quiet once again, she made out the patter of little feet on the roof.
She didn’t sleep a wink that night. For little feet and hands were moving always in the dark.
The next morning was a Thursday, and as with every Thursday, she was expected at the bank. Magritte looked forward to her work, for the chance to get away from the cottage for a day. Her bicycle ride would take longer than usual today, for she would have to avoid Monsieur Renard’s property and take the long way down the hill.
He was irrational. Blaming her for his dog’s death only because she was the most convenient person to accuse. The shears were troubling, but Magritte knew she had not touched them; knew she wasn’t capable of butchering a dog. Monsieur Renard must have understood that too; would remember that his neighbor was too gentle to do such a thing.
She knew the truth; knew who—or rather what—had truly killed Gignac.
Lacking any appetite, Magritte skipped breakfast, opting to get an early start on her cycling. She had scarcely gotten out the door when she noticed the dark swirl of crows wheeling in the sky over her property. Dozens of them, squawking and cawing as they winged toward Monsieur Renard’s property.
Every rational fiber of Magritte told her to pay it no mind, to simply go on her way to the village and to the bank. Instead she pushed her bicycle through the grass, following the crows to Monsieur Renard’s land.
She stopped at the shale of wall. She’d come to the nexus of crows, to the gathering point. They hopped around in the beautiful yellow barley, jockeying with one another for a chance at the feast that had been left for them.
Magritte turned around and rode to the village, where the bank was still expecting her. She was already dreading the end of the day, when she’d return to her home and find a terrible surprise waiting in the neighbor’s field.
She, of course, could not bear to inspect Monsieur Renard herself, but she learned from the local police that the corpse had been badly mutilated. His eyes were gone, his nose hacked off, many cuts and lacerations made along the length of his arms and legs. They could not determine what weapon had been used, but many of the wounds had been inflicted by something smaller than a pocket-knife, and the damage suggested a blunt, crude edge, like stone.
It was not until the next day that the police inspectors arrived, for Plournec’s police department had no detectives, and inspectors had to be sent for from Quimper. They first went to the police station to inspect the body, which the local police had been keeping, and then rode their motorcar up the hill to survey the dead man’s property. Once that was done, they paid a visit to the woman who’d found the body.
When they arrived, Magritte had prepared tea and cakes.
The two inspectors were named Rousseaux and Valent. Rousseaux was the more senior of the two, a stately gentleman whose kind face and well-kept white mustache reminded Magritte of Marshal Joffre. Valent was a young man with red hair and a face like a peach. Rousseaux accepted the tea Magritte offered him and held—but did not eat—a finger cake, while Valent would not even glance at her offerings.
They sat at Magritte’s dining table. To Magritte’s surprise, despite being the junior partner, Valent was the one asking the questions.
“How long have you lived in Plournec, Madame?”
“Two years now.”
“And you lived in Paris before?”
“Yes, sir. Until 1918.”
“Why did you leave Paris?”
“It felt . . . empty without Clement. Things that I had once loved were only reminders. And there was the influenza. So many people were dying—I didn’t feel safe in that crowded city anymore.”
A stream of similar tedious questions followed, and Valent continued to scribble on his notepad while Rousseaux looked around the cottage, his mind seemingly elsewhere.
She flinched. Seven trips to the hospital. Seven bundles of bloody sheets. “No. No, sir. And I don’t see how that’s relevant here.”
Valent wrote something down while Rousseaux frowned, the corners of his mustache drooping. “That is a shame,” he said, “my children—and my grandchildren, too—are my life. A cottage like this would be so much happier with the patter of tiny feet.”
Part of Magritte wanted to laugh. Instead she only nodded dumbly. She looked to Inspector Rousseaux. “I think I should like a drink. Sir, would you care for a glass of wine?”
“We’re not to drink on duty,” Valent said.
But Rousseaux ignored him. “I’ll have some brandy if you have some.”
Magritte got up to fetch the brandy. She listened as she moved, overhearing the two inspectors muttering to each other. She made out only one word, from Valent: “Obvious.”
What was obvious?
She returned with two glasses of brandy. Rousseaux accepted his with an avuncular smile. As she drank her brandy, Valent continued to ply her.
