Simple Life, Sinful Death

The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life.  The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees.  The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones.  The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes.  Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things.  And so he was contented.  His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.

 And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.

 As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple.  Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night.  He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain.  Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.

 But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders.  He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat.  He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden.  When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging.  He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.

 And his mind began to fail him.  He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned.  Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.

 And then the shadows began to come to him.

 They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer.  They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue.  The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue.  The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth.  The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.

 The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements.  He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes.  He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination.  He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.

 But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling.  They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.

 Simply staring.

 And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form.  They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.

 Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.

 Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself.  He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow.  Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself.  That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead.  It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.

  “You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward?  Aches and pains and old age. ”

 The old monk responded with a level voice.   “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”

 The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity.   “And yet you have not achieved Satori.  So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”

 Again the old monk replied with a level voice.   “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said.   “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”

 The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple.   “We shall see what answers you when given temptations.  Yes!  Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”

 The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng.  It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown.  No, two women!  They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them.  They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight.  They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands.  Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy.  The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.

  “You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said.   “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”

 The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire.  Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.

  “No, ” he said, his voice quivering.   “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”

 Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont.  The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.

 There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly.  Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple.  Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.

  “You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom!  Buy two!  You would live in comfort and . ”

 The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly.  Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.

 Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over.  He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been.  But he felt shame.

  “A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures.  Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap.  Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens.  Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”

 The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon.  The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled.  After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth.  The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.

 Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki.  It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron.  The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen.  Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.

 The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.

  “You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said.   “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”

 The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know.  His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple.  The monk moaned silently, but did not move.  At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.

  “A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”

 The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously.  Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down.  Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.

  “So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked.   “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”

 He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind.  When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.

  “Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk.   “Choose to indulge or abstain.  It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care.  No one cares, except yourself. ”

 The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha.  With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.

 What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.

      ***

 It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple.  When he arrived he found it deserted.  There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds.  The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment.  The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next.  For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again.  He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor.  Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own.  Whose it was, he did not know.  When he glanced around, he saw no one.  Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.

 For a time.

Yasuke

They call me Yasuke here in this foreign land of short, almond-eyed people.  Being a slave, I dare not contradict them.  By the grace of Allah, these people find some novelty in me, and so esteem me better than my Jesuit master, Alessando Valignano.  Perhaps they will buy me from the Jesuit.  I would be far from home, but I would be far from home regardless. And the mule prefers the bug bites in Spring to the bug bites in Summer.

 My new tongue has not improved much.  I doubt they would think better of me were I so fluent in their tongue; no more than the Jesuits think better of me for my mastery of their tongue.  And yet I speak with more tongues than they, and not so falteringly as others so split between tongues.  Valignano does not suspect how many tongues with which I may speak.  If he did, he might well beat me for presumed insolence.  The gnat whines at the ear of greater creatures, thinking the ear insolent in its size.  And my back stings with the bites of this Jesuit gnat.

 By the strength lent by Allah, I endure.

 Lord Nobunaga must think well of me, however, for he gifted me generously a chest of copper coins, and all for the sake of the novelty of my dark skin.  He thought it some sort of trickery at first.  He bid me doff my clothes, head to waist, and his servants scrubbed at my chest.  In vain, it was, and so Nobunaga was pleased.  The Jesuits were pleased, too, and commandeered the coins for the works of their God.  I was not sad to see the coins go.  It was a trifling amount compared to the riches of the Caliphate.  Moreover, no amount of wealth might buy me my freedom from these infidels.  But as Allah sees fit, I abide.

 Presently, we ride to Kyoto on a long road.  Valignano is a fool, as are his followers, but they have about them an escort of samurai.  This is a pretty land, as unique of feature as its people, and I admire its beauty.  The plum trees are especially pretty.  Yet, I feel misplaced among this infidel splendor.  Though much honored, I am still a foreigner among these small people.  More so than even the Jesuits, despite their idiotic faux pas and petty squabbles of conversion.

 Even among the Jesuits I am an outsider.

 We camp for the night beneath a copse of maples, around a fire.  I sleep apart from my Jesuit travelers.  We have been warned of bandits, and so I keep my hand ready upon the sword which Lord Nobunaga gifted me.  I sleep lightly, dappled by the pale light of the moon as it peers between the branches like the face of a houri.  My Jesuit brothers sleep well, for I hear them snoring.  The samurai, too, sleep well.  I cannot sleep.  This land entices me to prayer, for Allah made this land too, though I know not why its people are infidels.  The wellspring from which they sprang conceals its truths with its lovely mists, or perhaps their land reveals other truths of Allah which are not known to us in Istanbul.

 I pray in the direction of Mecca.  I hope Allah does not begrudge me the late hour.  I can never pray when Valignano is awake, for he admonishes me severely for the practice.  He berates the people here, too, and despises their religion of the Buddha.  Why Nobunaga has offered him samurai for protection, I know not.  Perhaps he wishes to protect me.  But I need no earthly protection, for I have Allah.  And Allah restrains my hands from choking the life from Valignano.

 Prayer often offers me comfort, and reawakens my faith, instilling strength for my daily suffering.  It is the light guiding me through this unending darkness.  The shadows fly at the words exulting Allah.

 Yet, when I rise again I realize that the moon no longer shines on my face.  Rather, a giant shadow looms over me, the moon at its back.

 “Hello, brother,” a voice growls.  It is like the bones of a thousand sinful men grinding beneath the millstone.  “Why do you share fire with these tasty creatures?   Let us make a feast of them beneath the moon.”

 The crackling of the campfire flares at the suggestion, and I see a three-eyed man with dark black skin and horns such as a bull on his broad head. He is taller than even I and reminds of a demon or djinn.  I believe such a creature is called an “oni” in this land.

 “Speak, little brother,” he growls.  “Or do you claim them all for yourself?”

 His breath stinks of rotten meat, and his voice is edged like a scimitar with challenge.

 “I am not of your kin,” I confess, still clutching the sword at my side and ready to draw it against this infernal creature.  I stand up, slowly, and find that I am two heads shorter than the oni.  “I am a man.  But I will fight like a demon if you attempt to harm me.”

 The oni squinted his three eyes, the third eye in the center of his forehead.  “Yes,” he says.  “I see my mistake now.  Far too small to be my kin.  And already cooked, by the look of your flesh.”

 “I am a Moor,” I say.  “From faraway.”

 “A rare meat, then,” the oni says.  “I shall savor you.”

 He reaches for me with clawed fingers.  I unsheathe my sword, clumsily.  I have not had the practice of its uses yet, though I The oni pauses, and withdraws his hand.  But not because of my blade.  He sniffs and frowns.

 “You have the stink of a foreign god about you,” he says.

 “Allah—may he ever have mercy—claims my soul,” I say, or as well as I might in the foreign tongue.  “If I die here, or anywhere else, it is by his will.”

 The oni grimaced, his large white fangs grinding within his mouth.

