Curves, Curses, and Cloved Hooves

Dwayne Padgett had loathed his wife of six years,

thinking the woman of less worth than all

his flock of sheep, sty of pigs, heads of steers,

her voice unwelcome as a raven’s call,

and out of his wife Dwayne took not one joy

as she was too lean and plain in his view,

saying, “God!  You might as well be a boy,

you’re so flat!  Worse than a new-shaven ewe!”

Yet, his wife, Maud, was of a keen patience

which was as sure as the long Winter’s thaw—

silent and abiding, she was, with sense

enough to read the mood in a man’s jaw.

Sure enough she needed it, crowned often

with fists to the head like knots on an oak,

and so many times it seemed to soften

her tone and tongue whensoever she spoke.

Maud spoke little, but worked hard on the farm,

sunup to sundown, never relenting—

growing leaner, rougher of hand and arm

which she employed in prayer, repenting.

Dwayne snarled, “I’ve had enough of you, old crone!”

his disgust brimming over each nightfall

and he thrashed her worse than all else his own

sleeping placidly in each hay-stuffed stall.

The Appalachian hills and flooding vales

had no fertile soil to bear much harvest,

withered were the vines, and wispy the bales,

that succored Dwayne’s farm, as if from the breast

of Maud herself, drooping dry at the teat,

and barren, too, the womb as clay-cloyed earth

so that each year’s crop seemed only replete

with Famine’s tending of its weed-sewn turf.

“This land is as useless as you!” said Dwayne,

“You bag of skin and bones!  You buzzard bird!”

Maud held her tongue, and only cringed in pain

as her husband spat each bilious word,

for her manner was meek, silent, and mild,

brow-beaten now for six years of marriage;

more whipped than a horse many times as wild

and would be thus unto her death carriage.

Dwayne thought of other women, like Rose Hall,

the pretty wife of a wealthy neighbor

who attended the local church, St. Paul,

and whose bust made many men’s breath labored.

“She is as curvy as the hills,” Dwayne said,

heedless of whether his wife heard or not.

“And I’d love to see that body in bed

with those curves all pink and flustered and hot.”

Dwayne shuddered with excitement at the swells

of her breasts and hips neath her modest dress.

“Oh yes, she’s as buxom as a ship’s sails,”

he said, hands moving as if to caress

the figure of the woman he desired

until Mrs Hall and her husband left,

Dwayne watching them leave, his eyes and thoughts mired

in curves and heft and her undisclosed cleft.

He contrasted Rose Hall with his wife, Maud,

reproaching the latter her narrow build,

saying, “I fault it as a slight, by God,

of your slight bones, and, if Heaven so willed

that you be struck dead, by flu or folly,

I’d appraise it a loss less than spoilt souse

and would dump you in the troth, by golly!

Then again, your bones wouldn’t feed a mouse!

Speak, damn you!” he demanded, his big fist

slamming the table so the plates clattered.

“What’s wrong?  Tongue-tied?  Hogtied?  Or are you pissed?

Afraid I’d hit harder if you chattered?”

Timidly, Maud parted her trembling lips

and, just as soon, Dwayne slammed his fist again.

He said, “Your tongue’s as useless as your hips!

What good are you barren women to men?”

Maud wept, then, but also managed to speak,

saying, “I cook and clean for you.  I try

to love you.”  Her trembling voice became weak

and she continued, “But you hate me.  Why?”

Dwayne’s jaw was as stiffened as wet leather,

and he spoke as if the leather might tear.

“I hate you because we are together,

and, by God, if you died I would not care.

Wish I’d never married you for this land

because you’re a dogchain keeping me down.

I want a woman like Rose, and can’t stand

the look of you and your dowdy old frown.”

That night, as with many nights before it,

Maud went to bed weeping while Dwayne stayed up,

sitting on the front porch, cigarette lit,

and drinking bitter beer dregs from his cup.

But unlike other nights, Dwayne felt cinder

in his heart, a hateful spark in his life

and—feeding that fire with ready tinder—

he aspired to kill his woebegone wife.

And so Dwayne ventured at the witching hour

into the bedroom, where Maud was asleep,

and, holding a shovel, his face grave, dour,

prepared a soul for the Reaper to reap.

Yet, Maud never could sleep a restive night

and was still awake as he approached her;

she saw the shovel, his cigarette light,

and surmised his purpose ere he poached her.

She shoved him aside with surprising strength

and fled the house swiftly, through the black elms

of the forest that fringed the farm, at length

coming to a ring of mushrooms, like helms.

No refuge found she, crouching on her knees

and watching for the light of Dwayne’s lantern

as it neared, flinging shadows from the trees,

the wan glow flashing and swaying in turn.

Crouching, Maud hurried away from the light,

and flung herself deeper into the sticks,

cutting her legs, her arms, her head, her gown,

bleeding from her wounds, and pimpled with ticks

till she tripped over roots and tumbled down.

Down and down a hill she rolled, like a bird

hitting a windshield and twirling around,

coming to rest, at last, without a word,

breathless for a long moment on the ground.

Over yonder she saw the light, faded

by both distance and darkness, far afield,

then she rose, slowly, weeping, then waded

through the underbrush where the shadows spilled.

To a clearing she came, far down below

the Appalachian knobs, and the full moon,

limping, sobbing, not knowing where to go,

but knowing she needed to leave, and soon.

And then she was not alone—there stood Dwayne

dim in the moonlight, hunting rifle raised,

taking aim with the same eye whose disdain

found her figure wanting when it appraised.

A single gunshot rang out through the vale

between the hills and woods of God’s country—

no scream, nor moan; just a soft sight to tell

the feelings of one whose woes were sundry.

She fell with as little sound or complaint

as she lived, and Dwayne buried her swiftly,

not offering prayer to Christ or saint

on her behalf, nor headstone, but thriftily

saw the evil done, and soon forgotten

after returning uphill to the farm,

wanting more drink to celebrate his life,

imagining Rose with him, arm in arm

and loin to loin as his consummate wife.

For three days heavy rains poured thereafter

and Dwayne drank himself silly as a clown

in a rodeo, giddy with laughter

as his bull-bashed barrel spins round and round.

Come the fourth day the rains ceased their weeping,

though the skies remained a grim gravestone gray

and mists rose from the hills like ghosts creeping

through air chill and clammy, all night and day.

Hangover to hangover, drinking more

to chase the hair of the dog with moonshine

till he had no alcohol left to pour

to drown out the world—whiskey, beer or wine.

Dwayne was desperate for church, and so went,

not seeking salvation in Sunday’s Mass;

nor seeking his Christ so as to repent,

but Rose Hall and her figure to harass.

A shameful incident followed, of course,

and Dwayne was expelled with a bloody nose,

his brains sloshing in his skull, his remorse

only being pride at the trade of blows.

The pain saw him home, (a bitter consort),

and, having no drink for consolation,

nor wife to cook a meal, nor make such sport,

pitied himself and his lonely station.

All day moping, Dwayne drifted house to barn,

barn to house, cursing the cows, pigs, and sheep

till night fell and, head feeling stuffed with yarn,

he sat down on the porch and fell asleep.

Dwayne woke to strange laughter later that night

and a white glow through the black, mist-veiled trees.

Bleary-eyed, he stood and followed that light,

a sleepwalker through dreamy reveries.

He felt as if floating as he followed

the milky radiance of the forest

and he never thought to question what glowed;

no more than a baby its mother’s breast.

There, in the bosom of those bristly hills,

he found a woman dancing in a ring

of fat mushrooms with white caps and brown frills,

dancing and laughing, singing and squealing.

“By the love of a man whose love is flesh

and by the soul of a man steeped in skin,

make love as a pagan to his fetish

to manifest the sweet children of sin.”

What she sang, Dwayne did not care while entranced

thinking of nought except her swells and squeals

as she danced and jiggled, her curves enhanced

with her fruitful heft as she kicked her heels.

Her wide hips rocked to a fairy’s music,

her breasts bouncing and swinging in rhythm,

and Dwayne salivated at the dew, thick

on her teats, lactating from within them.

His brain’s marbles were as pearls before swine

as he gazed upon that buxom stranger

and heard her squealing laughter, so fine

that he felt no sense of fear or danger.

She had color to her skin: pink and peach,

not brown or leathery, such as had Maud,

and curves aplenty, formed as if to teach

Man the way to lust, as a dowsing rod.

She danced away from him, graceful and coy,

as though to stir his lust to a frothy boil,

and he followed, stumbling like a lost boy,

keeping apace, however slick the soil.

At last she surrendered, lounging anon

in a bed made of Autumn’s soft bounty,

and Dwayne fell on her, rutting thereupon

in a clamor heard county to county.

The two of them were as a two-backed beast,

Dwayne rutting and moaning as if to bust

and she squealing and squirming without cease

beneath Dwayne’s amorous, clamorous lust.

There were folds of pink flesh overflowing

and breasts to each hand, to Dwayne’s mouth, and more

than he could fondle, the hot flesh growing,

her body like teeming tides on his shore—

never ebbing, nor ever abating

as she rallied in ardor and measure

that were as unrestrained as beasts mating,

but twisted by a man’s pain and pleasure.

The dew came, and the chill morn, and Dwayne, too,

waking alone and shivering, stretched on

the matted, wallowing leaf floor, no clue

of his new lover and where she had gone.

Chilled to his bones, Dwayne stumbled along

and headed home as if a long-lost lord,

yet still listening for the squealing song

of the woman with the curves of a gourd.

Coming home, Dwayne found his cattle scattered

and his sheep huddling together in fear,

their eyes wide to the whites, their fleece splattered

with the blood of the dead sheep, laying near.

The dead sheep were gored, eaten, disemboweled,

their entrails strewn in messy disarray;

seeing the dead, Dwayne stomped and raged and howled

to see his flock halved.  He shouted, “You’ll pay!”

The barn had been smashed as if by a storm

and was strewn in splintered piles, near a ton.

Dwayne inspected the blood, and found it warm,

so he put on some clothes and fetched his gun,

following the blood trail into the wild,

rage as a crimson mist clouding his gaze,

and the white mists not yet dispersed, nor mild

as his warpath wended through the dawn’s haze.

A familiar route, it was, and yet

he did not realize till it was too late,

coming to a grave he hoped to forget,

ringed round with mushrooms in a figure eight.

A monstrous sow nosed about the fresh grave,

her beady brown eyes looking up at him—

the pig sniffed, snorted and with a smile gave

a squealing laugh that shook Dwayne, limb to limb.

Taken aback by its size, and the blood

that lined the sow’s tusk-jagged mouth, Dwayne gasped,

trying not to look at the charnel mud

and raised his rifle.  His shaky voice rasped,

“You damned beast!  I’ll learn you good for killing

and eating what’s mine!  Gut you, hoof to tail!”

Dwayne aimed his rifle, his heart now thrilling

in thoughts of the pork he could eat and sell.

But before Dwayne could even fire his gun,

the sow rose up on her hind-legs, just-so,

and danced and squealed and leapt into a run

across the vale, as fast as she could go.

By and by, Dwayne overcame his dismay,

but the sow had vanished into the hills,

and so Dwayne walked home, all along his way

mumbling to himself and trembling with chills.

That night Dwayne dreamt of the sow in the vale

and his lover who sang in the forest,

and he saw them in turns, swell unto swell,

and rutted atop them both—both abreast.

Each morning Dwayne would wake in a cold sweat,

knowing he had lain with them once again,

and knowing, also, that there were two, and yet

the same—the same, as they had always been.

Meanwhile the wild hog ate all of his sheep,

one by one till none remained in the pens

and Dwayne feared waking someday from his sleep

to find her eating him up, feet to shins;

nor did she stop with sheep, but ate each beast

belonging to Dwayne’s farm, nor the pigs,

nor the cattle, one by one, a fine feast

as the giant sow crunched their bones like twigs.

