's 2016 Horror Write-off:

The Seven Mothers

Submitted by Nausicaa Harris

Once upon a time, there lived a mother and a father and their two children in a cottage on the edge of the jungle. She was a kind woman, and he a kind man, and their children were as kind as could be expected. They lived happily in their cottage on the edge of the jungle until the first mother died, and the father married another woman.

The second mother, whose name was Anidra, was as kind as her husband, but her children hated her as children so often do, and said to her, "We hate you! We want you to go away and let our real mother come back!" And one day, when her husband had made a journey to the big city to do business and would be gone for several days, she said, "Very well then, if you want, I will go away, and I will send you a new mother every day. And so, if you really hate me thus, and you like any of them better than me, she will tell me and I will be gone." Her children said, "Fine then! Go!" And Anidra departed, walking into the jungle.


The next day, a third mother arrived at the door of the cottage. She was made all of iron wire, shaped like a woman, with a crude smiling face. She said little, but could unravel herself into many hands to cook and clean at impossible speed, and at first, the children were happy to feast themselves and do as they pleased. But when at play one child fell and hurt their arm, and sought for comfort, the wire mother would not respond. Indeed, she would not respond to anything they did, but merely spin through their chores and offer more food, smiling. She stood and watched as they finally went to bed, dispirited, and then left, walking into the jungle.

The next morning, there was a fourth mother. She was a dummy made out of soft cotton cloth, her face as crude as the wire mother's. While her cloth frame could do no work, she was active, and asked constantly what the children wished to do, and tried as best she could to play with them, and hold them, and say, "I love you." But as the day wore on and the children grew hungrier, forced to cook for themselves, they asked the cloth mother whether she could not cook, and she said only "I love you," and tried to offer a game of ball. She settled down to bed with them despite their protests, and held them as they slept, but in the morning, she had gone, back into the jungle.


In her place was a fifth mother. She was made of walking water, with no face but in profile, and with limbs shifting into each other. She could both cook and play, and was for the most part pliant and biddable (although she would not let the children escape some of their work), but she was cold as the deep pond to the touch, and would say little to them, and sometimes the children would look at her and see that her strange profile-face looked almost hateful. They feared her, and when she walked into the jungle before even waiting to see them go to sleep, they were glad.

The next morning, there was a sixth mother. She was made of brass finely jointed and fitted, and had a furnace in her eyes and in her belly. She was stern and unyielding, and demanded that the children do everything by their own hands, but would stand with them and teach them the proper way to perform their tasks, and when they had completed everything to her satisfaction, she was willing to act as arbiter in their games, and when they needed comfort, the heat of her animation warmed them. Still, the children scoffed behind her back, wondering why their stepmother had sent such a strange parade of mannequins to them - they may have hated their stepmother, but she at least was human, and they would not forsake her that easily.


And after the sixth mother had vanished into the jungle, they were almost cocky when they waited for the next mother to appear. But the seventh mother had human flesh, and would offer discipline and comfort, work and play, in perfect balance, and, to their astonishment, had the face of their old mother. They went about with her throughout the morning, nearly suspecting a trap, but they were so amazed at her reappearance that they said nothing but, "Mother! You've come back! We will never let you go, not ever!"

But as the day wore on, the seventh mother grew more tired, and seemed to age a decade in an hour. Still, she kept smiling, and hugged the children tight, and said, "I will never let you go, either." In the morning, she had appeared as she had when she had died, but by noon, she was an old woman, and by mid-afternoon, she was impossibly ancient and shriveled. The children shrank from her in fear. Still she smiled, still she advanced, and still she said, "I will never let you go. Not ever."

The children hid from her in the afternoon, and only hesitantly returned to the cottage for supper when their growling stomachs grew too difficult to ignore. But sitting with their favorite foods was the seventh mother, no longer merely aged, but a rotted corpse. She grinned horribly at them, flesh still sloughing off her form. An eye exited her skull and rolled across the floor. "My children! My dear children! I am so glad we are together again, and surely you will come back with me to where I come from?"

The children shrieked and fled the house, and tried to hide in the jungle. They sat high in a tree, hearing the shuffling step of the seventh mother in the distance, growing ever closer, and hearing her plaintive voice, "Dear children, sweet children, come with me!" The children cried to themselves, and eventually fell asleep, nestled against the bole of the trunk.


When they woke it was raining. Anidra stood below the tree, gazing up at them. They cried out to her. "Mother! Mother! Please! Come back to us!"

Anidra smiled. "Why would you want me back? Have I not given you everything you asked for? I have given you a different mother. I have given you a new one every day. I have given you your dead mother back. Surely you cannot want me?"

"We do, we do!" they cried.

"Why, you greedy children! You see me, whom you have esteemed worthless? I think the having matters more to you than what it is you have! Why should I give more to you ungrateful children?"

"Because we want you with us," they said.

"Do you?" she said. "Do you want me, your second mother, Anidra? I am not your first mother. I will never be your first mother. I will be myself. Do you want that?"

"Yes!" they cried. "Do not bring back the wire mother, or the cloth mother, or the water mother, or the brass mother, or our dead mother! We want you!"

And Anidra smiled, and said, "Then you shall have me, because I am your mother, and I can do what the other mothers could never do, even if they said they could, and your dead mother cannot do now: I can love you for ever and ever."

And the children climbed down from the tree, and they never spoke to their father of what had happened, although he was much delighted to see that his wife and children now got along so well. But when her children started to ask for her to be something else, Anidra would smile at them, and be very quiet. And from somewhere in the jungle beyond the house, her children might hear the whirling dance of the third mother, the delicate shuffle of the fourth mother, the quivering movement of the fifth mother, or the whistles and clanking of the sixth mother, as a reminder of all the things that another mother might be. But Anidra never again made them hear the rotting, keening step of the seventh mother, for they had at least learnt that Anidra would not be their first mother, and they never again asked for their first mother to return.