By the Pricking of My Thumbs

CW: animal harm, sexual assault, character death, implied murder

“Auntie Liza, do ladies really kill men with their hatpins?”

“Constance!” her mother snapped. “What have I told you about speaking of such things?”

“A lady doesn’t repeat rumors,” seven-year-old Constance said by rote. Constance thought this was a silly rule. It made sense for dumb things like who might have danced with whom at a ball or whether a young lady’s dress was a hand-me-down, but not for something interesting like this. Not for murder.

“It’s a story men made up,” Auntie Liza explained. Auntie Liza always explained, which was why Constance asked her and not Mama in the first place. “Sometimes, men do things to women that they oughtn’t, and a hatpin is often a woman’s only means of defense. Men don’t like being caught out or pricked with hatpins, so they spread stories about murder in the hopes that women will stop defending themselves and men can go on doing what they wish without retaliation.”

“What kinds of things oughtn’t men do to women?” Constance wanted to know.

“Well,” Auntie Liza said, pulling a small, white mouse from its cage and dropping it into the much larger cage where her King Snake Josiah lived, “that’s something for you to learn about when you’re older. You needn’t worry about it now.”

Constance was distracted from asking further questions by the sight of Josiah curling around the terrified mouse and swallowing it down whole. Constance wondered how long it took for the mouse to die.

Constance was thirteen when she discovered what it was that men oughtn’t do to women. She didn’t see the man who did it. The street was crowded with Saturday morning shoppers. But she felt it, the rough and clearly intentional squeeze of a hand on her breast.

Constance froze, too shocked to respond. She scanned the crowd to try to identify the culprit, but everyone around her was going about their business as if nothing had happened. She hurried home, unsettled and ashamed.

After that, Constance never went out without an exceedingly sharp hatpin, even though she pricked her own fingers getting them set the first several months. She found she often had use for them.

Auntie Liza passed away when Constance was sixteen. Constance was inconsolable. Auntie Liza had never married, and left what meager fortune she had to Constance, including a set of sharp-tipped hatpins that came with a note: Use them well. The note made Constance smile even in her grief, and she began wearing Auntie Liza’s hatpins whenever she had need of one.

The first time Constance used one of Auntie Liza’s pins for anything other than securing her hat was early on a Wednesday evening. It was just after dark, and later than Constance would normally be out walking alone, but she’d gotten caught up at the tea shop.

It happened without warning as she turned down the narrow street toward home, emptier than the street she’d just left. A man in a fine wool coat turned with her and in seconds had her pinned up against the rough brick wall of the bakery, out of sight of those passing by along the busy street they’d just left.

On instinct, Constance reached for her hat. She managed to grab Auntie Liza’s pin, but not to use it before a strong hand pinned both her wrists together at her waist.

“Don’t do this.” Constance hated the tremor in her voice. “Let me go.”

“Don’t be like that, sweetheart.” The man’s voice was pleasant and genteel, a sharp contrast to the violence of the hand pawing at her bodice. “You wouldn’t be out alone after dark if this weren’t what you were looking for.”

Constance twisted her wrist to get the right angle. The man laughed; he thought she was trying to break free. Instead, she pushed forward, a move he wasn’t expecting. Her hands were shaking, but her aim was true as she jabbed the pin into the soft flesh at the seam of his thigh.

She meant to startle him into loosening his grip and was gratified when his hands dropped away from her completely. Then, the man made a startled hiccuping noise and promptly transformed into a small, white mouse.

Constance stared at the mouse. The mouse stared back. Constance glanced quickly around to be sure no one was watching, then scooped the mouse into her reticule and continued on her way home.

Two days later, Constance acquired herself a Royal Python. She named him Balthazar, and he lived for many years. Balthazar was always well-fed.