Always at night she struck, while Dwayne lay

and dreamt of her touch, her kiss, her embrace,

not waking till the coming of the day,

with a shrill scream, sweat christening his face

as if baptized in such fetid waters

as would roll slow in a putrid river

swarming with Lilith’s vile, temptress daughters—

dazed, Dwayne rose and stumbled, all aquiver

with disgust at himself, and the creature

that caused such hell-loosed chaos in his life,

vowing each morning to be the teacher

and butcher the beast with gun, saw, and knife.

But for all his cursing and swearing such,

Dwayne never could glimpse that large porcine head,

nor could he wake from the amorous touch

of his lover in his widower’s bed.

All that remained was the late morning mess

both in the barnyard and in his britches,

and soon he prayed much more, and swore much less,

thinking it the work of hell-bound witches.

Despairing of earthly means, Dwayne applied

to the priest, pleading that he must invoke

the angels of Heaven to take his side,

but the priest frowned, crossed himself, and thus spoke:

“What sins you sow, you reap, and reap you will.”

Dwayne tried to beg, but the priest grimly said,

“Where is your wife, Dwayne?  Is she well…or ill?”

He scowled at Dwayne’s silence and shook his head.

“What sins you sow, you reap,” he repeated,

“And pay sevenfold for wickedness done.

Whatever this beast eats has been meted

by God himself, the Father and the Son.”

“By all that is holy!” Dwayne wept.  “Help me!

You gotta’ come and expel that demon!”

But Dwayne was, himself, expelled, and swiftly

after confessing guilt of his semen.

“You made congress with a beast?!” the priest roared.

“You are damned!  Damned!  Leave!  Now!  Get out of here!”

Dwayne cursed the Catholic priest, and his Lord,

and hastened home, hankering for a beer.

No beer.  No whiskey.  No moonshine or gin.

No friends.  No allies.  No solace.  Nor god

to save him from his choices, from his sin,

nor drink to carry him away to Nod.

“All I wanted were some curves!” he bellowed,

kicking over the dresser where Maud’s gowns

hung thin, tenuous, once white, now yellowed

by dust and tears and years and silent frowns.

To see those gowns, in all their stains and frays,

was to see Maud dead in her shallow grave,

her nightgown bloody, her bones thin, her gaze

vacant and dark as a Stygian cave.

Enraged, Dwayne tore the gowns, screaming, “You witch!

Leave me be!  You and your bones are buried!”

He tore her dresses apart, cloth from stitch,

including the dress worn when they married.

This latter dress he tore with great relish,

like a sharp-clawed cat on a pillow pile,

although, at length, even this seemed hellish

to do after he went on for a while.

“I can’t abide it no more!” Dwayne declared.

“I’m taking my last stand, once and for all!”

He fetched his rifle and, as his rage flared,

he stomped out toward Maud’s grave without stall.

Through veils of mist that curtained wayward woods

like the funeral shrouds of those bereft

and misty-eyed beneath their tattered hoods,

phantoms watched from beyond the weave and weft.

If Dwayne sensed them while in his reckless ire,

he did not care, but marched on in a craze,

his mind wild with violence and the fire

of his rage—all else was lost in the haze.

Dwayne was not quiet as he stomped about,

and the porcine beast knew of his approach,

the bulky behemoth barreling out,

large and fast as a thunderous stagecoach.

Dwayne fired his rifle with a frantic aim

and caught a long tusk along his torso;

man and beast tumbled together, each maimed;

man wounded much, but beast much, too—more so.

Yet, the sow rose first, and then limped away

as her bristly neck bled from a deep hole;

Dwayne roused to pain, at length, but did not lay,

but hobbled on, enraged, his entire soul

fixated as upon cross-hairs, his eye

rolling upon the blood the boar had bled,

which, beholding, did also testify

that the devilry could—would— soon be dead.

Through his ragged breaths, he laughed and rejoiced,

saying, “I will eat you whole, hoof to nose,

heart and soul.”  He laughed again, scarecrow-voiced

and limped forth to see this curse to its close.

Down the hills and through the woods he wended,

coming at length to the field where Maud lay

and where the sow lay, belly distended

with the animals she had made her prey.

The beast snorted softly, vastly content,

sleeping as her wounded ribs rose and fell;

Dwayne did not wait, but raised his gun and spent

a bullet from its smoking, hollow shell.

Yet, after the smoke had lifted Dwayne saw

a sight that chilled him to his deep marrow,

a sight against Nature’s most basic Law—

blasphemous offspring; a man-faced farrow

suckling at their mother’s milk-swollen teats,

undisturbed by the stark, sudden stillness

of their mother, or the loud heartbeats

of Dwayne Padgett in the throes of illness.

The sow now dead, and the piglets blind,

Dwayne staggered away, thinking himself free

from his sins and his past, all left behind

in the gore of that flesh-borne heresy.

He limped on a while, bleeding from his gut

where the sow had kissed him with vengeful tusk,

but soon he wearied, weakened by the cut

and crumbled down like a lax scarecrow’s husk.

He slept for a time, then woke to the sound

of babies cooing and giggling at rest,

seeing the piglets gathered all around,

nestling his wound for succor, as a breast.

Too weak to scream, Dwayne moaned a short prayer

for mercy from the beasts at his bowels,

but no mercy came, and long was it ere

the snouts stopped digging like trenchant trowels.

At last fed to surfeit, they wandered off

to grow and breed among those bristly hills,

and though some Appalachians may yet scoff

at the strange notion, others know the chills

of a breaking branch or the odd footfall

while walking Kentucky’s wilderness trails—

to hear the squeal, or laugh, or caterwaul

of Dwayne Padgett’s kin in the knobs and vales.

Vacation

Scott saw the lake from the highway,

sprawling at a lower elevation beyond the

guard rails and the trees that rose between.

Its green surface was still, untroubled,

silent,

undisturbed by the windless afternoon

while Scott drove by, going home from the

buzzing, banging, screeching noises of the

Amazon warehouse; the rush as he dashed

from one row to another, scrambling to pick

and pluck and rummage another profligate

item, Made In China, that was as needful

to the average consumer

as a scarf in summertime,

trying to meet the quota demanded of him,

minute by minute,

hour by hour,

day by day

unto endless days.

Going home to an empty apartment

after a twelve-hour shift

was like

dumping himself into a box

in accordance to his bin number

and mailing himself out the next morning

once again

to the same Amazon warehouse

to pick and pluck and drop all over again.

He wanted a vacation.

A real vacation.

He wanted to go to that lake —

not to fish

or to camp

or to swim,

but to plunge his car

headlong into the depths of it and let

that placid stillness envelop him

as he sank to the bottom,

apart from the hectic human world,

uncaring,

detached,

lungs filling up

while his life emptied out,

and the tranquil bosom of the lake

sealing up, like a wound —

reconciling him within its serene silence.

The real horror of his

life

was that it went on and on and on.

Closer

The windowpane frosted as Alex stared out beyond the backyard and the subdivision, into a field glossy with snow and moonlight.  The star-mottled sky was a deep blue, as if the chilly air itself was breathless, and the pale moon was circumscribed sharply, cleanly, with no mist or moisture to blur its dreaming lobe.  Alex moved a brontosaurus off the windowsill, fixing his eyes again on the distant hills.  The hills were black in the distance, and all else between lay suffused in waxy, wintry starlight.  The elms and the oaks to the left of the field were coated in ice, like white coral, and their crystalline branches did not stir.  The air itself did not stir, but was inert and lifeless in the frigidity of a frozen February night.

 Alex held his breath, squinting at a horizon undulating with hills.  Though a uniform blackness, there was one hill among the rest which he knew did not belong.  It was a stranger, and an imposter.

 Downstairs, Alex’s father was asleep on the couch, a Nature program still playing, the narrator’s soothing voice muffled by the floor.  Alex’s mother had gone to bed an hour before.  Alex had been shooed to bed an hour before that, yet had not fallen asleep.  Instead, he had slipped quietly out of bed to hold vigil as he had for the past three nights.

 The distant hill rumbled, and Alex pressed his face against the cold windowpane, his breath fogging the glass.  The hill that did not belong was now moving.  But his parents did not rouse from sleep, though the house trembled.  At first he had thought the movement was a trick of moonlight and his imagination, but as he watched the bristle-backed hill he came to mark its progress in his memory.  The tremors had become stronger, too, and the hill larger as it came closer.

 The house trembled again, and dogs barked throughout the subdivision in a cascade of agitation.  Alex’s father grumbled, rousing sleepily to curse his neighbors for their pets, and then turned up the volume on the television.  The Nature narrator spoke louder, now, about bears and hibernation and the need to eat to survive Winter.  Alex’s father succumbed once more to his own hibernation.

 Alex stared at the bristle-backed hill huddled among the other hills.  It seemed larger tonight, and, so, he knew it was closer.  He wondered what it wanted, and what it would do when it finally arrived at the subdivision.  He watched it for as long as he could, but toward the Witching Hour snow fell heavy and frequent.  It was difficult to discern the hills from the night.  Alex laid himself down in his bed again.  He did not have to watch the hill.  He knew it was moving closer.  He did not need to see it to know.  He could feel the tremors of its approach in the frame of the house.

       ***

 The next morning was not bright.  The heavy snow fell harder and thicker than before, packing the earth in crunchy, sparkling whiteness.  The sun was a gauzy apparition behind thick-folded linen.  Alex woke up late, having stayed up late for his vigil, and he came down for breakfast only to find lunch waiting for him.  It was a weekday, a schoolday and a workday, and he was confused by the fact that his parents did not bother to wake him and that they were, both of them, in their pajamas.

 “Snow day?” Alex asked.

 His parents did not answer.  Their eyes were stuck steadfastly to the television.  Alex stood behind the couch, staring at the News anchorwoman on the screen.  There were images of a gigantic hole in the earth, edged with the partial remains of houses, buildings, and a few cars here and there.

 “A sink hole?” Alex said in alarm.

 “Don’t worry, baby,” his mother said.  She did not take her eyes from the screen.  “It happened farther down the road.  New Hope.  No one from here was harmed.”

 “No one we know, at least,” her husband said.

 Alex immediately thought of the hill and the tremors in the night.  “It could happen here,” he said.

 His mother turned around in the couch and smiled at him.  Her smile could not hide the worry in her face.  “No one fracks around here, sweetie,” she said.  “It won’t happen here.”  She looked at her husband.  “Right, honey?”

 “Sure,” his father said.  “Still, it’s crazy.  Who would have thought that a sink hole would open up and swallow all of New Hope?  It’s a good thing we decided to settle here.  We could be the ones in that big pit right now.”

 Alex’s mother frowned at Alex’s father, then turned toward Alex again, trying to smile again.

 “It won’t happen here,” she repeated.

 She stared at the television again as the anchorwoman read the total number of people missing and/or presumed dead.  Over ten-thousand people had disappeared without a trace, all in a baffling, blinking instant.  No one seemed to have any answers as to how or why.

      ***

 It did not like the light.  Alex was certain of this.  When the snowstorm blew over, and the sun came out, the hill was gone.  There was no trace of if anywhere.  Only a gap remained between the two hills where the imposter formerly resided.  This knowledge did not reassure Alex.  He knew about nocturnal animals from school, and knew that they were no better or worse than animals that hunted by day, but the hill’s preference for the dark still struck him keenly with dread.  His father had often told him not to be afraid of the dark—that there was nothing that could harm him, even at night.  But Alex knew about rattlesnakes, and coyotes, and mountain lions.  And Alex knew about the black bears that lived in the woods, near the streams, and who slept in the cave system near the hills.  Later that night he saw a bear in the field.  The bear should have been hibernating, but it was running away.

 It looked afraid.

Haiku Reviews: Michael Mcdowell’s Blackwater Series

Heavy rains fell long,
churning the blackwater whorl,
yet tears fall longer.

