There was something strange about the woman, and Gwen had known it from the moment she had first laid eyes on her. She had stepped out of Father’s car with such grace and elegance that, for a moment, she didn’t seem real. Her dress, a blue so bright and vivid that it was hard to look on directly, pooled about her, hiding her feet from view and making her seem much taller than she was in reality. This woman, Gwen learned quickly, was not practical, normal, nor someone to be reckoned with. She was a force and she was harsh and she was beautiful in ways that Gwen had not known were humanly possible. When she, escorted by Father, reached the front steps of their home she kneeled to look Gwen right in the eye and smiled at her. With the corner of her mouth upturned just so and her eyebrows curved in an inquisitive arc, the stranger looked hungry. Beautiful, crazy, and hungry. Gwen could see her clearly in that moment, how her cheeks were sharp like knives and the way that her eyes had not one color, but thousands. Her eyes sparkled like a crystal. The lightest ice blue at the core of the iris, with a thousand other colors buried just underneath. She wanted to reach out and touch the woman’s eyes – but instead she walked into suddenly open arms, and wrapped her own around the strange woman’s neck. Gwen could feel every bone she touched underneath the skin, and goosebumps rose up over her soft flesh like tidal wave. Her Father looked down on her with a smile on her face, but the chill still lingered on her skin long after the embrace ended and the woman who would be her New Mother was shown to her room.
That night at dinner, she found that her new mother had a name; Venus. “My parents thought it would funny to name me after the Roman goddess of love – a bit ironic considering how long it took me to find it,” she had said in a quiet voice that sounded identical to what Gwen had always imagined an angel would sound like. She spoke while staring at Father from beneath the longest eyelashes that Gwen had ever seen. Even with her miles and miles of hair piled into a messy bun high on top of her head and her make-up removed, she looked exactly like her namesake, and Gwen understood the sudden infatuation that her previously-celibate father had fallen head first into. She was beautiful, filled to the brim with such intricacies that she could only be described as perfect, and seemed just as infatuated with Father as he did her. Gwen did her best to smile at the woman, although the expression shook on her lips, and she went back to shoveling food into her mouth almost without pause.
“Are you going to properly introduce yourself?” Father said as he turned to look at his daughter, her mouth full of potatoes. She looked stunned for a moment, heavy strands of black hair falling across her face, before she nodded, swallowing her food as fast she could, and pulling the hair behind her ear.
“I’m Gwen. I’m not sure what it means.”
“White, fair, and blessed,” the woman said almost too quickly from the other end of the table, her eyes boring into her untouched plate while her fork weakly pushed around some of the vegetables.
“I didn’t know that,” Father said as he cut, then took a bite of the rare steak on his plate. A little bit of blood dribbled down his chin, and he wiped it off with the back of his hand, chuckling to himself. “I’m a bit of a mess tonight, aren’t I?”
“I love the mess,” Venus cooed across the table, reaching one hand out and resting her long, pointed fingers on his wrist. Father beamed with his mouth full, before he realized the mistake and chewed the rest of his bite.
“May I be excused?” Gwen asked after a finishing off what she could of her plate. Her father waved his hand nonchalantly, and Venus beamed at her with a mouth full of sparkling white teeth. Taking the gestures as an affirmation, she stood up and gathered her dishes, about to head out of the dining room when Venus called her name.
“Gwen, darling. It was ever so lovely to meet you. I hope we’ll be spending more time together.”
Gwen looked over her shoulder and gave a sheepish smile to the near-stranger, her freckled and already rosy cheeks reddening even more. “Me too. Nice to meet you, Venus.” She looked at her father and shrugged a bit, her smile becoming more genuine. “Night, daddy.”
“G’night, my fairest,” he said, pushing himself out of his chair and going over to give Gwen a kiss on the head. “Have good dreams for me.”
Before she turned to leave the room, she could swear she saw Venus glaring past her father at her. Gwen pushed it out of her mind.