 “A foul stench,” he says.  “I do not care for it.  It fouls your soul, little black man.  A foreign god in my lands, and a foreign god in your heart.”

 I nearly struck out at him for the blasphemy.  “Allah is no foreigner in any land or heart,” I say.  “For he made all, including you, demon.”

 The oni laughs, insolently scratching his loins beneath a skirt of flayed skin.

 “But he smells of other winds and other waters.  I do not like his smell.  It is arid.  Stagnant.  It reeks of death, but not such as there is pleasure in it.  Only a wild, exultant zealotry which I care not for.”  He pointed to the Jesuits.  “No different, I suppose, than the smell of the god on those hairy little men.”  He sniffed some more, leaning closer to me, his foul breath enveloping me.  “But there is a more interesting scent beyond the gods that claim the lot of you.  A smell of many other gods.  Faint, but spicy, and not so lost as you would wish them to be.  Gods grown in more interesting lands.  Lands more honest to their gods than whatever place you now call home.  Better gods.  Truer gods.  Gods displaced by this foul being that claims you like a spider a butterfly.”

 “You speak blasphemies!” I say, readying my blade.

 The oni turns away, indifferently.  He chuckles, lumbering toward the edge of the copse.

 “I will not partake of this feast,” he says.  “There is already a feast taking place: a feast of fools, and your soul is being shared among them.  What will be left of you when they have finished gnawing your soul with their many petty little mouths?”

 Laughing, the oni fades into the gathering mist, vanishing like a shadow beneath the awakening day.  His voice growls faintly one last time.

 “All that will be left will be your dark black skin, and by this will you be known.  By nothing else…”

 I stand in the ensuing silence, shaken.  After a long moment, I sheathe my sword—fumbling a little, and, so, loudly.  The sibilance wakes Alessando Valignano.

 “Yasufe?” he says, scowling at me.  “Make no more noise, for the sake of God!  Or I will thrash you for your stupidity.”

 “My apologies,” I say, bowing my head.

 Valignano grumbles, then adjusts his robe and turns over, sleeping on his side.  “Dim-witted animal…” he mutters.

 My rage finds me but a moment, as a djinn unleashed from a bottle, and I wish to draw my sword again and drink blood as any demon would.  But I let the spark extinguish.  Left alone once again to the silence of the forest, I think about gods and demons, of man and meaning, of tongues and truths.

Bit And Bridal

 We stood together, arrayed in a circle—much like the standing stones around us—and in the center of our circle was the dead horse, its head still bleeding from the gaping bullet hole that cratered the center of its long forehead.  Its tongue hung slack and pale between its twisted teeth.

 “Ready the blade, Matthew,” the master said.

 I did as I was bidden, sharpening the ax on the whetstone and discerning the fine gleam of the blade by moonlight as the strokes spit sparks.  The sibilance of stone on steel unnerved me, but I knew better than to disobey the master, especially now, when the lich moon was rising toward its zenith and hour of the Worm wheeled Cerberus above the standing stones.

 “Make ready the saddle!” the master commanded.

 Two servants hurried to lay the saddle upon the dead beast’s back.  The master upended his bottle of brandy, meanwhile, downing the rest of its burning amber courage to help him see the ritual to completion.  The bottle dry, he sighed angrily, breathlessly, and hurled it against a standing stone, shattering the glass as his chest heaved with mad resolve and contrary fear; desperate rage and mortal terror.  He turned to me like a man invoking his daimon.

 “Enough!” he said.  He staggered toward me, falling on his knees, his brow profuse with sweat.  “It will cleave true with keenness of blade or keenness of damnation, one or the other.”

 The master extended his hand upon the stone altar, his fist closed except for the ringfinger, the latter apart from the others and still encircled with the silver token of his marriage.  He had not taken it off for two years, nor ever would.  Whether widower or bridegroom yet again, he would not doff the silver wedding ring that bound him to his beloved wife, Filianore, now lost in the shades of the realm beyond.

 “Strike quickly!” he commanded.  “Strike true!”

 I put aside the whetstone and readied the ax in my hand with a tight grip, a careful aim, and a long hesitation.

 “Damn you, Matthew!” the master shouted.  “Be done with it!”

 I brought the crescent blade down upon the master’s ringfinger.  The blade made a rather satisfactory butcher’s sound, as should be heard in a shop when a butcher dresses a pig.  The finger split from the hand, parting a hair’s width from the silver ring itself.  Master cried out, but it seemed more a cry of exultation than pain or regret.  He then took up the bleeding ringfinger, and the ring, and hurried to the dead horse.  Kneeling down, the master spoke a few words which I did not understand.  It was a different language.  He spoke softly, urgently, then pressed the severed finger into the horse’s mouth, as one would a bit for a bridle.  At first, nought seemed to happen.  The servants and I watched with abated breath, horror as wild in each face as hope was in the master’s.  Quite suddenly the beast’s slack mouth tightened its teeth, clamping blindly upon the finger and the ring.  The lax tongue lolled to life, spiraling like a searching slug until it had found the bloody end of the dismembered finger.  It proceeded to lap at the bloody digit.  The horse shuddered, then whinnied, and rose most unnaturally from its puddle of blood and filth, standing at attention on its four hooves.  We backed away as one; all except the master who exulted.

 “By Judas’s coin, it worked!” he shouted triumphantly.  Then, in a lower voice, he said, “Strap the saddle tightly upon the beast’s flanks.”

 No one moved forth to do as bidden.  We exchanged glances as war-time compatriots might when one unwittingly spoke the name of a savage battle none were meant to speak of again.

 “Secure the saddle!” the master shouted.

 We would not.

 “Craven and callow, the lot of you!” he shouted, then secured the straps himself, his four-fingered hand fumbling with leather and blood in slippery disunity.

 The horse meanwhile stood silently, tonguing the master’s severed finger, but otherwise it did nothing.  The hole in its forehead revealed the cooled mush of its oozing brains.  To look upon it was to look upon the frailties and treacheries of flesh, and to marvel at the abominations rendered unto it by the despair of the soul.

 The saddle secure now, the master pulled himself up onto the undead beast’s back.  There were no reins, nor was there need for them.

 “To Filianore, you diabolical creature!” the master cried.  “Bring me to my beloved on the Plutonian shore!”

 The horse hobbled at first, its limbs trembling with reawakened life, then hastened into an unnatural gallop, the motion of its legs graceless and mechanical, like a puppet worked by inept hands and slackened strings.  But by strides, and by infernal powers not meant for the scope of Man, the pale horse rose from the earth and treaded the nocturnal air, rising and rising into that blasphemous sky with its lich moon and baleful stars, rising into the air like a wandering wraith and carrying the master to lands unknown to all but the most damned of men.

 We waited for hours.  It was yet not dawn and we sat in the ring of standing stones, not knowing whether we wished the master to return or not.  The sun’s warmth remained as a sullen orange glow beyond the trees.  The chill of night lingered, alongside the dew, and a fog tumbled groggily with the nightmare phantoms of what had been dreamt that night before.

