Light or life by Jessica Testerman

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Light or life by Jessica Testerman
Illustration by Sue Babcock

As the firelight dwindled, Marna heard an owl hooting in the distance and was afraid. All her life she had been taught to fear birdsong because of what came with it, not the birds, but their avid followers. Marna thought back to her grandmother telling her stories of the time before when birds were only pretty creatures who raised their voice in song. Her Gran would tell her stories of visiting a place called the zoo and walking through the aviary to see all the brightly colored birds. She also told Marna about pet stores where one could buy a bird or other domesticated creatures for companions, but Marna never really believed her.

After all, how could anyone own a bird?

Marna lived in a world where birds were more than an ignorable voice or a neglected presence. She lived in a time after the reveal, a time where a dwindling fire could mean death. Marna reached for more logs to stoke the embers but found nothing. She looked away from the forest and cursed under her breath. Billy had forgotten to stock the wood again. For a moment Marna’s anger burned at the boy’s neglect, then, as if dowsed with ice water, she realized that the fire would go out and a bird was nearby. Marna jerked her head around quickly to check for any sign of danger and seeing none let an ounce of tension go.

They were allergic to smoke: violently allergic, which kept them away from the tribe at night. Marna wasn’t sure what would happen if they found the tribe unaware, but the stories of abduction, deception, entrancing, and killing filled her with dread. She remembered a childhood of fleeing the creatures, the blood of her family pouring into the soil, and overhead the sweet melodies the birds sang while people perished to the rhythm of their tunes.

Cursing the idiot Billy and the distance from her tribe, Marna considered whether or not to push the emergency button to rouse the tribe from the distant underground bunker or make the three minute trip to the woodshed herself. Fucking Billy. No one in the tribe would be happy if she summoned them for a false alarm, and besides, there wouldn’t be enough time to reset the complex system of levers, pulleys and other contraptions needed for the button to work again. The alarm system was meant only to alert the tribe of the presence of the ones who walked in the wake of birds. The distant hooting meant that the monsters probably lingered nearby, and she had only one chance to warn the tribe.

They survived this long because of their underground bunkers. They never left them at night unless under attack. This was their fourth bunker in Marna’s lifetime, and false alarms had caused the tribe to lose half of them. They had just started this bunker a few weeks ago. In the last raid, they lost so many warriors that watch-posts could only have one guard now. If the tribe had to move again so soon, many of the people would die from the lack of resources and the arduous journey.

As she considered her next move the faces of the children waiting at camp for her, and the ones she had, only days before, buried flashed through her mind. If they moved again, none of the children would make it. They hadn’t had time to gather supplies for the long journeys needed to throw off the enemy. Marna asked herself: Could she put more children in the ground because of human error? Could she bury another child so soon?

Marna faced a horrible choice to sit and watch the forest as the firelight slowly died, waiting for death. Or to leave her post for more wood, possibly allowing them to walk right into the camp, or to watch the children die as their little bodies wore out from the walking, withering to nothing before her eyes. Another bird cry echoed through the trees, startling Marna with a fresh burst of adrenaline, and a memory.

It had been the first time the tribe had to run from the creatures in her lifetime, and an adult carried Marna away. She watched helplessly as her friend lay at the feet of an impossibly tall creature with the most perfect face the she had ever seen. A scream ripped from young Marna’s throat as that beautiful creature drove the tip of its spear through her friend’s body. Before everything went black, a grin spread over the creature’s face as the body at its feet gave a final spasm before going limp forever. A flock of birds circled overhead, patiently awaiting their tribute.

Her heart racing at the memory, Marna turned away from the forest again and stepped into the darkness that separated her from the wood hut. Three minutes, that’s how long the walk to the wood pile was. Three minutes there; three minutes back. But Marna couldn’t walk, she ran through the night. As her feet pounded hard on the near-frozen ground, her heart crept further up her throat, and with each centimeter it rose it became harder for her to breath, even though each stride pulled her closer to salvation.

When Marna reached the hut, she felt a moment of relief. But her heart hammered again in her throat when she couldn’t see the wood. Fumbling forward, Marna grabbed as many twigs and logs as she could, relief spread over her with each piece she acquired. She listened for the flapping of wings; the rustle of leaves, or a snapped twig. Her hands shook as she tried to feel out the best pieces for the task. When she finally collected the logs she needed, sweat slicked her palms. She dropped the precious bundle. The seconds ticked by faster and faster. Her brain screamed at her to hurry.