The next few days passed by in a blur; the warmth of summer was quickly dying down, making way for the crisp autumn chill that followed the changing leaves and it seemed that everything had suddenly picked up its pace as Gwen’s entire life tried to fit itself into the last few days of the season. Venus had taken up what seemed to be a permanent residence in the house, and Gwen didn’t mind much. After all, Gwen spent most of her time outside on the grounds of the mansion, rather than tucked away inside with her Father and new mother. There was little inside that interested her other than books, and while there were few things that gave her more joy than diving into a new story, stories had been made for cold nights in front of a fireplace. They were not for sunny days when a cool breeze was relished, and the birds sang their songs beckoning her to chase them. The grounds went on for what felt like miles, never really ending as long as she was on foot. She had made hundreds of four legged friends while exploring every inch of her home. There were foxes that lived out behind the pool house. A small family of father, mother, and child to reflect her own. They seemed happy, and she had taken it as a good sign the first time she had stumbled upon the family, nestled safely amongst each other. The smallest of the three had perked its head up when she had originally approached, staring at her, though its expression was playful. Ever since she had run out to check on them every night and most of the time they were still curled into each other. Birds were everywhere – constantly following her singing to her songs of the days gone by and days to come. They were mostly magpies and crows, some chickadees and finches.
Besides the birds and the family of foxes, she had met a cat. The cat was the only animal that Gwen was allowed to bring inside, no matter how hard the birds tried to follow her into her house, someone would always end up chasing them out. She had affectionately named the feline Rose, for no other reason than she had found it stuck inside of the rose garden, a thorn in its paw and the most pitiful of looks on her face. She was gray and white striped, with the most precious pink nose that Gwen had ever seen. The strangest thing about the cat was its bright blue eyes – darker and stronger than Venus’ eyes, they had an almost uncomfortable depth to them. Gwen tried to ignore it most of the time. Rose had followed Gwen everywhere since the day she had rescued her, and she did a decent job of ignoring the birds, all things considered.
On a day that did not seem particularly life-changing, at least at the time, Gwen had been taking a walk across the grounds, she ran across Venus outside behind the pool house. She had never seen her new mother outside of the house, the one time she had stepped out of the car exempt, and so she had slowly approached her, not making a noise as she crept behind the bushes, Rose padding quietly alongside her. Gwen peeked through the shrubbery. All she could see was Venus’ perfectly straightened and blond hair falling across her shoulders. After a few moments of silence, Venus turned around, her elegant black sweater soggy and wet. Her were hands covered in something such a deep red that it could only be blood. A gasp escaped Gwen’s lips, and without thinking she tumbled through the bushes, rushing to Venus’ side. Venus looked for a moment like she had been hit in the face, before her composure broke, and the woman began shuddering and shaking, sobs racking her fragile shoulders.
“Oh Gwen,” she cried, trying her hardest to wipe the blood off on the freshly watered grass. “I think it’s dead, the poor creature is dead.” Gwen stumbled forward a bit more, and looked over the woman’s shoulder, her heart frozen inside her. She knew who lived here. “I don’t know where the mother and father went… but oh my darling, he’s bled out. There’s no saving him.”
Gwen saw the mutilated body of the baby fox, four legs splayed out as he lay on his back, glossy black eyes lifeless and empty. Venus still shook and shuddered in front of Gwen’s feet. “You were trying to save him?” She asked in a voice so small she could barely hear herself speaking. The blond sniffed and tried to wipe something away from either cheek, presumably tears, but only succeeded in smudging blood on either side of her face.
“Of course I was, he was only a wee thing. But by the time I got over here it was too late. I don’t know what could have possibly done something so terrible…” she went on before breaking down into a wailing sob. But she pushed herself to her knees and went to Gwen, who stood statue still, staring at the blood-soaked fox that lay just a foot away from her. Venus forcibly turned Gwen away at the shoulders, the excess blood from her hands getting stuck on the white lace dress that Gwen was in. The girl did as her body was bid, and she began walking away from the scene of whatever crime had been committed there, drowning out the sound of her sniveling companion. Rose didn’t follow her home that day.