 We saw the silhouettes through that ghostly fog; gray shadows half-glimpsed by eyes and half-dismissed by reason.  The horse emerged first, its head yet cratered with the fury of the shell.  Then the figure emerged beside the horse, stumbling as if a drunkard fresh from the tavern.  It was the master, though now his dark hair was whiter than the fog itself; his face gaunt and wrinkled too much for a man even of three decades henceforth.  Yet, the gleam of mad triumph illuminated his sunken eyes.

 And then there was Filianore.  She swayed with the lethargic amble of the horse, tilting slowly left and then right, left and then right, near enough to falling off on either side, yet she did not fall.  She yet wore the white dress in which she had been buried, only now the veil was sallow, the dress stained with filth and rot and the ruin of the grave.  But it was her eyes that transfixed all upon whom they gazed.  For there were no eyes in her head: only empty black sockets in which worms writhed in cloyed stupefaction.

 And upon a pale horse she came.  Upon a pale horse she came for us all.

Cracks

 Cracks

 Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of his mom’s black-and-white television, eating a cup of Frosted Flakes as he watched Saturday morning cartoons.  Tyrone liked Frosted Flakes.  He liked Tony the Tiger because his name was similar to his own, and he liked to think they could go on adventures in their own cartoon together: The Tony and Tyrone Show.  Tyrone wished he could play with Tony like the kids did in the commercials, and he wished he could eat a bowl of cereal just like the kids in the commercial did.  But Tyrone always had to eat his Frosted Flakes without a spoon.

 Most of the time Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of the tv—so he could hear only the tv and not the noises coming from his mom’s bedroom—and he ate his cereal in a cup, the milk and the flakes crashing against his mouth in a mixture of sugary crunch and somewhat spoiled creaminess.  Sometimes he ate Frosted Flakes without any milk at all.  Sometimes he ate nothing all day but Frosted Flakes, and sometimes he ate nothing. Regardless how he ate, Tyrone never ate with a spoon.

 Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on.  Tyrone liked Mr. Rogers.  He was a nice White man.  He wasn’t like the landlord who was always threatening Tyrone’s mom for rent and calling her a “useless nigger”.  Tyrone wished Mr. Rogers owned this apartment building.  Things would have been different if he had. And Tyrone liked Officer Clemmons.  Tyrone sometimes liked to think that Officer Clemmons was his dad and that he would come home any day now.

 Every neighborhood, Tyrone thought, should be like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  There was never a single crack to be seen.  Tyrone hated the cracks that he saw around his neighborhood.  Each one scared him.  They glowed with a white phosphorescence in their jagged fissures, and things writhed within them, like wet snakes or homeless men rummaging through dumpsters, and Tyrone’s mom moaned when the crack in her bedroom writhed.  It was not a moan of pain or pleasure, but both, like she was dying, but was too happy to care about it.

 There were cracks all around the apartment building.  Tyrone saw the first crack in a man’s face.  It was a year ago, late at night, while his mom was asleep.  Tyrone had his window open and he heard a man singing as he came down the street.  Singing like he was drunk.  Singing, “Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care” as loud as he could.  Tyrone had gone to his window and saw a man stumbling down the street, his clothes disheveled.

 “Jimmy cracked corn…!”

 The man had glanced up at Tyrone, his black face split with a glowing white crack that did not bleed.

 “What you lookin’ at?” the man shouted.  “First spooks jump me and now I got a nosy little nigger starin’ at me.”  He snorted, and started laughing.  “Hey!  Don’t you go hidin’ from me, boy!  They’ll fix you up right!”

 Tyrone had crouched beneath his window, trembling and praying that the man would go away.

 “Stupid brat,” the man said.

 The man left, but the crack he carried with him remained.  Later Tyrone saw some pale men in black suits standing on the street corner.  They were not like Mr. Rogers.  They wore black hats and black shades, hiding most of their fish-belly white faces.  Where they stood, a crack opened and grew larger, like a spider’s web ensnaring the whole neighborhood.  Soon Tyrone saw it spread in the walls between the apartment buildings, near the alleyways where the burn-outs slept, and along the cars and the streets, from the barbershop to the grocery store, ruining everything.  It crept into the apartment hallway, and the stairwell.  It was on people’s doors, splitting their windows and, soon, it was on every other face, their heads split down the center, or their chests, and so their hearts, and everywhere the crack spread Tyrone heard the tentacles writhing.  At night, as he lay awake in bed, he heard the tenants moaning like his mom.  Their moans reminded him of church hymns— back when his mom used to take him to church—only the words were all wrong, and weird, and frightening.  The gibberish roared in his ears sometimes.  His mom had stopped going to work, and, after a while, she did nothing but stay in her bedroom.  Sometimes a stranger would join her, and the moaning would be louder than before, and then the stranger left, but all the while Tyrone sat so close to the television that his eyes burned and overflowed with tears as Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons smiled on, pitiless in their perfect neighborhood.

 And so Tyrone watched cartoons, and ate Frosted Flakes without using a spoon, and waited until the day his mom would emerge from her bedroom, transformed, head full of burning white cracks, and reaching down to kiss him as her face split open to swallow him forever.

(The above was one of four stories I wrote to submit to The Root’s short story competition in relation to Lovecraft Country. Unfortunately this story 1) was too long by about 80 words, 2) had references to drugs (allusively to the 80’s crack epidemic in the US) and 3) was written by me, a White boy (insomuch as Melungeons are considered White). So, knowing I have been disqualified on three fronts, I decided to put it up here to rot.

Suicide Is Painless

(Explicit Warning Sexual Themes, Violence, Language)

 

 

 

That suicide is painless

It brings on many changes

And I can take or leave it if I please…

Johnny Mandel

 

 

 The man in the hooded robe escorted Austen through the dark underground corridor of ancient stone, holding aloft a torch that licked at the vaulted ceiling.  The robed man said nothing, nor did Austen say anything.  The latter held his breath in nervous excitement and existential terror, and a little embarrassment.  His dream was about to come true, in a certain fashion.  And then his life would end, but wouldn t it end while he was young and happy, which was more than he could have expected if he lived a long, lonely life?

 A chill breeze wormed through the wet corridor, carrying strange whispers and echoes of times bygone and unguessed.  It smelled of damp earth and old bones and death.  Austen shivered, trembling in his hoodie and putting his hands in his jean pockets, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears.  His ears were small, and underdeveloped, and unflattering, much like his chin or so he always thought.  To compensate for these weak features, Austen s nose was overly prominent, long and slightly hooked.  Pale blue eyes world-weary and insomniac stared sadly out from above that bold nose.  In highschool he was called Toucan  because of his nose.  The name stuck and when people thought of him, should they have thought of him at all, thought of him automatically as Toucan .  No one called him by his actual name; not even his teachers.  They did not talk to him at all.

