"Milanese Soothsayer," illustration by Adam Myers
"Milanese Soothsayer," illustration by Adam Myers

Household Gods

"Household Gods," a feverish shocker by Oxford divinities scholar Tara Isabella Burton, is the first horror story ever published by The Fabulist, and the protagonist's travails are vividly described, caveat lector.

When I first look in the hospital mirror to see myself alone, unencumbered, I cough up spittle in the sink and sob with joy. I rub my arms, my thighs.

The swell in my breasts dies down. I do not ring Mario. I do not ring anybody. I plan a holiday. I take the train to Sicily, to my grandmother’s house — boarded up, now, and vines throttle the drainpipes. I buy both seats in the first-class compartment and put my shoes up on the cushions.

I arrive in Cefalu at dawn and sleep for twenty-one hours. I wake up at four in the morning and fold and unfold my grandmother’s tablecloths; at six, when the sun rises, I start to walk.

I take off my shoes at the beach and let the wet sand rise up between my toes. The air smells of salt and lemon-blossoms; I shake out my hair and let the wind tangle it. The sun rises over the bay and I glory in the silence. The sea is calm and the light dances on the rock.

I see her out of the corner of my eye. She is hobbling toward me, her hair sparse on her head and luxuriant on her chin, with a toadstool mole on her nose and several more on her cheeks.

She grabs my wrist and holds it. “Non sei freddo?

I can smell the onions on her breath. She presses the sweat of her palms against my bare legs and smiles widely, her tongue flicking through the gaps in her teeth.

“Cold?” She rubs more vigorously and I cry out.

I try to pull away, and find that a misguided prickle of politeness keeps me in place. I thank her, tell her I am fine, that I am used to the weather in Milan — I am used to Milan, I say, and savor my success.

“No!” She scowls and moved her hand to my bare feet. “Is dangerous!” The smell of her makes my gorge rise. “Is no good for baby.”

“Baby?” Somewhere in my shock I find my voice. “There’s no baby.”

She shakes her head and places the palms of her hands on my stomach, letting loose a guttural belch of disapproval. “La mamma …”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I say, instinctively, flushing at my own spinelessness. “I’m afraid you’re wrong. And I’m not cold.”

She shrugs, with that grimly fatalistic shrug I remember from my childhood, the one that means it is up to those ancestral spirits to arbitrate upon the veracity of things, and trudges along. I have not convinced her.

I go home and try in vain to scrub away the smell of her, the cloying garlic pungency of her, off my thighs, my wrists, both my arms. But it lingers — caught on the folds of my skirt, on my shirtsleeves. Soap cannot get it out. Bleach cannot get it out.

My legs are purple where she has rubbed them; my wrist is swollen where she has touched it.

There is no baby. I cannot stop hearing my words, ricocheting off the roof of my skull. She has mistaken me for someone else; she is senile, or maybe mad, or confused me with one of my myriad third-cousins who have never left here. I’ve looked a hundred and a thousand times in the mirror– I know there are no more signs. I know that there is nothing left of that which I have exorcised from myself.

I press my hands against my stomach as she has done. It is as flat, as firm, as it has always been.

I feel a kick, and that is all.

I race to explanations — it is my nerves, my fear; it is the nausea at the putrefying smell of her that has made me swallow bile and my stomach invert itself. No — I am alone, I am alone; there is nobody here with me; there is nobody here but me. My wrist, which she has bruised, is mine. My stomach which she has touched is mine. The blood that is racing faster and faster through my veins is mine. There is no one else here.

I walk until my feet bleed to stop myself from thinking. I cannot stop, cannot slow down. I shove past vendors in the marketplace, past boys with dark eyes, past more old women. There is no space for me here, nowhere to breathe. One of the fruit-sellers elbows past me, jabbing me in the gut. I splutter and cough and apologize in dialect I did not know that I remembered, but he is gone now.

A blast of smoke from the rotisserie smears my face with sweat. Arms press against my arms. Legs press against my legs. Men shout the names of their products — sarde, cipolli, finnocchio — in my ears. I put up my hands but I cannot block them out.

I cannot stop the sound, nor the sweat, nor the smell. Everything is spinning; everything sickens me.

The vines burst out from the houses; they are mocking me. Weeds poke out from between cobblestones, from against buildings, from concrete. The rocks are slick with moss and the sea teems with rotting fish, and the smell forces itself down my nostrils. The fishmongers shove handfuls of squid into my face; their tentacles flick brine and viscera into my eyes. The chickens on the back of the jeep squawk and shove their necks out of their crates and slice themselves open. Spiders multiply in the earth between my toes. The birds shriek; the horseflies hiss. Someone gropes me in front of the butcher’s stall. I cannot stand the noise.

