The Demon in the Door
By N. E. White
The demon in the door screamed when Dohn poked its eye.
A shudder ran through the house and a heartbeat later, Dohn heard her mother echo the demon’s pain.
She stormed into the foyer, a hand cupped over one eye. She yanked the stick from Dohn’s hand and held it aloft, ready to strike.
“Why did you do that?” she demanded.
Dohn forced her gaze to meet the demon’s.
It squirmed in its perch in the center of the open door. Unlike her mother, it did not have a hand to cover its wound nor could it attack as it was trapped, held by blood, magic, and dark deeds. A thick, yellowish substance oozed from the small puncture Dohn had inflicted. It stank of lies and deceit.
Someone passed by on the street outside, dragging a pullcart behind them. They peered in, but did not break their stride.
“It let Master Wu in,” Dohn said.
Her mother slammed the door shut, putting the demon’s face out in the street. There was a pattern of ten bolts on the inside, securing the demon in place. Dohn always thought of those bolts as the demon’s butt. She stared at it while her mother lectured.
“I invited Master Wu,” her mother said. “The demon was doing as it was told. Never touch it again. And you be nice to Master Wu. Who else will take an ugly girl like you in marriage?”
Dohn shifted her gaze to the floor, the slimy feel of Master Wu’s breath still on her neck. She wanted to ask why she had to be married at all. Had not her mother done well after their father abandoned them, single-handedly managing to secure a home with a demon of its own? But she kept her mouth shut for to answer thus would result in a worse beating.
Hunching her shoulders and closing her eyes, Dohn waited for the blows. When they came, Dohn silently vowed she would never marry.
The next day, as Dohn dressed to hawk her mother’s wares, to earn the money that sent her brothers to boarding school, the demon whispered in her ear.
At first, she thought it only the wind, pushing through the inner courtyard and out a gap between her window sill and wall. But it came again.
“Come and look,” it said.
Dohn knew she should ignore the door. Yesterday it had lured her to the foyer in much the same way, to be caught in Master Wu’s groping hands, the demon looking on with hunger in its wooden eyes.
But the whispers followed her to the hot kitchen and into the back rooms where square linen bundles lined a wall, ready for Dohn to wrap the pastries she would sell. She should have stayed in that room, preparing for the day, but the demon’s voice bored into her head until she thought the very walls spoke to her.
“What do you want?” she asked when she opened the front door to face the demon.
The morning dawn had yet to lighten the world and darkness shrouded the street beyond. She could just make out the edge of the cobbled lane. Something moved in the shadows. Dohn squinted and would have retreated, but the demon spoke.
“Master Wu does not intend to marry you,” it said.
Its voice emanated in her head, even though its lips moved with the susurrus of wood scraping. Though the rest of the door was bolted iron, the demon itself was made of wood the color of blood.
Ugly or not, she did not care if Master Wu did not want to marry her.
“So what?” she answered.
“Ha!” the demon barked in her mind. “Do not pretend to not care, daughter. Your mother cares. And she will do everything in her power to get rid of you.”
“Get rid of me?”
“Don’t you see?” it said. “She knows you better than yourself, little one. She knows you are capable of her same deeds.”
“I will not marry Master Wu,” she said.
“Then he will have his way with you and pay your mother a chicken, maybe two.”
Dohn said nothing, thinking back to the days immediately after their father left and the drunken men who visited her mother’s bedroom late at night.
“Then someone else will come,” it said. “Maybe Master Quin whose wife passed on twenty years ago. Or maybe a visiting businessman. Or maybe the king’s soldiers on their way to the Wudji mountains.”
“Where are you going?” Dohn’s mother said.
Dohn jumped and slammed the door shut.
“Do you think you can leave?” her mother added. “You wouldn’t survive long. You’ll starve and be stolen by bandits and made into their whore. Is that what you want? To be a whore?”
Dohn wanted to ask if that was what she hoped to make of her, but silence, Dohn had found, served better than words.
