Brenda

By Margaret St. Clair

Originally published in Weird Tales, March 1954

BRENDA ALDEN was a product of that aseptic, faintly sadistic, school of child-rearing that is already a little old-fashioned. The vacationing parents on Moss Island liked her and held up her politeness and good manners as examples to their offspring; the children themselves stayed away from her, sensing in her something waspish and irritable. She was tall for her age, and lanky, with limp blonde hair. She always wore slacks.

Monday began like all her days. She had breakfast, was told to keep her elbows off the table, helped with the dishes. Then she was told to go out and play. She sauntered slowly into the woods.

The woods on Moss Island were scattered clumps of birch and denser stands of conifers. There were places where Brenda, if she tried hard, could have the illusion of a forest, and she liked that. In the western part of the island there was a wide, deep excavation which people said had been a quarry. Nobody ever said what had been quarried out of it.

It was a little before noon when Brenda smelled the rotten smell. It was an intense, bitter, rottenness, almost strangling, and when it first met her nose Brenda’s face wrinkled up with distaste. But after a moment her face relaxed. She inhaled, not without eagerness. She decided to try to find the source of the smell. Sometimes she liked to smell and look at rotten things.

Sniffing, she wandered. The smell would be strong and then weak and then strong again. She was just about to give up and turn back—it was hot in the airless, piney pockets, under the sun—when she saw the man.

He was not a tramp, he was not one of the summer people. Brenda knew at once that he was not like any other man she had ever seen. His skin was not black, or brown, but of an inky grayness; his body was blobbish and irregular, as if it had been shaped out of the clots of soap and grease that stop up kitchen sinks. He held a dead bird in one crude hand. The rotten smell was welling out from him.

Brenda stared at him, her heart pounding. For a moment she was almost too frightened to move. She stood gasping and licking her lips. Then he extended an arm toward her. She turned and ran.

She heard the noise, she smelled the smell, as he came stumbling after her. Her lungs hurt. There was a stitch in her side. She tripped over a root, fell to her knees, and was up again. She ran on. Only when she was almost too exhausted to go further did she look back.

* * *

He was more distant then she had hoped, though he was still coming. For a second she stood panting, her narrow sides going in and out. He was still separated from her by some fifty feet. She blinked. Then her lips curved in what was almost a smile. She turned to the right, in the direction of the quarry, and began running again, though more leisurely.

There was a thicket of poison oak; she skirted it. She stooped for a pine cone, and then another one, thrust them into the waistband of her trousers, and went on with her steady trotting. He was still following. The light seemed to hurt his eyes; his head hung forward almost on his chest. Then they were on the edge of the quarry, and Brenda must try her plan.

She was no longer afraid — or, at any rate, only a little so. Exertion had washed her sallow cheeks with an unaccustomed red. Carefully she tossed one of the pine cones over the steep quarry side so that it landed halfway toward the bottom and then rolled on down. With more force she threw the second cone; it hit well beyond the first and slid toward the bottom in a rattle of loose stones and dirt. Then, very quickly and lightly, Brenda ran to the left and crouched behind a tree.

The noise of the pine cones had been not unlike that of a runner plunging over the quarry edge and down into the depths. Brenda’s pursuer halted, turning his head from side to side blindly, and seeming to sniff the air. She felt a moment of intense anxiety. She was almost sure he couldn’t catch her, even if he started after her again. But—oh—he was so—

One of the pine cones slid a few feet further. He seemed to listen. Then he went over the edge after the sound of it.

* * *

Brenda’s heart was shaking the flat bosom of her shirt. While the rotten-smelling man stumbled back and forth among the dusty rocks in the quarry bottom hunting her, she waited and listened. It took him a long time to abandon the search. But at last the moment for which Brenda had been waiting came. He left his hunting and began to struggle up the quarry side.

He slid back. Brenda leaned forward, tense and expectant. Her eyes were bright. He started up again. Once more he slid back.

It was clear to the watching child much sooner than it was to the man in the depths of the quarry that he was imprisoned. He kept starting up the sides clumsily, clawing at the loose handholds, and sliding back. But his blobbish limbs were extraordinarily inept and awkward. He always slid back.