Collecting her prize again Marna’s eyes stung with sweat she couldn’t wipe away, and her skin prickled with the cool breeze that caressed her as she bolted for the safety of the firelight. Eyes blurry, monsters lurked at every turn. On one such corner, an enormous buck with two heads, horns resplendent against the horror they sat astride, emerged from the darkness. The creature, leaking puss, covered in misshapen eyes, charged straight for her. She swerved to escape the figment and lost her footing. Falling logs rattled. Marna’s sinewy body hit the ground with a thump.

Covering her head, Marna waited to be trampled by the nightmare creature, wasting a few precious moments. She wiped the sweat from her eyes, regathered her wood in the inky blackness, and took off toward the fire. Desperate to make up the time she had lost, she pushed herself to summon more strength, to run faster, to ignore her aching joints until she saw the fading light of hope. Adrenaline drained from her as she neared the dying light of the watch-fire. Her legs turned to jelly and screamed at her to rest.

Trying to block out the siren song her body sang, Marna thought how silly she had been to worry. They had been so careful when they fled the last bunker, the Fair Folk couldn’t have found them so quickly. As the thought passed through her mind, the perfect smile on the fey’s face as her playmate died again plastered itself against the walls of her brain. With a shiver, her mind turned away from the past and all the creepy adrenaline-fueled illusions created during the short trip to the woodshed.

She grinned a little, imagining the punishments Billy would finally receive for his neglect. She wondered hopefully, gleefully even, if she would get a say in his discipline since she was the one he effected the most by the culmination of his actions, or rather inactions. Marna imagined all the delicious little tortures she would finally get to visit upon the terror that called itself Billy. She hungered to give him a real punishment since the man’s neglect had caused the death of seven children, including Marna’s daughter. The man-child got away with everything because of his position as the leader’s son. But not this time. No, this time Marna would make sure he suffered for nearly killing them all. There would be no scapegoat this time, for the children, for Gwenyth.

Marna slowed to a walk, and entering the halo of smoke, pictured Billy tied down as she slowly pulled a dull blade across his smooth, unmarked skin. Yes, she would be the first to teach the man-child about pain. She would carve responsibility into his flesh, ensuring he would never forget again. Marna would engrave the name of all the dead children on his body. She’d make him wear his shame, and her name, Gwenyth, forever. Lost in her plans for Billy, Marna didn’t see or hear the large flock of birds that quietly settled on the branches of the trees surrounding her watch-fire.

As the light revealed her prized twigs and logs, Marna assessed how her bundle would bolster the embers.  A collision jarred her from her thoughts. She mumbled an apology, and as the words left her mouth, she remembered that no one should be here. The watch had been run alone since the last bunker. She looked up. But her thoughts were not quick enough. She jerked back in horror. One of the deadly beautiful creatures stood in front of her. Dropping her prize, she screamed, while in the background birds started to sing.

The thing grabbed her and covered her mouth, stopping the noise. She saw the trap it had laid too late. The creature grabbed her in a headlock. Marna couldn’t move. It slowly cut off her already meager amount of air. A surge of adrenaline crashed into her brain like a tsunami. Her eyes darted around, looking for a way out, but knowing she would die here a failure.

Remembering the wood she dropped, Marna kicked the logs into the embers. A cloud of smoke gushed into the fey’s face. The thing released her as it screeched. She maneuvered around the creature; its mouth gapped open where two rows of jagged, pointed teeth glistened. She heard the moment when the smoke hit the creature’s lungs, assuming it had such an organ. While the thing gasped for air, Marna, now behind it, kicked the beast across the meager fire. It rolled out of the smoke. She dropped into a crouch and eyed the being opposite her.

While the creature was recovering its breath, Marna did the same, watching it, scanning for a weak point or a strategy. She had four options. One, dash for the signal button and hope she could fight the creature off long enough to live. Two, dash for her weapon and fight her way to the button hoping to press it in time to save the tribe. Three, run for the bunker; or four, wait in the dwindling smoke as her fire, barely flickering, died, sealing her fate. She didn’t have a lot of time left. The creature gasped, but once it recovered, she had no chance.

She sank deeper into her crouch, and sent all her strength to her legs. As the creature’s hacking stopped, Marna pounced.


BIO: Jessica Testerman graduated from Wright State University with degrees in both Literature, and philosophy. She has also completed a master’s degree in fiction writing at Southern New Hampshire University. The publication of “Light or Life?” is her first publication. You can follow her writing journey at