When they finally got into the house, they entered through the kitchen, where Jeffrey stood dicing onions so fast that Gwen couldn’t see his hand. At the sound of the door creaking open he turned with a smile on his face, but dropped it and his knife as soon as he saw the blood on Venus’ arms and shirt, and young Gwen’s shoulders. “Oh lord,” he exclaimed without even thinking, and scooped the ten year old up in his arms, ignoring Venus completely. Gwen wrapped her arms around Cheffrey’s neck and burrowed her face into his shoulder, tear-less chokes falling out of her mouth. He ran his fingers through her hair as he carried her to Father’s study, where he sat with his nose in a stack of papers and a pen in hand. The moment the door opened he was on his feet running across the room, a look of terror filling his face. Father fell to his knees as Jeffrey set Gwen on the floor, and her face was tear stained, cheeks red and eyes welled shut. Father wrapped her in one arm, while his other searched for the source of the blood, prodding and poking at her shoulders, as he cooed and shushed his daughter. After realizing that the blood was not hers, he calmed, and pulled her away from him for just a moment, brushing her ebony hair back from her face and pulling it tightly behind her ear. Gwen tried to compose herself as well as she could, staring at her Father with his deep and comforting brown eyes. She only succeeded in coughing on the sobs that she was trying to push back down her throat.
“Darling girl,” he said, still on his knees, “what happened? What happened, fairest?”
“The- the f-f-”
“The little fox behind the pool house was killed,” said Venus, who appeared in the doorway, where Jeffrey had stood just a moment before. Her arms were no longer covered in blood, the dirty shirt replaced by an elegant white tank top. Gwen, sniveling, turned to look at Venus; her bottom lip quivered.
“Who killed it?” Father said, standing up and taking his daughter’s hand in his, lips thin and eyes hard as he stared at the woman in front of him. “And why did Gwen see it?”
“An animal killed it, I would assume. It was dead when I found it,” Venus said with a slight drawl, shifting her weight onto her hip. “Gwen was following me, god knows why. I was trying to get rid of it when she snuck up on me.”
Gwen’s lips quivered even more as Venus began to speak. The blood that should have been smudged on her cheeks was gone and replaced by her usual pale coloring, a splatter of the lightest freckles covering on her skin. In fact her makeup looked completely in tact, as though she had never been crying or wiping at her face. Venus stared at Gwen with one dark blond eyebrow arched, her hands folded across her chest and her chin raised just slightly. The very pose made her look dominant and dignified. Gwen knew that no matter what she said it wouldn’t sound good, and she wouldn’t be able to lie about sneaking behind Venus – it was a bit of the truth after all. She had been snooping. And if she hadn’t… well, maybe then she wouldn’t be so upset. Maybe if she had minded her own business she never would have seen anything at all.
“Why were you sneaking up on Venus?” Father said as he looked down at Gwen, the softness in his eyes gone, and replaced with a hardness that reached into the back of his mind. Gwen shrugged and shook her head, not knowing what to say.
“I- I didn’t mean- she just never comes out,” she spoke quietly, stumbling over her words. She rubbed her hands and intertwined her fingers together, clearing her throat and trying to push down the tears that lingered at the back of her throat. “I wanted to know where she was going.”
“Following people is not a very trust worthy thing to do, Gwen,” Venus declared as she took a step forward, the sound of sharp heels tapping on the hardwood floor echoing through out the room. Had she been wearing heels before? She hadn’t been wearing a tank top or pants before. How had she changed so fast?
Whatever happened next seemed more like a blur than anything – Gwen’s father did not protect her, and Jeffrey was long gone, and it seemed that only Venus and her word mattered. Gwen had done wrong. Gwen was not a good child. Gwen should never have followed her, and should never have gone outside to begin with. Fraternizing with wild animals was wrong and dangerous and could get her killed. She wouldn’t go outside again, not without the strictest of supervision.
The next time that Gwen was able to escape to the outdoors was the day Father and Venus exchanged rings and signed a very important piece of paper, whatever legal document you had to scribble on to have people consider you married. She stood in between Father and Venus as they exchanged vows and held hands on either side of her, and she wore a dress the same color as the fox’s blood had been. Venus wore an exquisite white gown with golden filigree snaking up to the tight bodice and a train so long that Gwen couldn’t see the end of it.
The ceremony was beautiful and Father seemed happy, so Gwen was as well. It wasn’t until later that week that he started to get headaches, and then the next he went to the doctor’s office. He never came home.