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Jenny Greenteeth

The bombs had stopped falling. That was the first thing that struck Alice when the train pulled away, its smoke and roar fading into the distance, and she looked out across nothing but green for miles around.

The silence crept into her, like long fingers snaking down her throat, and she felt she no longer knew how to breathe. The air had no smell in it, not even the taint of coal and steam any longer. Sometimes, at home in London, she hadn’t been clear whether the percussion of incendiaries was really still happening or if the sound had lodged in her mind, an endless battle that wouldn’t stop. It at once terrified her and awoke a nameless longing that wore the face of her mother, solemn and silent as the fields that stretched away.

She didn’t know where she was. She only knew she’d been told to alight here, and so here she stood with her bag at her feet and a cardboard sign hanging around her neck, over the gold cross that had been her mother’s. An evacuee.

“Oreet, lass.”

The voice was rough, as was the man who’d spoken. His dark hair was plastered to his sweaty forehead and his chin was rough too, speckled with stubble. He spat out more words she couldn’t make sense of, she caught something about a cart, and he picked up her bag and she followed him. He put her things into the back of a wooden wagon, jerking his hand toward the seat, and she stepped up too. He sat in front of her, his back turned, and took up the reins. She stared at the horse’s fat chestnut haunches as they rolled and shifted and pulled her away from everything she had known.

Across a cobbled yard, a place of squawking chickens and straw and spattered dirt, she reached the farmhouse. The mother wore an apron that wasn’t really white and a distracted expression. Strands of hair hung in her face. She said that Alice was welcome but she didn’t smile, and when she said that Alice was their only billet, she pulled a face as if the word had a nasty taste.

Then two girls came rushing into the kitchen.

One was a little taller than Alice, with mousy curls: Olive. The other was rather shorter, with plump, unformed features and a gap-toothed smile: Betty.

“Come wi’ me,” Olive said. “I’ll show you summat.”

She turned and ran up the stairs before Alice could reply. She was tired and hungry and she could smell bread somewhere in the kitchen, but she followed the girl anyway, into a cramped room with two little beds squeezed into it.

“Mam said you should share,” Olive announced, “but we said we would. We’re together, aren’t we, Bet?”

Betty nodded. Alice could already see that nodding was what she did.

“I’ve got this.” Olive went to a drawer and pulled out a little circle of plaited string with deep-green beads threaded onto it.

“It’s a bracelet,” she said. “I made one for me and one for Bet. You can have this un.”

She held it out. Alice reached for it, giving a little smile in spite of herself. She was almost touching it when Olive snatched it back, shoving it deep into her pocket. She grabbed her sister’s arm and they ran, thundering back down the stairs, their laughter still ringing around the low beams.

There was real milk, squirted warm into a pail. Real eggs gathered in a bowl, never reported for the rationing. There were sheep with yellow eyes and the stamping, farting horse and a goose that hissed as loud as a train. There was the father, always doing something, gesturing this way and that to a limping boy, who was the farmhand. Their voices confused her. It was hard to follow the accent. They used phrases her parents never had; words were like things stuck in their throats they struggled to expel. They laughed at her: her shoes too dainty for the yard, the way she said Lancashire instead of Lancasheer, her fear of the old dog with his dripping red tongue.

After she’d fed the chickens and dusted the rooms and kneaded the dough to the mother’s satisfaction, Alice was told she may go. Olive and Betty were sitting at the old deal table that was much scarred from a knife, shelling peas, Betty swinging her legs in time with a tune creaking from the wireless.

Olive slipped from her chair, sidled up to Alice, and poked her arm. “We’ll show you summat you’ll like,” she said.

Their mother smiled as if that’s what she wanted to see, and Olive led the way from the kitchen.

They went across the yard and into the lane. Then they climbed a narrow stile and tramped across a field, the path clogged and slippery with mud, toward a little stand of trees. But it wasn’t the trees they’d come to see. When they reached their edge, Alice saw the shattered remnants of a drystone wall, a hole in the ground a bit like a crater, and in it, a dank pool surrounded by mossy stones. The water looked slimy. The sun didn’t seem to reach it, but when she looked up, the sky was a flat gray; she couldn’t see the sun at all.