 The stone passageway descended stone stairs.  Austen followed the hooded man until they came to a door.  It was an oddly modern door.  The robed figure beckoned Austen to the door, and so Austen turned the knob, opening of his own free will the door and leaving the ancient, dark corridor behind.  He entered a room bleached with bright white light.  Eyes adjusting as he stepped forward, he heard the door close behind him and went to meet his destiny.

 It was a waiting room, not unlike what he would have expected in a doctor s office or ambulatory care.  There were somewhat-comfortable chairs arranged around a room tiled in gleaming, checkered linoleum.  Some framed photos lined the walls, and paintings, depicting eldritch symbols and locations, such as the Plains of Leng and the tourist town of Dunwich and the Bermuda Triangle, and there were a few potted plants which breathed in the various corners of the room.  To the far wall was a door and beside the door was a large glass window behind which was partitioned the receptionist s desk.  To this Austen went first, unsure of himself (as always) and looking for reassurance.

  Hello,  he said meekly.   I…I m Austen Blackwell.  I have an appointment.

  Sign in,  said the hooded man behind the window.  He was busy doodling eldritch abominations on some scrap paper.  Without looking up he took a clipboard up and handed through the slot in the window.  A large stack of forms was bulging out from under the clip.   Take these and fill them out, signing where marked in green, and return them to me as soon as you are finished.

  Thank you?  Austen said, unsure what his response should have been.

 The hooded receptionist ignored him, focusing instead on drawing tentacles.

 Austen signed in on the arrival sheet, just in case, and then took the clipboard with its bulging stack of forms and went to a corner of the waiting room, taking a seat as far away from the other men in the room as possible.  There were several other men in the waiting room.  They were of various ages and ethnicities, but all of them seemed like they spent too much time stooped over a computer or a cellphone.  Several of them were stooping over their cellphones presently, or filling out the necessary forms.  Some were watching porn.  Austen could hear women moaning and gasping in various volumes while men grunted and groaned.  Others were looking through Facebook for women.

  Rachel Pennington was such a bitch in highschool,  someone said.   I can t wait to fuck her stupid.  Stick my dick down her stuck-up throat and cum till it comes out her nose.  See if she laughs at me then…

 Austen wondered about these men in this waiting room; wondered if he had communicated with any of them on the online forums and 4chan.  Maybe they were the faces for the familiar online names he had come to know on a daily basis.  Rejectotron79.  Incellularzzz.  Chadbitchboy45.  None of them posted photos online except when someone wanted to be roasted, and that was infrequent.  Austen thought about posting his own photo in the forum, just to confirm his own worst fears (that no girl on earth would want to date him, let alone marry him and reproduce with him), but he had chickened out.  He had scoured his own features enough to know, without phrenological debate, that he was a hopeless specimen.  He didn t need strangers to tell him what he had known since he was a child.

 Austen focused on the paperwork.

  Hey,  someone said.   What s yours going to be?

 Austen looked up.  A large man with freckles in a fat face smiled mirthlessly down at him, his glasses white circles of hot light.

  Audrey Hepburn,  Austen said automatically.  He wanted the ginger-haired man of an indeterminate age to go away.

  Classy and classical,  the ginger-haired man said.   But a little too skinny for me.  No tits at all, either.   He plopped down in the chair next to Austen s, pulling out a cellphone.   Look at mine,  he said, grinning slimily.   They re to die for, man.

 Austen humored him, hoping he would go away more quickly.

  See?  the ginger-haired man said.   I got several. You can have several, if you want. I m going to start off with Halle Berry.  Then go to Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and finish with Mariah Carey while she sings You ll Always Be My Baby .  See?  That s how you should do it.  Really go all out.  With a bang.   He smiled a far-off smile.   That s the way to go.  Go big.

  Man, shut up,  said another man in the waiting room.   Your spiel is getting old.   This man had a black beard, likely to cover what Austen suspected to be a weak jawline, and to make him appear older and more mature.   You re so beta you should have been born castrated.  Bragging like that, you probably won t even last past Halle Berry.  You ll cream your pants before you can even stick it in.  Then It will laugh at you, like all of the other girls who ve known you.

  Fuck you,  the ginger-haired man said.   You don t even want to share what yours is.  Probably because you re a pedo wanting to rape Shirley Temple.

  Fuck you, asshole,  the bearded man said.   I m no pedo.  You re just projecting.

 Another man creepier than the other two started chuckling.   I m fucking Veruca Salt,  he volunteered with a slanted grin.  He was in his fifties and bald with a large pate that rose like a hill atop his head.  He was overweight, his body swollen beneath his white T-shirt.   I don t give a shit who knows.  Won t matter afterward anyway.

  You re a sick piece of shit,  the bearded man said.

  A real sick piece of shit,  the ginger-haired man agreed.

  We re all sick pieces of shit,  the bald man said, unfazed.   I mean, It s not even human anyway, so you re all a bunch of sick fucks, too.  It s like beastiality.  You re fucking something that isn t human.

 There was an awkward silence in the waiting room.  Austen had tried to focus on his paperwork throughout this exchange, but now he stopped, his hand trembling as it held the pen above a list of check-boxes asking about allergies.  He was having second thoughts, not just about his singular choice of Audrey Hepburn, but the whole appointment.

 A hooded man appeared from within the inner door of the waiting room.

  Appointment #A4b269?  he called.

 A young man with dirty blonde hair rose, quietly, as if he could camouflage himself with silence as he hurried to the door.  He followed the robed man out of the waiting room.  Several of the men watched him go with a mixture of envy and dread.

  He s a hero,  someone joked, breaking the silence.  He whistled Taps for a moment, but lost the melody.

 The bald man resumed his argument from before, leering.

  It s not human,  he said, and so all of you are basically just goat-fuckers as far as I am concerned.  No better than me.

  It s not Shub-Niggurath,  the ginger-haired man said defensively.   Genetically, it can become anything.

  It can mimic anything,  the bearded man said.  He scowled at the bald pedophile.   Luckily for this sick fuck, otherwise I d fucking slit his goddamn pig throat for abusing kids.

 The bald fat man laughed.   Mr White Knight has a problem with me diddling little girls.

  I have a little sister, you asshole!

 The bald man smiled in oleaginous self-satisfaction.   But you re still going to fuck that Shoggoth, aren t you?

 The bearded man went silent.  He stared with a heated hatred at the bald man, but his scruffy jaw could not move in defiance of what he had said.  Austen watched it, rapt, feeling like he should say something on the bearded man s behalf, and on his own behalf, and to wipe that smirk off the bald man s face, but, as always, words failed him, his confidence failed him, and he went back to filling in information and signing his name in the green-markered sections.

  My little sister is not a bitch like most women,  the bearded man said at length.   She s like…what s her name?  Lucy from Narnia.  She s not a real woman yet, and so she s innocent.

  And that s why I like fucking them in the ass,  the bald man said.   Because they re innocent .

