The Imposter: Chapter IV

The following is a sample chapter from a Southern Gothic horror novel I am currently revising for a final draft before sending it to a publisher.  It is written from the perspective of a Welshman invited to a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana to court the heiress (alongside several other potential suitors).  Things go awry, and things go bump in the night, and horror soon ensues.

Chapter IV. Prisoner

A violent storm batters Louisiana for three days and three nights. We remain indoors as the rain and the winds blind every window of the Sugar Palace and make a swamp of the surrounding grounds. The thunder is a deafening cannonade. The lightning is a crackling, epileptic sunrise at midnight. Miss Arabella sobs inconsolably as the elements boom and bang in their clamorous uproar. Miss Lucille mocks her, although her own voice is lost in the tumult beyond the walls. Even I feel the effects of the protracted storm. It is like a madness outside myself that soon takes residence within my own skull. I think of the Choctaw shaman and the two entities he spoke of and their marital quarrel in the sky. I should never wish to be a prisoner of a marriage so beset with such intense conflicts. I would rather remain a bachelor.
Or so I deceive myself.
There is a certain tyranny in the storm, and within the Sugar Palace. The torrential rains deafen everyone. I do not mind, but it chafes on the others. They cannot hear themselves speak, and that is what vexes them most, I believe. While the howling winds and the crackling tumult can distract with their baffling bombardment, it is all a welcome diversion. Often I sit in my room and read. At times when the storm abates briefly, I walk out of the French doors of my room and stand on the porch, watching the rain fall like a gigantic cataract from the sky, pouring down the overhangs of the Sugar Palace. The grounds are nigh a swamp, or at least they are wherever visible through the darkening deluge. Sometimes I think the Sugar Palace will be swept away, or will melt like a sugar cone in frothy tides.
Yet, no matter how violent the storm, it may not endure forever. When the sky calms, at last, and the blackest clouds disperse like a murder of crows, we venture outdoors to survey the carnage. The Sugar Palace has sustained only superficial damage. A handful of the ancient trees have been felled by the storm and the pond has swollen, bursting to bleed amidst the garden hedges. The gardens are a mess of leaves and petals in disarray. Worst of all are the slave cabins. Three collapsed during the storm, killing thirty-seven slaves. The slaves that survived sought shelter within the other crowded cabins. Mr. Doucette would hear nothing of funeral arrangements, however, and has ordered the slaves to begin at once on the repairs to the estate. But he needs materials to repair the Sugar Palace and its grounds. Thus, Mr. Doucette sends Mr. Boucher, a team of men, several horses and wagons to the plantation’s lumber mill to process the fallen trees for repairs.
In the meantime, Mr. Doucette dispatches a White rider to survey the road leading to the seaside dock. He returns to report that trees have been toppled all along the road, making traversal nigh impossible without first clearing the trees. Worse, the Mississippi River has risen, distending and becoming wroth with whitewater rapids. It cannot be floated or forded safely. Thus, I am a prisoner of Fate and must remain in the Sugar Palace for the time being.

The storm now gone, the stifling Louisiana heat returns with a sweltering wrath. While the White labourers and the Negro slaves see to repairs, the more privileged among us retreat to the cooler rooms on the West side of the Sugar Palace. It is a comfortably furnished parlour with oak furniture sufficient to seat the guests, the hosts, and whatever ghosts cling to the Doucette edifice. Reluctant though I am to be among this company once more, I take a leather chair near the window. The walls of this particular room are quite peculiar. Rather than wallpaper, they are painted with a mural of Louisiana itself: trees hung with Spanish moss, cranes and herons, swamp pools crowded with fish, turtles, alligators, and such, and plants of diverse varieties all springing up from along the top of the wainscoting. It is both garish and strangely alluring. The room seems dark, despite the daylight, and it feels as if I am wandering along the swamp’s edge, soon to meet the Choctaw shaman once again. I henceforth refer to this room as the Swamp Room.
Yet, while I am quite keen to understand the origins of the murals, I am not so keen as to inquire. No one is of a particularly jolly mood, except, perhaps, Miss Arabella. She sits beside her sister, on the sofa, singing.
“A frog went a-courting, away did ride. A frog went a-courting, sword and pistol by his side…”
“Be quiet, you ruinous child!” Miss Lucille snaps, swatting her sister’s shoulder with her fan. “It is enough torment to suffer storms and then heat without having to endure your abhorrent voice!”
Miss Arabella—cut to the quick—looks to her father to champion her.
“Daddy!” she mewls.
Her father sits in a wide-lapped leather chair near the fireplace, dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief.
“Bella, my dear,” he says, “no one may speak while you are singing. And we must think of our guests after so long a storm spent with nothing to do but listen to the rain and thunder.”
Miss Arabella pouts, folding her arms across her green French dress. Her elder sister smiles briefly, pleased by her small victory, but soon tires of the stagnant air…and the stagnating conversation.
“Where is that wretched girl?!” Miss Lucille demands. “Caroline? Caroline?! My God, we are melting and that lazy girl has yet to bring us our morning refreshments! I am of a mind to have her tied to stones and thrown into the swamp!”
“It will get hotter by the hour,” Mr. Lutz says, doffing his cravat and loosening the collar of his white undershirt. “Our Lady Louisiana has yet to make her dazzling debut. She is only now preparing in front of her vanity mirror.”
“Very droll, William,” Miss Arabella says, sighing and laying longwise on the sofa, nearly kicking her sister. She looks like Cleopatra after the asp has kissed her heart. “I should like to die.”
“Hush, you diminutive imp,” Miss Lucille snaps. “No one wishes to hear your complaints!”
“You were complaining yourself!” Miss Arabella says.
“Yes, about that stupid slave girl,” Miss Lucille says. “Not the weather. The weather is a fool’s complaint, whereas criticizing servants can, and will, lead to reform. You are merely whining at the sun. Do you believe whining at the sun will change its course?”
Miss Arabella leaps up from the sofa, glowering at her sister.
“I wish you were never born!” Miss Arabella yells.
“And I wish you were never born,” Miss Lucille says quietly. “Mother would still be among us, were it so.”
Miss Arabella’s green eyes brim with tears and she flees from the Swamp Room, sobbing loudly. Miss Lucille sighs in aggravation, looking again to the door in anticipation of refreshments.
“I will have her tied to stones and thrown into the river,” she says to herself.
Mr. Beaux—erstwhile fanning himself with his wig—suddenly rises to his feet. He goes to the pianoforte near the ash-mouthed fireplace.
“Let us have some music,” Mr. Beaux says, looking expectantly at Miss Lucille. “It would be a welcome diversion to this heat.”
Lucille rolls her eyes and affects a smile. “If only it were possible, sir. But you see that neither myself nor my sister has learned to play. We are wanting in our discipline.”
“And yet you have such a fine pianoforte!” Mr. Lutz says, also inspecting the piano. He runs his hand across the polished dark wood. “My sister, Isabelle, plays, and quite well at that.”
“Praiseworthy as your sister must be,” Miss Lucille says with some irritation, “I am not disposed to believe a lady’s life to be one dedicated to the entertainment of others. Rather, it is a life she must conduct as her whims command.”
“It is still a shame about the music,” Mr. Beaux says. “I would have delighted in it!”
Fanning herself furiously, Miss Lucille sneers. “Then perhaps, gentlemen, one among you should benefit from lessons!”
She stands up from the sofa and leaves, her petticoats sweeping angrily along the Turkish rug and the black tile. Her father follows after her, breathlessly pleading.
“Lucy, you mustn’t belittle your suitors…”
Meanwhile, the General snorts in contempt.
“Men taking piano lessons?” he remarks. “Preposterous! It is a womanly diversion. The only music proper for a man of dignity is the marching drum! Anything else is fanciful nonsense!”
“On this, sir, we must disagree,” Mr. Beaux says with all the ire of a peacock. “The finer arts can be pursued by man and woman alike. Moreover, I believe it incumbent upon all men to pursue the arts, otherwise we are mere animals sporting tailored clothing. Nothing more!”
“Naturally you would think so” General Davis retorts, his bullish face hardening. “But a French dandy such as yourself is as removed from manhood as any cloistered nun. Have you ever killed an animal before? I doubt it!”
“Any beast may kill another beast,” Mr. Beaux says, one gloved hand on his hip as if there is a dagger beneath his frock coat. “But not all men may recite Moliere to kill the hypocrisies of the world!”
The General’s eyes narrow above his hawkish nose. “No one cares what you have to say, you pasty-faced fop!”
The General turns on his heel and leaves, his boots clacking on the tiled floor with a war march of their own.
“Mon Dieu!” Mr. Beaux exclaims. “Le Philistin!”
He leaves as well, but leaves through the same door through which Miss Arabella left. It suddenly seems to me that the Sugar Palace was designed so as to separate strong egos from one another when at an antagonistic impasse. Quite considerate of the architect. He must have been a man of perspicacious forethought.
Now only myself and Mr. Lutz remain. Mr. Lutz walks to one of the many windows arraying the room. He peers out the pane with a slight smirk playing about his lips, his arms clasped behind his back. He speaks aloud, though whether for the benefit of myself or himself, I do not know.
“There is bait for every kind of fish,” he says, “but only a master fisherman knows which, when, and where to use it.” His fair eyebrows hop with complacent pleasure. “And a master fisherman can play with his catch at his leisure.”
Mr. Lutz heads to the door, pausing at the threshold.
“There is no pleasure in an easy catch,” he says. “You could at least attempt to ingratiate yourself with our Lovely Lucy. The boorish General and the powdery dandy are but little competition, and I am at my best only when there is competition to be had.”
He exits.
Now alone, I preoccupy myself with a poetry book, though truthfully it is too hot to retain any of the words my eyes pass over. The greater preoccupation is the sweat of my brow, which I dab vigorously with a handkerchief in intermittent intervals. Defeated, I set aside my book and take a turn about the room. There is a gaudy chandelier overtopping the room, as there seems to be in every room and hallway throughout the Sugar Palace. Its ostentatious crystals would embarrass a Mogul’s harem. It is so heavily laden with crystals that it inspires in me a certain paranoia, and so I avoid walking directly beneath it, lest its fastener succumb to its weight and drop the whole upon my head.
I inhale deeply, and exhale. The air is thick and stifling, like wool in the lungs. The Louisiana heat invades the body like a djinn, and one’s temper rises alongside one’s temperature. The sun has yet to gaze into the Swamp room’s windows, and there are trees aplenty pooling their shadows all around—yet the heat reaches in here like the breath of a demon. It is inescapable, and thus all the more infuriating.
Determined to distract myself, I go to the pianoforte and sit down. I can play the piano, albeit not so well as I should like. Yet, despite my lack of proficiency, I do so thrill in the cascading notes and melodies, the pitching vales of trickling notes, and the crescendoing uplands of jangling highs. Indeed, piano music reminds me of my Welsh romps when still a youth. There is nothing so mesmerizing as the notes of a piano floating through an open window and out to a passing lad as he heads into the wilderness. At such times he thinks he is on the trail of the Sidhe. If he only runs swiftly enough he may find them just around the bend of a woods or over the crest of a hill; perhaps swerving between the standing stones atop a mountain.
I am reminded of the fairy woman on the island in the center of the tarn. I cannot recall her face, and it wounds me. All that remains of her are words and feelings. The image of her has vanished like a dream. She is no more solid now than an abstracted emotion, like restlessness or nostalgia.
Now I am truly and utterly upset. Seeking diversion, I settle my nervous fingers among the piano’s ivory. After a few trepid taps of my fingertips, my anxiety loosens, alongside the ligaments of my hands, and I begin to play a scrap of improvisation. It is unwieldy at first, but soon smooths itself into a melancholy little memory that commiserates with me and my present circumstances. I am so taken with its consolation that I do not hear Caroline approach. She stands nearby, patiently waiting—or so I imagine—with a tray of tea and biscuits in her hands. At length, I stop.
“That is beautiful, Mr. Machen, sir,” Caroline says.
“Thank you,” I say. I continue to play, but speak to Caroline over the softly rambling melody. “By the way, Caroline, why is it that you do not refer to me as Lord Machen? It is no matter to me, truly, for I have told you once before that you may call me Bram, if you like, but I am curious why only you, among all others, refer to me as Mr. Machen.”
“There is only one Lord in my life, Mr. Machen,” she says. “And that is the Lord, our God.”
“I see,” I say. “Fair enough.”
There is a long moment when she simply watches me run my fingers across the keys like scuttling crabs. The moment passes and Caroline glances about, flustered.
“Where have Miss Doucette and her other guests gone to?” she asks.
“To the four winds, I am afraid,” I say. “But I will gladly take tea, if you do not mind.”
Caroline nods and sets the tray upon a small table nearby. She hands me a glass of tea, in the Southern American style. Cold and sweet. I take a sip. By the look on my face Caroline intimates my misgivings.
“Is the tea not good, sir?”
“I am sure it is an excellent tea for the Louisiana heat,” I say, staring at the sweetened liquid. “And I did very much like the ginger tea you have made for me beforehand. But this…saccharine water. Forgive me, Caroline, and do not take offense. It is just that I am accustomed to the tea of my native land. Hot and bitter, or else spicy, you see, to help cope with the cold rain.”
“Sounds miserable, sir,” Caroline says.
“It can be,” I say, sighing as the heat builds within my collar. “Just as this heat can be miserable here. But there is beauty in everything, if you can only study it long enough to see it.”
A long pause passes again, and I preoccupy myself with another sip of the saccharine tea. Caroline remains standing by the piano, shuffling a little and fidgeting with her white apron. Her hands are so dark, and yet not uncomely. They are merely different than my habituated experience.
“Is that sad music also from your country?” she asks.
I tap at the keys a little. “Perhaps. I do not know. I play, and not all too well, but whatever it is that comes seems to mete my mood accurately enough.”
“It is a fine thing,” she says, “to hear the piano played. I dust it, you know, and it always seems so lonely. The mistress played this piano, but it has not been touched since she passed on.”
“And what do you know of the late Mrs. Doucette?”
Caroline’s fidgeting increases. She wrings her hands in the manner of Lady Macbeth, though I doubt she has any such sins on her hands.
“I really shouldn’t say, sir. It is not good to speak ill of the dead.”
“That tells me enough,” I say. “But it seems that the Doucettes miss her.”
“Yes, sir, they do.”
“We all have mistresses whom we miss very much.”
A brief spasm of confusion twists Caroline’s eyebrows.
“That is all, Caroline,” I say. “Thank you.”
Caroline nods again, then lifts the tray from the table. “Is there anything else you need, Mr. Machen?”
“No, Caroline.”
I tap at the keys once again and Caroline heads toward the door.
“Caroline,” I call after her.
She pauses, looking back. “Yes, Mr. Machen?”
“I should warn you that Miss Lucille is in a terrible mood. She was unhappy that the tea was not brought more quickly.”
“Course she would be,” Caroline says. “And she will be angrier when she learns that Martha has gone missing. That’s why I was so late bringing the tea. I was looking for Martha.”
“Martha?” I say, trying to recall the woman. I remember, vaguely, a large black woman with a dimpled smile who brought food to the dining hall. “Oh yes. I remember her. I hope nothing untoward has come of her.”
“She’s likely fine, sir,” Caroline says, though the look on her face contradicts her words. “Just got into some rum and fell asleep in the woods again. She has a bad habit of it.”
Caroline nods to me once more and leaves the Swamp Room. I play at the piano for quarter of an hour longer, then go to the window through which Mr. Lutz had been staring. Beyond the pane—and beyond the porch and colonnade and down on the ground level—the damaged gazebo sits amidst the damaged garden. Miss Lucille, her father, and Mr. Lutz all sit together in easy camaraderie. Seeing them thus, I wonder what Miss Lucille’s aim is in having invited so many suitors to pursue her attachment when the obvious choice is set before her. Her vanity, likely. Perhaps her father believes his “empire” will retain such cordial connections even after she has married one at loss to the others. Surely she would not invite more. Would she?