The whole place was drab and dull and she didn’t know why they’d come here. It was cold too, a nip in the air, but then, it always seemed colder here than it had been at home.

Olive spoke as if she was proud of the sight. “This was part of the river, once. The Dee. Not anymore, though.”

That much was obvious to Alice. The pool was stagnant. It didn’t flow anywhere, didn’t make a sound. There was a smell to it. The water wasn’t blue but green, and she couldn’t see into it.

“It’s where Jenny Greenteeth lives.”

Alice didn’t look around. This was it, then, some new trick they wanted to play on her.

“We hear singing here sometimes,” Betty piped up. Had her sister primed her to say the words?

“Oh aye. But we don’t see her. She hasn’t got a face, not really. She’s got long, straggly hair and bony arms and claws for hands, and she’ll grab you and pull you under if she can. Then she’ll soften you up and suck the flesh from your bones.” Olive giggled.

Betty looked afraid. She hung from her sister’s arm, standing a little behind her.

“You have to give her stuff.” Olive stared into the water. “An offering. You don’t get owt for nowt, my dad says. Have you got a dad, Alice?”

Alice thought of her father, the last time she had seen him. He’d been given a few days’ leave for her mother’s funeral. He had held her hand but hadn’t comforted her. He’d sat her on his knee as he used to do, but it hadn’t been the same. He wasn’t the same. It was as if he’d been replaced by someone who only looked like him, but he didn’t play with her hair or tickle her anymore. He didn’t speak. There were no words inside him. When she twisted on his lap and looked at him, he didn’t seem to see her. He was staring out of the window as if it were another country, and he didn’t answer when she whispered his name.

She forced herself to focus once more on the pool. The water was greened and slimy with some sort of plant that was growing there, floating just beneath the surface. She imagined ragged hair among the weeds, the discolored ivory of teeth gleaming from the moss. She frowned. She knew that death came in fire and cracking stone and blackened skies. It hadn’t occurred to her that it could also be cold.

“If you give her summat,” Olive went on, “’appen she’ll give summat back to you. Summat you lost. Summat you want.”

She pulled something from her pocket. Alice knew, before she caught the girl’s sly look, what it was: the macramé bracelet that had been offered to her and snatched away.

Olive’s grin broadened as she drew back her hand and threw it out into the pool. The water took it with a low gloop and Alice peered, wondering if she could see it there, caught on the pondweed. She took a step forward, trying to make out what it was she saw just beneath the surface, and Olive shrieked in her ear.

“Don’t go near! Or Jenny Greenteeth’ll pull you in!”

The sisters hugged each other, grinning with delicious fear. Alice didn’t move. She didn’t feel afraid. There were worse things, she knew, and anyway, she was too busy wondering: What exactly was it that Olive had offered to the spirit of the pool? What was it she had asked for in return?

“Now you,” Olive said.

She stepped in front of Alice, scowling, and Alice saw that the girl’s cheeks were too flat, her nose too sharp, her eyes the color of mud. Is that why she was so mean all the time? Betty lined up next to her, her eyes the same hue as her sister’s.

Alice shook her head. What could she offer? What was there that Jenny Greenteeth could possibly want? In spite of herself, her hand stole to her neck and rested on the little gold cross that had been her mother’s.

“That.” Olive pointed.

Alice shook her head.

“That’s what she wants.”

Again, Alice shook her head, and Olive’s expression darkened. “You’re cursed, now,” she spat. “Jenny Greenteeth is going to get you!”

She ran away with her sister, hand in hand, both of them shrieking and laughing their triumph into the air.

That night, Alice was sent early to her room. She lay in the little bed staring up into the eaves and listened to the raised voices snaking from between the floorboards.

“It’s no good skrikin’. Go there again and I’ll clout thee one.”

A low wail.

