Pearls, Frogs, Spiders

Tim Pratt

Maribel sat on the couch, picking at bits of fluff sticking through the coarse upholstery, watching the soundless cartoons on television. She groaned, wrapped her arms around her belly, and lay down on her side. “My stomach hurts again, Mr. Daddy,” she said.

“Just Daddy,” he corrected. “No more ‘Mr.,’ remember?”

She nodded solemnly, her big eyes fixed on his. “Read me a story? Like my Mommy always did?”

He took a book a random from one of his disordered shelves. Sitting on a footstool, he opened the book across his knees. “Once there was a leprechaun named Seamus,” he began. “He lived under a stump in a little girl’s back yard. The girl’s name was Annabelle.” He brightened. “Hey, that rhymes with Mirabel, doesn’t--“

She retched. He leaned forward, the book forgotten, and watched her wipe a string of drool away with the back of her hand. “Sick,” she said, almost inaudibly. “Want water.”

He touched her knee, then hurried to the kitchen. While filling a water glass at the sink he heard a distant thump. Knocking in the water pipes, or something else?

Carrying the water back to the living room, he counseled himself against excitement. Maribel could simply have a stomachache. Even if not... he’d been disappointed before. Maybe the coal dust he’d been mixing into her food made her sick. He hadn’t used much, and thought it would be harmless-- couldn’t you drink powdered charcoal to neutralize poison? Still, little girls could be delicate.

He gave her the water, and she sipped daintily. He picked another book before he sat down. He didn’t want to read about Annabelle anymore. Had there ever been an Annabelle? He couldn’t--

A thump came from the second floor, loud enough to make Mirabel look up. “Just mice,” he said in his reassuring voice, covering his anger at the noise. He wiped absently at a spot of long-dried blood on the brightly-colored book cover, then opened it. “Once a very beautiful princess was born, and her parents invited seven good fairies to her christening. But the bad fairy--“

Mirabel doubled over, dropping her water glass to the carpet. He waited as she wrapped her arms around her waist and dry-heaved a few times.

He sat back, disappointed. Nothing, not even bits of coal-flecked meatloaf.

Then she vomited between her knees, bile and chunks landing on the carpet. He leaned over and picked up the largest object, squinting at it in the dim light as Mirabel moaned.

She’d coughed up an uncut diamond, big as a walnut, speckled with blood. Had the coal dust helped, or would he have achieved these results anyway? He scooped up the other, smaller jewels, still warm from her mouth and insides.

She lifted her head and whimpered. “Mr. Daddy, please.” Her voice rasped, her throat lacerated by diamonds.

He ignored her, carrying the jewels to his desk on the far wall. He turned on a bright light and examined the big diamond with his jeweler’s glass.

He cursed and threw it across the room. Flawed, totally, not even industrial grade. Nothing he could sell. He looked over the other jewels and found only one of decent quality. That mollified him somewhat. Better than nothing.

He put the good diamond in a drawer and returned to Mirabel, who spat up blood instead of gemstones now.

“Darling,” he said. “You did so good.” He picked her up in his arms, heedless of the fluid clotting her hair, smearing his arms. She was so small. Five years old? Six? He couldn’t blame her for the poor output.

“Mr. Daddy,” she said, choking. She whitened, eyes rolling back, and convulsed so violently that he nearly dropped her.

Then she lay still.

He carried her to the basement, creaking down the wooden stairs, smelling lime and something fouler, underneath. He placed Maribel under the stairs with the others.

He went to the second floor, familiar anger growing. The stories made it sound so straightforward. Genies granted wishes, and if you phrased them carefully, they worked. Captured leprechauns provided a pot of gold. The fairy cast a spell, and the bad girls coughed up toads and spiders, while pearls and diamonds fell from the lips of good girls. No blood, no ripped throats, no internal injuries. In the stories, maidens spun straw into gold, they didn’t produce bales of mangy blonde hair, hair like that of long-dead girls--

He kicked the spinning wheel gathering dust on the second floor landing. Useless, and he’d paid so much for it at that antique shop, thinking this won’t hurt them, at least. But it had, because eventually he had to try another approach, and then...

He unfastened the padlock and opened the guest room door, then unlocked the iron security gate, swinging it open with a squeal of hinges. He stepped into the gloom.

His guest, far older than Mirabel or his other occasional daughters, scurried back into a corner, watching him with luminous green eyes, not even struggling in her straitjacket. He’d paid a lot for that, too, and for the iron shackles he used for punishment.

Would he ever turn a profit? He couldn’t let these failures discourage him. That’s what his guest wanted, to be declared useless and set free.

But he’d bound her, and she would serve him.

Just like it worked in the stories.

“You made noise.”

She tensed, every part of her body alert, from her bare feet to her pointed ears.

“Don’t do it again.” He paused. “I got one good diamond.”

His guest visibly relaxed. She shook a lock of greasy red hair from her face. “Enough?” she croaked.

“No.” He picked up the iron poker. Holding it before him like a foil, he advanced on his guest. She made a low noise in her throat, like he imagined a cornered fox would. He put the point close to her left eye. “I have to get another girl. The last one didn’t survive. Will you do better this time? If not... you can do your work blind, right?”

“Yes,” she said, inhuman eyes fixed on the iron point.

He lowered the poker. “You know the one about the goose who laid the golden eggs? I like that one. We’ll try that next. No goose, though. Bigger eggs, this way, I bet.”

His guest no longer bothered to argue. She only nodded, and looked like she would weep, and didn’t.

He went to wash up and find a new daughter.


This is a nasty one. Not a happy story. Like most of my horror fiction (rare stuff, for me), it stems from my fury and outrage over child abuse-- which is just one of the many manifestations of the abuse of power.

The fairy tale is the one about the girl who is "blessed" so that whenever she speaks, pearls and diamonds and rubies fall from her lips. There's another girl in the story, a bad girl, who gets cursed so that frogs, spiders, and worms fall from her lips when she speaks. Obviously, I don't think either option would be very pleasant, in reality.

This was not a fun story to write. I did it at my dad's kitchen table in one quick go during a visit last xmas. Writing it was a little like lancing a boil and letting the nastiness out.

It was published in the September 2000 issue of

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