I leave the Swamp Room and walk the halls, looking upon the portraits lining the walls in gilded frames. The Doucette family tree spends much of its time honouring its own roots. Patriarchs abound through the halls, their scheming stares always anticipating and following your approach. If I were to marry Miss Lucille—and I should never do so—I would have the portraits taken down and hidden away in some attic or basement. Let the ghosts take to the cellar, perhaps, and so better befit their surroundings. There are other paintings which I might keep affixed for my leisurely appraisals. The maritime paintings are pleasant enough, and so, too, the Louisiana landscapes. There are a few paintings from European artists which I would keep, depicting either ancient Athens or Rome or their shared mythological figures. Still-lifes have never appealed to me and I would add them to the cellar, letting the painted grapes ferment to moldy wine.
As I walk I overhear two voices speaking in French. I am not fluent and do not pretend to understand the import of the conversation. However, I recognize one of the voices, and I can deduce what its tone indicates. It is Miss Arabella and she speaks from great pleasure while suffering a raucous fit of laughter. The other voice I cannot identify, and would find difficult to identify were he speaking English. It is unlike any voice I have heard within the walls of the Sugar Palace. Whoever he is, he pleases Miss Arabella much more than any other person in the house, including her father. She laughs with such abandon that I almost feel that it is inappropriate. She is young, and the man— whoever he may be—is of equal age to myself, or greater, and speaks firmly with a masculine baritone.
I do not know where they are, and cannot seem to locate them. The halls and corridors of the Sugar Palace play with voices, deceiving a listener as if fairies are flitting about, mimicking voices from various directions. One might as well chase a will o’ the wisp in the swamp. One would be all headlong and head-wrong with the needless bother of it.
Tired of being indoors, I go outside to survey the damage suffered from the storm. Mr. Boucher and the other White labourers oversee many groups of Negroes as the latter work hard in the terrible heat to repair the grounds. The Doucette plantation has hundreds of Negroes, if not thousands. Thus, there is much sawing and chopping of wood, much loading of debris and detritus onto horse-drawn wagons, and much swearing against the workers.
“Don’t you dare dawdle, you lazy niggers!” Mr. Boucher yells. “Or I will whip your hides red!”
Finding this all unpleasant, I retreat to the far side of the Sugar Palace; a side where no one is working or yelling or blaspheming the quietude of a man in desperate need of its sacred sermons. There are trees fallen here, at the edge of the swamp, and the ruin of a shed smashed beneath an old oak. Much work lays ahead before this area is rectified. In the meantime, it is relatively quiet and I find myself in easy, albeit balmy, solitude. The grass—previously flooded with torrential rain—is now mostly dry. The Louisiana heat is efficient at drying the verdure, and the tongue. That said, the swamp is still swollen with the previous rains and intrudes upon the grounds more than ever before. Its dark waters lap between the fallen oaks. It is a surreptitious, insidious conqueror indeed.
Feeling somewhat adventurous, I climb atop a fallen oak and stand on its trunk, looking out toward the storm-bloated swamp. Even in midday the swamp is shadowy. The cypress trees stand like ancient, solemn titans guarding the hallway to heathen gods and forgotten rites. I wonder if on cloudy days there might be an island that appears somewhere in that expanse of tree-columned wetland and, perhaps, on that island there is a ring of trees, and within those trees a standing stone, and within that standing stone a door. The wild fancy of it nearly sends me into the water to seek her. But I refrain. I am not so much an impetuous fool as I sometimes fear I am.
There are no animals in the swamp. No insects, no birds, no lizards or mammals. True, they fled inland only days ago to escape the storm, but I would think that the birds, at least, would have returned by now. Yet they have not. The swamp is bereft of life. Even so, the vacancy seems one of deception rather than genuine emptiness. A presence lurks beneath the stillness and the silence, waiting to spring forth when least expected. Or so I divine.
Sweating now, I climb down from the tree and walk a little farther along the distended swamp. I wish I was a youth again. How delighted I would be on such a day as this! And yet I feel the heat keenly. This black frock coat lends no shelter from the balmy day. Instead, it traps and accumulates the heat like a dragon accumulating fire, soon to belch or else burst. I am tempted to shed everything—frock to trousers to boots—and lounge in the shade of a tree like a naked beast until society demands my conformity once again. I am wholly envious of the American Indian and his more practical attire. I would gladly give away a wardrobe brimming with London fashion for the comfort of a loincloth at this moment. Alas, my present attire is all I have to my name. All other comforts have been sold in the desperate attempts my parents have made to conserve the Machen estate.
And all for naught.
A diversion comes along to distract from the heat and my family’s ruination. At last I find life! Amphibious life at the threshold of the swamp and the Doucette grounds. I see two frogs in the grass. They are bullfrogs, judging by their size. They are olive green along their backs and heads, and pale gray along their underbellies. I have read of the bullfrogs in America. The smaller frog is male, denoted by the yellow patch of skin beneath his mouth, and the larger frog is female. These two are, as I understand it, engaged in courtship.
I am, of course, wrong. The smaller frog begins to move away from the larger frog, moving in that squat-legged crawl of caution that frogs use when not leaping away in excited fright. It seems that the courtship is over before it has begun. Or so I think.
I am, again, wrong.
The larger frog suddenly springs for the smaller frog, mouth wide as she propels her broad body with surprising speed at her suitor. Her mouth and her pudgy hands clamp onto the smaller frog, shoving him into her gaping maw without hesitation or remorse. I lean forward, both horrified and fascinated. Gulp by gulp the larger female swallows the smaller male. She sits in complacent idiocy, beady black eyes atop a wide mouth. Her eyes are unfeeling, almost imbecilic, and her bump-riddled corpulence swells. She is a swollen-flanked cannibal, her throat engorged with her yet-struggling victim, the male’s strangely manlike legs still kicking desperately as he is drawn—one violent gulp at a time—down her voracious gullet.
The betrayal is done. Lady Ragnell has devoured her suitor. A Loathly Lady, indeed, and with warty skin not unlike the cursed hag of the story. By daylight or night, she is a monstrous thing to behold. I suppress an urge to step upon the foul creature and snuff it out. But then I wonder: should I truly begrudge a creature for its natural behaviours, however abhorrent? One might as well question the colour of the sky or the warmth of the sun or the love of a mother for her child. Things are as they are, and no amount of questioning will alter them. To blame the world is amiss of the matter. One must place blame elsewhere; upon gods, for instance.
Deus vult.
Nonetheless— despite my reasoning—Nature may abhor us all. Feeling nauseated, I look away before the utter finality of the encounter. I take a deep breath and try to regain my composure. This does not help, so I go walking for a time, trying to escape the image of the legs kicking in futility. But I can no more escape the image of the cannibalism than the smaller frog could escape his death. It haunts me for the remainder of the day. I wonder if the imps of Hell resemble frogs. Perhaps they do. Perhaps lost souls grow bloated on sin until they are malformed and gluttonous like frogs.