Changelings and snatchers,
by theft a family grows,
as does a deft tale.

When the levee breaks
and the town washes away,
so, too, does the heart.

Water oak seeds sown
in Perdido sands, each plot
sprouting an orchard.

Matriarchs battle
with poisonous courtesy;
nought is as it seems.

Faulkner and Lovecraft
and the murmurs of lost souls
neath conjoined rivers.

A junction of wills
aswirl with an undertow,
consuming readers.

Some More 3-Sentence Horror Stories

An Eyeful

For three days after the spider bite Johnny ’s right eye was blurry and pulsated and brimmed with pus.  Johnny had been staying in the darkness of his bedroom, but on the fourth morning he went into the bathroom to look in the mirror at his swollen eye.  Exposed to the light in the bathroom, the eye crawled farther back into its socket, retreating from the brightness.

Tryst

Her neck was long, stretching out from her kimono like a pale snake as her body lay sleeping on her tatami.  From her room, and down the hall, her head went floating, searching the paper-walled rooms of the palace for the handsome young samurai.  Blade drawn, and already wet with blood, the emperor awaited her within her lover ’s room.

Call And Answer

The cornfield trembled beneath the Harvest moon, and so, too, did Maggie, fearfully holding her doll to her chest.  Somewhere in the corn rows the scarecrow walked, calling out with his dry, straw-tongued voice.  After a time, Maggie ’s doll called out in answer, inviting him over.

Discovery

Warren had been tracking the Great Horned Owl for months, seeking the pellets left in its wake.  Sometimes at night, while alone in the woods, Warren heard voices, and even screams, as if far away, and saw orbs of light in the treetops.  After Warren was confined to the asylum he continued to talk of fairies and pellets while clutching tiny skulls in his hands.

The Gallows Judge

Harold Marsh was a hanging judge who claimed no greater satisfaction than a gallows jig.  Often Marsh would order a hanged man taken down, just before he could die, and then strung up and hanged again, just so he could watch the dance such men did a second, or even third, time.  After retirement Marsh was found dead in his house, hung up in front of a mirror, a grin on his purple face.

Marriage Vows

Before Josh ’s first wife, Kelly, had killed herself, she vowed, “Josh would remarry over my dead body! ”  And so, when Josh married Britney, his second wife, the ceremony was held atop Kelly ’s grave.  True to her word, Kelly made no objections

Hell’s Bales

Demonic scythemen are abroad,

roaming and reaping, home to home,

feared by folks as though each a god

invoked from an old pagan tome.

Wise villagers will keep indoors,

praying throughout Samhain night,

away from the fields and the moors

where sickles gleam with hellish light.

To and fro, the imp reapers swing

black blades amidst the bloody yield—

pauper, pope, merchant, whore and king—

Man falling as wheat in a field.

They amass bales to feed their steeds,

those horses that snort smoke and flame.

Wherefrom? Hell!  The infernal breeds

bear them up for damnation games,

bursting forth from the flaming depths

amidst plumes of sulphur and fire

like silos alight, these seraphs

fallen to the abyssal pyre.

And what bales amassed!  Wound and bound

with the bodies of those thus reaped,

flesh and soul spiraled round and round—

bone and blood and sin as one heaped

to keep hale the mounts of the Pit

during times of better peoples;

the lean, famine seasons, to wit,

when hearts rise higher than steeples—

those Renaissance times of the soul

when Man aspires beyond himself,

working at wonders for the whole

and starving Hell of its vast wealth

till such beasts as in Hell’s stables

must lay down, famished and bereft

beneath the gargoyled gables

where rider, too, walks with feet cleft,

each taking a nap, for a time,

to await harvests yet to come,

for Sin is a generous clime

that returns throughout a kingdom.

Careful What You Wish For

 Tony struck the rearview mirror with the palm of his hand, slamming it sideways so the high-beams of the truck behind him could no longer slash at him with a blade of blinding brightness.

 “Stupid cocksucker,” Tony growled.  “Turn off your brights!”

 Raindrops popped on the windshield of his old, brown Ford Pinto.  Tony felt like it was his blood bubbling and popping.  The truck had been tailgating Tony for five miles along Highway 62.  Beyond the highway lay the Sticks, and beyond them rose the knobs.  All around them the wet darkness crouched closely like a cat atop its prey.  It was New Year’s Eve, and the joker in the truck behind Tony must have thought that the dark and the rain and Tony’s steady 35 mph were reason enough to blind him from behind and blow his horn.

 “Go around, asshole!” Tony roared.  “Pass me if you don’t like it!”

 The motorist could not hear Tony, nor did Tony believe the driver would have heeded him.  The driver seemed hellbent on tormenting Tony.

 “Pass now! Go ahead and do it already!”

 The Highway was a straight stretch for a good mile, though there was a bridge with railings here and there.  Trees and lowlands stretched into darkness on either side of the highway.  There was little traffic on this side of the County.

 Yet, the driver did not pass Tony.

 “I wish you’d fucking wreck,” Tony said, grinding his teeth.

 Tony had to drive slowly, not only because of the rain and darkness, but because his rear passenger tire was a small doughnut.  The full-sized tire had gone flat a week ago, from a nail in the wall of the tire, and Tony didn’t have the money for a replacement.

 “I swear to God, if I could, I’d fucking smash your truck into a goddamn ravine,” Tony swore.

 At length, Tony saw the liquor store and slowed down, his blinker not working.  He eased the Pinto into a turn, pulling into the big parking lot.  A pot hole’s water puddle ruptured like a hemorrhage and the Pinto jerked sideways, but came to a stop.  Meanwhile the truck blasted its horn.  Tony glanced back only once and saw, within the glow of the parking lot lamppost, the side of the truck.  There was a faded Confederate battle flag painted on the door.

 “Go home and fuck your sister,” Tony grumbled.  He sighed, irritably, then turned off the Pinto.  Groaning now, he climbed out of the car, which was difficult for him since he was so tall, his legs so long, and the Pinto so small and low to the ground.  He did not know which was worse: falling in or tumbling out.  Standing up was like coming up from a game of Limbo.  The old, familiar ache in his hip proclaimed it was still alive and well and had, much to his misery, learned new agonies.

 “Christ Almighty!”

 Limping now from sciatic pain, Tony headed into the front door of Mike’s Liquor Store to start his shift.

 Robbie, the second-shift clerk, eagerly abounded from behind the counter as Tony hobbled into the bleaching light of the store.

 “Finally,” Robbie said in a low, disgruntled voice.  “What took you so long?”

 “I am on time!” Tony growled, glaring at the young twenty-two year old’s face-piercings.  Even if Tony wasn’t angry at Robbie, he would still have been staring at the piercings.  The silver rings glistened like Christmas ornaments and the chains that linked them swayed with the slightest movement.  There were times when Tony wanted to tear them out.  “I still have five minutes until it’s Eleven.”

 “But I told you I needed to leave by Ten-Thirty,” Robbie complained in that monotone that never changed pitch, even when more robust emotions were meant to be conveyed.  “I got a gig tonight with my band.”

 Tony walked past Robbie, nearly getting hooked by the chains that dangled from his black pants and black shirt.

 “I never agreed to come in early,” Tony said.  “But I’m here now, so get lost.”

 Robbie opened his three-ringed lips to say something, then closed them and headed out into the parking lot.  He looked like a pale set of arms and a head as his black shirt and pants melded with the outer blackness of the night.

 Tony assumed his place behind the counter.  He noticed there were Cheeto crumbs on the counter.  He raised a hand to sweep it off, but then grumbled.

 “I’m not his momma,” he said.  He looked out at the aisles of booze, wondering how many of them Robbie had filched.  It didn’t matter, he realized.  Mike’s Liquor Store had a terminal illness, and its last days were approaching fast.

 He felt something like white noise in his ears.  He heard it, too, but the radio was so loud that it had a tactile roughness, like sandpaper.  After a moment of vegetated nonthought, he realized that it was the radio.  He walked over to it, by the drive-thru window, and turned it off.  It was the Metal music that Robbie listened to.  Naturally, Tony hated it, just like the fact that he hated Robbie’s long hair.  Tony was balding, and he thought that the only good music that ever existed, existed in the Seventies.  Everything else— like the world at large—was expendable.

 “Stupid crap,” he said.

 He stood in the silence of the empty liquor store.  He hated the bright lights.  They reminded him of the driver in the truck who had been shining his high-beams and tailgating.  He wanted to turn the lights off, or at least half of them.  Why would it matter anyway?  The liquor store was going to close soon because nobody came out this way for booze.  Once upon a time, when Boone County next-door was Dry, its citizens would venture out here on Highway 62 and purchase all of their alcoholic needs.  Business was going well back then.  Mike, the owner, sometimes had a hard time keeping the store fully stocked since so many customers were coming here.  The big parking lot was full, even in the late hours.

 But then Boone County voted to go Wet, and sure enough the majority of Mike’s customer base dried up.  Tony was surprised at Mike’s denial, though, thinking that if Mike was sensible he would have fired both Tony and Robbie and liquidated his remaining stock, or at the least opening another store somewhere else, on the outer edge of another Dry county.  But Mike was in denial, and so long as Mike was in denial, Tony had a job.

 And yet, Tony did not care for the job much.  It was merely a means of buying booze to drown himself from day to day.  Nothing more.

 The door banged open and the little bell ding-a-ling-a-linged pathetically.  A young guy in a hoodie and sweatpants walked in, followed by a young woman.  She was in a hoodie, too, and both of them had their hoodies up over their heads, shielding their eyes, and most of their faces, from the bright fluorescence of the store.  She had an oversized purse and wore a short skirt, the latter of which would not have been justified even by Summer temperatures.  A tattoo of Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid smiled coyly from the inner thigh of one leg.  A hookah trailed smoke up the other leg, disappearing into the skirt.  Tony could have hazarded a guess as to where it ended.

 “What’s up?” the young man said.

 Tony merely nodded, watching them like a sheriff at the entrance of a new cowboy posse.

 “Wet fucking night, am I right?” the young man offered.

 “That’s what umbrellas are for,” Tony said, mirthlessly.

 The young man pointed a finger-gun at Tony.  “Good advice,” he said.

 The young man and woman split apart, going down different aisles.  Tony knew their routine better than they did.  They thought they were being slick, separating to divide his attention while they filched whatever they could from the shelves.  And they almost succeeded, but Tony was wise to the ruse because it was a ruse he knew well.

 The young man tripped loudly over a display, making a dramatic show of knocking over a stack of Mad Dog beer.  The beer cans rolled everywhere like aggrieved animals on the run.

 “Oh man!” the young man said, gawping up at Tony with mock-embarrassment while bending over to try to pick up the cans.  “Dude, I am so sorry!”

 The young man scrambled to reassemble the display stack.  He kept his face concealed beneath his hoodie; all except that dog-eat-shit-grin—it glittered in the fluorescence.  Meanwhile the young woman stuck a bottle of Captain Morgan Rum into her oversized purse.  She walked around with a hastened step, emboldened by her presumed success.

 The young man made a show of looking around the store for a while longer before finally picking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the coolers.  He brought it to the counter and, while he busily fished out his ID, his girl walked out the door, her purse swinging ponderously against her upper thigh.

 “Just the PBR,” the young man said, handing over the PBR and a five-dollar bill.

 Tony rang up the PBR, and the Captain Morgan Rum.

 “Whoa, whoa, whoa, man,” the young man said.  His dog-eat-shit-grin twisted into a snarl.  “What’s that shit you added there?”

 “The rum your girl put in her purse,” Tony said.

 “She didn’t do not fucking thing,” the young man said.

 It never ceased to amaze Tony how petty thieves could become so outraged at suspicion, especially when they were caught.

 “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” the thief demanded.

