by Katherine Toran
A long, thin creak reverberated through the cold twilight air. Alone on the road, the woman stopped and turned towards the sound. A wooden swing, hanging from a tree branch, moved back and forth—in spite of the lack of breeze.
Stepping off the dirt road, the woman made her way across the brown grass, towards the river bank. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the child—pale, filthy, and skinny as a rail under a muddy nightgown, more a shadow than a solid being, swaying back and forth on the swing. Careful not to look directly, the woman edged ever closer. Her white nurse’s apron acquired a muddy trail as the ground became increasingly damp. At the weeping willow, she finally bent over, pretending to be absorbed in studying tree roots.
With a triumphant shriek, the child leapt from the swing, landing on the woman’s back. Fingers like talons dug into her shoulders and water trickled down her neck. But the weight on her back was nearly insubstantial.
“Got you!” a high-pitched voice crowed. “Take me to the nearest graveyard, traveler.”
“Take me to the nearest graveyard, please,” the woman said, straightening.
There was a pause. “What?”
“I’ll take you anyway, but it never hurts to be polite.” The woman began trudging back up the hill, the child still on her back.
“You’re taking me? You’re really taking me?” The child’s voice softened with uncertainty.
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” At the road, the woman turned back in the same direction from which she’d come. “What’s your name, child?”
“Haven’t got one.”
“Hmmm. Do you consider yourself more of an Elias or an Elina?”
“I’m a girl, if that’s what you mean.”
“Elina it is, then.” Her foot slipped as the child on her back became heavier. “You know, I’ve never liked that river. It’s where the angel makers disposed of their victims.”
“Talk less, go faster.” The words were exhaled along with icy breath against the woman’s neck. A sweet, sickening smell of decay clouded the air.
“Be patient, Elina. It’s a good ten minutes’ walk, so we have time to talk.” At the fork, the woman took the left hand path. By now, it felt like she was carrying an actual six-year-old child. “There used to be a prevalent crime in this area of Sweden. Poor women were paid by desperate mothers to take unwanted infants. Then they’d neglect the children until they died and became angels, hence the name. Angel makers.”
The child laughed, high and cold. “Neglect?”
“Sometimes they strangled or drowned the children outright to hasten the process.” Another trickle of water ran down the woman’s back. Definitely a drowning, she thought.
“You know that much, yet you still dare pass by this river at night?” the child asked.
“Oh, should I be afraid of the mylings? That’s what they call the ghosts of unbaptized murdered infants who force travelers to carry them to consecrated ground.” The weight on her back had turned into a throbbing ache the size of a full-grown adult. “I think living people who kill children are far more terrifying than ghosts.”
The child had no reply, so for a while, the woman walked in silence. By now, her feet dug into the dirt so deeply that she left half-inch footprints. Making another left turn, she continued, “When I was born, my mother was a maid in a wealthy man’s house—barely fifteen and without money or family. My father was her employer’s son and leery of scandal. He gave my mother some money to take me to an angel maker.”
The impossibly heavy child jerked in surprise. Blinking back tears of pain, the woman stood still until the movement subsided, then took slow steps forward, continuing down the road. “The extra coin got me a particularly high-class one, too—she fed the babies opium until they died, which back then was legally not even murder.”
“Alive? Yes. Through servants’ gossip, my father’s mother found out. She forced him to go and fetch me back in time.”
“And you lived happily ever after?” Dark irony coated the question.
“Well, as you’ve surmised, being raised by my father’s family as their resident scandal wasn’t always pleasant, but I lived. I was luckier than you, Elina.”
In spite of her pain, the woman bit back a smile. “Of course I know. Did you imagine you were being subtle?” She stopped at the gate to the graveyard, fumbling with the latch. “I wish I knew where your remains are, or that I had the money for a gravestone. But I’ll remember you, at least. I hope that gives you some comfort.”
Sliding off the woman’s back, the child landed on the hallow ground, the first gravestones just a few steps away. Already, her body was fading. With big blue eyes, she looked up at the woman, then at the stretch of inch-deep footprints leading up to the graveyard.
“You’re very strong, to have carried me all the way here,” the child said, almost apologetically.
The woman smiled. “Carried thirty-four of your kind to this graveyard already, haven’t I?” She massaged her shoulders. “Rest in peace, Elina.”
Finally alone in the graveyard, the woman turned and began to walk home.
Katherine Toran has had fiction published in the Whortleberry Press anthology Strange Changes, Every Day Fiction and Short Fiction Break. She also received an honorable mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. While studying for her economics PhD, she has coauthored eight nonfiction research papers and four blog posts. Her twitter is handle @bookgirl_kt. Angel Maker is based on a true story about her great-grandmother’s lucky survival as an infant under such circumstances.