“I want to make sure I have this right,” he said, eyes on his sketchpad, “the coroner places time of death at five o’clock in the morning, while the local police say that you arrived to inform them of your finding the body at six o’clock in the evening. Is that correct?”
“Yes. I went to the bank—you have talked to Herve, haven’t you?”
“We spoke to the banker, yes,” Rousseaux said. “A very nice fellow.”
“You went to the bank, returned home, saw the crows, found the body, and then returned to the village to alert the police.”
“Yes, as I’ve said.”
Her attention was drawn away from Valent’s fuzzy pink face to the window. The light coming from the window was the slanting afternoon sun, so bright Magritte had to blink. Framed in that light was a dark shape, something small and vaguely human. Valent’s gaze followed Magritte’s to the window, but by the time he turned his head, the dark blot had vanished and there was only the blinding rays of sunshine.
“Answer me something, please,” Magritte said, her whole body clammy. “Am I your suspect?”
Rousseaux stood up and began to pace around, glass of brandy in hand.
Valent narrowed his eyes at her. “We have no suspect as of yet,” he said. “But the death is indubitably a murder. There is also the matter of the butchered dog.”
Magritte felt a little muscle around her eye twitch. She said she was very sorry about what had happened to the dog. Just as she was distraught at what had happened to her neighbor. She wanted to scream at the men. Wanted to tell them the truth, that it was the lutins who had killed Renard and his dog. But she kept her silence. Inspector Rousseaux had come to stand at the bureau where Magritte kept her little memorial to Clement. The old man picked up Clement’s portrait—the one with him in his Captain’s uniform—set it down, and then began to peruse his medals and decorations.
“Pardon me, Madame, but where did your husband die?” Rousseaux asked.
“At the Somme.”
Rousseaux walked toward her and offered a handkerchief, for the tears that were now rolling down her cheeks. “I commanded an artillery company at the Somme. It was as if hell had opened its mouth.”
“Sir, perhaps we should stick to the matter at hand,” Valent said.
“I miss him,” Magritte said, “so, so very much. Every day.”
She dabbed at her tears, and Inspector Rousseaux put a heavy, paternal hand on her shoulder. “A widow’s sacrifice is as sacred as that of the soldier she mourns,” he said. “Our nation owes your husband a great debt.”
“We wanted children,” Magritte said, her tears now flowing freely. “We tried so many times. We were still children ourselves the first time I miscarried. ‘We’ll try again,’ Clement said. Oh God, I would have given up after the third time, I wanted to stop, but Clement—he, he had so much hope, he was nothing but hope—I’m sure he never even believed he could die when he stepped out of that trench.”
Rousseaux had taken his cap off, while Valent was watching Magritte warily, still scribbling on his notepad.
“Seven times we tried. Seven! And he never stopped believing, never. His letters from the front—in his letters he, he, he hoped—”
She lost the ability to speak, overcome with sobs. A dam had burst in her and everything was pouring out.
Rousseaux knelt beside her and squeezed her hand and wiped her tears. “Please, Mademoiselle, please stop crying, please.”
The inspectors left not long after she managed to compose herself. Valent left first, while Rousseaux lingered long enough to squeeze Magritte’s hands and assure her that she had nothing to worry about, that they would find the vicious killer responsible for the murder before any harm could come to her. On his way out, he saluted Clement’s portrait.
As they walked to their parked motorcar, Magritte listened through the door.
“. . . a lively performance, I must say.”
“You’re an ass. That poor woman . . .”
She never saw Inspector Rousseaux after that, but she did see Valent. On Saturday, on her ride down to the village bank, she saw him with his notepad, collecting statements from the neighbors who lived near the bottom of the hill. If he noticed her riding by, he didn’t show it, his nose buried ino his sketchpad.
After that brush with the inspector she knew she was not safe. She knew before long she would have to defend herself, would have to furnish proof to exonerate her. That proof could only come one way. Nothing less than presenting the police a lutin in the flesh would suffice.
In the days and nights that followed, Magritte stayed on her bed, listening for any little sound. Over the drone of cicadas and the birdsong and the rustle of leaves shaken by the seaborne breezes she picked out the distinctive scratch of the lutins’ toes on the stone of her terrace. Sometimes she saw them looking at her through the window, their eyes green, their faces furtive and humanlike and very pale, but these were only glimpses, and as soon as she’d stand up they’d be gone.