 “The guy who caught your bitch stealing on camera,” Tony said.  He hooked a thumb back toward the camera on the wall behind him.  “So either pay for the rum or she can go to jail or juvie.  To be honest, I’m not sure how old she is.  Maybe her dad will want a word with you before the police do.”

 The outrage did not subside from the thief’s face, but it was fractured with alarm.

 “Camera?” he said.  “There ain’t no fuckin’ camera.  You’re fuckin’ lying.”

 Tony gave the thief an indifferent, nonchalant shrug of the shoulder.  “You’re the one risking everything.  I just work here.”

 The thief glowered at Tony.

 “You don’t even know who we are,” the thief said.

 “I have your ID right here,” Tony said.

 “It’s fake, bitch,” the thief said.

 “All the better,” Tony said.  “More jail time for using a fake ID.”

 The two men glared for a time longer.  The younger man, at last, relented.

 “Fine, motherfucker,” the thief said.  “I’ll bring it back.”

 The thief went outside for a minute.  He came back with the bottle of rum.

 “Here, you fuckin’ snitch!”

 The thief slammed the bottle of rum on the floor, smashing it all over the scuffed-up linoleum tiles.

 “Fuck you, you punk-ass bitch!” the thief shouted, flicking Tony the bird and shouldering through the door.  A few beats later a car door slammed, an engine revved, tires squealed, and wailed down the road in impotent rage.

 Tony scowled at the rum and broken glass.  After a few seconds of trying to recalibrate his anger to a lower setting, he fetched a dust pan, broom, mop and bucket.  He cleaned away the mess.

 The camera inside the liquor store was, in actuality, nonfunctional and Mike did not have the money to fix it.  Still, the broken camera could be seen by anyone glancing up while paying for their booze.  It was a one-eyed alien from a bygone era.  The only other camera was the parking lot camera.  Tony occasionally glanced at its monitor behind the counter.  Right now it was black and white and half-blinded by the parking lot light and the rain that slashed through the darkness like shooting stars of white streaks.  There were no cars in the parking lot.  The highway stretched between two counties, both sprawling boondocks riddled with the Sticks and underbrush and flooded swampland.

 The radio, which Tony had turned off, turned itself on.  It did this from time to time.  The off/on switch was broken and only worked one way or the other for so long before switching itself.  When it turned on, the chugging guitar of a Jimi Hendrix song blasted through the store.

 “‘There must be some way outta here,’ said the joker to the thief…”

 Tony yanked the radio’s plug from the wall.  He should have unplugged it earlier, he thought.  One day he would throw that radio in the dumpster.

 There must be some way out of here…

 The voice of Jimi Hendrix taunted him over and over again.  He knew it was a desperate lie.  There was no way out of here.  Life was a prison all around him, and it had closed in on him with claustrophobic closeness over the years.

 Feeling suddenly very moody, Tony took out his wallet and slowly pulled out a photo, extracting it with all of the cautious care of a surgeon conducting a perilous operation.  The photo slipped out, at length, with minimal creasing.  Old and crumpled and faded, it was a photo of a younger version of Tony, with a full head of blonde hair—healthy, shiny hair—and a pretty, young woman beside him, holding a baby.  All three members of the family were smiling in the photo.  It was a photo miracle, the portrait photographer said; a picture-perfect arrangement of smiles all at the same time.  But what a contrast it cruelly displayed for Tony now.  Nowadays, he had no hair, never smiled, and was raked head to toe with wrinkles.  His wife—ex-wife, he told himself—had remarried and had aged a little better than Tony because she did not drink or smoke.  She also wore makeup nowadays, or had been the last time Tony had seen her.  He hated the makeup on her.  It looked unnatural.

 And the baby…the baby was now a grown woman.  She had gone to college, and became a Veterinarian, and had gotten married.  She had small children of her own now—two, in fact—but she had not allowed Tony to see them.  He was a stranger to them, and a stranger to her.

 “Ungrateful,” he muttered.  “Without me…she wouldn’t even exist…”

 Nothing had gone well in life for Tony.  And the things that seemed to have been going well were just rotten bits of luck in disguise.  They were the opposite of “blessings in disguise”.  They were curses in disguise.  It was like Luck apportioned by circumstance so as to provoke optimism only as a catalyst for the disappointments to come.   Like a Leprechaun’s pot of gold that turns out to be stolen from Fort Knox, the pot tagged with a tracking device.  The best example of such a curse was his ex-wife, Laverne.  He had thought he won the Jackpot when he married her.  In truth, he had won hot lead in a game of Russian Roulette.

 It was just like that insurance scheme.  He had it all lined up right, and would have made a hundred thousand off of it.  But a fraudster was only as good as the victim let him be, and if the victim was an insurance company, then he was not good at all.  Insurance companies were the kings of fraud, equaled only by celebrities and politicians.  In the end, Tony had served jail time for the ploy.

 Worse, he had ruined his life.

 A couple of hours passed, crawling by with all the swiftness of a slug across a cheek.  Tony felt the sliminess of Time lingering on him, like a triggered nerve that would not stop twitching his face just below his right eye.  The fluorescent lights bothered him, and the booze.  He wanted to drink a beer.  But if he drank a beer he would want to drink another beer.  And another.  And then a shot of whiskey.  Maybe a shot of Bluegrass Bourbon.  And then, before long, he would have drained several cans and bottles and thrown them on the floor alongside his own slovenly, sloppy-drunk self.  He did not want to betray Mike’s trust like that.  Sure, he thought, Mike was fighting a hopeless battle, but Tony would have never forgiven himself for betraying Mike.  Just like he never forgave himself for saying the terrible things he had said to his ex-wife during the Custody battle.

 And so Tony went outside for a smoke.  He stood under the eave of the liquor store, peering through the smoke of his cigarette and the veil of heavy rain and stared at nothing.  Highway 62 was empty.  No cars passed along that desolate stretch of hillbilly backwoods.

 Tony’s preferred brand of cigarettes was Monkey’s Paw.  They were cheap and they gave his body the amount of nicotine it thought it needed.  And so he lit a cigarette, puffing his lungs to ash and tar and coughing occasionally, the Monkey’s Paw choking him like a garroter at times, and generally feeling sardonic about the world.

 He smoked until there were flecks of ashes in the untrimmed scatter of mustache hair over his top lip.  Flicking the cigarette butt out into the black glaze of the parking lot, he headed back inside.  The chill followed him inside.

 The alcohol still beckoned to Tony.  He wanted to turn half of the store’s lights off and conceal the booze in darkness.  Actually, he wanted to turn all of them off and just sit in the dark, staring at nothing.  As a compromise, he turned off only the lights illuminating the counter and himself.  He told himself that it would have save Mike some money, at least, since the store had bled too much money through the lights as it was.  No customers at that late of an hour would have cared if the lights were on or not.  But his eyes and tongue cared.  Wherever he looked the amber gleam of whiskey and rum and the friendly glimmer of silver beer cans all enticed him over.  It was like an ambush from old lovers with their legs all spread out and ready.

 One addiction did not help, and the other was too inappropriate, so Tony opted for his last addiction, which was the most dangerous of all three.  He walked around the counter and picked up the phone.  After a moment’s hesitation, he dialed the familiar number.  There was no ring tone.  His ex-wife must have blocked the store’s number, too.  It was the only phone he had access to, and now it was a dead-end as well, just like their marriage.

 “I wish…I wish things had been different,” Tony said to the dead receiver.  He hung up and stood in the darkness, grim as a gargoyle.  The silence of the store, the highway, and the surrounding countryside met his confession with merciless immutability.

 Tony started for the nearest aisle, hand aiming toward the nearest alcohol without any consideration of what it was.  But his shoestrings were loose and he nearly fell as he stepped on them with one foot and tried to step forward with the other.  Catching himself on the counter, a breathed breath of relief, then bent over to tie his shoestrings.  When he straightened up—with a groan and a jolting agony in his leg—there was a man standing before him.  The man had appeared seemingly out of thin air.  At first, Tony blinked, thinking that the figure before him was a result of the conspiring efforts of his graveyard shift, drowsiness, cataracts, and the half-light in the liquor store.  After staring at the man, and gawping like a monkey, Tony concluded that he was, himself, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

 “Evening, sir,” the man said.

 He was short and had dark black eyebrows, a dark black beard, and dark black eyes like coal.  His skin was burnt umber and the large turban topping his head was wound into a purple plume with a fist-sized diamond in the center of it.  The man wore a black tunic and red, puffy pantaloons.  He had a single earring in one ear, gleaming gold.  Despite the rain, his strange clothes and turban were completely dry.  Desert dry.

 “I didn’t think you Muslims drank,” Tony remarked, after finding his tongue.

 “I am not a Muslim,” the man said, his accent thick.  “I am a Djinni.”

 “Well,” Tony said, “whatever your religion is, I don’t care.  If you want to buy some booze, you need to use the almighty American dollar.”

 “I do not want to buy booze, either,” the stranger said.

 “Then what do you want?” Tony demanded, growing irritable.  “A lottery ticket?  A lighter?”

 The stranger’s lips creased at the edges, suggesting a smile.  “I want to buy your soul,” he said.

 Tony grimaced.  “I’m a Presbyterian.  I’m not converting to anything else.”  He sighed, suddenly feeling despondent.  “I’m too old to change now.  Just ask my ex-wife.  The most I can change nowadays is a tire.”

 The stranger’s eyes were not black.  They were afire.

 “For your soul, Tony Gable, I will grant you wishes.”

 The mention of his name gave Tony pause.  “Who are you?” he said.  “Did my ex-wife send you?”  He grew irate.  “Are you here to serve me papers?  We had an agreement that I didn’t have to pay child support so long as she was married to that fucking car dealer…”

 The stranger waved aside Tony’s furious words.  “I know your name, Tony Gable, because I know your life.”  His eyes blazed brighter and the fluorescence of the liquor store flickered out, leaving only darkness and the eyes that burned within that darkness.  “I know that you wish for things.  All mortals do.  I am willing to make your wishes come true.  All you need do is sell me your soul.”

 Tony winced and then blinked.  All at once the liquor store was alight with its stark fluorescence.  The stranger was standing before Tony again, eyes dark as he waited patiently.

 Tony’s mouth was dry.  He moved his tongue and it rasped like a receipt in a pocket.  “How…how do I know you are telling me the truth?”

 The stranger raised a hand.  There were bangles and jewelry dangling from his wrist.  “Would you like me to give you a wish for free as a sign of good faith?”

 Tony had not realized how much he was sweating until an itch brought his hand to his forehead.  “Could you…could you cure my sciatica?”

 The stranger bowed his head slightly.  “Only wish it so.”

 “I wish that my sciatica was cured,” Tony said.

 The stranger fluttered the fingers of his raised hand, then lowered the hand, letting it fall at his side.  Nearly instantly Tony felt his sciatic pain—that javelin that impaled him from hip to toe—melt, subside, and then disappear altogether from his leg.  His disbelief was but a moment.  After that moment, he stepped side to side, did a jumping-jack, and even lunged; left and right, left and right.  The sparkle of joy in his eyes glimmered, but soon disappeared within a shade of apprehension.

 “My soul?” he said.  “My soul for always?  Or is it just…slavery for a while?”

 The Djinni said nothing.  The dreadful silence, and his smile, said all that needed to be said.

 Tony’s eyes fell to the scuffed tile as the scales of his mind teeter-tottered back and forth with their fateful weights.

 “How many wishes do I get?” he asked.

 “As many as you want until the moment you die,” the Djinni said.

 A cunning and excitement scintillated in Tony’s eyes, but before he could speak, the Djinni spoke, snuffing it out.

 “Remember that you are mortal,” he said, “that you were born mortal and you will die mortal, as is the Celestial Law.  I may bend that Law, but I may not break it.  Mortal you are and mortal you will remain until your death, and no wish may change that.”

