‘Shit!’ The deep red blood splashed into the water. Demi lifted her thumb to her mouth and sucked on the cut. ‘Shit.’ She repeated, softer. Chucking the potato and the peeler into the sink, she shuffled to the medicine cabinet.

Thumb sufficiently covered with a plaster, Demi resumed peeling the potatoes.

From outside, she heard her daughters singing the old nursery song as they skipped:

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten

She’d told them so many times to say dead and forgotten… Rotten gave her visions of worms and dirt and flesh. Her thumb throbbed.

Whilst she pureed the soup ingredients, a small chuckle escaped. She was thinking about the first time she had made this soup.

‘Potatoes,’ her eldest daughter Livia had declared, ‘are magic.’  This was said with the most seriousness an eight year old could muster; much more than Demi had expected. She had laughed, then, too. Livia had grown even more serious. ‘They are.’ She had insisted. ‘You can have soup and crisps and jacket potatoes and chips and new ’tatoes and mash ’tatoes…’ She had listed several other creative uses for the humble potato, showing off to her younger sisters.

Even now, years on, Demi still referred to potatoes as ‘magic veggies’: this was her ‘magic veg soup’, now, instead of just potato and broccoli.­ It was one of the only things guaranteed to cheer Livia up when she was poorly. Too quickly, she had become a pre-teen, beginning to argue back to her mother. Perversely, Demi liked the times when her daughter had a cold or felt flu-ey. Then­ she would tuck herself up in her childhood bedroom and plaintively ask for a bowl of magic veg soup. Then she was Demi’s baby again.

Her thumb was bleeding through her plaster, and she ripped it off in frustration, replacing it with something sturdier.

‘Sing, sing, what song should I sing? Mary Ann Cotton is tied up in string…

‘Girls! Can’t you pick a different skipping song?! That one is so… morbid!’ Tied up in string, Demi thought. Sounded like they’d trussed the poor woman up like a chicken. Her two youngest, Bethany and Bridget, just stared back. She shouldn’t have said anything – they’d be singing it all night now. Dinner was subdued. Bethany and Bridget had been quiet lately, she’d noticed. Except for the singing and the skipping games, that was where they just wouldn’t be quiet. Kids were funny creatures, Demi mused. She hoped they weren’t prematurely reaching that pre-teen phase that had been so confusing and difficult with Livia. She didn’t want to lose them too, not so soon.

They’re selling puddings for a penny a pair

‘Time for sleep! Brush your teeth and I’ll come and tuck you in!’ She shouted up the stairs.

When she tucked them in, they were smiling sleepily. She kissed both on the forehead, and turned out the light for them. She suspected that they were getting too old for such a routine now, but they still indulged her, so she never brought it up. She liked this part of the night: closing the door on the little ones and knowing they were safe and sound. She did her customary check of the house, making sure there were no boogeymen hidden in the pantry. That had started out as a game, too. When Livia was a little girl, she would be frightened of the boogeyman: she believed he lived in all the cupboards, and would come out at night to take her away. So they would go around on a boogeyman hunt, checking every nook and cranny. He was never there, and Livia would sleep well. It had become habit, ingrained into her skin like blood.

She went down into the cellar, the final stopping place on the boogeyman hunt. The dust made her choke; damp and dry at the same time. Musty. Her finger still hurt, and she cried out when she bashed it against the door jamb. There was a tang of an indescribable smell in the air. Sick sweetness and metal, acrid and pungent. This was the room that Livia had always been frightened of the most. The mustiness, the crumbling walls. But mostly, she was frightened of the tunnel. It wasn’t really a tunnel, Demi had told her time and time again. It was a very narrow corridor that led from the main room to a second cellar. The tunnel and its connecting room had always terrified Livia, even though Demi had told her it had probably held wine when some rich man had owned the house before their family. It didn’t help that there were no electric lights in this second part of the cellar, and Demi had never had the spare money to get it wired up. In fairness, Demi got chills now as she walked through the tunnel, one hand trailing on the cold brick wall, the other clutching a torch.

The pungent smell was getting stronger. The wine cellar was where she kept potatoes now, the ones she dragged out of the struggling vegetable patch almost immediately above it. She hoped they hadn’t begun to rot. She’d have to make more magic soup to use them up.

‘Hello, Livia.’ Demi smiled.

Demi’s eldest daughter said nothing, so Demi started humming as she searched the room.

Mary Ann Cotton she’s dead and she’s rotten. She could picture it now… the rope tightening around the woman’s white neck, the skin purpling, the eyes turning red as the capillaries popped.

‘No boogeyman tonight!’ She said brightly, turning the beam back to her daughter. Thirteen, such a difficult age. The youngest were almost there, and she dreaded the day they too would be too old for games. ‘You’re starting to bloat, Livia. No more magic potatoes for you!’

She was still humming that infernal rhyme as she wound her way back through the tunnel towards the flickering light of the main room. Mary Ann Cotton is tied up in string.

Mary Ann Cotton” is the fourth installment in a writing challenge that passes prompts from one in-house author to the next. The challenge? Authors are limited to only a 1,000 words or less. Can you guess the prompt given to Stephanie Collins? She was challenged by R. Tim Morris who wrote the third installment, “The First Degree“, and his prompt to Stephanie was- Write a scene that incorporates the following three things: A tunnel, a rhyme, and a magical vegetable. How do you think she did?

Stephanie has declared that Matthew Wainwright be our next story prompt victim. Here you go, Matt. Your prompt is a collection of words- “A river, some glitter, and a large, angry bumblebee.” Your take on this can not come soon enough.

3 thoughts on “Mary Ann Cotton

  1. THIS STORY!! I am such a sucker for twisted children’s tales (hands up for the Oncers) and this completely takes the cake on unexpected morbidity…in the very best way. I will never think of cellars and potatoes the same again.


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