“Go wrap the bread,” her mother finally said.
The next day, after hours of trudging along the main highway, waving her parcels and shouting prices into the dusty air, Dohn came to stand before the door. When she placed her hand on the handle the demon whispered in her mind.
“There’s someone waiting for you,” it said.
Against Dohn’s better judgment, she asked, “Who?”
“Not Master Wu,” it said. “Another man. He said he wanted you with the grime and scents of the road still on you.”
Dohn scowled at the demon. Her hand slid off the handle and she glanced to each side.
Some neighbors swept their thresholds, others hurried to finish late afternoon errands, and several stood in knots trading gossip. An old man caught her gaze, winked, and then wiggled his eyebrows.
“What should I do?” she whispered back to the door.
The next day, long before first light, before even her mother would rise to stoke the bread oven, Dohn snuck into her mother’s room. The kitchen knife’s handle felt hot in her hand, as if it would scorch her skin.
She stood in the dark and thought of the previous day. After the demon outlined its plan, Dohn had indeed walked into a home with a strange man in it. But he paid no attention to Dohn. He and her mother haggled over the price of flour before he left promising to deliver next week’s bags himself. He had patted her head when he left, but nothing more.
Was the demon lying?
Her mother snorted and rolled away.
Dohn jumped back, clamping a hand over her mouth to stifle an involuntary gasp.
Did it matter if it lied?
Her mother wanted her to marry Master Wu. His first wife still lived. If Dohn went to his household, she would be no more than a slave, answering to his senior wife along with carrying the weight of servicing him until the day she died – for free.
The demon’s voice echoed, “If not Master Wu, someone else…”
Walking to the other side of the bed, Dohn twisted the knife in her hand.
It was not a large knife, but it did not need to be for this work.
As the demon had instructed, she plunged the blade beneath her mother’s chin, angling back and against her spine.
Her mother clutched at her throat, a wet strangled sound erupted from her. She batted at Dohn, but she held the knife firm. When her mother’s movements stilled, and all her blood soaked the bed red, Dohn made the other cuts the demon required.
When Dohn presented her mother’s heart to the demon, the streets were black and empty.
The soft sounds of bats coming in to roost for the day fluttered above her and a shiver went up her spine when a breeze chased them beneath the roof.
“You did well, child,” the demon said.
Its short tongue padded its lips in anticipation of its bloody meal.
“Hold it nearer, child,” it said. “Closer…”
Dohn lent in but kept her mother’s heart out of the demon’s reach.
“Where would you go, Demon?” Dohn asked. “You’ll only get caught again.”
The demon spat splinters and howled in Dohn’s mind.
“Bitch!” it said. “Do not betray me. Give me the heart!”
The demon shook the house. A light flared in a neighbor’s house and sleeping doves cooed in alarm.
Dohn shook her head from side to side.
“No, demon,” she said, and took a bite from her mother’s heart. It tasted of rot and greed, and she nearly gagged.
The demon cursed, and strained to leave the door, but the ancient ties made of stolen lives held strong.
Forcing her mother’s flesh down, Dohn showed the demon her crimson-stained teeth.
“You are mine to control now,” Dohn added. “And this is my house.”
* * *
A week later, the flour man arrived with his bags of milled grain.
The demon did not let him enter, instead making him wait outside in the dust and stench of the street. When the lady of the house finally cracked the door open, the flour merchant started at the sight of the girl. She wore a black, silk dress. The fabric hugged her thin hips and budding breasts. Heat flooded his neck as evil thoughts ran through his mind.
“Where’s your mother, child,” he said.
“She has left the city, following the path of a wandering minstrel,” the girl said, her voice much too loud.
A passing neighbor turned towards them, then looked away when the girl’s dark gaze met theirs.
“We had a deal,” the merchant said. “I expect my full price for this flour.”
The girl looked at the bags with disdain and then cocked her head to one side. Opening the door wide, she offered an innocent smile.
“Of course,” she said. “I will honor my mother’s wishes.”