Another Children’s Book Chapter Sample




After my oath, and the passing of night into morning, they took me as far from the farm as I had ever been. We followed the road that the Man used for his Truck, and I was surprised to find that it led to yet more roads. Bigger roads. Longer roads. Roads that were so broad that they were marked to split them in two. There were more Trucks and Cars here than I had ever seen. They drove by at speeds that no Cat could outrun, nor any Dog or Bird. The Trucks screamed in fury as they passed.
“Look upon this road,” Claw told me. “What do you see?”
“I see Cars,” I said. “And Trucks. And bigger Trucks.” A gigantic Truck rushed by, slamming its winds against us as it pulled a rectangle nearly as large as a barn.
“What else do you see?” Claw asked.
The morning light was bright as the sun rose over the distant hills, spilling its golden broth into the valley. I saw dark heaps of shadow here and there upon the road. They looked like clumps of mud and grass at first, and then they looked like something else; something horrible. I looked away. Haggard, crimson-stained hair rustled in the wind.
“This is what the world of Man promises us,” Claw said. “This is what happens to us as Man conquers the earth, cutting down the woods and taming the fields and the animals and the plants. Man would make a lap-pet of all of us, pretending to be our ally, even as he slaughters us upon the bedrock of his civilization. Look at them,” he commanded me. “Bear witness to their sacrifice. Bear witness to their murders. They rot upon the roadside of Man’s kingdom! Do not misunderstand: Cats are at war with Man. Whether you wish to believe it or not, this is what Man’s truth entails. Even as he pets your head he plots your destruction.”
I trembled in horror. I could not bear the sights of the road, nor even the sounds. The hissing swoosh of the Cars and Trucks passing along that shadow-stained road were all threats against my life. The wind from their passage smacked at me, promising me death even as their wheels cut through the heaps of shadows that littered that path like a careless graveyard. They were indifferent about who they had ran over. They did not feel any sorrow for what they had done.
But the Man and the Woman I knew…they were not the same. Were they? I remembered that Jack had been ran over with the Tractor. It almost killed him, but he survived. That was why the Chickens called him the “Miracle Dog”. But the Man had not meant to do it. Jack had been overeager. He had ran out in front of the Tractor. That was all.
But these hopeful thoughts were blown away by the hissing wind that struck my face as each Car and Truck dashed along the road.
There were other animals besides Cats and Dogs.
“I see…I see Opossums, too,” I said. “And Deer…”
“There are many animals left in ruin here,” Zoe said, standing beside me. “Animals like opossums, raccoons, birds, rabbits, deer— nothing a Cat would not kill and eat. But here the humans waste blood and hearts. They let the sun and air eat of them, and flies and vultures and other lesser creatures.”
“Profligacy,” Pug-Nose said, snootily. “Unclean deaths. No grace. No skill. Only a wasteful mess.”
“And some not even dead,” Calico said, smirking, “but rolling about, tortured by an inexact death. Tactless and crude and thoughtless.”
“Whereas Cats are nothing but intent,” Zoe said. “When we kill we honor the dead with our full attention. When we spot prey we honor our prey with all of our heart and mind and whiskers and claws and teeth. Humans kill with their eyes on nothing but their own lives. Cats kill while seeing their prey’s lives. We see you. We acknowledge you in your death. Humans do not. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I said.
“Good,” Zoe said.
I remembered the Truck that obeyed the Man and the Woman; the Truck very much like these Trucks and Cars that drove by. I thought of my conversation with Marion and Duke; of the thought that the Man created Dogs and Foxes and bid them fight for the world. Was it, then, the Man’s fault that Jack died? Was that why the Man said he had a mean heart and chose not to have children of his own? Perhaps moonshine revealed the truth of the Man, too, just like moonlight revealed the truth of Cats.
I looked upon the road one final time. So many animals whose bellies were pregnant with rotten shadows. I could not help but think of Claw’s shadowy eye as I looked upon the dead. When Claw spoke again, I thought I could see his shadowy eye peering at me from all of the shadowy dead.
“Man looks upon the other beasts and, in his hateful envy, he builds fences to contain them, pens to enslave them, caves to imprison them, and he thinks himself the ruler of the earth. But he is the worst beast of all. Sooner or later I will overthrow him. Cats are the superior beasts. We do not cage our prey— we catch them and we kill them, allowing our prey to die with honor. Man kills beasts slowly over a lifetime of years, their lap-pets dying as they live, and never truly living at all. It is a living-death. This is the greatest wrong, and it must be corrected.”

Author’s Note: Another sample chapter from “Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch”, my upcoming children’s novel for both children and adults which, honestly, is more akin to Watership Down than Charlotte’s Web.  Progress has been fast, so far, but that is because I did so much work on it before my long hiatus that I am merely coming in to lacquer the wood, so to speak, right now.