She didn’t eat. She drank only enough water to stave off the thirst. She tried not to sleep.
But of course, she couldn’t stay awake forever.
Five nights after Monsieur Renard’s murder, Magritte was lying in bed, the hefty iron fireplace poker hugged to her chest, when she heard her bedroom window creaking open. She knew she had been sleeping for it was dark now, and the last she’d remembered, the sun had still been above the hillside.
Her heart pounding, she glanced frantically around the room, searching for anything out of the ordinary. The room was so dark she couldn’t see past her bed, but she heard sharp clawed toes scratching on the floor.
She gripped the firepoker tight.
She felt something touch her hair. A little hand feeling at her tresses.
She shrieked and yanked her head away, and with a flash of pain a lock of her hair tore from the scalp. She swung her firepoker at the empty air where a lutin had been. As the clouds moved, the moonlight shone through the window, illuminating the naked pale body that scampered across the floor and leapt to the window sill, pulling itself out.
Magritte gave chase. The firepoker was heavy in her hands, but she would not have chased the lutin unarmed. Her grandmother’s warning never to pursue a lutin into the forest rang in her ears, but she had no choice.
They had attacked her now. This had to end. It had to end now. She followed the savage chitters—so much like human speech but also so bestial—from her terrace, through her rose garden, and into the field outside her house. Stones cut her bare feet, but she didn’t care. Occasional flashes of pale flesh under moonlight shone in the tall grass. The lutin was running up the hillside, toward the woods. Magritte trudged her way up the increasingly steep slope of the hill.
What had it been like for Clement when his time came? Was he as scared as Magritte was now? No—he knew his duty, he went over the top, charging into machine gun fire and poison gas and who knows what else, just as Magritte now charged into the unknown.
Once she stumbled, but pressed on.
Again she stumbled, this time striking the hard earth with her face, scraping her chin. An image flashed through her mind, powerfully vivid and complete: Clement at the vanguard of his platoon, rifle in hand, a bullet biting his ankle, and all he can do is keep running because to stop—to give in to fear and pain—would mean immediate death. Forward was the only way that existed—for Clement and Magritte both.
There was more than one lutin chattering now. All around her, in the trees and in the brush, they were conversing with each other. The only thing greater than her fear was her anger. It was anger that dragged her to her feet again and gave her the strength to pick up the poker and soldier on—soldier on as Clement would have.
Near the top of the hill she stepped in a rabbit hole and rolled her ankle. Crawling on her knees, one hand still dragging the poker behind her, Magritte persevered.
“You won’t get away,” she grunted, “damn you, you won’t get away.”
Dragging herself along, she ascended to the hilltop, where the standing stones basked silver in the moonlight. There she found them. They were waiting for her. The act of hauling herself up the hill had broken her last reserve of strength, and if the lutins wanted her, they’d have her.
She saw them now.
Seven lutins, seven pale children. Their bodies were hunched and simian and extraordinarily pale, their eyes like colorful marbles. Three girls, four boys. Six of them were armed with crude weapons—tiny spears and clubs tipped in jagged stone.
And the seventh? The seventh, a girl-child, was armed only with the lock of Magritte’s hair, which she cleaved desperately to her trembling chest. Only, she had Magritte’s green eyes. The rest, blue-eyed, favored their father.
Magritte let go of the poker. She touched her swollen ankle and gasped when a horrible sensation raced up her spine. She was hurt, in great pain; had been in great pain for so many years now. Their savage faces marked with concern, the lutins crept toward her. At last Magritte was safe, and nothing would ever come between her and her children again.
About the Author
Jonathan Louis Duckworth received his MFA from Florida International University. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, Gulf Coast, Meridian, Tupelo Quarterly, Superstition Review, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. His chapbook “Book of Never” was published by Finishing Line Press. He is a PhD student in Creative Writing at University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.
About the Narrator
Larissa is a Vancouver-based voice actor and producer, most recognized for her work on The Centropic Oracle, a science fiction and fantasy short story audio magazine available on YouTube, The Sojourn, an original science fiction audio drama & motion comic, and is the co-founder of the YouTube channel The Templin Institute.