At last, he gave up and stood quiet. His head dropped. He made no sound. But the penetrating rottenness was welling out from him.

Brenda got to her feet and walked toward him. Her pale lips were curving in a grin. “Hi!” she called over the edge of the quarry. “Hi! You can’t get out, can you?”

The mockery in her tone seemed to cut through to his dull senses. He raised his grayish head. There was a flash of teeth* very white against their inky background. But he couldn’t get out. After a moment, Brenda laughed.

Brenda hugged her secret to herself all the rest of the day. She was reprimanded for being late to lunch, her father said she needed discipline. She was not bothered. That night she slept soundly and well.

Early next morning she went to see Charles. Charles was a year older than she, and tolerated her better than anyone else on Moss Island. Once he had given her a cast-off snake skin. She had kept it in the drawer with her handkerchiefs.

Today he was making a cloud chamber with rubbing alcohol, a jar, and a piece of dry ice. Brenda squatted down beside him and watched. After five minutes or so she said, “I know what’s more fun than that.”

“What?” Charles asked, without looking up from his manipulations.

“Something I found. Something funny. Scary. Queer.”

The exchange continued. Brenda hinted. Charles was mildly curious. At last she said, “Come and see it, Chet. It’s not like anything you ever saw before. Come on.” She laid her hand on his arm.

* * *

Until that moment, Charles might have accompanied her. The cloud chamber was not going well, and he did not actively dislike the girl. But the dryness and tensity of her touch on his arm—the touch of a person who has never received or given a pleasant physical contact—repelled him. He drew away from her hand. “I don’t want to see it. It isn’t anything anyway. Just some sort of junk. I’m not interested,” he said.

“But you’d like it! Please come and see.”

“I told you, I’m not interested. I’m not going to go. Can’t you take a hint? Go away.”

When he used that tone, Brenda knew there was no use in arguing with him. She got up and walked off.

After lunch her father had her help him with the barbecue pit he was building. While she shoveled dirt and mixed concrete her thoughts were busy with the man in the quarry. Was he still standing motionless at the bottom, or was he once more stumbling back and forth hunting her? Or was he trying to clamber up the sides again? He’d never make it, no matter how much he tried. But if he stayed there long enough, some of the other children might find him. Would they be more frightened than she had? She didn’t know. She couldn’t form any mental picture of what might happen then.

When her father knocked off work for the day, she lay down in the hammock. Her hands were sore and her back ached, but she couldn’t relax. Finally, though it was almost supper time, she got up and walked off quickly toward the quarry.

He was still there. Brenda let out a deep breath of relief. The bitter, rotten smell hung strong

in the air. She must have made a noise, for he raised his head and then let it drop forward again on his chest. Other than that, he was motionless.

Charles wouldn’t come to see him. So . . . Brenda looked around her. Farther along the edge of the quarry, twenty feet or so from where she was standing, were two long boards. She measured their length with her eyes.

It was thirty feet or more to the bottom of the quarry. The boards were not quite long enough. But the zone of loose, sliding stuff did not extend all the way up; once the man in the excavation was past it, he ought to be able to get up easily enough. Charles had said that what she had found wasn’t anything. Just some junk. Brenda began to move the boards.

Her hands were sore, but the boards themselves were not heavy. In fifteen minutes or so she had laid a narrow path from the bottom of the quarry to within a few feet of the top. He—the man—had done nothing while she worked, not even watched her. But underneath her shirt, Brenda’s narrow body was trembling and wet with sweat. She’d had to get closer to him than she’d liked while she was putting down the second board.

She stood back. The man in the quarry did not move. Brenda felt a moment of anxious exasperation. Wasn’t he going to do anything, after all her trouble? “Come on!’’ she said under her breath and then, more loudly, “Come on!”

The sun was beginning to decline toward the west. The shadows lengthened. The man below turned his head from side to side as if the waning light had brought him a keener perception. One blobby gray hand went up. Then he started toward the boards.

Brenda waited until his uncertain feet were set upon the second of the lengths of wood. She could stand it no longer. She whirled about and ran as hard as she could toward home. She did not know whether or not he followed her.

