Violet Pemberfoot's stomach felt hot and tight and knotted together, but she couldn't figure out why.
"Something you ate," clucked Mrs. Trudeau.
Violet sighed in a way that suggested she was disappointed to be standing next to someone like Mrs. Trudeau, and set down her wine glass. "No. I haven't eaten all day. I'm trying to lose weight, you know," she added, in a confidential sort of way.
Mrs. Trudeau gave her figure a blank, uncomprehending stare. "You look the same to me."
"No, you see, I've lost four pounds, this dress didn’t fit me a year ago.” She didn’t mention the painful half-hour struggle to fit into it earlier in the day, which had involved a frightful amount of jumping, and finally a pleading shout to her teenage daughter, who pretended not to be home.
“Thought your husband liked you curvy,” Mrs. Trudeau put air quotes around ‘curvy’ being the sort who thought it was perfectly silly to rebrand the word ‘fat’ into something that sounded more appealing. “Mine does.”
“Well, he pretended he did for about a year and a half and then I found out he’d been seeing Beakenly’s daughter, you know, the one who wears ribbons and has that big--”
“Don’t say vulgar words in my presence.”
“Anyway, he was dating her, and then had the nerve to tell me my figure was off-putting, as if he’s the hottest thing in the world and-- goodness me, my stomach is hurting again.” Violet kneaded her tummy through the dress’s pink sequins and tried to figure out the cause. “Trudy, darling, are the mushrooms giving you any problems?”
Mrs. Trudeau winced at the abbreviation and, disregarding her friend’s health concerns, brought up a more interesting topic.
“I thought your husband was dating Kaitlyn Eggster.”
“You know how the silly creature is, hopping around how he pleases.”
“We can all relate, of course.”
Both of them fell silent for a few minutes to observe the party. Their friends, children, and husbands filled the room, the children bored in the corner and the husbands chatting up some of the unattached females.
“This is boring,” mused Violet.
“The decor is absolutely terrible,” said Mrs. Trudeau with venom, wishing she’d been allowed to organise the event.
“Don’t be petty. Beatle did the best she could, considering she’s getting married soon. You know how that takes up so much of your time.”
Mrs. Trudeau snorted. “Tell me about it. Did I tell you that when I was planning my wedding, my husband was hitting on Stephanie Pennyfeather?”
“She was just sniffing around, but it was too late, I had my claws into him. Nothing she could do.” Mrs. Trudeau finished with satisfaction.
There was a pause while both of them peered around the room for Stephanie Pennyfeather, and then proceeded to glare at her in mutual disgust.
“I bet she put something in the food to make my tummy hurt.”
“You’re getting ridiculously worked up about this. Once my brain wasn’t feeling quite all right, it was really the most peculiar thing, so I got up and did some laundry and finished Timothee’s science project, and I felt much better. You don’t hear me moping on, do you? To this day, I have no idea what it could be.”
Violet thought about that for a very long time.
“Perhaps you were… thinking?”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Trudeau, not sure how to feel about the idea. “Well. It didn’t feel very nice.”
Georgia Speckles sauntered over in a saucy orange dress she was too old for and a grin that could only be described as raucous. “Well wouldn’t I just like to eat you two up!”
Mrs. Trudeau laughed too loud and cut a look at Violet indicating she wanted to interrogate Georgia about letting her daughter take over the party planning. Violet excused herself and slipped away into the crowd, feeling worn-out.
It wasn’t that she minded Mrs. Trudeau or Georgia or any of her friends, really. They were all uneducated, married, and desperately trying to get their daughters married, just like her, which gave them plenty to talk about. But sometimes Violet would stand there clucking away and wonder vaguely, So this is life, huh? Sometimes she wondered what else she could’ve done, if her own mother hadn’t made getting married seem like the most important thing in the world.
Not that she was having a lot of success on that front.
Waddlewint was sulking in the corner with a glass of something that probably had more than a little alcohol in it. She glanced up as her mother came closer, and her beak instantly shifted into a scowl.
Violet had brought her because she’d wanted Waddlewint to talk to some of the prospective husbands in the area and maybe secure herself an engagement, or at least a mate. Her daughter wasn’t pretty, unfortunately, so it fell on her personality to win her a marriage. But so far, Waddlewint’s personality resembled something like a mouldy curtain.
“What?” Waddlewint transferred her scowl to her drink. “I’m just taking a break. I’ve been VERY SOCIAL all evening.”
“Oh Waddlewint,” Violet sighed, leaning against the wall. Waddlewint stiffened her shoulders to brace for the lecture about the importance of matrimony, but Violet wasn’t in the mood tonight. She was having one of those days where she questioned the importance of husbands, as she watched hers talk to every female in the room except for his wife.
“You read a lot,” Violet said. “What do you know about stomach aches? My tummy is unhappy.”
“Stop saying tummy like you think it makes you sound cute,” Waddlewint said, but she perked up at the chance to discuss some of the things she learned in her science books. “It could be food poisoning, or cramps, or anxiety-- some doctors say that stress can manifest itself in different ways for different individuals. Does your stomach feel knotty and like it’s churning, or is it more of an ache?”
“Not really neither,” said Violet, who hadn’t caught anything of what her daughter had said besides the last sentence, and hoping it didn’t show on her face. “Just… twitching. Like something’s going to happen. Is that a medical thingy?”