The mother’s milder tones. Did she sound half amused? “That story’s supposed to keep you away from watter, not drag you where you don’t belong.”

She couldn’t hear Olive’s reply.

The mother again. “There’s your sister to think on. An’ London girls can’t swim. I’ll want your word on it, now.”

At some point during the softer words that followed, the sound of footsteps on the stairs, Alice closed her eyes, thinking of Jenny Greenteeth: her hair like weeds, her too-long fingers tipped with broken nails, and no face that she could see; but she had eyes, rimmed with baleful yellow, and when she opened her lips . . .

She shook her head, half asleep and half awake, and felt hands reaching for her, dragging her down. She couldn’t breathe. There was a smell; she couldn’t get any air. She felt fingers closing on her, bony yet swollen, and she awoke to see a face up close to hers, not green but black.

She let out a shrill sound and it jerked away, just as she saw another face near hers. This one was pale and smudged but she recognized Olive, still holding the gas mask she’d been pressing against Alice’s mouth.

The girl smirked and retreated into the dark and the door closed behind her. Still Alice could barely keep herself from screaming at the memory of the mask, the terrible blankness in its eyes.

She took long gulps of air that smelled of nothing but the rabbit stew they’d had for tea, and she tried to think of anything else. For a long time, she couldn’t.

Then, as she started to drift, a memory came.

That night. The air raid. The siren ripping the night apart, shaking their souls. Dragging them all from their beds. Her mother pulling her into the street, wrapping her nightie closer around her, throwing a blanket over her shoulders.

“I have to help Mrs. Beattie. Her legs. She can’t manage the stairs so fast.”

Alice had heard the words, though half the vowels were lost to the mechanical scream rising into the air. She knew all about Mrs. Beattie’s legs: fat. Swollen. The veins showing blue-green under the surface of blotched, gray skin.

She felt her mother thrust her hand into that of another neighbor, from the family two doors down.

“Go now,” she said. “I’ll be along soon.”

The last promise she made to Alice. I’ll be along soon.

Alice stood at the edge of the pool and touched the cross that hung at her throat and thought about her mother.

Her mother had touched the necklace too, often, without thinking about it. Alice knew she sometimes hadn’t even been aware of doing it. It was what her mother did when she wanted to be reminded of God.

Say your prayers, her mother had said, every time she’d kissed Alice good-night. And Alice had, though they hadn’t seemed to help. They didn’t stop the bombs from falling or keep the things that were taken away from leaving. They didn’t give anything back. Alice had sometimes stopped the whispered words before she’d finished, just to listen to the silence they left behind.

In London, God lived in buildings, not pools of water. There were stone churches for Him everywhere and yet how easily they had toppled, their stones shattered as easily as a promise.

Now she raised her hands and found the clasp at the back of her neck, releasing it. She curled her fingers around the necklace—it had no weight at all—and remembered what it had been like to have someone to tell her to say her prayers. To have arms wrapped around her, a kind face pressed against her own. Someone who smiled at her, who didn’t roll the word billet around on their tongue.

With one jerking movement, she threw the necklace toward the pool. It made a brief glitter in the air and she pictured the dirty water sucking it in—gloop—but it didn’t. Her offering fell short. It landed on the banking at the edge of the pool and glinted softly from the grass.

Alice stepped forward. It no longer felt as if she were quite alone, and she leaned toward it. How long were Jenny Greenteeth’s arms? Long, she imagined, with fingertips like hooks, ready to catch and pull.

She imagined being held under the slimy surface, her face hidden among the weeds. How long would she feel it on her skin before she stopped being conscious of it? How long before she opened her mouth and tried to breathe the nasty stuff?

A bubble rose to the surface with a soft glug and she watched a ripple spread, gradually subsiding amid the pondweed. Then the fronds moved, shifting as if something had stirred beneath, turning restless in the water.

She caught her breath and stepped back. Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Jenny would surely find the necklace. Her offering would count after all.

She forced herself to turn her back on the pool, telling herself that it wasn’t her mother she’d left at the water’s cold edge, just in time to see a small figure sneaking away between the trees.