* * *

Brenda did not go to the woods next morning. She hung around the house until her mother sent her out to help her father, who sent her back, saying that he had got to a place in his construction where she could be only in the way. Brenda went to the kitchen and got herself a sandwich and a glass of milk. When she came back with them her mother, pale and disturbed, was on the terrace outside the house talking to her father. Brenda went to the door and leaned her head against it.

“I don’t see how it could be a tramp,” her mother was saying. “Elizabeth said nothing had been taken. She was quite emphatic. Only the roast chicken. And even it hadn’t been eaten, only torn into pieces.” She hesitated. “She said there were spots of grayish slime all over it.”

“Elizabeth exaggerates,” Brenda’s father answered. He gave the mortar he was smoothing an impatient pat. “What’s her idea anyway, if it wasn’t a tramp? Who else would break in her kitchen? There are only the six families on Moss Island.”

“I don’t think she has any definite idea. Oh, Rick, I wish you could have heard her talking. She mentioned the dreadful smell over and over. She said she was phoning the other families to warn them. She sounded afraid.”

“Probably hysterical,” he answered contemptuously. His eye fell on Brenda, standing in the shadow of the door. “Go up to your room, Brenda,” he said sharply. “Stay there. I won’t have you listening behind doors.”

“Yes, father.”

Brenda did not resent the order. She was afraid. Would Charles remember her hints of yesterday, connect them with the raid on Mrs. Emsden’s kitchen (the man from the quarry must be hungry—but he hadn’t eaten the chicken), and tell on her? Or would something worse happen, she didn’t know what?

She moved about her room restlessly. The bed was made, there was nothing for her to do. She could hear the rumble of her parents’ voices indistinctly, a word now and then rising into prominence. For the first time she felt a sharp curiosity about the man who had been in the quarry, about the man himself.

She got out her diary and opened it. But it wouldn’t do; the volume had no lock, and she knew her mother read it. She never wrote anything important in it.

She looked at the scribbled pages with dislike. It would be nice to be able to tear them out and crumple them up in the wastepaper basket. But her mother would notice and ask her why she had destroyed her pretty book. No. . . .

She hunted about the room until she found a box of notepaper. Using the lid of the box as a desk, she printed carefully across the top of one of the narrow gray sheets: THE MAN.

She hesitated. Then she wrote: “1. Where did he come from?”

She licked her pencil. The idea was hard to put into words. But she wanted to see it written out on the paper. She began, erased, began again. Finally she wrote, “I think he came to Moss Island from the mainland. I think he came over one night last month when the tide was so low. I think he came here by acci—” She erased. “By mistake.”

Brenda was ready for the second question. “Why does he stay on the island?” she scribbled. She was writing faster now. “I think because he can not swim. The water would—” she paused, conscious that the exact word she wanted was not in her vocabulary. At last she wrote, “Would wash him away.”

She got out another sheet of note paper. At the top she printed, “THE MAN Page 2.” She bit into the pencil shank judiciously. Then she wrote, “What kind of a man is he? I think he is not like other people. Not like us. He is a different kind of a man.”

She had written the last words slowly. Now inspiration came. She scribbled, “He is not like us because he likes dead things to eat. Things that have been dead for much—” an erasure— “for a long time. I think that is why he came to M.I. in the first place. Hunting. He is old. Has been the way he is for a long time.”

She put the pencil down. She seemed to have finished. Her mother must have gone out: the noise of her parents* voices had ceased, and the house was perfectly quiet. Outside, she could hear the faint slap slap of her father’s trowel as he worked on the concrete.

There was a long pause. Brenda sat motionless. Then she picked up the pencil again and wrote at the bottom of the page, very quickly, “I think he would help me to be born.”

She picked up what she had written and looked at it. Then she took the two pages and went with them into the bathroom. She tore them into small pieces and flushed them down the drain.

* * *

Supper that night was quiet. Once Brenda’s mother started to say something about Elizabeth Emsden and was stopped by her father’s warning frown. Brenda helped with the dishes. Just before she went upstairs to bed, she slipped into her parents’ bedroom, which was on the ground floor, and unlatched the window screens.