“It’s not really either, Mum,” said Waddlewint with little patience, “and no. Things like precognition or mediums or- or zodiac signs aren’t real science, just a bunch of stupid guesswork put out by idiots who try to act magic.” She tapped her chin. “Although the subconscious does work in interesting ways, so your body could be reacting to something your brain is trying to tell you. Is there anything weird going on tonight?”
Violet didn’t know what a ‘subconscious’ was, but this was the longest her daughter had ever talked to her, so she thought about it. “Not really, no. Except that Mrs. Trudeau’s husband was cheating on her during their wedding planning. And that Georgia Speckles’ daughter planned the party. And that no one’s met her fiancé yet.” She looked distastefully around the room. “And that these colours absolutely do not go together, I mean really, and no one’s served food yet--”
“You’re probably fine, Mum,” said Waddlewint, who had returned to the large book she’d pulled out of nowhere. “And Beatle is bringing her fiancé tonight, so you won’t have to worry about that anymore.”
“Oh, that’s right,” said Violet. She felt another twinge in her stomach. Beatle’s fiancé... no one had met him yet. Apparently he’d come from a farm, and they were all intrigued how he’d managed to survive such a strange and frightening place. Even Beatle’s mum hadn’t met him yet, although she was so thrilled that there was a wedding she couldn’t care less. Beatle had been telling everyone he was something quite special.
She needed to talk about the situation with Trudeau.
Leaving her daughter in the corner, she hurried across the room and squirmed her way into the group that had morphed into Trudeau, Georgia Speckles, Kaitlyn Eggster, Stephanie Pennyfeather, and Trudeau’s husband Marcky, who wasn’t doing much except making eyes at Kaitlyn. Trudeau and Georgia were in a hot debate about slate kitchen tiling, which Violet happened to have an opinion on, so of course she raised her voice to join the clamour.
“It’s unhygienic, do you know how much mud you can get stuck on those things?”
“Well excuse me if I can’t afford granite!”
The sound of a claw tapping gently on glass made them all turn their heads, and Violet’s stomach felt like it had fallen down a pit.
Georgia’s daughter Beatle was standing there, looking radiant in a blue and green gown with glass beads sewn on, her unusual golden feathers polished to a shine. She was smiling at them all delightedly, she’d always been so charming, and standing next to her was someone that Violet could assume was her fiance´.
“Hello everyone,” Beatle said brightly to the room. “It’s so lovely to see you all again. As you know, I organised this party (“And what a disaster that was,” Trudeau muttered) and I did so that I could introduce you to the newest member of our village.” She reached out and wrapped her wing around his waist. “This is Todd. He and I are getting married in a couple weeks, and we would love it if you could all come to the wedding.”
Todd smiled at the birds around him. His teeth glinted. He had lovely white teeth, Violet noticed. “Hi there. It’s so great to meet you all. I’ve heard so much about you from Beatle.”
“Well,” Trudeau muttered in Violet’s ear, “he’s a strange-looking rooster, if you ask me.”
“He’s not a rooster,” Violet said. His feathers were far too fine and there were far too many of them, smooth and sleek down his body. He had large pointed…things on his head, his mouth was longer than a beak’s and full of those white teeth, and he had a tail-- thick and white-tipped and dragging behind him. His whole body was dark orange, like he had been dipped in a sunset, except for his four black feet.
“I can’t fault his fashion sense, though,” said Mrs. Trudeau, nodding respectfully at his ivy-green waistcoat and the neat trail of buttons running up to his throat.
“Me either,” said Violet. The feeling in her stomach was alive and thrashing, hot and like black vines trying to crawl up her throat. She had a feeling about this creature. She didn’t know what it was or what it meant, but there was something otherworldly, something strange and dark and different, and it was there and so very real she thought that someone else might jump up and name it too.
“It’s SO LOVELY to meet you!” Georgia cried, pushing past Mrs. Trudeau and hurrying to embrace him. “I can’t wait to welcome you to the family. Tell me about yourself!”
The whole crowd moved forward, clamouring and friendly. Beatle and Todd received it all graciously, and answered every question warmly. Violet stood back and tried to think.
Was there something she should do about this gut sense? Should she grab her kids and slip out of the party, maybe go home and bolt the doors? Was there a reason, any reason, to be afraid? Or was she just a fool who didn’t know what she was talking about, who had never gone to school, and who couldn’t even spell half the words her daughter said.
Her stomach ache had started before he’d even come into the party… although in all honesty, it had started when someone mentioned where Beatle’s fiancé had moved from, and Violet had wondered if that was odd.
But surely she had to be imagining it. Todd looked very nice, and normal, and goodness, if Trudeau liked him that had to stand for something, didn’t it?
She stared at him and for a split second he looked back at her and their eyes met over all the heads, and he smiled, slow and unnatural, and he showed those white teeth.
Violet, don’t act like a crazy hen.
She lingered there, unsure what to do. Then when the crowd had thinned out, she went to the corner and grabbed Waddlewint (“Hey! Mum!”) and brought her to him.
“This is my daughter, Waddlewint,” she said.
He shot Waddlewint a grin. “It’s lovely to meet you.”
Two weeks later, on the night of a wedding between a pretty golden hen and a red-haired creature that smiled too much, the golden hen was found with her throat torn out. In the village, red creatures swarmed every house. Sunrise found a hen called Waddlewint trembling and spared in a lonely house by the lane, clutching a book to her chest. Violet died with her eyes wide open and staring at that book, and wishing she’d listened when she had the chance.