The next morning Alice was splashing her face in cold water from a ewer when she heard the mother calling Olive’s name. The tone wasn’t right, and in the next moment her door opened.

“Is she in here with you?”

Alice frowned, confused. “She’s with Betty. They share.”

The door closed in her face and she heard footsteps on the narrow landing and raised voices. One of them was Betty’s. Then the child started to cry.

Alice dressed and went downstairs to find everyone already in the kitchen, the father stomping in his boots, mud flaking from them to the clean flags. Alice knew, when the mother didn’t tell him not to, how worried she was. Only Olive wasn’t there and Alice felt her absence in the sharp looks that leaped around the room.

“I’ll go and check the sheds,” the father said.

The mother didn’t say anything about that either, twisting her hands in her apron as if shoving the words down deep. Betty wrapped her arms around her waist, and her mother looked down at the child’s head as if she didn’t know what she was doing there, alone, not half of a whole any longer.

Alice ran to the corner and got her shoes. She half expected someone to stop her, but no one seemed to notice she was there at all. When the father went out, she followed and ran across the yard. She already knew where Olive would be.

She made her way across the field, surrounded by the long grass and its whispers. The air was cold on her face, but she didn’t mind. If she was cold and didn’t feel it, that would mean she was dead, after all, and that would be awful, like—

An image flashed before her: Mrs. Beattie’s legs, swollen and mottled and transparent, blue veins pressing upward from beneath. She shook the thought away. She had almost reached the trees and didn’t feel alone any longer, and she swallowed, hard, before stepping out of the light, under their branches.

Everything was green: the water, the stones, the shadows. She felt the underwater light on her skin like reaching fingers and she shuddered.

Olive was there, floating on the surface like a rag doll cast aside. At first Alice thought her face was black, and then realized she was lying facedown, looking at—what? Her hair, darkened with water, fanned about her head. Her clothes looked heavy, tainted green, but somehow they hadn’t yet dragged her down.

Alice didn’t scream, but Betty did. Alice hadn’t known the child had followed until she felt her arms flailing at her. Alice gasped at air that was too warm and heady with growth. She couldn’t move as Betty filled the air with her siren sound and then she forced herself to turn.

The others were already running toward them along the path. Even the old dog lolloped by the side of its master, the teeth sharply white against its red mouth. When it came, though, it wouldn’t go near, staying quite motionless at the edge of the trees, only its nose twitching.

Alice opened her mouth to cry out a warning but the father didn’t listen. He waded into the pool, his trespass sending loud splashes into the air, and he grabbed his daughter’s arm and pulled her from the water. He ended up kneeling on the banking, his arms around her limp form.

Olive didn’t look as if the flesh had been sucked from her bones. Perhaps she hadn’t yet been softened enough. She looked as she had before, except that her face was slack. It was still her, though, just the same; only her eyes had changed.

Olive stared at the sky. She couldn’t see anything any longer, Alice could tell. What had been her last sight? Perhaps she hadn’t seen anything at all—only felt long arms snaking around her, clasping an arm or an ankle before the world tilted. Or perhaps she had. Perhaps she alone knew what Jenny Greenteeth looked like.

Olive’s mother knelt at her side, her mouth opening and closing, no sound coming out. Betty’s wails had stopped too.

Alice stepped forward. Betty grabbed at her in a new panic but Alice pulled away and took another step toward the pool. She only wanted to see, and she did: the necklace she had left there, her mother’s gift, was gone.

It wasn’t difficult to sneak out. Alice had feared she wouldn’t be able to, but the mother had taken to her room, her eyes wide and shocked-looking, as if she hadn’t known that people could die. When Alice slipped across the yard, Betty followed, running after her as if Alice were her sister and it was unthinkable she’d go anywhere alone.

Alice took the little hand. Were they friends now? She supposed they were, and for a moment she wondered if that was what had come in exchange for the necklace. She shook her head.

