Holly Allgood had warm chicken blood dripping from her fingers. Feathers and viscera coated the tree stump where she’d just beheaded and gutted the doomed creature, its quivering heart giving up three last beats in her hands. An ill wind blew through the apple trees as Holly tore the entrails from the chicken. This bird had only the smallest of livers, portending lean times ahead, and the heart pointed in the wrong direction. Holly did not know the meaning of an upside-down heart, but was sure it had something to do with love. Holly believed that if this bird was to be trusted, her future prosperity and happiness were in question. This was a shame, because Holly loved life.
She was cherished and well taken care of. As an only child, her parents were doting, overly-protective, and hardworking. Their daughter was to want for nothing; they wished only the best for her. Holly was well-read, studious, musically talented, and fluent in several romance languages. She was a patient and too clever girl who enjoyed sewing, drawing, composing poetry, botany, and animal husbandry. She had a black cat named Hunter and a black mare named Night. Everyone who met Holly could not help but fall in love (especially the boys).
A farm girl at heart, she was not adverse to getting her hands dirty with honest labor. She helped raise the lambs, milk the cows, and was even known to slaughter a chicken on occasion. Usually Holly confined herself to egg gathering, or even helping with her father’s apiary. She loved to help prepare meals and spent much of the day in the kitchen cooking alongside her mother. She loved making pies or other desserts, but was proficient with most any kitchen chore.
Holly was safe and happy and totally unaware of the reputation she had in town.
Her father owned a successful farming operation comprised mostly of livestock, fruit trees, and a small maple syrup operation. August Allgood believed in diversification and insisted he not be dependent on any one crop or product for his livelihood. Cured and freshly butchered meats, cheeses, raw milk and cream, syrup, apples, honey, and oats, all went toward paying the bills. In the winter August turned his hand toward furniture making, but this was more of a hobby than any real source of income. Holly made it her business to understand as much of her father’s operations as she could, finding a particular affinity for keeping the books. She knew to the penny how much the farm earned and her input helped reduce expenses.
“Someday this will all be yours,” August would say. “We’ll build a second house somewhere beyond the orchard, for your mother and I, and we’ll spend our days by the fire. Hopefully caring for some grandkids!” This was August’s idea of a joke, since at thirty-three he had no intention of retiring in the foreseeable future. He also did not expect his daughter to follow his path in life, or to start giving him grandkids any time soon, but Holly took him at his word. She dreamed of taking over someday, of focussing solely on syrup production, creating a quality product, identifying efficiencies, dramatically increasing output, all while increasing profits. She was unsure if her fantasy left room for children of her own, but she hadn’t ruled motherhood out yet either. She felt pressure to continue the Allgood legacy; she just wasn’t certain children was something she wanted.
Growing up on a farm, in a small house, left Holly with little mystery as to the ways of women and men. She had a rudimentary understanding of what went where and why. She’d learned everything she knew from the all too common spectacle of farm animals rutting, and from watching the mating habits of others. Privacy essentially nonexistent in the Allgood household, she’d observed her parents attempting to conceive on more than one occasion, even though at thirty-one her mother often said she was “too old for babies.” Holly had also stolen glimpses of farmhands during their weekly communal baths, and seen her father naked many times. Incidental familial nudity lacked taboo in rural life. Modesty was not practical. Even in church, on Sundays, the preacher spoke of the differences of male and female and the duties of each. Holly had a pretty good idea of the mechanics of the fornication preacher Emmet Dunnick railed against as sin, was fairly certain she knew how sex and procreation worked. But Holly also often assisted in the birthing of calves and lambs, and she wanted nothing to do with pregnancy for herself, as the idea of being fat and labor process appealed to her not at all. She did like babies though.
When Holly was good, she was all good. When Holly was bad, she was all bad.
On occasion, she’d experiment with the preacher’s youngest son, Ethan Dunnick, believing him when he promised discretion. He was only eight years older than her. She may have kissed him, may have even done a bit more, with hands going where they had no business being. “We’ll share a secret, my little dove. I’ll be gentle and you’ll like it,” he promised, but she refused to entirely surrender her virtue, in the dirt and hay, down behind the barn, like a vulgar animal. It always ended the same, with Ethan nuzzling her neck, a sticky mess on her dress, finished before starting; Ethan ashamed; Holly confused. The truth of their indiscretions not the story to be recounted. Instead, Ethan told the other boys, and the more willing girls, ”When Holly was good, she was all good. When she was bad, she was all bad.”
Holly told no one, not even her mother, and she told her mother everything. She wondered if this meant she was growing up, since it seemed like only adults harbored secrets. Everyone assumed Holly would marry someday and start a family of her own, but she wanted to be defined by more than her reproductive biology. She did not want a predefined societal role to play. She wanted freedom and agency and a life free of expectations. She wanted the possibility to make her own way.
Her cat Hunter was supposed to be an outdoor cat, but wherever Holly went, there was Hunter. Her cat slept in the same bed, and when her parents weren’t looking she fed him scraps under the table. Sometimes Holly pretended Hunter understood her when she talked, and as an only child she talked to her cat a lot. “What grand adventure will be go on today? Or do you have plans without me?” she’d ask. Sometimes Hunter would respond, and they would carry on long conversations, as she imagined he was telling her all about his day.
Folklore and myth were an important part of Holly’s life. She loved the stories and sometimes liked to pretend her cat was, in reality, her witch’s familiar. They woud cast spells together and Hunter always played along. Sometimes Holly would attempt to curse someone who had vexed her, or she called for retribution against her enemies, and “all those who have done me harm.” It amused Holly to imagine a girl of fifteen could have real enemies. Her hexings always fell short regardless, as none who conspired against her ever seemed to suffer ill-fortune. Holly was most excited by the possibility of divination. She wanted to know her destiny. She would attempt to read the future in tea leaves or with a set of tarot cards her aunt Lillian had given her. She tried to scry in a pool of reflected moonlight. She cast stones and bones, and even tried to read the entrails of chickens. The smallest of livers and an upside-down heart. But she was certain the rituals she’d invented were no more than fiction, as each pointed to a future bleaker than the last.
Ethan took ill that summer and died. Stung by a simple bee, his breathing became labored, he lost consciousness, and through he clung to life for days, eventually, he succumbed. He suffered a painful death, his face and hands disfigured and swollen, making him unrecognizable. Holly couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been stung by one of her father’s bees, as she’d wished this very fate upon her enemies. Never with the intention of killing anyone, mind you, but it seemed just punishment, for those who caused her suffering, to suffer themselves. But Holly believed Ethan had never wronged her, so no curse of hers would have brought him low. She hated the thought, since it meant she might be next, but her true fear was Ethan had been punished for their sins committed down by the barn.
Holly vowed from now on she would be a good girl.