Trigger warning: Today’s story features violence against women and makes reference to sexual violence.
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Bill March’s body lay in the cut through the end of the hill, where the canal was going to go. There was no blood down there, but the navvy’s throat had been opened with a long gash, a pink slice across pale skin. Muddy hands stretched out above his head as if reaching for help.
Lila looked down at the body with a mix of revulsion, and relief. Her eyes kept flitting around the crowd of navvies and camp followers who had gathered, peering down at the foreman as he contemplated what to do. Could they see her guilt? Did they notice her trembling or the spots of blood on the hem of her dress?
“He deserved it,” Jen whispered. She squeezed Lila’s arm, but the reassuring gesture just inflamed the bruises Bill had left there. “Just because he paid don’t mean he can just-”
It was too much. Lila turned from her friend and wriggled away through the crowd.
In the cold darkness of her small canvas tent, Lila felt a cold hand touch her thigh.
“Get off,” she said. “I’m done for the day.”
The hand crept higher.
“I said get off!” She kicked hard but connected with nothing. Pulling herself up in a tangle of blankets, she lit a candle.
There was no-one else in the tent, just a man’s muddy hand print on the sheets.
It must have been a dream, she thought. But tired as she was, it took a long time for sleep to return.
By the third night, Lila could barely sleep. Certain that it was no dream, she lay rigid with fear as she waited for a cold hand to touch her.
There it was, creeping up her leg, grasping at her thigh. She lit a match, hoping that the light would dispel the horror. Instead it illuminated a face, ghostly pale and dead eyed, leering at her out of the darkness.
The heat drained from Lila as he pressed against her. As she grew colder he gained substance, until it seemed as if the real Bill were weighing down her icy body.
At last she found the strength to scream. She pulled a knife out from under her straw mattress and held it up in front of her face, the same knife she had killed him with. For a moment, Bill looked afraid. Then her hand wavered. Even as people came running, an angry and lascivious gleam twinkled in his eyes. Then he disappeared.
“Stop working and get some sleep,” Jen said, wrapping an arm around Lila as they stood outside their tents, smiling at the navvies as they stumbled past. “You’re cold and pale as frost. You need rest.”
“Can’t sleep,” Lila said. “He comes.”
“He’s dead and buried,” Jen said. “All that’s bothering you is your imagination. Get some sleep and you’ll feel better.”
“Can’t,” Lila said.
She held out her hand as a navvy approached, a gleam in his eye and a coin in his fingers. Together, they went into her tent.
He wasn’t the first that night, nor the last. With each ride between the sheets, Lila hoped to wipe away the thought of what was coming. Fast or slow, rough or gentle, she didn’t care. Anything was better than what was coming for her.
At last she lay alone in the darkness. Exhausted, aching, feeling more wretched than ever before. Clutching her knife to her like a talisman.
Memories washed over her. Not the happy ones – that cold, terrible spirit had chased those away. Instead they were the memories of every man who had ever hit her, who had ever forced her, who had ever left her feeling wretched and weeping for release.
Of how many she had let get away with it.
Of the one she hadn’t.
As the tears streamed down her face, a cold hand touch her ankle.
She couldn’t stand it any more. She leapt from her bed and ran, barefoot and half-dressed, through the camp. Everyone else was sleeping. Clouds blotted out the stars, the last embers of cooking fires the only light.
At last she reached the edge of the cut. Soon this would be a canal, its waters carrying coal and iron to the factories of Leeds and Liverpool. She could have flung herself into those waters and been washed clean as she let the world fade away. But she could not wait until then.
She pressed the knife against her wrist. She should go along, not across. One of the other girls had told her that once. If you were really intent on the business, cut along not across.
“That’s it,” Bill hissed.
He was barely visible in the darkness, a ghostly figure with a dark line across his throat.
“Get what you deserve,” he said.
His cold hand grasped her by the neck, just as he had before. Her breath froze in her throat.
“No,” she whimpered, full of terrible memories of the men who had come before.
His throat felt strangely solid as she hit it with the knife. No blood poured out, but he gurgled as he dropped her and fell in the same pose as when she killed him.
“No,” she said again as the ghost faded away.
“Are you alright?” Jen asked, looking at Lila with fear. “I mean…”
They watched the navvies they’d been serving walk away into the dusk. Everyone in the nearby tents must have heard Lila’s yell and the sound of the man complaining as she sent him packing.
“I’m fine,” Lila said.
She went back into her tent and lay on the bed. As darkness descended, a cold hand touched her thigh. She lit a candle and looked at Bill March’s face. It held the same expression it did every night.
Her smile rising, Lila reached for the knife.
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I have another historical horror story, “Cold Flesh”, in 9Tales Told in the Dark #18, out tomorrow. And if you’d like more historical fiction, check out my collection From a Foreign Shore.