 The bearded man leapt up from his seat and dashed across the room, striking the bald man in the face.  His fist was small, and his wrist weak, and the bald man was large.  An audible smack slapped the air, but the bald man s face barely moved.  He stood up and grabbed hold of the bearded man s head within the crook of one arm.

  If I had a picture of your little sister,  the bald man said, I d show it to the Shoggoth and fuck It while It screamed your name.  You little bitch.  I might even show It a picture of you and fuck you in the ass.  You d like that, wouldn t you?  You little faggot.

 The bearded man struggled, red-faced and screaming in frustration and helplessness.  Eventually two robed figures entered the waiting room and separated the two men.  The bald man was relocated to one side of the room smirking with great satisfaction even as a welt rose on his cheek while the bearded man was relocated to the opposite side.  The latter stared in shame and humiliation down at his lap.  The robed men left.

  Hoo boy,  the ginger-haired man sighed.

 The next ten minutes passed in tense silence.  Austen continued filling out the forms.  It seemed like someone was playing a prank on him, so thick was the stack of papers.  He was on the page about deferrals for litigation and class action lawsuits when the inner door opened again.  A hooded figure called the next appointment.

  Appointment # 3R45u21.

 The bald man lurched to his feet, waddling eagerly toward the door.  He was sweating in anticipation.

  Veruca Salt s about to get it,  he said, leering.  He grinned at the bearded man.   I m going to fuck your little sister, too.

 He disappeared through the door.  A shiver of disgust went about the waiting room.

  Should be castrated,  the bearded man said, scowling.

  Pretty much will be,  the ginger-haired man said.   And then some.

  But he ll go out happy,  the bearded man said, which is more than he fucking deserves.

  Don t worry,  the ginger-haired man said after a while.   It s not really anything that can feel, anyway, whatever It s form is.  It s a biological construct.  It s like a Real Doll, but fancier.  More advanced.  A fleshlight made by the Elder Things.  It just…costs more.

  Yeah, an arm and a leg,  someone else said.   And everything else.

 The ginger-haired man nodded, his curly red hair bouncing.  He then shrugged with one shoulder, lazily.   None of us could get with a real woman, anyway,  They re too busy throwing their pussies away to Chads.  Dumb bitches.

  Fucking Nature, man,  another commiserated.   But at least I won t be involuntarily celibate  after today.

  Yeah,  said someone else.   You won t be anything at all, except, maybe, Shoggoth shit.

 Another fearful silence fell over the waiting room.  Austen s pen paused in the middle of a word.  He had forgotten what he was writing, his mind baulking at untold horrors.  The spell was broken all at once.

  I m going to fuck Tinkerbell,  someone volunteered, maliciously.

 The black-bearded man scoffed.   Man, your dick must be the size of a fucking peanut.

  It is,  the other guy said.   That s why no girl wants it.  But I bet Tinkerbell cries when I stick it in.  She better.  I wrote down that I want her to cry while I m fucking her.  And It s gotta do what you write down.”

Austen just so happened to come to the section concerning behavior.  He did not know what to write especially after hearing the guy talk about Tinkerbell so he just wrote Have a good time.

  Well,  someone else said.   I guess if you re going to go, you might as well go for weird freaky shit.  I mean, I m no Furry, but I was thinking about that one blue chick from that Avatar movie.  Ya know?  Or maybe one of the weird looking Star Wars chicks with the tentacles on their heads.

  They are fucking hot,  someone else agreed whole-heartedly.   But they re not Furries.  I mean, they re an alien race.  Not the same.

  There are aliens that are Furries,  someone else argued.   Chewbacca s race is nothing but Furries.

  They re Yorkie sasquatches,  the bearded man said.   So, yeah, they re pretty much Furries.

  But nobody wants to fuck them,  someone added, doubtfully. I hope they don t, at least.

  Oh, I m sure somebody does,  someone else argued.

  I think it s fucking nasty,  the ginger-haired man said.

  Don t kink-shame,  the bearded man said.   Mr. Mariah Carey.

  I m going with anime chicks,  another guy said, happily.   Rei from Neon Genesis.  And Lust from Full Metal Alchemist.

  That s a bit on the nose, isn t it?  the bearded man said.  But he was searching on his phone.   Maybe if I show It a video It can become Lara Croft.  From the old games, I mean.  But not the old, old games.  I don t like triangle tits.

  Yeah, I m going for Cammy, too,  the other guy said.   From Street Fighter.  And Chun Li.  That ass, man!  I ll probably go through the whole roster of Capcom women.

  Street Fighter sucks,  another guy said.   Dead Or Alive all the way.

  Tekken has some pretty hot bitches, too,  another guy said.

  Metal Gear Solid has the best,  a guy in glasses said.

  Jill Valentine!  the ginger-haired guy suddenly exclaimed, slapping his freckled forehead.  He feverishly tapped on his phone.   She s the polygon girl I want!

  Which version?  the bearded man said.

  All of them,  he answered.   Make a Jill sandwich  out of them.

 He waited, expectantly, for someone to laugh at his joke.  No one did.

  Five out of five S.T.A.R.S.,  he added, glancing around with a desperate grin.

 No one laughed.  They were too busy scouring the internet to add to their wish lists.  But Austen remained fixated on one woman and one woman only.  He signed his name several more times, dedicating his life to the Old Ones and waiving all potential legal recourse his family might attempt against the Eldritch Sect.  By the time he made it halfway through the stack, the man who spoke of Tinkerbell was called.  He went eagerly.  The remaining men watched him with a mixture of envy and dread on their faces.

  Oh hell,  the ginger-haired man said.   I might as well add Taylor Swift to the list.  I mean, you only live once, right?  It s not like I have to listen to her sing.  She doesn t have to make any noises at all, if I don t want her to.

  Yeah, the perfect woman,  a new arrival said, taking a seat.   Only talks when you want the bitch to.

  Only, she s not a woman,  the ginger-haired man said, smiling sardonically.  He adjusted his glasses.   Just a biologically engineered simulacrum.  None of us could get a real woman.  That s why we re here.

 Silent nods all around.

 

 Austen finished his paperwork, then turned it in at the receptionist window.  He was given an appointment number on a ticket and told to wait until he was called.  He found another seat in another corner, farther from the gregarious ginger-headed man.  As he passed one man he happened to glance at someone s phone.  The man was scrolling through images of reptilian women and vulpine women and bovine women, all quasi-humanoid and naked and bestial.  He felt embarrassed on the stranger s behalf, btu the stranger did not seem to care who saw.  Even so, it made Austen feel more disgusted with himself.  He sat down and watched clips of Audrey Hepburn and her various movies.  He had a bad taste in his mouth, and throughout his whole being.

 The bearded man was called back, and then the ginger-haired man, and various others.  Refreshments were offered by hooded acolytes, as well as alcohol and drugs to ease the normal nervousness of the appointment.   Austen took no drugs, but he did drink water.  His throat was very dry.  His stomach was full of frenzied butterflies.

 And then the inner door opened, and the hooded acolyte called Austen s ticket number.