They climbed the stile and picked their way across the muddy field. Betty hadn’t asked where they were going and she didn’t say a word, though her grip tightened on Alice’s fingers as they drew closer to the trees. Alice could already smell the water, its cool, green sourness, and as its taint reached her she thought she heard something too: a soft voice, singing?

She frowned. Betty had spoken of this once, but Betty was only little. She’d probably mistaken the breeze soughing in the branches for the soft lilt of music, like someone humming through a mouth full of water.

She slowed her steps, as did Betty, who pulled back on her arm. Alice dragged her along the last few paces. Stepping beneath the trees it was cooler at once, as if they were being immersed.

Alice kept her gaze on the ground, though she heard a soft splashing, as of the surface being disturbed—a fish, she told herself as her heart began to beat faster, though surely no fish lived in such a pool—then came the muted sound of water dripping onto stones sheathed in moss.

When she looked up there was a figure standing under the trees, its form like their branches, dull under the shadows. Was that hair twined about its shoulders? Were those fingers, bent like twigs, and a little plaited bracelet wound about the bone? Were those eyes gleaming from amid the moss?

They blinked and fixed on Betty; eyes that were the color of mud.

Alice opened her mouth but no sound came out. She realized she had let go of Betty’s hand and she reached for her with fingers that grasped like claws but closed on nothing. A movement at her side followed by the rustle of long grass told her that Betty was already running away.

It was better to be alone. She had made her offering. The pact was between the two of them.

I’ll be along soon.

And she realized that the figure waiting for her wasn’t as it had first seemed. It wasn’t Olive, wasn’t even pretending to be her any longer.

Alice opened her mouth again, meaning to say all that she needed to say, everything that was inside her. It was too much to encapsulate: the touch of her mother’s hand on her hair; the shine in her eyes when she looked at her daughter. All of those things that were tiny and yet everything and wordless. All she had desired. The things she had asked for when she offered up the most precious thing she had, leaving it at the edge of the pool.

If you give her summat, ’appen she’ll give summat back to you. Summat you lost. Summat you want.

The spirit of the pool was taller than Olive would ever be. Her hair was dark, curling now over her shoulders, water running from it as Alice watched. Her eyes were no longer mud-colored. And her face—

But Alice knew what her face looked like. Still, she was thin; so very thin.

She reached out with one long arm, long fingers, and beckoned.

Alice imagined what it would be like to have that arm around her and she shivered. She imagined being embraced, not in the warmth of her mother’s kitchen, but in the cold pool. Is that what her mother would have wanted for her? Perhaps it was only as Olive had said: Jenny Greenteeth was a wicked creature with no face of her own, none she hadn’t borrowed from whatever she could scavage: A touch. A corpse. A golden necklace.

She thought of the offering she had made. Not just a thing, an object treasured and thrown away, but the love she had wrapped around it. The longing for her mother—and something else: the awful wish she had buried beneath the one she had worded in her mind.

She closed her eyes and saw not her mother’s face, but her father’s. The cold way he’d stared out of the window. The way he had become something she couldn’t name, just under the surface of himself; some new creature lurking beneath his arms, his legs, his face.

And she knew what it was she had truly asked of Jenny Greenteeth, besides the need to see her mother once more; the way she had begged her to make it possible that Alice would never have to go home again.

Originally published in The Mammoth Book of Folk Horror, edited by Stephen Jones.

About the Author

Alison Littlewood’s first book, A Cold Season, was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club and described as ‘perfect reading for a dark winter’s night.’ Other titles include Mistletoe, The Hidden People, The Crow Garden and The Unquiet House. She wrote The Other Lives of Miss Emily White and The Cottingley Cuckoo as A. J. Elwood. Alison’s short stories have been picked for a number of year’s best anthologies and published in her collections The Flowering, Quieter Paths and Five Feathered Tales. She has won the Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction. Alison lives in a house of creaking doors and crooked walls in deepest darkest Yorkshire, England. She has a penchant for books on folklore and weird history, Earl Grey tea, fountain pens and semicolons.