Children’s Novel Chapter Sample


Fog Of War

The rains departed and a mist rose up from the warm grass, rolling out from the Big Water like a herd of Sheep in a quiet stampede. The clouds above cleared and the moon shone brightly. It was nearing midnight. I was in a mood for hunting. I wanted my blood to race and my mind to stop thinking. My nerves were anxious and my instincts were itchy. I needed to scratch something to stop that itch. I needed to kill something soon or my thoughts would kill me. I needed to kill the thoughts spiraling around inside me like bothersome flies with their sharp bites.
Out to the wheatfield I ran, slipping into that strange mix of thin stalks and thickly overlapping crowd. The full moon was covered in the paw prints of a giant beast prowling nearby, lurking in the shadow beyond its glow and ready to pounce upon the unsuspecting earth below. I heard tittering from the hill. My need to kill was replaced by curiosity. I followed the laughter until I came to the top of the hill, where the concrete foundation protruded from the grass like a gray scar through green fur.
Two foes faced off in front of the Fox den. A large male Fox was bounding around in the fog, leaping here and there while, between him and his den, there stood Claw; still and unmoving as an icy statue never to thaw. Even his tail lay still around him, like fallen snow on a frozen frond.
“I will give you the opportunity to leave,” the Fox said. “Go now and never return.”
Calico and Pug-Nose tittered. They sat at the edge of the foundation, below the oak tree that grew up between the concrete’s cracks. Zoe was in the tree, watching from a branch. All three of them watched Claw. Claw said nothing. He stood as still as before. His one good eye did not follow the Fox as the Fox continued leaping around in the fog. The Fox spoke in a reasonable, courteous tone. Claw stared straight ahead, as if disinterested in the Fox’s antics.
“I know you think you can linger outside a family’s doorway and intrude on their quiet evening,” the Fox said, “but just think of how you would feel if someone did the same to you.”
“Our home has no doorway,” Calico jeered. “The world is our home. The open sky and the broad earth is ours and ours alone.”
“That’s right,” said Pug-Nose, wheezing through his flat-faced nose. “Doorways are for people who fear the world. We do not fear it. The world fears us.”
The Fox spoke a lot, and I would have thought him confident except for a slightly nervous twitch in his poofy tail. He was as large as Claw, but he seemed to be more concerned with making a spectacle of himself than actually fighting. If anything, he fought with Foxy truth. He leapt all around Claw, his tail bouncing after him. He changed direction so much that it was hard to keep track of him as he spun through the fog and shadow. His tail misled the eye, just like a Fox’s word misled the mind. The fog swirled with him, trailing him like his tail. Claw remained still, however, the mist bedewing his whiskers. He was a statue of hoarfrost.
“All this time spent here,” the Fox said, “and you could have been hunting something better. Chickens, for instance. Or mice, if you prefer.”
The Fox bounded round and round, his speech and tail baffling to me. If I had been caught in that whirlwind I would not have known when to attack, nor which direction. The Fox was disorienting.
“You think you are rooted in your spot,” the Fox said. “But the Wind Fox would pull you up into the sky and eat you. And you never know when he will show himself.”
The Fox hastened, moving faster and faster as if he might become the Wind Fox. I began to step back, wondering if the Wind Fox would appear.
And yet Claw seemed unfazed. The Fox’s confidence grew, mistaking Claw’s silent stillness for confusion. He suddenly sprang forward, his teeth gnashing toward Claw’s throat. Quick as lightning, Claw’s paw struck the Fox across the face, sending him tumbling back into the wheat. Claw had not used his claws. Why, I did not know. The Fox stood up slowly, and shook off his hard tumble. He looked at Claw again. The Fox’s grin, and the gleam in his eyes, were gone. I felt a thrill, and the hateful glee of revenge. I knew, then, that the Fox could not defeat Claw, and I could see that the Fox knew this also. He looked toward his den, behind Claw; a black hole in the earth. I thought he would flee. I triumphed in the thought of his flight—his cowardice.
Claw finally spoke.
“Your words will change nothing,” he said. “You are all meat and blood for my morning meal. Nothing more. The wind does not hear the shivering of the leaves it blows. It does not care.”
The Fox bared his teeth again.
“The Wind Fox will take you!” the Fox cried. “He will eat you! You will be his morning meal!”
He charged at Claw. He charged without Foxy truth in his tail. He charged without strategy or deceit. He simply leapt at Claw, head-on, and for a moment it appeared that Claw would do nothing. Yet, as before, Claw struck out at his foe at the last moment. The Fox tumbled again. This time Claw had drawn blood. The Fox’s face was ragged with cuts. I felt my own cuts burn anew as I watched the Fox’s cheek bleed. But it was a sweet pain between us. The Fox’s pain resonated in my own wounds, and I reveled in that pain. I savored every burning ache and agony. If I could have sliced off my tail so he could have felt that pain, I would have. I hated him and his kind more than I could ever love myself.
The Fox stood again, and again he looked toward his den. Again he charged at Claw. This time he landed upon the large Cat, and for a moment it appeared as though the Fox had finally tackled and overcome Claw, the two of them rolling over.
But it was a feint— just more of Claw playing with the Fox. Claw flipped the Fox, in an instant, and latched onto his neck and pinned his fiery body to the ground. The Fox became still as stone.
And then, just as suddenly as he had pinned the Fox, Claw released him and stepped away. The Fox, looking as bewildered as I felt, shakily pushed himself up from the earth. Claw stepped away from the den, as if he was inviting the Fox to return to his family. I saw the female Fox look out from within the shadowy mouth of the den. I thought I could see Candice, too.
Trembling, the Fox walked toward the den. A smirk passed across his snout, for the briefest moment, and that was when Claw tore the Fox’s white throat open with a swipe of his paw, spraying the wheat and grass with blood. The Fox flipped and floundered about—much like the fish from the overturned bowl—and then, gradually, he lay still upon the earth, moving no more.
The hush of the wheatfield was haunting. The fog gathered close like ghosts creeping all around. And then, out from that silence, I heard quiet sobbing beneath the concrete foundation.
I did not know what I felt in that moment. Satisfaction? Regret? Pity? Maybe I only felt envy toward Claw, for he knew what he was with absolute certainty. He was a Cat.
“Where are your witty words now?” Claw said. “What is a word to the power of a sharp tooth or a talon? What good is a word from a throat easily torn? Better to use your mouth for biting rather than speaking in this blood-steeped world.”
Calico and Pug-Nose leapt down from the concrete, smirking at the body of the Fox.
“He was no match for you, Claw,” Calico said.
“No match at all,” Pug-Nose said, wheezing through his nose. “Like a little mouse.”
Claw said nothing. He began to eat the Fox. I watched him eat the Fox. I watched him eat Candice’s father while the full moon shone pale among the silent stars.
When Claw had finished eating, he approached me. His white mouth was crimson, and his one eye an icy blue. His missing eye was black with shadows, and it almost seemed as if the sobs from the den came from his dark socket.
“Why are you here, little one?” he asked me.
“I…I wanted to learn,” I said.
He stared at me as much with the black hollowness of his skull as he did his blue eye. “And what did you learn?”
“I…I don’t know,” I said. My thoughts fumbled over one another, and none of them seemed satisfactory for the question.
“By killing, we become stronger,” he said. “We gain strength from every foe we defeat and devour. I began with insects and mice. Then came moles and chipmunks and squirrels, chickens and geese and whatever bird I could claim with my teeth. And then came the larger prey. The fox cubs, and then foxes themselves, as you have seen. In time I will devour men and women, too, and more.”
“The Man has the THUNDERSTICK,” I said, fearful that what he said was true. “He has the power of the thunder and lightning. I have seen it blast a Snapping Turtle’s shell to pieces in the Big Water. I have seen it explode a Hawk into a cloud of feathers in the sky. He uses it against the Coyotes, and Jack told me he had killed a Bear with it once, too.”
“He has a trifling bit of power,” Claw said, indifferenty. “When I kill the Wind Fox I will have true power over the storm. No man will be able to destroy me. I will wipe their ilk off the face of the earth. Their shelters will not save them. Their buildings and their roads and their machines will not save them. I will run riot over the earth and devour them all.”
I looked past Claw, watching Calico, Pug-Nose, and Zoe gather around Candice’s father. They gnawed at his bones.
“He was no wolf,” Claw said, “but at least he was no dog, either, tamed by man.” He did not take his eye off of me, or the dark hollowness of his empty eye socket. There came into his expression something of wry appraisal.
“Dogs were once wolves,” he said. “Did you know that? Powerful, fierce wolves. But Man enslaved the wolves, and took power away from them, one generation after the next, until some have become as weak and puny as that dog that foolishly died chasing foxes in the field. Think on that, and know who your true enemy is.”
He turned his back toward me and walked to the Fox’s den. He stared into that darkness where Candice and her family huddled together. I felt that Jack had been avenged, even if I had not been the one to avenge him. I watched Claw in wonder and admiration. I did not feel sorry for Candice or her family. I did not feel sorrow for her father. No, I thrilled at the thought of being strong like Claw. I wanted Foxes to fear me. I wanted everything to fear me. I wanted to fear nothing. I would be like Claw, I told myself. I would be as ice-cold as Claw seemed to be. No topsy-turvy feelings. No warring emotions to spin me around and around in a tornado. I wanted to stand as still and solid and cold and unfeeling as he did—as if made of ice and hoarfrost.

Author’s Note: The above is a sample chapter from a children’s novel I had started to write as a sequel to my first children’s novel “Chloe Among The Clover”.  I had set it aside while finishing my other novels/short stories and had recently had time to pursue its conclusion while recovering from an automobile accident (that was not my fault).  My nephew has been urging me to finish it since he loved the first one so much.  The sequel is titled “Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch” and is nearly finished.  I have been finalizing the first half of the novel and now will finalize the second half in the oncoming days.

Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch Sample Chapter


I drank no more milk that day. Instead, I forced myself to leave the porch and go to the wheatfield. I did not want to be defeated by the milk. It was trying to overpower me with its creamy sweetness.
The sky was gray with clouds and darkened the farm with an early twilight. There were Deer in the wheatfield. I could see them wading through the golden stalks, heading toward the Big Water. I approached them by chance and when they heard me they fled, bounding toward the forest on the other side of the field. Watching them leap for cover made me feel proud. I felt like I was the biggest, strongest, most dangerous animal on the whole farm. I felt like I had protected the Man’s field, too, and that Jack would have been proud to know what I did. Maybe that was why I approached the beautiful Cat with the fire-and-snow stripes, my tail swaggering and my chest puffed out. She should have been impressed with me, I thought, since I made a whole herd of Deer go running for shelter. I was a hero.
“Hey,” I said to her, quite confidently. “My name’s Stormy.”
She was cleaning herself with her tongue. Instead of stopping and talking to me, she continued cleaning herself. She also turned her back to me. I was confused. I thought she would be impressed!
“Did you see how I made those Deer run?” I said. “They sure ran fast, didn’t they?”
I laughed loudly, thinking she would find it funny, too. But my laugh quickly died as she got up and walked away from me.
“Wait!” I said. “Where are you going?”
“I told you not to talk to me anymore,” she said. “Milk-breather.”
“I’ve stopped drinking milk,” I said. “I don’t drink it anymore.”
“I can smell it on your breath,” she said. She glanced back at me, over her shoulder. “I can smell it in your fur and I can see it in your eyes and I can sense it in your heart. You are cream-hearted.” Her words were sharp and hard and hammered my ears like a Woodpecker’s beak. “Real cats don’t drink milk. They kill and they drink blood.” She cast a scornful glance back at me and I saw how her white chin was stained pink. Her eyes were a wild yellow, like a dandelion buzzing with angry bees. “Real cats drink blood, not milk given to them by humans. You are not a real Cat. You’re too much of a milksop.”
I wanted to say that she was wrong—that I was a real Cat—but her eyes stung me so sharply in my chest that I felt like my heart might stop. She did have angry bees in her eyes. Her eyes were beautiful and dangerous like bee-hearted dandelions.
“I won’t drink milk anymore,” I said. “Today is the last day I drink milk. I promise. I will drink…whatever I need to to be a real Cat.” I could not say the word “blood”.
It wasn’t a lie in that moment. I would have done anything for her in that moment. When she looked at me I felt the urge to obey her.
“You can’t even hunt well enough to kill anything,” she retorted. “I watched you and that stupid dog hunt that fox yesterday. That fox let you follow him for fun. He was mocking you. You and that stupid dog that’s always yapping like an idiot.”
“That Dog is my friend,” I said, feeling my anger rise. “His name is Jack. He is not stupid.”
“No stupider than you, maybe,” she said. “At least he knows what he is. You think you’re a dog and so you’ll never be a real Cat.”
She was standing on the other side of the pond, now. Near her paws I saw the skeletons of Wood Ducks. They were scattered in a ring around the pond, each one chewed clean and white.
“I am a Cat,” I said, trying to say it with as much self-belief as I could muster as I looked upon the skeletons of the Wood Ducks. “It’s true that I’ve been trained by a Dog, but I’m a Cat. I can do Dog things and I can do Cat things. Watch. I can meow like a Cat.” I meowed, which I thought to be very impressive. “And I can purr.” I began to purr, which was quite strong in its own way. My purr always made the Woman happy, so it had to be a good purr. “And I can bark like a Dog. Listen.”
This was a mistake. The truth was that I had never perfected barking like a Dog. I tried, but I always sounded like I was coughing up a hairball, and just as often I did cough up a hairball. I did so presently, much to my horror.
“Sorry,” I said, heaving and trying to avoid looking at the hairball I had coughed up. “Jack says I bark pretty well…for a Cat…”
She had already slipped under some crisscrossing branches and disappeared into the overlap of the woods. I was too embarrassed and upset to follow her. I sat down by the pond and looked at my dark shadowy reflection in its muddy water.
“I am a real Cat,” I told my reflection. “Aren’t I?”
My reflection looked doubtful. Overhead I could hear the Wood Ducks griping at me in their high-pitched, honking squawk. They wanted me to leave, so I did, even though I knew that the fire-and-snow Cat would have said that a real Cat would have never left at the behest of a bunch of uppity Wood Ducks. The Wood Ducks even laughed at me as I left. It made me so mad that I didn’t even feel pity for them at the thought that they would end up like the rest of the Wood Ducks that visited that pond: piled in a jumbled heap.
I returned to the house feeling like my whiskers and my claws had been taken from me. Laying down in the clover, I tried to calm myself and take a nap. But I was restless. I was upset. My mind was full of fire and snow, bees and dandelions.
To my annoyance, Goldie’s chicks ran toward me, just like they did whenever Jack sprawled in the clover. This was odd and unexpected. They had never ran to me before. Any other time I would have been gladdened, but I was upset. Feeling upset, my anger found its claws when the chicks started climbing all over me. It was like the chicks were demeaning me. I jumped up and hissed at them, calling them the worst word I could think of.
“Leave me alone, you cluckers!” I hissed. “Or I will eat you up!”
They fled to Goldie, cowering under her wings. She looked at me like I was a Hawk or a Raccoon.
“What is wrong with you, Stormy?!” she demanded. “Don’t you ever threaten my chicks again! Do you understand?”
“Keep your chicks away from me,” I said, walking away. “And I won’t threaten them.”
All she could do was gape at me, and scowl. Jack came running toward me.
“What happened?” he said. “Did a Fox attack?” He glanced around so wildly that I thought his head might twist off. “Coyotes? A bear? Was it a bear?!”
I just kept walking. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I was angry at them, and at myself, and I wanted to just be somewhere quiet where I could be alone. I went up the stairs to the porch to lay down on the rug. The milk in the bowl had started to stink. I had wasted so much of it, and yet I didn’t care. I was glad I wasted it, even if I felt as soured as it smelled. Good riddance, I thought.
The door opened and the Woman came out onto the porch. When she saw the spoiled milk she became angry.
“Stormy!” she exclaimed. “You ain’t getting any milk if you ain’t going to drink it!”
She picked up the bowl and went inside, her stomping footsteps making the whole porch shake. She slammed the door, shaking the whole house. The Man started to yell and the Woman started to yell, too. Everybody was making noise.
“Why won’t everyone leave me alone?!” I hissed. Furious, I ran off the porch and sprinted away from the house. Jack called after me, but I ignored him. I ran until I arrived at the lightning-blasted oak on the other side of the Big Water. I then laid down among its roots, where the grass was high and arched all around me, hiding me from everyone. I tried to take a nap.
Naps were not as easy as they used to be. For some reason whenever I closed my eyes my head was full of everything that had recently happened: the Foxes mocking me, the beautiful Cat belittling me, the chicks climbing on me, Goldie berating me, and the Woman yelling at me. Even when no one was near me they still bothered me. It was like wind upon the water— the waves rose and crashed long after the breeze passed.
Sighing, I opened my eyes and stared up at the sky. The black shadow of a Hawk circled above the field. No sooner than I saw it, the Hawk dove like a lightning bolt into the tall grasses. There was a pause, where I could only see the tall grasses and nothing else. It was as if the Hawk had buried itself in the earth with its plunging attack. But then it rose in the air, hoisting itself with casual flaps of its wings. In its taloned feet I saw clasped a little Rabbit, its ears dangling below its limp body.
I should have felt sorry for the Rabbit, but I felt sorry only for myself. The Hawk knew what it was. It was a Hawk. It was not a Hawk and a Dove. It had not been raised by Doves to do Dove things. When it plummeted from the sky the only thing in its mind was to kill the Rabbit like any real Hawk would. Only, it did so without thinking about it. It simply was a Hawk. I had to second-guess my Cat instincts because the Dog in me always ran circles around my inner Cat and barked at it to play. The Dog ran in circles and confused the Cat in me, spinning and spinning in my mind. My mind was always chasing itself in confusion.
It was Jack’s fault. He raised me to be a Dog even though I was a Cat. I was mixed up, like a Squirrel entangled in its own knotted tail.