  U352j6t?

 Austen found himself frozen in his chair.

  U352j6t?  the hooded man repeated impatiently.

 Austen s body rose stiffly and he went to the door, feeling a strange sense of detachment from himself.  It was not quite an out-of-body experience, but rather the same disembodied feeling he had whenever he had been humiliated in school or rejected by a girl he had asked on a date, his tongue fumbling over the words.

  Me,  was all he could say.

 The acolyte escorted Austen down another stone corridor leading deeper into the earth.  The air became chillier, and the smell of soil stronger.  The walk was long, and the corridor had a few doors along its walls, some open to reveal other hooded men sitting around, smoking and drinking and talking.  Thee corridor and these rooms were illuminated by modern lighting.

 At length, the corridor terminated at a single door.  The acolyte opened this door and, without further ado, beckoned Austen in.  Austen went in, more out of obedience than real desire, and the door shut behind him.  He was alone in the room, or so it seemed.  There were no exits.  It was a dead end.  Dark and cool, it.  No trace of the others that had come before could be seen.  There was a king-sized bed in the middle of the room, and nothing more.

 Except yellow eyes.  They glowed in the shadows of a corner. They reminded him of owl eyes.  They came forward, presenting a perfect facsimile of Audrey Hepburn s slim, petite, and utterly graceful personage.  It smiled  that small, restrained, pixie-sort of smile that Austen had seen in many of her movies and he felt his heart melt within the credence of the illusion.  Her chocolate brown hair was pinned back in a  ponytail, her bangs modest above the bold strokes of her eyebrows, all accenting her lovely forehead and her elfin features.  She wore a simple white blouse, a rippled Midi skirt, and a silk scarf tied around her fawn-like neck, much like on the movie Roman Holiday .

  Hello, Austen,  It said with perfect intonation.   How do you like me?  AmI not simply the most picturesque idol of fancy and form?

  Yes,  was all Austen could say.

 It smiled with Audrey s small, almost-secretive smile.   I love how polite you are,  It said, starting to strip off It s white blouse.   And so well-mannered.

 He had specified It s attitude, It s dress, and her loquaciousness on the forms, but there was a note on the form that said It would respond in realtime to whatever whim or suggestion demanded of It.  And so Austen spoke up.

  Not so fast1″ he said, waving his hands.   Don t…don t undress yet.  I just want to…to talk for a while.

 He took It by the hands, awkwardly, and led It to the bed, sitting It down.

  As you wish, Austen,  It said, smiling that pixie smile that had left him staring idiotically so often when watching Audrey Hepburn s old films.   What would you like to talk about, dear?

 Austen baulked.  This was the same feeling of crisis he had felt whenever he had ever wanted to talk to a girl.  It was like being plunged into the middle of the ocean, and not knowing how to even doggie-paddle.

  What…what do you want to talk about?  he asked, desperately.

 It titled It s head to the side, arching her slender neck like a curious bird.   Oh, but whatever you wish to talk about, dear!  Very much so!

 Again Austen was flummoxed.  He was no Humphrey Bogart.  He had no natural rapport with women, or most people for that matter.. He did not possess the cool, casual ease of conversation that Bogart, and most other Hollywood men, seemed to possess.  He would have rather spoken to a hungry lion than a pretty woman.  Either way, he told himself, he would have been torn to shreds, but at least the lion would seem happy about it, and satisfied.

  How…?  he began.   How do I talk to women?

  Well, that is quite the question!  It remarked, batting its eyes in mock-astonishment.   With your tongue and your mouth and your vocal cords, naturally.

 Austen sighed in frustration.   No, I mean how do I talk to them copesetically?  Competently?  How do I speak to them without feeling all flustered and knotted up inside? And without fucking everything up?

 It s yellow eyes never blinked fully, but It batted It s eyelashes again and reached for his belt buckle, starting to strip off his pants.  Austen pulled away from It, standing up.  Pacing back and forth across the dimly lit room, he stared at the floor.

  Is there any woman that would want me?  he begged the air.   I don t even want to be me.  That s why I m here1″

 The thing imitating Audrey Hepburn silently watched him pace, her head rotating automatically as she followed him with her yellow eyes, like a cat watching a mouse.

  It s so unfair!  he moaned.   There are guys born to look better than me and stronger than me and smarter than me!  I can t even roleplay with you because I am still me!  I don t even want sex!  I just want to have tea with you and maybe dance together!  Maybe kiss.  But I can t dance, and I definitely can t kiss worth a damn!  I ve never kissed anyone before, except my grandma!

 It stood up, then, and took him with a powerful grip by the shoulders, pulling him to It, and kissing him.  He started to cry and tried to push her away, but It was too strong.  It pulled him toward the bed.

  No!  he yelled, yanking himself away from her.   Audrey wasn t like this!   He shook his head, and wiped away the tears in his eyes.   She wouldn t…she wouldn t have liked me at all!

 Anger flashed across his face and he shoved It onto the bed, It s skirt undulating open to reveal pale legs and white panties.

  Maybe I should fuck you!  he snarled.   Maybe I should just bang your brains out and let it end all at once!  No one would miss me!  I wouldn t even miss myself!

 His anger dissolved into self-pity and sobs as he staggered back, leaning against a wall. He did not even see It take off It s panties and lay back, gyrating It s hips gratuitously.  Austen glanced at the intimacy revealed in all its falsity and turned away.

 Still crying, Austen headed to the door.  The acolyte was surprised to see him.

  Sir, you cannot leave without…   He saw Austen s tears and snorted.   What a beta.  Go, then, you little simp.

 Austen headed down the long corridor, weeping as he went.  He came again to the waiting room.  Opening the door, he saw new faces through his tears.  They sniggered, cruelly, and mocked him.

  Little limp-dick.

  Baby.

  Beta bitch.

  Simp.

  Couldn t even go through with it.

  Go suck Chad s giant dick, you fag.

Austen left through the long, stone corridor eventually emerging into a moonlit night.  He walked slowly, staring over his hooked nose at his penguin-shuffling feet.  His belt was still unbuckled and jingled as he walked.  He was too sad to care.

 

      ***

 

 Austen met Becky one day while at the public library.  They were looking through the Graphic Novels at the same time, and by a strange chance struck up a conversation.  Neither could remember who spoke first, but they found the conversation easy and addictive.  Becky was tall, and a little chubby, and had a round face with flat lips.  But her smile was pretty and she was nice to him.  She did not mind his hooked nose or his scrawny arms.  She liked his voice, she said, and his eyes.  She looked nothing like Audrey Hepburn, and Austen was all the happier for it.

Kappa Song

20200805_012015-1

Beware, my friend, beware!
If you care, if you dare,
to go make some night soil
when in nights black as oil
near lakes both dark and still
and you feel a slight chill,
if you squat, drop, or stoop,
Kappa will have his soup!
He likes it fresh, of course,
likes it fresh from the source,
so you mind from behind
or he will not be kind,
taking the best of you
for his witching hour stew—
reaching for an hors d’oeurve,
up your butt, like a perv.