She had trouble getting to sleep, but slept soundly. She was roused, when the night was well along, by the sound of voices. She stole out on the stair landing and listened, her heart beginning to thud.

The rotten smell was coming up in burning, bitter waves. The cottage seemed to rock under it. Brenda clung to the banister. He’d come then, the man—her man—from the quarry. She was glad.

Brenda’s father was speaking. “That smell is really incredible,” he said in an abstracted voice. And then, to Brenda’s mother, “Flora, call Elizabeth and tell her to have Jim come over. Hurry. I don’t know how much longer I can keep him back with this thing. Have Jim bring his gun.”

“Yes.” Flora Alden giggled. “You said Elizabeth was hysterical, didn’t you? For God’s sake keep your voice down, Rick. I don’t want Brenda to waken and see this. She’d be—I don’t think she’d ever get over it.” She moved toward the telephone.

Brenda’s eyes widened. Were her parents really solicitous for her? Were they afraid she’d be afraid? She moved down two or three steps, very softly, and sat down on one of the treads. If they noticed her now, she could say their voices had wakened her. She peered out between the banisters.

Her father was standing in the hall, holding the man from the quarry impaled in the stabbing beam of an electric torch. He—oh, he was brave—he kept moving about and trying to rub the light out of his eyes. He made little rushes. But her father shifted the torch mercilessly, playing him in it, even though his hand shook.

Brenda’s mother came back from the phone. “He’s coming,” she reported. “He didn’t think the gun would do much good. He had another plan.”

It took Jim Emsden long enough to get to the cottage for Brenda to have time enough to shiver and wish she had put on her bathrobe. She yawned nervously and curled herself up more tightly against the banister. But she never took her eyes from the tableau in the hall below.

* * *

Emsden came in by the side door. He was wearing an overcoat over his pajamas. He took a deep breath when he saw the gray, blobby shape in the light of the torch.

“Yes, it’s the same man,” he said in his rumbling voice. “Of course. Nobody could mistake that smell. I brought the gun, Rick, but I have a hunch it won’t help. Not against a thing like that. Elizabeth got a glimpse of him, you know. I’ll show you what I mean. Keep him in the torch.”

He raised the .22 to his shoulder, clicked the bolt, and fired. Brenda’s little scream went unheeded in the whoosh of the shot. But the man from the quarry made no sign of having received the impact. He did not even rock. The bullet might as well have spent its force in mud.

“You see?” Emsden demanded. “It wasn’t any good.”

Flora Alden was giggling gently. The beam of the torch moved in bobbing circles against the darkness. “What’ll we do, Jim?” Rick asked. “I didn’t know things like this could happen. What are we going to do?—I’m afraid I’m going to be sick.”

“Steady, Rick. Why, there’s one thing he’ll be afraid of. Whatever he is. Fire.”

He produced rags and a bottle of kerosene. With the improvised torch they drove him out of the cottage and into the night outside. Whenever he slowed and tried to face them, his head lowered, his teeth gleaming, they thrust the bundle of burning rags in his face.

He had to give ground. Brenda was chewing her wrist in her excitement. She heard her father’s higher voice saying, “But what will we do with him, Jim? We can’t just leave him outside the house,” and Emsden’s deeper, less distinct answering rumble, “… kill him. But we can shut him up.” And then a confused roll of voices ending in the word “quarry.” She could hear nothing more.

Next day an atmosphere of exhaustion and cold defeat hung over the house. Brenda’s mother moved about her household tasks mechanically, hardly speaking to her daughter, her face white. Her father had not come back to the cottage until nearly daybreak and had left again after a few hours. It was not until nearly dusk that Brenda was able to slip out and try to find what had become of the man.

She made straight for the quarry. When she reached it, she looked about, bewildered. The sides were still sharp and square, but a great mound of rock had been piled up in the center. The men of Moss Island must have worked hard all day to pile up so much rock.

She slid down the sides and clambered up the heap in the center. What had become of him? Was he under the mound? She listened. She could hear nothing. After a moment she sat down and pressed her ear to the rock. It still felt warm from the heat of the sun.