I turn into a blind alley, reeling. I have felt like this before.

I cannot feel like this again.

I tell myself that the blight is gone, that I have made myself barren there, that I have scorched the earth there lest that presence come for me again. There is no way I am carrying any child — there is no way I am carrying that child, who is gone and who was never born, whom I did not name or christen but whom I hated from the first moment it tried to claw its way out. I have wrestled with that cherub and I have won.

I feel another kick, sharper than scalpels, and then another. It slices through me and I crumple to my knees and let my palms touch the earth.

Everything is louder, now — louder than I can bear. This island is raging up against me, all around me, buzzing and chirping and teeming and creeping, fecund and rippling. Its women stare into my womb and see what is not there; its men feast their eyes on the carrion of my flesh and imagine what they could do to me, and what they could make me bear. My great-grandmother and her mother and the whole pruned vine are watching me, and the spiders whisper in their voice that I have robbed them of their child.

“Signora?” It is a man this time, younger than I am, with hair that falls across his eyes and hands that find their way around my waist. “Signora, are you all right?”

I am shaking in his arms as he lifts me. His fingers leave indentations in my flesh. His sweat seeps into me, and I have no skin to separate us.

“I’m fine—” my voice collapses upon itself. “I was feeling a little ill—”

“You must rest.” His grip tightens; he steers me down the alley. He is commanding; he is used to this. “You must sit, please.”

I lose the urge to resist. I will do anything to get away from the smell of rotting fish, of apples that have burst open in the sun. I follow him through the crumbling alleyways, where the paint flakes and the shutters creak, and let him guide me by the waist to a small courtyard, flanked by white rows of laundry, to a bench.

“You have worried me,” he tells me. “Are you sick?”

I shake my head, and pray that he will not ask the next question. “Dehydrated,” I say, and he does not understand me. “Water.”

“Water.” This he comprehends. “Come inside.”

I follow him, still dizzy. He brings me a glass and I gulp it down, and it almost chokes me.

“You are foreign?”

I shake my head.

“From here, then?”

It takes all the effort I can muster to tell him that I live in Milan, now. I feel the desire, quick as sickness, to tell him all about it: the clean faucets, the white walls, the functional heating, the meters and meters of space, delirious in their expanse, with only me in it.


It takes me a while to realize that his hand is still around my waist. It takes me a while to realize that he is stroking my hair. His hands reach for my hips; they grip tight enough that I cry out.

He tries to silence me with murmurs, blandishments, soft animal cries. He presses me to him and forces his tongue between my lips. He tastes of salt and smells of grease and his sweat disgusts me, I want more than anything to be alone, but in his arms I am not alone. I am only flesh, flesh for him to take and kiss and eat, flesh in which to spawn more like him, and then I will never be alone.

Another kick.

I shove him away; I scratch him with my nails, and when he yelps I realize that I have drawn blood. He curses at me, calls me a whore, and I run.

I cannot stop running. I wipe the blood from my hands on the laundry outside his front door; I race down the Via Veterani and vomit among the cobblestones.

There is a beginning and an end to things, and they remain apart; they do not devour one another. Out of death there is nothing. I tell myself that my body belongs to me, and that my skin which is bruised now with his grasp belongs to me. I tell myself that I am inviolate and inviolable, that I am alone.

I will never be alone.

Within me my double plucks at my sinews; it scratches at its escape; it will claw its way out. The ancestral spirits are howling with the storm at the sea, and the witch-women in the harbor are cackling over their ointments, and they are laughing louder than the fishmongers’ cries because they know that they have won.

I run back to the marketplace. I know what I must do. I must plunge into the heat, the crowds, the sweat, the overabundance of flesh. I must go where the gulls shriek and the spiders burst out of their eggs, and let the smell of the fish and the meat and the rotting apples wash over me until I am no longer too dizzy to stand. I must go to the butcher’s stall, and there I must do what those know-nothing charlatans in Milan could not do and what I am not afraid to do and seize hold of the knife they use to separate the meat from the bone.

I will make a sacrifice to my household gods. I will pour out libations on the cobblestones. I will mop up the blood with the folds of my skirts and sing lullabies in lu siciliana. I will throw salt over my shoulder and bow to the earth, and then I will hold him in my arms.

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Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton's debut novel, Social Creature, praised by The New York Times' Janet Maslin as "a wicked original with echoes of the greats", was published by Doubleday (US) and Bloomsbury/Raven (UK) in June 2018. It was named a "book of the year" by The New York Times, New York's Vulture, and The Guardian, and has been shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and the WH Smith Thumping Good Read Award. A film adaptation is in development with Lionsgate.

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