Green Star

The green star still shone in the sky as Greg walked out into the parking lot that sprawled emptily in front of the Bocacubrir Industries office building.  His black Charger was the only car illuminated by the lightposts gridded out among the parking spaces, other than the vehicles belonging to Security, the latter huddled near the Security office.

Greg stared at the green star for a while.  Even with the crescent moon overhead the green star dominated his attention with its strange green corona.  It was a color he associated with green slime that he played with when he was a kid —green slime he made with the Mad Scientist lab set he had received for his eighth birthday.  Now he was a numbers man, an accountant, and in his eyes floated all of the numbers for that quarter which he had been crunching in voluntary overtime that evening, while everyone else went home to celebrate the weekend.

Greg would be going home soon, too.  He unlocked his car door, loosened his tie, and swung himself into the Charger with a great sigh of relief.  He set his cell phone in the passenger seat and started his car.  Rain had fallen earlier that day, before sunset, and now a mist rose into the muggy July night.  Greg lit his high beams and started to leave.  Then he stopped.  With a disgruntled growl he removed his N95 mask that was hanging uselessly from his rearview mirror.  It was always in his way.  He had been meaning to throw it away.

The mask now beside his cell phone, he drove toward home.

It was official Bocacobrir policy that everyone wear a mask while at work.  Yet, no one enforced it.  At first everyone obliged.  Then, gradually, one person stopped wearing his, and then another stopped wearing his.  And then another stopped wearing hers, and another stopped wearing hers also.  Now only Security wore their masks, and everyone pretty much disrespected them for it.  Greg heard the other guys in the office crack jokes about the “Rent-a-Cops ” and laugh.  It was a commonplace and everyday pastime.

The highway toward home was dark and foggy.  Mist from the evaporating rain and fog from the river made the dark night seem like a groggy dream.  Or perhaps it was Greg ’s grogginess that made it so.  He had been suffering from fatigue lately, and breathlessness.  Regardless, the green star shone clear through the fog, even while the moon dissolved in it like a skull in a witch ’s cauldron.  It was as if the green star was not among the stars at all, but was closer to the earth than the moon itself.

Greg ’s cell phone rang.

“Hello? ” he answered.

“Hey, Greggy-poo! ” Alison chimed.   “You coming to the bar or not? ”

“Or not, ” Greg said.   “I ’m feeling pretty tired. ”

“Oh poo on you, Greggy-poo! ” Alison puffed.  He could hear the pout on her lips as she spoke.   “But everybody ’s here!  Can ’t you just stop by for a while?  You don ’t even have to drink.  You can be my ride home… ”  Her voice fell to a whisper that was louder than she likely realized.   “…if you know what I mean. ”

“How much have you had to drink? ” Greg asked suspiciously.

“Too much, ” she admitted at once.   “And Paul keeps offering to take me home.  It ’s starting to get creepy as fuuuuuu… ”

Her voice broke with static, and the sounds of music and the cacophony of overlapping voices.

“Please? ” she said, once the static had passed.   “Pretty please, with my cherry on top?  You know I like to be on top.  You like it, too. ”

“I do, ” Greg admitted, though reluctantly.   “Is it smart for everybody to be at a bar right now?  I mean, with everything that is happening? ”

“Don ’t be a stick in the mud, Greg, ” Alison said.   “Get your fine ass over here. ”

“Okay, okay, ” Greg said, slowing his car and turning off into some random driveway.   “Where are you all at? ”

“Shenanigans, of course! ” she exclaimed happily.   “Now, you better hurry, Greggy-leggy.  Don ’t make me beggy. ”

She laughed and the signal distorted her laughter into digital mania.  Greg ’s phone dropped the signal.

Sighing, Greg reversed out of the driveway —just as the front porch light came on —and headed out onto the highway in the opposite direction.  Southbound toward the city, he could see the faint tinge of light pollution on the dark, fog-cobwebbed horizon of darkness.

“Should be safe by now, ” he said to himself.   “They wouldn ’t have reopened the bars unless it was safe. ”

The highway was not very safe.  Greg slowed as the fog and mist thickened.  There were only a few cars on the road as he drove.  A few went slow; a few went fast.    Most disappeared at intersections and subdivisions.  Lampposts along the highway were wanly white or sickly yellow.  Greg had to turn off his high beams, the bright haloes refracting diffusely among the thick vapors and therefore obfuscating rather than illuminating the road.  It was easier to see with low beams.  He turned his windshield wipers on to clear away the condensation.  Afte ra while he turned on the radio, though he was in no mood for music.  Many of the stations were eaten with static. As he flipped through them he became restless.  A station cut clear through the static infecting the others, and his hand paused a moment at a News station.

“…surging through the Southern states while Northern states are seeing a spike of their own… ”

Instinctively he changed the station, flipping through a while longer until another station cut clean through the static to a song that was in the middle of its chorus, the singer ’s obnoxious voice pealing with a yo-yoing yodel.

“…we are young.  So we set the world on fi-yer.  We can burn bri-y-ihter than the sun… ”

Greg hit the power button and welcomed the humming silence of the benighted highway.  Taking a deep breath — and feeling a little pinch in his ribs —he sighed.  Glancing up at the sky he saw the green star reigning high in the foggy, black sky.  Was it larger now?  Perhaps it was just his imagination.

His cell phone rang again.  He answered.

“Greggy-leggy-poo, ” Alsion said in her singsong drunkenness.   “Where are you? ”

“I ’m on my way, ” he said.  He added, “Are you sure it ’s safe there?  No one ’s coughing are they? ”  He asked because he could hear coughing among the music and the voices.

“Just the smokers, Greggy, ” she said.   “Don ’t be such a scaredy cat. ”

“Aren ’t you worried about catching it? ” he asked.

“I ’ve had the flu before, Greggy-poo, ” she said.   “It ’s no big deal.  You gotta ’ live while you can, Greggy-leggy. ”

He heard a familiar voice in the background.  The creaking-oak voice was avuncular in its proclamations.

“When you get to be my age you see these ‘pandemics ’ come and go.  Yeah, the media drones on and on about it as if the sky is falling, but it never does.  They ’re just trying to ‘make it rain ’.  Money, I mean. ”

“Is that Jerry? ” Greg asked.

“Yeah, ” Alison said happily.   “Jerry ’s here too! ”

“He has a heart condition, ” Greg said.

“Two beers won ’t hurt him, Greggy-poo, ” she cooed.

“That ’s not what I meant, ” Greg said, resentful of her flippancy.   “He could contract the… ”

“Woooo, Jerry! ” Alison exclaimed.   “Chug that beer, you old fart! ”

Several people cheered as Jerry exhaled in triumphant satisfaction.

“Let me tell you somethin ’ else, ” Jerry slurred.   “They want to control you.  That ’s what ’s it ’s all about!  Take a little freedom here.  Take a little freedom there.  Bit by bit.  Before you know it, you are living in a Communist country! ”

“Preach it, Jerry! ” someone said.  Probably Thomas.