I thought I knew what to do to help untangle myself. I would do what the Hawk did. I would hunt a Rabbit— not like how a Dog hunts a Rabbit; not with barking and chasing and losing the Rabbit. I would hunt the Rabbit like a real Cat. I would do what my claws and ears and whiskers told me to do.
So I crouched low and slipped through the tall grasses that looked like ribbons. My tread was soft and silent, like water trickling down a windowpane. I felt my Catness asserting itself in my bones and muscles and whiskers and claws. I saw a rabbit soon enough, and the rabbit did not see me. It was brown with a reddish tint to its pelt. I could sense the warm blood in its body, and felt my mouth salivate. I encouraged my Catness to hunger for its blood. I told myself that blood tasted better than milk. I told myself that to drink it would make me a real Cat.
Yet, when I sprang for the rabbit I hesitated, or, at least, I barked a warning to the Rabbit. It heard me and dashed away, zigzagging through the wild grass.
“Why?!” I shouted at myself. “Why did I warn the Rabbit?! Why? Why?! Why?!!!”
I plopped down on my butt and just stared up into the dismal gray sky. Depressed, I laid down and closed my eyes, wondering what was wrong with me. I did not know how long I laid there, but something approached me.
“There you are, Stormy,” Jack said. “I found some blackberries. Do you want to eat some blackberries with me?”
I opened one eye a sliver of the way. “What’s the point?” I said.
“They taste good,” Jack said. “That’s the point.”
For a moment I resented Jack. He was trying to make me be like him: a Dog. But I looked at him and I saw how happy he was to have found me, and to share blackberries with me, so I stood up and followed him toward the edge of the woods where the wild blackberries grew. It was near the barbed wire fence that separated the Man’s farm from what lay beyond it. You had to be careful with the barbed wire. Just looking at it made the crescent tear in my ear ache. You also had to be careful when eating blackberries. Blackberries had thorns of their own and could cut you. And while some blackberries were sweet and juicy, others were sour and bitter.
“I wish all of them were sweet,” I said, spitting out another sour blackberry.
“That’s what makes them fun to eat,” Jack said. “They surprise you.”
“I only like to be surprised when it is a good surprise,” I grumbled.
“Then you are going to be disappointed in life,” someone said.
I glanced around, wondering where the voice came from. Then I looked down. It was Scampers. He was stuffing his cheeks with blackberries. I was surprised to see him so far from his burrow.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked.
“Preparing for Winter,” he said. “You can never start preparing too soon.”
“But the blackberries have only recently ripened,” I said. “And most of them haven’t ripened at all.”
“Have you ever heard the Woman talk about Blackberry Winters? That is what I am worried about.”
“Blackberries make it snow?” I asked, mystified.
“No, Stormy,” Scampers said. “It means the Winter comes when blackberries are still on the vine.”
“I wish there were berries that caused Summer to come sooner,” Jack said, misunderstanding as much as I did. “Maybe strawberries do that. Strawberry Summers?”
“No, Jack,” Scampers said, “I said they don’t cause the weather to change.”
“Strawberries don’t?”
“No! And neither do blackberries!”
“What about cranberries?” Jack said. “The Woman always drinks cranberry juice when she is ‘under the weather’.”
Scampers tilted his head left and right in herky-jerky movements. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “I’m not the Woman.”
The sun came out from behind the gray clouds. With clouds in one half of the sky, and the sun in the other half, it was like sleeping under a blanket next to a fireplace. The air became hot and stuffy. The heat drove us under the shade. Jack started to pant and his tongue hung out of his mouth. It was purple with blackberry juice. My tongue must have been purple, too. I wondered, suddenly, if my chin would be pinkish if I ate strawberries. Maybe I would look like the fire-and-snow Cat that I saw near the pond. If so, maybe she would accept me for a real Cat if I had a pinkish chin. Maybe, then, she would have wanted to talk to me and tell me her name. Maybe she would think I had drank blood. After all, strawberry juice was sweet and blood was metallic. I knew this because when I tore my ear some blood dripped into my mouth. All blood tasted the same, according to a Bat I spoke to once. That was why Cats and Dogs and the Man and the Woman and the Chickens were all part of the same Pack. Our blood was the same.
And you were not supposed to hurt those in your Pack.
“I wish we could eat some of the strawberries in the Woman’s strawberry patch,” I said.
“That’s forbidden,” Jack said. “The last time we did that, she sprayed us with the water hose.”
I didn’t like the water hose. It was like a big snake that hissed and spat at you and stung your butt.
“Sometimes I take strawberries from her patch,” Scampers said.
“You’re not supposed to do that, Scampers!” Jack said. “You’re part of our Pack, so you have to leave them alone. Only trespassers steal from Master and the Woman.”
“But if I’m part of the Pack,” Scampers reasoned, “then shouldn’t they share the strawberries with me?”
Jack considered this for a while as he chewed a blackberry. In the meantime, I asked Scampers another question.
“Why do Chipmunks move so fast?” I asked. “Why do you talk so fast?”
Even as Scampers told me why, he moved fast and talked fast, his cheeks bulging with the nuts and berries that he gathered from the woods.
“Because we live short lives,” he said. “So we have to make do with the time we are given. I know my whole family history because my father told me. He told me it all in one afternoon. You think I talk fast, but you’ve never heard two Chipmunks talking to each other. I am talking very slowly right now. If I spoke at my fastest speed your head would explode.”
“Wow,” was all I could say to that.
“We could die any moment,” Scampers continued to explain. “You never know when a Hawk will come bolting from the sky and take you. Or a Fox. Or a Snake. That is why I need to find Love. So I can have children and tell them my family history. If I don’t, it will be like my family never existed. And I love my family too much to let them disappear.”
There was rustling on the other side of the blackberry vines. Jack growled and Scampers clambered up on my back. We all watched the bushes closely, wondering what would appear. Suddenly, an animal stepped forward on four Squirrel-like paws. Its tail was like a Squirrel’s tail, too, or perhaps a Fox’s, except black and striped with white. It was too big to be a Squirrel, too black to be a Fox, and looked almost like a Cat.
“That’s a Skunk,” Scampers said, climbing down from my back. “Best to give him some space. Don’t want to be too nosy around him. Literally.”
The Skunk walked across the field at an easy pace, his poofy black-and-white tail bobbing happily. He moved as if he had nothing to fear in the world. I was envious of his easy attitude. Being a Skunk must have been nice and carefree.
“He doesn’t belong on Master’s land,” Jack growled. “I’m going to chase him away!”
“I wouldn’t do that…” Scampers began to say, but he was too late. Jack was already running toward the Skunk, circling around him and barking at him.
“You don’t belong here!” Jack barked. “You’re trespassing! Leave! Leave! Leave!”
The Skunk ignored Jack, at first, walking at his own easy pace through the overgrown grass.
“I said you are trespassing!” Jack barked. “Leave right now or I will bite your butt!”
Jack stood behind the Skunk, angered that the Skunk was ignoring him. Jack snapped at the Skunk, not yet biting him, but getting closer and closer with his teeth. The Skunk did something very peculiar, then. He stood up on his front paws, lifting his body and tail up in the air, like the Man would if he could stand on his hands. At first I thought he was doing it to prevent Jack from biting his butt, but Jack was so startled that he stopped biting and just stared at the Skunk. Yet, the Skunk continued standing on his forepaws.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a neat trick.”
“That’s not the trick,” Scampers said, fleeing in the opposite direction.
I was confused as to why Scampers ran away, but before I could ponder it, there was a blast of stinky spray that spewed out from under the Skunk’s tail. The green stream splashed Jack in the face. Even at the distance I could smell the stinky fumes. I retreated all the way to the other side of the field, retching as I went and abandoning Jack to his fate.
“Skunk-funk!” Jack cried. “Skunk-funk! Skunk-funk!”
He ran blindly toward the Big Water, yelping as he went. Charging into the shoals, he dove in and drank all of the water his little body could hold. Then he trudged out, soaken wet, and shook the water off. As far away from him as I was I could still smell him. The Big Water did nothing to purge the odors from him. It just made him wet and stinky.
Yipping for help now, Jack dashed toward the house. It was as if he had been stung by a hornet. He probably wished that he had only been stung by a hornet.
The Skunk lowered itself onto all four paws and walked away as casually as before. He seemed unfazed by the whole encounter.
“He’s going to need a soapy bath, isn’t he?” I said as Scampers approached me from the woods.
“He is going to need several soapy baths,” Scampers said.