She listened. She could hear only the beating of her heart. And then, far down, a long way off, a rustle within the heap like that made by a mole’s soft paws.

* * *

After that, things changed. Brenda’s father put the cottage up for sale, but there were no purchasers. He and Jim Emsden spent a couple of days piling up more rock in the quarry. Then he had to go back to the office, since his vacation was over. He could visit the island only on weekends. Everyone, even Brenda, seemed to want to forget what was under the rock heap. Brenda’s mother began to complain that the girl was getting hard to handle, no longer obeyed.

The children who had rejected her now sought her out. They came to the cottage as soon as breakfast was over, asking for Brenda, and she went off with them at once, deaf to all that her mother could say. She would return only at dusk, pale with exhaustion, but still blazing with frantic energy.

Her new energy seemed inexhaustible. The physical feats that had once repelled her drew her irresistibly. She tumbled, climbed, dove, chinned herself, did splits and cartwheels. The other children watched her admiringly and applauded. For the first time in her life she tasted the pleasures of leadership.

If that had been all, only Brenda’s parents would have complained. But she drew her new followers after her into piece upon piece of mischief. They were destructive, wanton, irrepressible. By the end of the summer, everyone on Moss Island was saying that Brenda Alden needed disciplining. Her parents complained bitterly that she was impossible to control. They sent her off ahead of time to school.

There the events of the late summer were repeated. Brenda’s schoolmates accepted her lead blindly. The teachers punished and threatened. Her grades—for the first time in her life—were bad. She was within an inch of being expelled.

* * *

The year passed. Spring came, and summer. The Aldens, fearing more trouble, left Brenda at school after the school year was over. She did not get back to Moss Island until late July.

The last few months had changed Brenda physically. Her narrow body had rounded and grown more womanly. Under her shirt—she still wore slacks and shirt—her breasts had begun to swell and lift. She seemed to have outgrown her tomboy ways. Her parents began to congratulate themselves.

She did not go at once to the cairn in the quarry. She often thought of it. But she felt a sweet reluctance, an almost tender disinclination, toward going. It could wait. August was well advanced before she visited the mound.

The day was warm. She was winded after the walk through the woods. She let herself down the side of the quarry delicately, paused for breath, and went up the mound with long, slipping steps. When she got to the top she sat down.

Was there, in the hot air, the faintest hint of rottenness? She inhaled doubtfully. Then, as she had done last year, she pressed her ear to the mound.

There was silence. Was he—but of course he couldn’t be dead. “Hi,” she called softly, her lips against the rock, “Hi. I’ve come back. It’s me.”

The scrabble began far down and seemed to come nearer. But there was too much rock in the

way. Brenda sighed. “Poor old thing,” she said. Her tone was rueful. “You want to be born, too, don’t you? And you can’t get out. It’s too bad.”

The scrabbling continued. Brenda, after a moment, stretched herself out against the rock. The sun was warm, the heat from the stones beat up lullingly against the body. She lay in drowsy contentment for a long time, listening to the noises within the mound.

The sun began to wester. The cool of evening roused her. She sat up.

The air was utterly silent. There were no bird calls anywhere. The only sounds came from within the mound.

Brenda leaned forward quickly, so that her long hair fell over her face. “I love you,” she said softly to the rock. “I’ll always love you. You’re not afraid of anyone, not even father. You’re the only one I could ever love.”

She halted. The scrabbling within had risen to a crescendo.

She laughed. Then she drew a long, wavering sigh. “Be patient,” she said. “Someday I’ll let you out. There’s a lot of rock, but I’ll move it. I promise. Then you can make me a woman. I’ll be alive for the first time. I’ll love you. We’ll be born together, you and I.”

End.

Margaret St. Clair (February 17, 1911 Huchinson, Kansas – November 22, 1995 Santa Rosa, CA) was an American science fiction writer, who also wrote under the pseudonyms Idris Seabright and Wilton Hazzard. Apart from more than 100 short stories, St. Clair also wrote nine novels. Of interest beyond science fiction is her 1963 novel Sign of the Labrys, for its early use of Wicca elements in fiction.

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