 Tony nodded reluctantly, his face veiled in dark thoughts.  His brow creased with conflicted desire and fear.  The wrinkles of his face became deeper, as if freshly sliced by a scalpel, the blood not yet ready to run.  He cast his eyes over the liquor store, and out the window at his old Pinto in the parking lot.  He caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the windowpane.  The reflection was dark, and his eye sockets appeared hollow and ghoulish.  He clenched his teeth like an ape confronted by a challenger.

 “Fine!” he burst out, flinging an arm in a simian motion.  “I will sell you my soul!  Not that it is worth much.”

 The stranger vanished at once, like a candle’s flame winking out.  Tony looked left and he looked right, searching the store for the turbaned man.  There was not a trace of him; neither hair nor footprint or distant footfall.  For a moment Tony thought he had hallucinated the whole visit.  But after he turned on all of the lights, and as he walked around the store, looking for the short man, he was more and more convinced that the man had been real, for the ache in his hip and leg was utterly gone.

 “He was a liar,” Tony told himself.  “Wasn’t he?”

 Pausing by the window, Tony gazed out into the parking lot.  The only car in the rain-drenched lot was his own: that ugly, beat-up Ford Pinto.  His eyes focused on what was nearest: his own reflection.

 “I wish I had a full head of hair,” he said, “like when I was a teenager.”

 Smooth, shiny hair sprouted from Tony’s head, growing thick to cover his bald spot and then spreading outward, forming the Devil-may-care parted shape of his teenage years.  He could scarcely believe it, and ran his fingers through his hair and scalp several times while looking at himself in the window.

 “Holy shit!” he exclaimed.  He nearly hopped up and down with joy.  Looking now at the Pinto beyond his reflection, he grinned.  “I wish I had a Ferrari instead.”

 The Pinto transmogrified at once, stretching and broadening and smoothing itself out into a red Ferrari.  Tony did not know the year or model, but he loved it, running out into the parking lot to walk around it and behold the glory of his new vehicle.  He did not even notice the rain.  At first.  But as the downpour strengthened, he decided to test the interior of his new car.  The door opened vertically, at the touch of the key fob that was suddenly in his hand.  With his sciatica gone, he had no trouble bending down and slipping into the black leather interior of the car.  He pushed the fob again and the door lowered on its own.  He started to put the key in the ignition, but paused.

 “I wish I had a cell-phone,” he said.  “A good cell-phone.  And not that Apple shit, either. An Asian phone.”

 A Samsung Galaxy 10 appeared in Tony’s hand, gleaming with its slick black design.  He fumbled with it for a moment, trying to figure it out.

 “I wish to call my ex-wife,” he said aloud, having given up on figuring the phone out enough to do it himself.  The phone dialed the familiar number and, much to his joy, his wife answered.

 “Hello?” she ventured apprehensively.

 “Laverne, it’s me, Tony…” he began.

 She hung up immediately.

 Tony groaned and struck the steering wheel with the palm of his hand.  Rain ran down the windshield of the Ferrari like teardrops down a cheek.  After a moment, however, he brightened.

 “I wish Laverne would call me and want to talk to me,” Tony said.

 The cell-phone began to ring.  Tony knew enough intuitively to swipe green on the touchscreen.

 “Tony, are you there?” Laverne said hesitantly.

 “It’s me!” Tony said, louder than he needed to.

 “Yeah, well…it’s been a while since I spoke to you about the grandchildren.  So I thought it was only fair that I tell you how they are doing.”

 Tony sat up eagerly in the seat, leaning his body toward the phone he held against his ear.  But instead of waiting for Laverne to inform him about their grandchildren, he spoke first.

 “I wish Laverne still loved me!” he barked.

 “…I miss you, Tony,” she said.  “I still have feelings for you.  I still…love you…”

 “I wish she would want to get back together!”

 “…and I think we should try to work it out…for the grandkids, but also for ourselves…we should try again…”

 “I wish that she hated her used car salesman husband!”

 “…and I hate Frank.  He was not a good husband or father.  Or a good salesman.  I made a mistake.”

 “I wish that she would beg for my forgiveness!”

 “…Can you forgive me?  Please?  I need you to forgive me, Tony!  Please forgive me and tell me you love me!”

 Tony amended this conversation several more times until Laverne was sobbing on her end and promising to leave straightaway and meet Tony at his current residence.  By the time the conversation ended, Tony could hear the baffled protests of Frank himself.  Tony grinned, glad to hear it the salesman losing, at last, the deal of a lifetime.

 Feeling quite pleased, Tony abandoned the liquor store to the rain and darkness and the pleasure of whatever thieves might visit it.  He started for home, expecting to find his ex-wife awaiting him there.  It was very dark still, and rainy, and it was the witching hour.  His Ferrari cut through the darkness and the rain like a red blade.  He felt good driving it, but he did not drive overly fast.  He felt paranoid that he would lose control of it and wreck it.  And he did not want to damage such a fine vehicle.

 Tony had been ruminating on how he would break the deal with the turbaned stranger, and he was satisfied that he had found a loophole in the arrangement.  He would simply wish that the deal was moot.  First, however, he would reconcile with his wife, and he would sell the Ferrari for money, his reasoning being that the stranger could take the Ferrari away from the new owner, but not the money the Ferrari had brought to Tony.  He felt optimistic about this ploy.  He felt invincible.  He would make several such wishes and then pawn them off for a dragon’s hoard of wealth.  It was a transactional con, and he knew about them well.

 Only, this one would work.  He knew it would work.

 Tony was halfway home when the headlights approached from behind.  The high-beams flooded his Ferrari with blinding bright light.  Tony cringed and shielded his eyes with his arm, then pushed the rearview mirror aside.

 “I bet it’s the same cocksucker from before,” Tony swore.

 The truck began honking its horn in rapid succession, keeping its brights on the Ferrari.

 “Pass me, you dumb-ass,” Tony growled.  “Or better yet…”

 Tony hit the gas, accelerating down the straight, but wet and dark, highway.  At first the headlights behind him began to lag behind, receding, but they, too, accelerated, catching up to him.  Tony did not dare go faster or risk losing control of his new car.  So he relented, slowing down, now, and hoping that the belligerent tailgater would finally pass him.  The motorist did not.  The truck’s high-beams flooded the Ferrari again, and the driver hammered the horn incessantly.  Tony would have pulled off the highway, but there was no shoulder, nor any driveways or exits to take advantage of.  It was a branchless road for miles.

 The truck finally pulled into the opposite lane, revving its engine and driving up alongside Tony.  But it did not pass.  Instead, one of the passengers leaned out of the window and yelled at Tony.

 “Fuckin’ faggoty foreign car!” the drunk slurred into the rain.  He flung an empty bottle can, striking the Ferrari’s hood.  The bottle shattered and scattered across the Ferrari.  “Think you’re better than us?  Buy American!”

 Tony seethed.  He recognized the truck, and its Confederate battle flag on the door.  The truck kept abreast of the Ferrari, if only because Tony was too cautious to drive any faster.  The rain fell harder, as if it, too, wished to damage the Ferrari like the bottle had.  The driver of the truck blew his horn for one long, strident note.  All the while Tony ground his teeth together in rage.

 “You think you can outrun us?!” the drunk yelled.  He slapped the Confederate battle flag for emphasis.  “You goddamn Yankee!

 “I wish that bastard would fucking wreck,” Tony growled.

 The truck suddenly lurched forward in a burst of speed, and tried to maneuver in front of Tony’s Ferrari.  But instead of gaining enough speed, and distance, it slid with a jerk to the right as a tire blew out, slamming into the Ferrari.  Before Tony could utter a word, the truck and the Ferrari careened sideways, slamming into the rails that ran along Highway 62.  The truck bounded off in the opposite direction, diving off the highway while Tony’s car overcorrected, hydroplaning.  Tony screamed as the sports car flipped and then somersaulted down the road with its chaotic momentum.

 In his excitement, Tony had not buckled his seatbelt.  He flew through the windshield and tumbled along the asphalt as a broken tangle of limbs.  The car followed after him, and after it followed the stranger in the purple turban.

Handsome Blue Eyes, Immaculate Teeth

 The moon was bloated with moribund light as Phoebe walked along the desolate fields.  Jagged stalks gleamed with the first frost of the year, crunching beneath Phoebe’s boots.  Her shadow walked beside her, stretching out long and thin, as if mocking her short height with the taller figure she wished she possessed.  Phoebe was a vain creature, especially for her thirteen years of life, and while she would have rather worn more ladylike shoes when out and about, even she bowed to the necessity of muck boots when in search of Devil’s Fen.

 “Perfectly white teeth,” Phoebe said to herself.  “Immaculate teeth.  The best teeth in the whole county.  And handsome blue eyes.”

 The fields curved upward upon the hilly countryside, as if swelling like the seas at the beck of the moon and arching slowly like a groggy cat upon waking.  The slow rise and fall of the slopes beneath Phoebe’s boots mirrored her breath.  She scarcely trusted her own breath in the unsettling silence of that hour, for it rose phantasmally before her in the Autumn chill.  She could see her immediate surroundings well enough beneath the moon, but the distant trees were black fringes from which wolves, or worse, might come bounding swiftly to catch her unawares.

 This was a pilgrimage, she told herself; a pilgrimage for the sake of Love.  She would not be deterred, come dragon or demon or damnation.  The hag had promised Phoebe that she would have her wish fulfilled, and yet Phoebe felt misgivings amounting all around her like a pack of snarling fangs.

 “Perfect teeth,” she said to herself.  “Like pearls.  And always grinning; always so handsome.  Handsome beneath his handsome mustache and handsome blue eyes.”

 The hilly fields gradually sloped downward, away from the moon.  Yet, the moon illuminated the receding earth brightly, as if its glow bled and pooled here in this vast valley that deepened and drained at last toward the peat-heaped lowland known as Devil’s Fen.

 “Perfect teeth,” Phoebe said, “and our children will have perfect teeth, too.  And beautifully black hair.  Handsome chin.  And the bluest eyes.”

 It was good that Phoebe wore her muck boots.  Devil’s Fen was choked with water and mud, the only visible earth carpeted in moss that was so saturated that it held nothing as the cold moonlight glittered off of the scab-pocked mirror of water.  Rushes and sedges grew everywhere in wilted clusters, and here and there lonely willow trees hung their heads in sorrow.  From all of these did Phoebe set about gathering up the materials she would need.  She had brought twine, and she uprooted rushes and reeds, cut them with a bone-knife the hag had given her, and sawed off withy from the mournful branches of the willows, stacking them all together and binding them in twine.  The moon seemed to watch Phoebe as she worked among the shallow pools of festering plants.  Whether it looked on in pleasure or abhorrence, Phoebe could not say.  She was not given to such fanciful thoughts.  She cared only for the task at hand and how it would win her the man she most desired.

 And it was a man that the thirteen-year old most desired.  William Clements was twenty and two and the most handsome of all the men in the county.  He was brawny and broad-shouldered, had a full crown of dark black hair and bright blue eyes.  Moreover, while all of these things recommended him in the admiration of the women, it was his teeth that truly shined as an endorsement of his qualities.  A man with such fine teeth was a man to covet, and all the women coveted him, including Phoebe, despite her young age.  Unfortunately for the women in Wischmeier county, William Clements’s blue eyes only ever followed the weaver’s daughter, Marianne Mayswell.  Phoebe loathed Marianne.  Marianne was fair and milky-figured, made graceful by both a healthy living and the primacy of her seventeen years of age.  Though she would have never admitted it—even to herself—Phoebe could not compete with Marianne, either by figure or by feature, and despite being the daughter of the mayor, Phoebe could not induce William Clements’s fondness with either her promise of wealth or of beauty.  She had tried, of course.  Phoebe had her father buy several dresses and bits of jewelry with which to bedew herself as a rosebud in a golden dawn.  And yet, at her rising, William only turned his head ever toward that humming afternoon sunshine that was Marianne Mayswell.