First Chapter of “Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch”



The clouds were as dark and thick as a murder of Crows. The winds howled like Wolves as they raced through the wheatfield. Lightning flashed like the talons of Hawks above the woods. I slipped through the billowy stalks like a shadow, seeking the mouse that I had seen scrambling in the underbrush. I was so quiet. Even if the lightning did not crash and boom overhead the mouse would not have heard me. I moved as smoothly as a little wavelet upon the Big Water; soundless as a droplet of water slipping down a whisker.
But then I thought of what Jack had taught me about hunting like a Dog. So, taking a deep breath and heaving my chest as high as I could, I barked at the mouse— or barked as well as any Cat could—and charged after the mouse, barking as I went. The mouse squeaked a scream, fleeing on its little pink paws and zigzagging here and there in the crowding clutter of wheat. I had been only playing at hunting, but seeing the mouse run caused my heart to race. My paws trampled the wispy grass as they beat fast upon the ground. There was excitement in the air, and a tingling thrill in my chest, as I bolted after the mouse’s spindly little tail. I lost sense of my self and all that remained was the slip-dashing chase.
But the barking made me breathless. I lost speed to a fit of coughs, my throat soar and my chest aching. Barking while running did not help when you were a Cat and did not have a barrel chest like Dogs do. I became dizzy with barking and running. I felt as if I had taken a big gulp of water into my lungs.
The mouse emerged from the wheatfield and shot into the woods. Trying to regain my wind, I slowed down. The wheatfield opened and fell away and I approached the trees. Taking a big gulp of air, I barked once again and thrust myself in between the crooked trunks and low-hanging branches. I heard a mousy scream, just as soon silenced. A thundercloud rumbled overhead. I plunged deeper into the woods, nearly landing in the pond sheltering there. Recoiling, I fell back in the decaying leaves, their dust making me sneeze. I blinked at the pond and caught a glimpse of an orange-and-cream colored tail. It fidgeted irritably. My eyes followed that tail and I discovered that it was connected to the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I did not know what to say, so I gawped at her, the mouse forgotten. She scoffed, and turned her back to me.
“Go home, lap pet,” she mumbled, her mouth full of mouse. “Run back to your litter box.”
I was thunderstruck. I could only stare at her as she left, disappearing into the deeps of the woods. She seemed to glow, like the fire the Man summoned in the fireplace, and the snow that heaped upon the yard in Winter. I sat without moving, watching the shady depths and hoping she might come back. I might have sat there forever, if only to glimpse her yellow eyes again, but the rain began to fall, and I hated to be wet, even in Summer. The woods bowed and whipped in the rallying winds like the necks of angry Geese. It was time to return home.
Lightning hissed like Snakes and thunder galloped like Horses. The storm followed me back to the house where the Man and the Woman were canning tomatoes. They were standing under the portico, near the Truck. There was a table with lots of glass jars on it, and the Man and Woman stooped over a silver pot cooker. They smashed the tomatoes and then boiled them and then ladled them into glass jars. I had seen them do it earlier that week. Jack and I watched them do it for a little while.
“Storm’s coming,” I told Jack. “And I saw a beautiful creature.”
“Not as beautiful as Master,” Jack said. He was laying on a rug, chewing at it absently. “And the storm only comes if Master says so.”
“He probably wants rain for the wheat,” I said.
“Yes,” Jack said. “And for the Big Water. It is leaking.”
“The clouds are leaking?” I said, confused.
“No, the dam,” Jack said. “But, yes, clouds leak too. That’s how the Big Water grows.”
I looked at the yard where the clover grew thick and soft. Goldie was standing there, bright yellow as she watched her chicks. They were scattered all around her, popping up and stooping down in the clover, eating ticks and grasshoppers and other nasty things. Sandy was nearby also, hopping on one leg. Sandy was older than Goldie, but Goldie was much bigger than Sandy. It was like me and Jack. Jack was my older brother, but I was bigger than him. I guess it was because I was a Cat and Jack was a Dog. Were all Cats bigger than Dogs? I didn’t know. Jack had a limp and Sandy had only one good leg. But I had problems, too. I had a torn ear, like a crescent moon. I had caught it on the barbed wire fence one day and ripped it. It had hurt pretty badly, but it didn’t hurt anymore. Actually, what hurt right now was something else. It was my chest. Too much running, I thought.
“Goldie,” I said, walking toward her. “I saw the most beautiful creature in the world.”
Goldie looked at me sideways— because she was a Chicken. “And what was that, Stormy?”
“I saw another Cat,” I said. “She was orange and white and had yellow eyes.”
Goldie watched me with one eye and watched her chicks with the other. I sometimes wondered if she did not trust me, or like me. “There are lots of Cats like that,” she said.
“I don’t look like that,” I said. It was true: I was striped all black and gray, like smoky night, or the storm that was bellowing as it approached the farm. “I wish I did, though. She looked like …well…like sunrise.” I thought about seeing my own reflection on the Big Water. “I look like a cloudy twilight.”
Sandy hopped over to us, steadying herself against Goldie as she stopped. “If you can get up in the morning you should be grateful,” she said. “If you’re not someone else’s dinner you should be grateful. If you have one good leg, then you’ve got nothing to complain about.”
“I have four good legs,” I admitted reluctantly. “And a tail.”
“Then you have more than you know what to do with!” Sandy exclaimed. She dipped her head into the clover and withdrew a worm in her beak. She tilted her beak up and opened her throat, gobbling the wiggly worm down. She nearly fell over with gobbling. “Four legs and two ears and a tail. Not even Jack has a tail. Or the Man or the Woman. If anyone has no right to complain, it’s you.”
I felt ashamed. “You’re right, Sandy,” I said. “It’s just that she was so pretty…”
“So is the sunset,” Goldie said. “But it always brings out the most dangerous animals.”
Sandy shuddered as if a dangerous animal had her by her bad leg. “Don’t speak about them,” she said. “They’ll hear you.”
The thunder boomed above us and the chicks all ran toward the apple tree for cover. The rain began to fall in hesitant droplets. Sandy hopped toward the tree like a bouncing ball of feathers. She moved pretty well for only having one good leg.
“Stormy,” Goldie said, “be careful what you wish for. You might think you want to be something else, but you’ll regret it. As for this Cat that’s struck your fancy, be careful. If you met her in the woods then she’s probably a Stray, or worse, Feral. And such Cats are not to be trusted. Do you understand? Not only will a Feral Cat eat Chickens, it will attack you, too, and the Man and the Woman. They are wild. You might want to stay away from the wheatfield from now on.”
“But Jack and I go hunting there,” I said, scared of losing our favorite place to hunt.
“Do as you will,” Goldie said, “but Jack is old now. He could get hurt trying to keep up with you. And none of us want Jack to be hurt, especially for some foolishness in Summer.”
“Okay,” I mumbled.
Goldie walked toward the apple tree and I ran up the steps and joined Jack on the ivy-curtained porch.
“Jack,” I said, “Goldie said we should stay away from the wheatfield.”
“We can’t do that,” Jack said. “We have to protect Master’s wheatfield.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” I said, curling up beside Jack. The storm was crackling now, and it scared me a little. Rain hammered the roof. “She said you were old,” I added.
“Old?” Jack said. “I’m not old. Master is old. He is older than the Big Water. Did you know that?”
“Yes,” I said. “You’ve told me that. And you said he’s older than the house and the wheat and even the Woman.”
“He is older than everything,” Jack said. “And he will live forever. And I will live forever, too, because he needs me to be with him. It would be very lonesome for Master to live without me. And the Woman, too. Probably. Though it would be a lot quieter without them arguing all of the time.”
“That sure is true,” I said. Even now the Man and the Woman were arguing.
“I told you that you need it hotter!” the Woman said, dumping a jar of tomato juice back into the pot. “Otherwise you aren’t going to cook them good enough for canning!”
“I’m cooking them plenty hot enough,” the Man growled. “If I cook it any hotter you’ll scald me while you’re ladling it in the jar.”
“If you’d just hold the jar still you’d have nothing to fear. But you got to stop swaying it around and not paying no attention…”
“The only thing hotter than this here pot of tomatoes is your temper, woman!”
They thundered and crackled like the thunderstorm in the sky.
“By God,” the Man said, “I hope a tornado comes and takes you off to Oz! All you’d need is a bicycle to get you there safely.”
“And you think yourself so high and mighty?” the Woman said. “I’ve had a peek behind the curtain and I can assure you you ain’t no big man as you like to think!”
Jack sighed beside me. “I hope they calm down soon.” His curly head hung low, his ears flat on either side of his big brown eyes. “And I hope they don’t give me a bath.”
“I hope they’re not mad when we go inside,” I said. “The Woman pets me awfully rough when she’s mad. It makes my ears hurt.”
“Yeah,” said Jack, “and either they’re really loud or they’re really quiet. I don’t know which is worse!”
“Hey,”I said, suddenly curious. “What’s a ‘tornado’?”
Jack tilted his head to the side, as if trying to slide his thoughts from one side of his head to the other. “Torn-a-dough? I think it is that thing that happens when you need to do two things, but you are torn between the two things because they won’t let you. And you get all twisted and pulled in two different directions, like bread dough.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” I said. It did not really make sense to me at all.
Jack tilted his head to the other side. “Like wanting to eat and wanting to go play at the same time. You are pulled in two different directions at the same time.”
As with everything else, I took what Jack said to be the truth and trusted in what he said, even if I didn’t understand it or think it entirely true. I spoke no more about it, or about the beautiful creature I saw near the little pond. I didn’t want Goldie to hear and lecture me again.
The wind warred with itself, whipping about the trees and flinging rain under the car porch until it reached the Man and the Woman.
“Leave off until tomorrow,” the Man said, putting down a jar and taking off his mittens. “We’ll finish it then.”
“We still have a lot of green beans to can,” the Woman said.
“My back’s hurtin’ anyway,” the Man said, pushing his chest out and pressing on his back with his hands. “Can’t do much more today.”
“All right,” the Woman said.
They turned off the cooker and the Man put up Goldie and her chicks in the little shed for the night. They corralled the other Chickens from the Pen into the Coop. Then the Man and the Woman headed to the house. At the door the Woman called for us.
“Jack! Stormy! Hurry up!”
We came running and went inside with them. Jack laid by the Man’s chair, waiting for him to sit down. I leapt up to the window sill, laying on the edge and staring outside. I did not mind being inside the house— especially when it was raining or cold outside—but in the Summer I always found myself looking outside in the evening time, wondering what was happening out there. The window was open and I could feel the wind thrash against my whiskers. There was something very nice about being inside while the world outside was wet and windy. It made me feel nice, like I was too good to be drenched in rain; like I was safe.
Looking out on the wheatfield I saw the rain veil the sky with its falling wash. The wheat billowed violently. It rolled in waves, like the Big Water after a fish had leapt and plunged back into its depths. I could feel that angry wind on my fur. The gusts had paws and smacked me and whistled and screamed like a living thing. I could not fight it. No one could. You just had to seek shelter.
“That sky’s brewing worse than a witch’s cauldron,” the Man said, gazing out another window in the living room. He smiled slyly. “Your momma must be havin’ another fit.”
The Woman put her hands on her wide hips and looked ready to say something spiteful. But a tree creaked outside in the wind, and soon all of the trees were groaning.
“Maybe we ought to go down in the cellar,” she said.
“Oh, don’t be hysterical,” the Man said. “Just like a woman to let your emotions get the better of you.”
“I am not,” she said. She gave him her scariest looks; a look that chilled the skin under my fur. “You’re the one that said it don’t look good.”
“Just because I say something don’t mean I mean it,” he said. He grinned. “I always say I love your cooking, don’t I?”
Her cold scowl cracked, like ice, but instead of chilly mists coming out of her mouth and freezing the house she just went and sat down in her recliner and called me to her. Reluctantly, I tiptoed to her. She patted her legs and I jumped into her lap, coiling around myself. The Man sat in his recliner. Jack tried jumping into his lap, but his back legs didn’t let him jump much, even if he could run. Instead, he barked up at the Man.
“Aw right, aw right,” the Man said, leaning forward and picking Jack up. He put him in his lap and petted his curly hair. “Spoilt dog.”
The Woman petted me, too, but I could tell she was angry. Her fingers were stiff as they raked my fur. It was like being petted by a Hawk’s talons. Still, her dress was soft and I nestled perfectly between her knees, resting my head on my own paws. It was better than sleeping on the warm towels that she pulled out of the noisy box that spun them around. Often, this was my favorite time of the day.
The Man turned on the thing they called a “television”. It was a window where small things lived. One time I tried to catch them, but I could never find the opening to the window. It was like that fish bowl that the Woman had. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t catch the little fish in it. Then one day Jack knocked the bowl over and it broke and the fish flopped around on the floor. I felt so sorry for the fish that I decided not to try to catch the little creatures in the television anymore either. I didn’t want to see them flop around and gawp breathlessly for air like the fish.
The rain splattered like tomatoes against the house and the lightning flashed and the thunder grumbled and roared. It was like a big creature stalking the farm. But it did not frighten me. I was inside the house. I was on the Woman’s lap. Her lap was warm and soft and made me feel relaxed and peaceful, like the whole world was tucked into a cushioned bed, even though I could still hear the storm outside, raging beyond the windows.
As I fell asleep I suddenly remembered the beautiful Cat I saw in the woods. I wondered if she was someplace warm and dry, or if she was being drenched by the rain. I also remembered how she called me a “lap pet”. She said it like it was bad. I told myself that it did not matter what she thought about me. I was comfortable and happy. I liked being a “lap pet”. I wanted her to go away and let me sleep in peace.
And yet her beautiful fire-and-snow stripes flashed in my dreams.

