There’d been nothing for it but to tell her the truth after that. Tooks found it difficult, not because of having to reveal the numerous falsehoods he’d spun over the past few weeks, but because of the way his mother’s tongue lolled about without the benefit of a jaw to hold it in check. It hung down like some fleshy scarf, twitching from side to side whenever she tried to speak. Which Tooks tried to encourage as little as possible; her speech had degraded slowly as her tongue had drooped lower and lower, and now consisted of little more than wet, indecipherable sounds. Besides, she hardly needed to speak; her furrowed brow and narrowed eyes held every bit of scolding her mouth might have delivered.
“They were going to kill me!” Tooks said plaintively. “It was the only vow I could make they’d believe. And really, what harm did it do? Would you rather be a-moldering in the ground than spending time with your little baby boy?” He immediately regretted the question as his mother’s tongue sloshed around and series of gurgles and popping coughs escaped her. He mustered up his most sincere expression. “I know I wouldn’t trade these days I’ve had with my dear old mum for anything in the world.” He beamed inwardly as he even managed to conjure up a tear or two.
His mother clutched a hand to her chest, then reached out her arms, beckoning him forward. Tooks swallowed, held his breath, and stepped into her embrace. He tried not to wince as he felt her tongue and gooey neck rest against his shoulder, as her claw-like hands clasped his back. But the strangled sound from her throat did sound a bit like a sigh of happiness. His mind wandered back to his childhood, to the night he’d run home after a Crown Company had nabbed Jenner and nearly caught Tooks in the bargain. He’d been scared and angry and gasping for breath, and his mother had held him close and told him it was going to be all right. He barely reached her waist back then, and she smelled more of soap and beets than rotting death, but you take your childhood memories where you can get them.
A piercing scream broke Tooks from his reverie. The door to the cottage stood open, and in it was Widow Mabben, carrying a basket of eggs. Although continuing to claim no knowledge of the whereabouts of Hennald’s roof-climbing chicken, she somehow managed to maintain a supply of fresh eggs she’d sometimes share with her neighbors. This batch was promptly shared with the floor, as she raised her hands and let out another scream. Tooks glanced at his mother, whose tongue was wagging again, and who looked for all the world like she was offering the old woman a nice cup of tea.
“Widow Mabben!” Tooks said, quickly ushering her outside and shutting the door behind him. “What a pleasant surprise!”
The widow screamed again.
“What brings you by on this lovely day?”
The widow screamed again.
“You don’t say.”
The widow screamed again. The nearest house was a good distance away, but Mabben had a surprising amount of volume for a seemingly frail old woman.
“Look,” Tooks said quietly, “I don’t know what you thought you saw in there what’s got you all in this state. But I swear, it ain’t what you thought you saw in there, it ain’t.”
The widow took a breath as if to scream again, but no sound came out. She awkwardly worked her mouth, eyes wide, her left side suddenly limp. Then, with a squeak, she fell to the ground and lay still.
Tooks collapsed exhausted into his bed. His mother was still fussing over the broken eggs on the floor when he returned, covered in dirt and sweat. The ground had proven surprisingly difficult to break, and he’d had to dig deep to properly hide away Widow Mabben. He probably should have washed up, but the thought of remaining upright another minute was entirely repellent to him. His mother mushily tried to say something, probably scolding him for tracking mud through the spot she’d been cleaning, but her attempted words soon faded into nothingness. Sleep claimed him, and fatigue filled his dreams with thoughts of wayward chickens clucking in the voice of old neighbors.
He awoke to what he thought were voices, but that couldn’t be possible. His mother was currently slurring her tongue all over the place, and they weren’t exactly taking visitors. He blinked and shook his head, grains of dirt flying from his hair. No, those were definitely voices. He sat up in bed and looked toward the kitchen table.
His mother sat there chatting away, a kerchief wrapped around her head, underneath her previously missing jaw. Her words were thick, and she occasionally had to repeat herself as her jaw slipped a bit, but it was a definite improvement over the previous day’s horror show. Across the table from her, another figure sat, somewhat slumped over and covered in a thick layer of dirt.
“Oh, look who’sh awake!” his mother said in as chirpy a tone as she could manage through her makeshift jaw. “Tooksh, thish ish Hedga Mabben.” Widow Mabben smiled as she took a sip of tea.
Tooks sighed. “Sure. What’s another one?”