 And so Phoebe had gone to the hag, and the hag had sent Phoebe here, to Devil’s Fen.

 “Teeth so white and spotless,” she said to herself.  “Cleaner than moonlight.  Brighter than the sun.”

 Her boots splashed up a puddle of mud, sullying her new dress.  She did not care.  It was just another dress that had failed to garner the admiration and affection she envied in Marianne.  The latter could have worn a potato sack and outshone Phoebe’s most regal raiment. 

 Whereas Marianne sewed all of her own clothes, Phoebe received her clothes from the big cities in the Northeast, her father bringing them back with him as gifts whenever his enterprise occasioned his presence in Baltimore or New York.  Her father owned a lumber mill, and was the richest man in all of Wischmeier County.  He employed most of the men who did not own their own lands with which to prosper.  This was also why he was the mayor, for no one dared to challenge him and his resources, nor to cross him, or question him in things concerning the town.  He held power nigh absolute.  The only exceptions for the mayor’s power were the matters governing the romantic hearts in Wischmeier County and, of course, the Fall Festival.

 The Fall Festival was held every year, during the Harvest Moon or thereabouts.  Nearly participated in the Festival.  It was the catharsis of a year of hard labor, and a consolation for the bitter Winter to come.  There was apple cider, and moonshine, and dancing, and storytelling.  There were many contests, too, and each contest rewarded its winner with an assortment of prizes.  Naturally, Phoebe had never stooped to compete in any of the contests, deeming them beneath her.  Yet, the hag had foretold that Phoebe would only win her husband by fabricating her own scarecrow in the Festival’s contest.

 The hag said:

 “With the rush and the reed,

 with both withy and need,

 in the dark Devil’s Fen

 will you thereby know then

 your fateful groom’s grin—

 most unique among men.”

 Phoebe might have dismissed this prophecy as the ravings of an old crone with more cats than sense, but the more she thought about it, the more plausible it seemed.  Marianne always won the scarecrow contest, year after year, for she was the best weaver and seamstress in town.  Phoebe often overheard, with resentment, the men and women who spoke so fondly of Marianne’s talents.  But none spoke more fondly of her scarecrows than did William Clements.

 And it was this latter fact that had convinced Phoebe to take up the hag’s words in earnest.  Even if Phoebe did not win William’s heart, she would at least attempt to win the scarecrow contest.  She must conquer Marianne by some measure, at the least.

 Phoebe stomped about the glittering waters of Devil’s Fen, gathering the materials she would need.  It was a chilly night, yet the work brought a heated flush to her young face.  It was as much heat of temper as of labor, for she had never worked so hard in her life, and it miffed her greatly.

 Phoebe had gathered enough for the scarecrow’s body, but she was unsure what to do for the head.  The hag had told her that Phoebe would know what to use to cap the fellow off when she saw it, but so far Phoebe had seen nothing that snared her attentions.  Leaving her pile of materials on a mossy embankment, Phoebe dared to trudge deeper into the Fen.  She walked for some time, aimless in the moonlit waters except where some preternatural instinct prevailed, and came to the heart of the fen.  The moon’s reflection shivered and dissolved upon the wavelets of the fen as she halted.  There, in front of her, crouching upon a peculiar stone in the center of the fen, was a fat bullfrog.  It was the fattest bullfrog Phoebe had ever seen, its broad green and yellow mouth like a wry smile.  Phoebe felt a keen jolt in her bones.  This was the missing material she needed for her scarecrow.  There was no doubt, even if there was apprehension.  She expected the frog to leap away as she reached for it, but it only squatted there, surrendering to her outstretched hands.  Normally, she hated frogs, and toads, and all such things squishy and slimy and given to the muck and mud.  But Phoebe was so assured now that she would have her heart’s desire that she did not mind the bloated heft of the bullfrog’s flesh as it bulged between her cradling hands.  She carried it back to her stack of rushes and reeds and withy with a confident, determined air.

 Her materials gathered, Phoebe set to work by moonlight.  How long she worked, she did not know.  Hours upon hours seemed to pass, and yet the moon never descended a single hair’s breadth.  Had she not been so fixated on her creation, she might have noticed such unnatural spans of unmarked time, but her heart and soul were consumed by the task, and the seductive dream wrought therefrom.

 As for the frog—to be plopped atop as the scarecrow’s head—the hag had given Phoebe a pot of foul-smelling muck.  Phoebe knew not what the muck was, but it was blackish-brown, like molasses, and smelled like sulphur.  Taking the strangely docile frog, Phoebe dropped the bachtrachian unceremoniously into the pot.  She waited for a time—again, she knew not how long, for she busied herself with other things—and then she dumped the pot out and cleaned the frog with water from the fen.  The frog had lost all of its color, becoming a uniform light brown unlike the complexion of William Clements.  Moreover, its slimy skin was now leathery, wrinkled, dried and stretched unnaturally until the frog’s mouth was just like a lipless smile.  The head now finished, Phoebe impaled it on the scarecrow’s reedy spine and overtopped it with the withy hat.  Phoebe then began the process of thickening the scarecrow’s body.  Using mud, peat, and moss, she fattened the scarecrow to the dimensions of a man.  Using a cattail, she gave him his manhood.

 Phoebe had wanted to have one of her father’s servants to weave the scarecrow together for her, but the hag had said that no other could lay hand to the labor without spoiling the spell. By Phoebe’s work alone would the scarecrow exist, or else her groom would not be procured.  Thus, Phoebe set about with a plaintive, but ultimately passionate, effort to form the figure of reeds and rushes, to stuff him full of sedges and moss and peat and mud.  Over all of this she gave him a shirt she had woven from potato sacks, and britches made of wool, and instead of a straw hat, she had woven a hat made of withy from the willow.

 The scarecrow was finished.  It was as big and heavy as a man—a man very familiar to Phoebe, in a yearning manner—and so she left it there, in Devil’s Fen, hidden beneath a willow tree as she eagerly awaited the Fall Festival.

 Phoebe began the long hike home.  It seemed so much farther to walk now, going uphill out of the Fen and the valley and following, once again, the undulations of the hillocky fields.  She glanced back, once, at the willow tree where she had placed her scarecrow.  Moonlight glowed on the mournful tresses of the willow with a wan wistfulness.  As she turned away a phlegmy cackle echoed from somewhere in the darkness of Devil’s Fen.  A mallard, Phoebe thought.  Nothing more.

 Head heavy with exhaustion, and too much sleepless dreaming, Phoebe trudged home like a sleepwalker in want of a bed.

 On the day of the Fall Festival, Phoebe requested her father’s housemaid, Millie, to fetch her husband and son and have them all aid Phoebe in transporting the scarecrow from the outskirts of the Fen to the town square where the festival was to be held.  The family aided Phoebe with a wheelbarrow and wary glances.  As soon as they saw the scarecrow they crossed themselves.

 “You superstitious fools,” Phoebe muttered.  She added, more loudly, “Hurry!  I don’t want to be late for the contest!”

 The father and son pushed the wheelbarrow from the Devil’s Fen up through the valley and along the undulating fields, coming to the town square.  The Fall Festival was always held on the town square, in among the dogwood trees and the maples.  Festoons hung from branch to branch, and large tents stood steepled on tall posts, one after another, each sheltering a contest or auction or certain games for the children.  Normally, Phoebe felt nothing but disdain for the cake contests and the games of horseshoes and the poor families juggling pennies to outbid one another for novelties that would be mocked as rubbish in any affluent quarter of a New England town.  But she felt excitement to see the commotion made in the bustling crowd as the wheelbarrow was pushed through to the center of the square, its limp passenger nodding with the motion like a drunkard in his cups, or a corpse drawn up out of the bog.

 “Is that real, momma?” a little boy wondered aloud, his eyes wide to the whites.

 “I don’t know,” the boy’s mother said, drawing him back behind herself with a protective arm.  “I reckon not, but I don’t know for certain.”

 Such remarks only pleased Phoebe the more.  That her creation should give such misapprehension to the country bumpkins proved to her that she had made a formidable scarecrow.  A more grotesque specimen was never known.

 Fortune smiled upon Phoebe more that day, for the scarecrow contest was to be held in the central pavilion of the town square.  This was a large wooden roof, like that belonging to a barn, only hoisted high upon tall, thick posts.  The scarecrows from the other competitors had already been erected on stakes for all to see.  Marianne Mayswell had her scarecrow front and center, its cloth body assuming a fine semblance to a man in caricature, from his protruding nose to his button eyes and his fine-fingered hands.  The weaver’s daughter had outdone herself this year.  The scarecrow’s pants were good enough for a child of equal size to wear to church, and the flannel shirt was checkered with perfect little red and black squares.  Marianne’s scarecrow was superior to the other scarecrows in every way.  Seeing it made Phoebe’s heart sink.  It was perfect.  But then she turned and looked at her own scarecrow with its all-too-human proportions and its unique fen-furnished materials.  Marianne’s was perfected tradition, Phoebe thought, but Phoebe’s was unique.  Strangely unique.  Bizarre.  Otherworldly.  At the very least her simulacrum deserved due consideration by the judges, if not outright praise.

 “Be careful!” Phoebe admonished her helpers as the father and son struggled under the weight of her scarecrow.  “If you break it my father will have you whipped out of town!”

 The father and son steadied the scarecrow—even if they trembled now more than ever—and then, having secured it on a large stake, retreated from their mistress, disappearing into the crowd.  The crowd swelled forward more closely around Phoebe’s scarecrow to stare in wonder, and abhorrence, at the grotesquery wrought before them.

 Yet, while many faces contorted with fear and disgust at the strange, foul-smelling scarecrow, the only face that mattered at all in the crowd was that of William Clements as he stepped forward to gain a better view of the curio in their midst.

 “It sure would scare crows away,” William remarked, smiling nervously.  “It would scare me away if I saw it standing in a field on a dark night.”

 “Not so,” Phoebe said, nearly giggling with giddy joy as she gladly stepped up to meet him and his pearly white teeth.  “I know you too well, William.  You are too brave and strong to be scared away by anything.”

 William’s shoulders, and eyebrows, shrugged.  “I have my limits,” he said.  “If I’d caught sight of this thing in the field at night I’d kick up enough dirt running away to bury half the county.”

 “Then perhaps you wish me to accompany you home,” Phoebe said, radiant with moon-eyed delight, “to protect you from my scarecrow?”

 William did not answer her, for Marianne approached, then, and he had eyes now only for the weaver’s daughter.

 “She has talent,” Marianne said.  “And I like the curious use of reeds and moss.  It lends it a different character than the normal sort of field-uncle that the rest of us made.  And the use of leather for the head is a clever touch.”

 It was generously said, and yet any generosity afforded to Phoebe by the beauteous Marianne smacked of condescension, regardless of how good the intention.

 “I don’t have the lay skills of a tradesman,” Phoebe said, sourly, “or a tradeswoman, and so I make do with what my elevated upbringing has given me.”

 The acerbity was unmistakable in Phoebe’s voice, yet she was young, and so negligible, especially as William and Marianne turned their attentions toward each other at the exclusion of anyone else.  Phoebe saw how their eyes met, and could feel their tidal force.  She felt suddenly reduced in size, small, shrinking beneath the taller, prettier girl and the mutual attraction William shared with her.  Were Marianne and William to kiss, Phoebe realized, William would not need to stoop to kiss her, the young woman being as tall, whereas if he were to kiss Phoebe he would need to stoop as if picking up a child.  And Phoebe was no child, she insisted to herself.  She was as much a woman as Marianne, if not more so.  Being the daughter of the mayor, she had real power in Springfield.  She wore the mature dresses of France and Italy.  Phoebe considered herself worldly in her wardrobe and her wiles.