A Storm Without Thunder

A chapter from a supernatural romance I published under a pseudonym.  I am hoping it will be a hit among women who like supernatural romance novels from the heroine’s perspective.  Its characters and plot are based on many Native American myths, ranging from Iroquois to Navajo, but primarily based upon Ojibwe myths.



A storm was brewing on the Western horizon. It darkened the evening prematurely, bringing twilight at an earlier hour.
The dogs were barking. I didn’t know what at. I saw them all facing the lake. It seemed odd because I had never known the dogs to bark at fish or turtles before. I knew of a crane that sometimes came sailing in near twilight, but the dogs never bothered it. Maybe the silly dogs were just barking at their own reflections.
I heard a heaving, roiling splash in the center of the lake. The dogs all yelped and I ran to the porch, looking out into the brooding murk to see the dogs fleeing back toward the house. Upon the lake I saw large waves crashing from end to end, as if a gigantic catfish had leapt and plunged. Harry appeared, then, and stood next to me, looking out at the lake.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“Something restless for nightfall,” he said.
He went into the shed, and down into the bunker. When he returned he had his black revolver. He opened the chamber and filled the empty slots with bullets.
The wind bellowed like a beast. The trees thrashed their limbs and quivered in excitement, like spectators in a coliseum eager for a gladiatorial match. Shadows shifted and pitched sideways into one another as the horizon blackened, forming mobs of darkness. Harry fetched a large studio spotlight and placed it on the porch, shining its piercing halo on the surface of the lake. I stood beside him, fearful of what might be revealed in that split luminescent wound of night.
The water tossed and churned within the lake. I caught blinking glimpses of something in the waves— something lined with triangular spikes— but it was too fast and too far away to discern. Yet, there was a rhythm and a musicality to the motions of the water. It was hypnotic. I found myself swaying ever so lightly to its pace. Even the dogs stopped barking, watching the thing in the water spin and billow. I heard a hissing not unlike the crackling hiss of lightning during a thunderstorm, and yet there was no rumble of thunder above. It made me feel scared and small and insignificant. Meaningless. My very heart seemed to doubt whether I was worth the work of keeping alive, palpitating with a faltering beat.
Rain began to fall. The sky was starless and moonless, concealed by fulgurous clouds that warred amongst one another. How dwarfed I felt beneath their crackling voices! Like an ant beneath the shadow of elephants.
Harry stepped down from the porch and began to walk toward the lake. At first I was so transfixed by my own feelings of futility that I could only stand by and watch him recede. But seeing him walking toward the churning waters compelled my body forward. I ran after him with a staggered stride, still shaking off my own insignificance beneath the storm. When I reached him, I grabbed him by the wrist.
“Don’t!” I said.
He looked at me as if half asleep and still dreaming. “The maelstrom calls to me,” he said. His eyes were blank of expression, lost far away from himself in some benighted realm. “The mouth that is the grotto. The whirlpool throat of the seas. I must go there.”
Fearing he might pull away, and thus be lost from me forever, I took a handful of his raven-black hair and yanked on it with all of my strength and weight, tugging his head down as I fell to the ground. A blaze of fury woke within the dark, empty hollows of his eyes.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Maddie?!” he demanded. The clouds crackled overhead, and he heard the swirling waters and felt the falling rain. The blaze of fury went out of his eyes, replaced by a determined scowl. “Quick,” he said. “Inside the house. Now.”
He helped me up and we rushed inside. Standing by the back porch door, we looked out at the spotlighted lake. Whatever swirled inside the water soon slowed in its whirlpool. The waters crashed for a while longer, but soon smashed themselves down flat and silent like armies destroying themselves to the last man. Hopeful, I dared to think that whatever dwelled in the water had gone, departed in disappointment back to whatever infernal world it had come from.
But I was wrong.
In one lurching heave, the water surged like a tidal wave crashing over the earth and splashing against the side of the cabin. A gigantic creature exploded out from the onrush of water. Its body was long— too long for the spotlight to adequately detail. Its eyes winced in the spotlight’s glare, its ears drawn back beneath long horns and its fangs bared like a tiger ready to strike. Its face was that of a tiger’s, too, or perhaps a panther’s, for it had the same broad black head and feline grimace as the biggest cats on earth. It was jet-black, like night taken to animal shape, and its scaly pelt glistened darkly with a water-dappled lividness that burned like obsidian. When it roared, whitewater foam erupted from its mouth and I felt myself taken away to oblivion by that raging-river bellow. Lightning flashed in its eyes.
Harry aimed the revolver and fired three times. I heard the bullets strike the creature and ricochet off its scaly skin.
“It’s no use,” he said, tossing the gun aside.
Harry picked me up bodily and rushed me upstairs in a manic sprint.
“There is no thunder,” he was saying. “Where have they gone?”
Setting me in one of the upstairs rooms, he told me to remain there and be quiet. He then took an animal skin from the wall— one I had not seen before, but which seemed frightfully familiar— and wrapped himself in its expansive black pelt.
“Harry,” I said, “no.”
He ran downstairs, heedless of my call. I followed him, pleading with him to stop. The pelt tightened around him as he stumbled toward the door. Reaching the porch, he fell to his knees and the skin spread over him like a swollen tarp. I could do nothing to stop the transformation.
Kneeling, Harry trembled and swayed. His body expanded, like a balloon filling with air. He did not stretch thin such as he had during his transformation into a wolf, but grew rotund and muscled in proportion to the pelt, his whole body broadening to a breadth that dwarfed his human form many times over, his back bulging with mass and power. I shrank away from him as I realized where he had gotten that skin.
Harry’s face extended outward into a fat maw and his head grew broad— as broad as his human shoulders— and fur matted his face. He groaned in pain, and his groan became a growl, and his growl became a roar. His ursine snout curdled with rage as he sprang forward on four paws, bounding toward the creature in the yard.
I rushed upstairs and went to a door that led to a second-storey balcony overlooking the lake. Rain fell heavy now and I stood in its downpour, trying to see the clash of beasts in the wayward luminescence of the overturned spotlight and the streaks of lightning. I could hear more than I could see, the hissing and the roaring becoming like a storm at sea. What I could see horrified me with its flashing glimpses. The black panther was not so large as the Great Bear, but it was long and much faster. The bulky form that belonged to Harry was slower, and was repeatedly tackled and grappled by that more agile creature. Its slender body outmaneuvered him. Its saber-toothed mouth bit into Harry’s heft. It gored his jiggling flanks with its long horns. It slashed him with its claws until I cried out in anguish at the wounds rent in Harry’s animal flesh.
There was no thunder. That was what Harry had said. It seemed insane to be thinking of that right now, but it was true. There was no thunder overhead; only rain and lightning and wind like a belligerent roar. What happened to the thunder? Where had it gone?
I felt helpless, and yet I needed to do something. I ran downstairs and emerged on the ruined back porch. I found the spotlight and lifted it up. Maybe I was a fool. Maybe I was suicidal. I did not know. What I did know for certain was that Harry was in the creature’s grip again and it was clamping its saber teeth into his thick neck, its clawed limbs twisted around his body. Harry bellowed in rage and pain. In my desperation I aimed the spotlight at the creature’s eyes, stabbing those pale deep-sea orbs with that sharp luminescence.
The creature tried to look away, even as it tried to snap Harry’s neck. But no matter which way it turned, I aimed the spotlight in its eyes like a marksman keen on his shot. The panther released Harry, to my great joy, and, to my great terror, came dashing toward me. I flashed the light in its eyes, but it did not deter it. Instead, it hissed more loudly and, jerking this way and that, came upon me faster. As it readied to pounce, however, I saw a group of figures dart in front of me and array themselves around me. Buster, Rebel, Yankee, Boomer, and Bunyan, ever in the lead, barked and snarled and growled at the hideous monster. It may have dwarfed them all, but it was bewildered by the noisy collection of small creatures that had flung themselves in front of me. It did not know what to make of them, or which to devour first.
The creature overcame its bewilderment and swiped at the dogs. Yankee and Rebel went tumbling over each other, yelping. Bunyan yapped and leapt only to be swatted away like a gnat. Boomer rushed to protect the leader and bit the creature’s forepaw. He was shaken off and flung into the ricks of logs near the shed. Only Buster remained and he became so wound up with excitement and terror that he sprang up at the panther, head-butting its jaw. The beast looked more surprised than injured. Buster claimed victory and ran around its flanks, taunting it with his barks. The denticulated tail found Buster, though, and sent him rolling, almost like an afterthought. The panther creature was focused once again upon me.
I fled inside the cabin. The panther lunged and I fell and spun backwards. Its gnashing teeth nearly caught my feet, but its shoulders were stayed by the doorway’s frame. The head nonetheless strained forward, reaching for me as I retreated further into the living room. I threw the spotlight at its head. It bounced off harmlessly. Looking frantically about the room, my eyes alighted on deer antlers that adorned the cabin’s walls. I ran toward them as the doorway collapsed inward and the outer wall gave way. The panther’s breath was upon me as I pulled the thorny antlers down. I dove behind the couch just as the panther’s mouth slammed into the wall where I formerly stood. Crying in fear, I wrestled with the antlers and raised them above me, like a porcupine readying its quills. The couch suddenly split apart and flew away, thrown by that saber-toothed mouth. Fear crippled my mind and frenetic instinct reigned. I swung the antlers at the panther, wildly raking its face as I struggled to my feet. Its hide shrugged off the blows, but one glancing strike hit his eye, gouging it in an eruption of blood.
Suddenly, the panther’s eyes widened in surprise, its head withdrawing from the living room and out into the night. The living room light bled outside, casting the figures of Harry and the panther as they circled each other. Harry had clutched the denticulated tail of the shimmery black beast, and was pulling him away from the cabin. The beast wheeled about, tackling Harry. They tumbled over each other in a ball of teeth and claws and fur and blood. The panther pinned Harry to the ground and clamped its jaws to Harry’s throat. Harry roared and his roar wavered to a human scream. I realized the panther was not trying to snap Harry’s neck, but was instead peeling Harry’s animal pelt from his human flesh. Where the pelt was stripped, the bulky ursine muscles withered to human proportions. The divide between man and animal hemorrhaged like a deep, arterial wound. I cried out, thinking him dying.
Then I heard coarse-throated laughter and saw a small shadow flit over the two clasped figures. The shadow alighted upon the panther’s forehead, jamming its sharp beak into that lunar-lobed sphere and pecking deep within the closing eyelid, prying the viscera from the socket like a spoon scooping grape jelly from a mason jar.
The panther screeched, relinquishing its death-grip upon Harry and rolling head over tail, flailing its claws. The bird, however, had already flown elsewhere, laughing wildly in voices of both a man and a raven.
Meanwhile, Harry nestled into his pelt once more, the blood becoming like a glue that bonded man and animal together.
The panther creature was still screeching and flailing when Harry charged, launching himself atop the beast and rolling it onto its back; clutching its throat in his jaws while his thick arms clasped its neck. The panther dug its claws into Harry’s rotund flanks, but Harry did not let go. The panther rolled and tumbled and flopped over like a cat with a broken back. It suddenly sprinted into the lake, both it and Harry disappearing into the churning black depths.
I ran out to the water’s edge, fearful of what I could not see. The dogs limped toward me, watching and whimpering as the waters heaved and tossed and boiled. It was as if a volcano were erupting just below the surface.
“A vicious beast.”
I was too scared to be startled by Corvus’s sudden appearance.
“The Water King, I mean,” he said. “Though Harry can be a vicious beast, too.”
The roiling thrash within the water subsided. The water settled, the rain making little circles upon its surface and hammering the waves down to an eerie calm. The monochrome night betrayed no color upon the water. The blackness of the lake was like the deathly stillness of the dark side of the moon.
“Harry?” I whispered, fearful of what might answer me.
The water bulged upward and surged forward. The dogs barked and I felt my heart leap; whether in fear or hope, I could not say. The water broke like a seed and I saw Harry’s snout emerge from the splitting shell. A dark piece of hide hung ragged in his ursine teeth.
Corvus, the dogs, and I all backed away from the lake, giving Harry space as he came ashore. He was still breathing heavily through his nose, and violence gleamed in his feral eyes, even as his bedraggled body trembled with fatigue.
“Come away,” Corvus said, leading me toward the cabin. “He cannot discern friend from foe.”
Harry had been exhausted by his fight with the panther, and he collapsed upon the ground, still clutching the victory pelt in his mouth. As I stood on the ruins of the porch, Corvus unfurled a strange blanket— taken from thin air—and rushed forward to drape it over Harry’s broad head. The blanket was rainbow colored and made of rough-spun thread. There were symbols in its weave, but I did not know what they meant.
“To soothe the beast’s blood,” Corvus said, “and to lull the animal dreams inside him.”
Harry did not stir. His deep, sonorous breath hushed the forest.
Corvus and I waited in the murk until dawn, watching Harry sleep. When the first light of sunrise touched him, Harry shriveled inside the pelt— like wood burning down to ash— and he once again became a man beneath the expansive black fur. We went to him, then, and Corvus took off the calming blanket. I was too concerned with Harry to see what Corvus did with the blanket, but it was gone by the time he helped me take Harry inside the house.
Harry clutched the panther’s skin in his hands.
“What…happened?” he asked. He hung unsteadily between us, his arms strung up heavily upon our shoulders as his stumbling feet slowly progressed. “Did…did he descend again?”
“Yes,” Corvus said.
Harry moaned like a wounded beast. When we set him upon his bed I saw the tears on his cheeks and how he trembled with sobs.
“Just lock me away,” he said. “Lock me…away…forever…until the stars devour themselves…and the sun should fall from the sky…”
“Not yet, my friend,” Corvus said, taking the panther’s pelt away from him. It glistened like alligator leather. “You have too much to do, yet.”