 And yet, her mind was arrayed with the thoughts of their first kiss.  It would not be romantic.  It would not be passionate.  It would be absurd.  William was a man, and she was a little, foolish girl.  She felt tears burning at the edges of her eyes, unnoticed by the crowd gathered around her scarecrow.  Before the tears could bubble free, she hurried away from the pavilion to the solitary shade of a maple tree.  No one was near her now.  She sat on the ground, unmindful of her pretty green dress from France, and cried bitterly.  It was some time before she realized that the shade had deepened and darkened from noonday blue to midnight black.  Raising her head, she saw that the hag was standing over her, smiling a toothless smile within her faded gray hood.

 “Do not cry, my little lamb,” the hag said.  “Whatever could be the matter?”

 At the sound of pity, Phoebe’s temper flared.  She leapt up, clenching her fists at her side.  “You liar!  You said he would love me if I made that stupid scarecrow!”

 “It is but a step along the way,” the hag said, her feigned pity replaced by a sly smile.  “Be careful how you foot it, for there are more dangerous paths than fens to wind one’s way through.”

 “You say a lot without saying anything at all,” Phoebe retorted.  “I trudged through mud and spent all night making that useless scarecrow, and to what end?  To what end, you old, ugly hag?!”

 “The end has not yet come,” the hag said simply.  “You will have exactly what you wish.  A husband with handsome blue eyes and immaculate teeth.  You must have faith, child, for it will come to pass.  You will have a husband with all the things your heart values.  You will have his handsome blue eyes and his immaculate teeth.”

 “But Marianne has his heart!” Phoebe moaned, feigning a swoon against the tree.  She suddenly sprang upright, her green eyes flapping open suddenly and brightening with the fulgurous thunderclap of a thought.  “Unless you mean some misfortune will come to pass for Marianne?!”  She clapped her hands together excitedly.  “Ohhh, is that it?”  Still smiling, she feigned sadness.  “Oh, but I must not wish too mortal a fate for her.  It would be beneath me.  She is, after all, only a weaver’s daughter.  Better would it be that William were to reflect on his first choice and realize the folly of it, choosing instead to pursue truer taste in one as highly bred as I am.”

 “You will have the man with the beautiful blue eyes and the immaculate teeth,” the hag said.  “As you said you desired.”

 “But when?” Phoebe moaned.

 The hag gestured toward the town square with a wart-clustered finger.  Phoebe’s eyes followed the gesture, falling again on the pavilion.  There was a commotion within the crowd.  Many were glancing toward her—at Phoebe—and Phoebe was taken aback.

 “What are they gawking at?” Phoebe demanded, outraged.

 The hag was gone.  She had vanished into thin air.  Someone broke away from the pavilion crowd and approached Phoebe.  Much to her delight, and agitation, it was William.  He strode toward her with his long, loping stride.  Coming from among those commonfolk, he was as a proud stallion stepping forth from amongst a herd of dim-witted mules.  Phoebe’s stomach whirled with butterflies and she felt as if she was reeling on a merry-go-round.  She felt she would have to steady herself by grasping his mustache.

 “Phoebe,” he said, “the judges have decided that your scarecrow is the best.”

 “Really?” Phoebe said.  The excitement in her voice had nought to do with her scarecrow; rather, it was elicited by the impeccable grin on William’s face.  “So I won?  Me?  What a surprise!  I am so happy!”

 “You should come get your prize,” William said.

 “What is it?” Phoebe asked, excited at the thought that it might be a kiss from the young man standing before her.

 “A quilt,” William said.  “Woven by Marianne’s father, Michael.”

 Phoebe’s smile instantly soured.  “I do not want a quilt,” she said.

 “But it really is a pretty quilt,” William said.  “One of the best her father has ever woven.”

 “Then let her keep it,” Phoebe said, irritably.  “What good can I have from a quilt?  I get all of my blankets and sheets from France.  They’re softer and better made in France.  Because of their more finely bred fingers.”

 William’s countenance darkened with what Phoebe knew to be anger.  But instead of offering a cross rebuke, he merely turned away from her in silence, walking toward the pavilion.  Phoebe watched him go with a feeling of terrible finality all about her and the cosmos.  This finality consumed the spheres and made her feel claustrophobic, like a mouse chased deeper and deeper into a narrowing hole by a mouser.  Her greatest fear seemed soon to reach fruition.

 “William!” she called out, her voice cracking.

 He said nothing, nor did he turn to look at her.  He merely halted.

 “On second thought, I wish to see this quilt,” she said, hurrying forward.  “It is, no doubt, as good as any French blanket, if not Oriental silk.  The Maywells are very talented people.”

 William turned about now, a wary smile returning to his face.  “They are, as a matter of fact,” he said.  “Not a weaver for four hundred miles that could do better.”

 Phoebe’s luck seemed to take a change for the better a little later when Marianne had to escort her elderly father home.  He had a wet cough and she, being his only child, wished to see him rectified with a bowl of hot soup and a warm fire.  Reluctantly, William said his goodbyes to Marianne, and prepared to leave, himself, from the emptying town square as the gloaming drew its crepuscular fabrics all around.  Phoebe, however, had a mind for fatefulness.  So, she took the rare opportunity and asked that he take a walk about the town with her.  Seeing no harm in it, William agreed, and not only agreed, but carried the quilt that Phoebe had won with her unique scarecrow.

 Phoebe and William took several turns about the square.  Phoebe spoke much about her father’s businesses, his prosperity, the various things he bought for her, and all of the material comforts which she thought a goodly lure for the man she wished to betroth.  After a time, William interrupted her diatribe about the superiority of China to American pewter plates to remark upon her scarecrow.

 “It seems your father had some people carry your scarecrow away,” he said, pointing.

 Phoebe blinked in confusion, then followed his finger.  Beneath the pavilion, the large stake was vacant of its former resident.  This baffled Phoebe, for she had made no request for anyone to take possession of her creation, nor to carry it elsewhere.  Her father, in fact, did not even know the scarecrow existed, for he had foregone the Fall Festival in favor of a festival of his own, awash with ale.  Whichever way the scarecrow had come to vanish, Phoebe did not care.  It had served its purpose, and now she was walking and talking with William Clements— alone, in twilight, with no one else eavesdropping upon them; and, truth be told, if someone did so happen to be eavesdropping, all the merrier for Phoebe.  Let it spread around Springfield and to the bordering counties.  Perhaps the rumor would gain momentum enough to carry this night into a foreseeable day of matrimonial bliss, or at least obligation.

 “William,” she said, suddenly halting and facing him.  “What are your plans for the future?  What are your dreams?”

 William’s brow furrowed with thought.  “Well, I suppose I would like to own my own farm.  Maybe someday I would even own two farms.  Three even!”  He laughed, and the laugh was full-chested with booming alacrity.

 “You should really think about being mayor,” Phoebe said in earnest.  “Someone with your recommendations could easily be a mayor.  In fact, with the right wife you could become governor.  A president, I should think.”

 William squinted painfully, as if he had been struck on the head with a chance acorn.  “I don’t think I would take to that sort of life,” he said.  “I know cows.  I know sheep.  But running a town?  I would be happy enough running my own barn without it burning down.”

 Phoebe shook her head irritably.  “No, no, no.  It is simple, really, running a town.  It is like a barn.  You merely need to shepherd the people, as you do with cows and sheep.  It is no different, truly.  I can help you do it when we are married…”

 William’s dark eyebrows lifted in surprise, furrowing his brow like plows.  He sighed.  “Phoebe, that is not possible,” he said.  “I’ve tried to be soft about this, but you are making it hard for me.  Marianne and I are getting married.  You are too young to…”

 Phoebe did not wait for him to finish.  The tears gushed, followed by the venom.  “Marianne is a stupid cow!” she screamed.  “I’m the one with money!  Why don’t you want to marry me?!”

 William stepped back, one hand raised while the other cradled Phoebe’s unwanted-yet-won quilt, and his eyes darting about in wild terror.  Dogs barked in the distance.

 “Phoebe, please,” he pleaded.  “It is not about money.  This is about love.  And I love Marianne.  She is of marrying age.  You…you are too young.”

 “Then wait for me,” she said, her lips quivering with chaotic, conflicted emotions.  “I’ll be of age in a few years and then you can marry me!”

 “Marianne and I have been engaged in secret for two years, Phoebe,” he said.  “I cannot break my vow to her.”  He held out the quilt for Phoebe to take.  “It would hurt her, and it would hurt myself.  You have to understand.  She and I were meant to be…”

 Phoebe jerked the quilt away from him and threw it to the ground.  Her scream was an infernal peal of primal rage.  She pressed her hands to her ears and then ran away in a wild direction, heedless of where she was going.  She ran and ran until the town square, and the town itself, was lost to the evening mists and shadows.

 “She lied to me!” Phoebe wept.  “The old witch lied to me!  Will won’t marry me!  He hates me!”

 Sobbing and running, she went downhill until she finally fell to her knees, breathless beneath a wanly-glowing willow tree.  The moon slowly rose, as if gloating over Phoebe’s sorrows.  Her whole body rattled and shook with her weeping.  She did not care about anything thereafter—whether wolf stealing through the woods or viper creeping through the weeds—and did not observe the world’s clock as it ticked on and on.

 And yet, after a time, she stared down at her new dress.  It was a French dress quite fashionable in Parisian salons, and now it was stained with the derisive touch of grass.  She did not care.  Her whole life had been marred, she thought, because William would not be bound to her.  She wished her father would pillory Marianne and have her flogged.  Phoebe was so wrathful that, had she seen Marianne’s face then, she would have clawed out Marianne’s pretty blue eyes.  Blue eyes!  Like William’s!  As if matched by Providence!  All of their children were fated to have such blue eyes, and they would taunt and haunt Phoebe to the end of her days!

 “Weeping again, child?” the hag said.  “And on your wedding night?”

 “Do not…mock…me…” Phoebe said between sobs.  “Leave me be.  I just…want to…to…die.”

 The hag cackled—a phlegmy, thick cackle like wet, rotten wood split by an ax.  “You will not die, child.  Not for many a year.  You have too long a married life to live.  Too many children to bear.  Your groom comes.  He will be here soon.”

 “Go…away!” Phoebe rallied, her rage crashing, like lightning, through her shower of tears.  Her hand found a stone, and she raised it with a fury.

 The hag was gone.  All around Phoebe was now silence and the moon-drawn shadows within Devil’s Fen.  Lips still trembling, Phoebe rose to her feet.  She breathed reluctantly, as if to breathe meant to endorse the life she now lived with all of its inherent hopelessness.  Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she turned toward the slope leading out of the Fen.  Up from the valley her eyes wandered, as if looking for a sign.  She found one.  There, atop of the hillocky expanse, was a figure etched black within the moonlight.

 “Wi…Will?” she whispered.

 The figure approached her, walking with the same strong, long loping stride that stamped William Clements’s approach.

 “Will?” Phoebe said louder, with more hope and joy.  “Will, you do love me, don’t you?”

 She wished to run to him, but dared not move, for she feared it was a dream from which she would abruptly wake.

 The moon slid down lower as the figure descended into the valley toward Devil’s Fen, its full orange glow unobserved.  Phoebe waited by the willow tree, the world overcome with a silence pregnant with anticipation.  No whippoorwills chanted.  No crickets chirped.  No wolves howled.  The silence pervaded, and Phoebe could hear her own heart pounding hard in her chest like thunder.

 “Will, I promise I will be your perfect wife,” Phoebe said, or whispered, or mouthed.  “I won’t ever disappoint you.  I will love you, and honor you, and cherish you.  I will bear you many sons with your same blue eyes and perfect white teeth.”

 The figure came to the bottom of the valley’s slope, nearing the willow tree.

 “If you want to be a farmer, you can be a farmer,” Phoebe said.  “I will be a farmer’s wife.  I don’t have to be a governor’s wife, or even a mayor’s wife.  So long as I am your wife.  Will, I…”

 Phoebe’s mouth went slack, loosening into a gawping hole of horror.

 The scarecrow loomed over her, its frog-face broad and leathery and stinking beneath its withy hat.  Something dark and wet and fresh glistened all over its lips, dribbling down its cheeks and chin.

 “No…not you…” Phoebe whimpered, shrinking in terror.  “Please…go away…”

 The scarecrow did not go away.  It leaned forward, its familiar blue eyes inching closer.  Its leathery lips curved upward, then parted wetly.  Gleaming in the milky moonlight, each one as finely white as any polished pearl, were many an immaculate tooth—teeth more immaculate than any others in all of Wischmeier County.

Horror Haikus

Embrace
Warm, cuddly plush toy
held tight in the darksome night,
whispering bad dreams.

Loins
Laying side by side,
hand in hand, with her lover
on the butcher’s block.

Surface Level
Playground up above
in the bright Summer’s day,
children chained below.

Surprise Party
The surprise party
caught him unawares that night,
white hoods crowding round.

Prayer
Her rosary clutched
in her hands, she prayed for rain
that would drown them all.

Abloom
The flower blossomed
with crimson petals gaping
from the exit wound.

Kwaidan Season: Inevitability

Nobuteru was grateful that he had just hauled his last bundle of bamboo into his bamboo hut near the forest.  As he let it drop next to the firepit the heavens let their rains fall with a thunderous clap and a boom, the thatch roof suddenly resounding with a hushing downpour.  His wife, Aoi, squatted by the firepit, cooking fish and rice, her belly swollen beneath her peasants garbs.  Nobuteru ’s son, Eiji, came hurrying in a little later, his bamboo fishing pole abandoned to the rain and his garbs soaked through and through.

  “Come to the fire, Eiji, ” his mother said.   “The rain has a chill. ”

 Eiji squatted next to the simple firepit where the bamboo burned and the fish and pot of rice cooked.  Nobuteru watched his son, and looked fondly on his wife, and was grateful for the bamboo and all that it provided.  Without it, they would not have shelter against the rain, nor warmth against the chill, and so all seemed well in his simple life.  They ate their fish and rice, and Nobuteru offered prayers to the gods of the forest, and listened to the rain with a deep sense of gratitude as he fell asleep.

 It was later that night when Nobuteru was woken by Eiji ’s sobs.  He roused, unlinking himself from Aoi, and peering drowsily into the moonlit hut.  He saw Eiji standing near the corner.  The rain had not stopped, and it was black as any night might be.  Yet, Nobuteru saw what he wished he did not see.  There was a long arm extending out of a cracked bamboo shaft.  This arm was pale as a fish ’s belly, and lustrous, glowing pallidly in the darkness.  It ’s fingers were thin, more jointed than any man ’s finger, and black claws arched out of each tip.  Gently, covetously, the hand petted Eiji ’s black hair while the boy stood transfixed, trembling in the caress of the elongated fingers.

 Nobuteru leapt up and pulled his son away from the hand.  The hand curled its fingers in a gesture of deference, raising its waxen palms up as if beseeching a gift.

 And a voice spoke.

  “Nobuteru, I have blessed you, ” said the voice like wheezy wind through bamboo.   “Now you must repay my kindness with an offering of your own. ”

  “What are you? ” Nobuteru whispered, fearful he might wake his wife to this horror.  He held his son behind him, protectively.

  “I am a generous spirit that has benefitted you, ” the voice said from deep inside every bamboo shoot.   “I only ask what is yours to give in turn. ”

  “You cannot have my son, ” Nobuteru said.

  “Oh, but how many sons and daughters have you taken from me? ” the voice said.  The arm caressed the bamboo walls of the hut, and felt among the ashes of the smouldering fire.   “So many sacrificed for your comfort and health. ”

 Nobuteru did not know what the spirit was, and so knew not how he might appease it.   “Ask for something else, ” he said.   “I will do what you wish.  But you may not take my son. ”

  “I will have your daughter, then, ” said the voice, rolling its hideous fingers in waves.

 Nobuteru looked at his wife.  He stared at the swell of her belly beneath her clothes.

  “Very well, ” he said.   “If you can take her now, do so, but do not harm my wife. ”

  “No, no, no, ” rattled the voice softly.   “I must not harvest her until she is of age, as you do when you cut down my children in the forest. ”  The arm withdrew into the narrow bamboo.   “Five flood seasons from now.  No sooner…no later…five flood seasons and I will harvest your daughter by the bladed moon… ”

 The voice died away like a withdrawing wind.  Nobuteru felt his son shaking beside him, and knew himself to be shaking to his very bones as well.  Yet, he knew he must not let Aoi know.  He turned to his son, knelt down, and took him by his shoulders.

  “This is all a bad dream, ” he said.   “Do not tell your mother.  She must not know.  Promise. ”

 The tremulous boy nodded obediently.

 Nobuteru wasted no time in cutting down the bamboo forest.  Every day he cut down as many shoots as he could, swinging until his calloused fingers bled and his arms ached from wrist to shoulder.  He did not bother to set the decimated bamboo aside and let the sap flow free from them.  He cut and burned, cut and burned, desolating the forest all around his hut.  His wife thought he had lost all sense, but little Eiji helped his father in earnest, for the cold sweat of fear from that harrowing night remained upon him.  The pale arm haunted the two of them in their dreams and in waking daylight.

 Meanwhile Aoi grew large with child.  Upon the day of her pangs, a daughter was born.  Rather than pleasing Nobuteru, he paled at the sight of the beautiful child and hurried out to clear away more of the forest.  He thought that if he destroyed the forest then the forest spirit —or whatever it happened to be —would lose its place in the human realm and become lost elsewhere; untethered from the mortal spheres.  He cut like never before, and was as a wildfire in his destruction.

 It was not long before Nobuteru ’s obsession became infamous.  Other woodcutters and farmers in the area complained, claiming he had gone mad.  A priest was sent from a local shrine and he spoke to Nobuteru, admonishing him.

  “Such profligacy displeases the gods, ” the priest warned as he looked on while Nobuteru busied his axe among the remaining forest.   “This forest is sacred to spirits, good and evil alike! ”

  “Well do I know of such things, ” Nobuteru said.   “It is why I work so single-mindedly. ”

 He revealed the truth about the visitation of the spirit, of the demand for Nobuteru ’s daughter.  Hearing his story, the priest grew pensive.  It took many moments after Nobuteru had finished his account before the priest spoke again.

  “We must purify your daughter, ” the priest said.   “Perhaps the evil spirit will depart. ”

 The night of the ceremony, Aoi was told of what was to happen and why.  She was fearful, for their daughter was now a healthy toddler, quick on her feet and sharp of mind.  Her name was Aiko and she was the delight of her parents ’ hearts.  They cherished her, as they did her brother.  To lose Aiko when so young, and to such a horrid fate, frightened Aoi.  But she trusted in the priest, even if she had grown to distrust her husband, and so when the priest told her that she could not witness the exorcism she took Eiji to fish while the ritual took place.

 The ritual lasted all day and night.  What was seen, and what was better left unseen, neither the priest nor Nobuteru ever spoke thereof.  It was said that the priest had become like a man in famine, so hollow were his eyes and cheeks.  The priest died before the Summer ’s end. Nobuteru did not suffer so final a fate so abruptly, but his hair turned white as hoarfrost and there was a dimness in the light of his eyes at times such as when thin clouds pass over the moon.  Nonetheless, he reassured his wife and son that his daughter was saved.  Aiko seemed unchanged, the vibrant look in her green eyes still lively and undaunted.  She had witnessed horrors and emerged as clean from the ordeal as the sun after the morning fog has fallen away.

 Years passed.  Aiko grew taller, talkative, and inquisitive.  She was deft with her hands, weaving strong fibers together ingeniously.  Her laughter was such that birds halted their songs to listen in admiration and wonderment.  Nobuteru and Aoi were pleased by her, and never disappointed.  To see her run and laugh after her brother was to see joy such as bodhisattvas should envy their childish play.

 Whereas Aiko blossomed, the bamboo forest did not grow at all.  No more shoots sprang up from the smouldering soil, and the soil eroded with the wet season.  When the river swelled it carried silt over the land, and yet the land grew nothing.  The spirit was gone, it seemed, and with it the forest.

 Nobuteru moved his family upstream, away from the remnants of the forest.  He became a fisherman to sustain his family.  Eiji helped greatly, having grown taller and stronger, now more like his father than ever.  He worked hard for the family, especially for his little sister, and tended her every whim with patience.  Yet, sometimes Eiji was disquieted, and was overtaken with gloomy moods, thinking back to the night that the pale hand extended out of the bamboo and caressed him.  But he did not speak of such things to anyone.  He kept his fears to himself to keep such fears from his loved ones.

 Four years passed and it seemed the fears had passed with them.  But while the family lived well, there came creeping a pernicious effect on Aiko.  Slowly, the sweetness leeched out of the little girl.  She became rigid around her parents, and uncaring.  Her green eyes hardened and looked not with daughterly fondness, but an otherworldly detachment.  She did not sing, after a time, and did not run and play.  She walked stiffly, as if her joints did not work well.  Sometimes she simply stood in the wind, upright, stiff-bodied, but bending with the wind as it blew about her.  When her parents spoke to her, she rarely spoke in turn, and when she did speak she spoke with a whispering voice like rustling leaves.  This troubled Eiji.

  “There is something wrong with Aiko, ” Eiji said one day while out on the boat with his father.   “She is no longer as she was. ”

  “So long as we stay away from the forest, she will be well, ” his father said.   “That is what the spirit promised. ”

  “You cannot trust an evil spirit, ” Eiji said.

  “Nor do I! ” Nobuteru shouted.   “That is why I moved our family here.  The curse is lifted if we remain far from the forest.  The priest saw to it. ”

  “But father… ”

  “Enough! ” his father snapped.   “That is all!  Do not speak of it anymore! ”

 Eiji did not speak of it, though he thought of it despairingly.

 That night the rain fell hard.  The thatch roof buckled beneath the weight of it, but the roof did not collapse.  Nobuteru stoked the firepit as his family huddled around for warmth against the misty chill.  No one spoke, the rain drowning all sound.  Eiji watched Aiko with a feeling of foreboding.  He did not know why, but he felt something terrible was going to happen.  The premonition stroked at his hair like a long-fingered hand he knew years before.

 Gradually, they all fell asleep.  They could not hear the river beneath the heavy rain.  When the water rushed in through the hut, they started and cried out, scrambling to stand as they were swept sideways.  Eiji helped his mother, holding her against the flooding torrent, and Nobuteru clutched at Aiko.  They trudged through the water as it began to drag the hut in the bullish flow.  All seemed hopeful as they left the hut behind.  But then Nobuteru tripped, and lost hold of Aiko.  Aiko did not struggle, but floated away into the wet darkness like a plank of wood without a will of her own.  Her father scrambled to catch hold of her again, crying out to her.  He failed.  Weeping, the family struggled to higher ground, and found it among the foothills.  They did not see Aiko again that night.

 The next morning the family followed the swollen river downstream, eyes red with tears as they stared into the currents, half in hope and half in horror.  They called for Aiko.  They prayed to the gods.  Nothing answered them.  When they found her body, she lay in a field clustered with the remnants of bamboo.  Her face was pale and clammy, and so they knew that she was dead.  They dug a grave for her in that alluvial plain, erecting a stone shrine where she lay.  When the river receded there grew up a dense bamboo forest around the shrine.  It was shunned by animals and people alike.  Whispery voices could be heard among the leaves, and the melodic giggles of a girl.  It was said that if a woodcutter entered the forest he felt long fingers caressing his head.  No one dared to cut the bamboo in that forest again.