“Besides, masks don ’t do anything anyway.  I mean, wearing underwear and jeans don ’t keep a fart from leaking out, do they?  How ’s a mask do anything?  I ’m not no vir…virile…ventriloquist or whatever, but even I know that. ”

A waspish swarm of static swelled and the phone dropped the call.  Greg hesitated to put the phone down, and almost dialed Alison ’s number.  But he kept hearing her comment “scaredy cat ” and refrained.  He drove on through the fog and the shadows.

He hated the console light.  It reminded him of the green star.  It was unnatural.  Artificial.  Synthetic.  Unreal.  Looking toward the South, and the city, he saw that the light pollution seemed tinged green, too.  He wished to see the sun, but the sun had been blacked out all day by the rainclouds.  Now that the clouds were gone, the night had come, and with it this oppressive fog.

“Paranoid, ” he told himself.   “The fog ’s distorting it. ”

He continued Southbound.  He continued rationalizing away his fears while suburbia faded in and out of the fog on either side of the highway.  The homes were like haunted houses dimmed darkly in the fog, or else phantasms with pale porchlights that were eaten up with distance and shadow and mist.  He was a numbers man; an accountant.  He knew about percentages and rates and interest and such, and he told himself that numbers were nothing to fear when they at 1%.  Even so, watching the houses lurch out of, and dissolve back into, darkness made him uneasy.  So many houses.  So many people.  How many people would accept the odds of dying from something when the reward for the wager was merely the status quo?  It was a death sentence everyone agreed to pass on someone randomly; someone they may never see or know in their lifetime.

Then again, he knew that odds were strange things that made allowances for aberrations at unpredictable rates.  Various circumstances could exponentially increase the odds of something happening within sectors and conditions.  To concentrate numbers, and decrease distance while increasing time, were to multiply the odds that the unlikely scenario would play out.  Pascal ’s wager, in other words, was not such a longshot in a universe of infinite possibilities.  And besides, odds could also tilt drastically against someone — such as someone attending a church —and suddenly the odds disadvantage all the people in that church because of circumstances and conditions being ripe for such over-leveraging of occurrences.  In other words, by risking the odds an individual invites the possibility of maximum loss, even with minimal waging.

Greg thought about what Jerry had said.  The problem was that the danger seemed like it was far away, over and beyond the horizon; happening somewhere else, if it was happening at all.  There was a delayed sense of impending peril.  Like an asteroid in the Milky Way that was supposed to hit earth as it looped around, year after year, but no one could calculate when.  And so days go by, and months, and years, and people forget about it.  Or stop believing in it.  Then, one night, they are looking up at the stars, thinking about the lives they have been habituated to, and all at once a star falls to earth, only it is not a star —it is the asteroid —and they have been staring at it all along, but not recognizing it until, at long last, it comes crashing down upon their complacent heads.

Chicken Little is vindicated, but not in a way that will bring any satisfaction to himself or anyone else.

“The sky is falling, ” Greg said.   “Isn ’t it? ”

He frowned down at the N95 mask.  He did not know what to think.

His cell phone rang.  He answered it.

“Please join us, soon, ” Alison pleaded.   “Hurry.  Paul is being weird.  So is Mikey..  He is very handsy.  Won ’t keep his distance. ”

“Alison, ” he said seriously, “stay away from them.  Do you hear me?  Where ’s Rachel?  You and Rachel need to look out for each other until I get there. ”

He tried to accelerate his Charger, but the fog was too thick and he almost hit a opossum crossing the road.  He swerved, then slowed.  Alison was speaking like a child.  It was quiet behind her, except for a knocking noise.

“Rachel is with the others, ” she said.   “I ’m in the restroom.  By myself.  I locked the door.  People are banging on it.  Paul and Mikey won ’t leave me alone. ”

“Alison, do you have your mask? ”

There was a long pause.   “No, ” she said, her voice cracking tearfully.   “I left it in my car.  Or I threw it away.  I don ’t remember. ”

“Just…just stay in the restroom, ” Greg said.   “And don ’t open it unless it ’s me talking to you.  Okay? ”

“Okay, ” she whimpered.  There was another long pause.   “Greg…I ’m scared… ”

The static swarmed and the signal dropped.  Greg ’s heart hammered upon his aching rib cage.  He had known Alison for two years now.  They had made out once at a company function —while both were serving as bartenders.  Nothing else came of it except casual flirtation and friendly conversations.  Until recently Greg had been engaged to a young woman he had dated in college.  Partying together through college had convinced them that they were a good match.  A month of lockdown spent together in the same apartment for 24 hours proved otherwise.  When lockdown ended, Greg and his former fiancee bid each other adieu in colorful, uncompromising fashion.  It was for the best, in the end.  They were not a good couple without other people to distract one another from each others ’ incompatibilities.

When he told Alison about the fallout, she quickly began to pull him in her own direction, culminating in a recent night of bedtime gymnastics.

“She said she gets paranoid when she ’s drunk, ” he reassured himself.   “Or when she smokes pot.  She probably did a little of both tonight.  Just to celebrate the first month free from the lockdown.  A lot of people are indulging right now.  Going wild. ”

He glanced, irresistibly, up at the green star.  He tried to speak aloud again —some trite rationalization involving numbers and odds and such —but his voice died in his throat.

The dilapidated strip malls slowly unfurled out of the fog, and the old fast-food restaurants, the dive bars, and then the newer strip malls, and the newer fast-food restaurants, and then the hipster stores, and wholesale foods, and niche shops.  More streetlights bleared sleepily through the fog and mist.  The buildings crowded closer together, occasionally giving way to a block of townhouses, a sushi restaurant, a records store.  Then the more eccentric bars, and the dance clubs, and lounges, and music halls.  Greg told himself that the green tinge to the fog was a result of all of the neon signs for food and beer, and the green traffic lights strung over the roadways, as well as the cars passing by more frequently now, speeding as if they could outstrip Death himself.

But Greg could not ignore the people standing on the sidewalks, and in front of the clubs, and near the outdoor dining areas.  They all stared at him through the fog as he passed, their mouths gaping open to spew the fog from within the greenly glowing recesses of their open throats.  Slack-jawed, they gaped and spewed.  Idiotically they gawped, spreading the fog thickly throughout the city.  Greg ’s hand fumbled for his N95 mask, then quickly secured it over his nose and mouth.  The green glow of their eyes followed his Charger as he hurried toward Shenanigans.

His cell phone range.  He picked it up and answered.  The line was digitally fragmented.

“…Greggy-poo…hurry…come to us… ”

The call dropped and he found that he had a hard time breathing.  His lungs ached.  They had been aching all along.

Shenanigans was overflowing with people.  They all stared at Greg as he parked his car down the street.  They all spewed the green fog.

Keeping one hand on his mask, Greg walked toward the bar, its bright neon sign dimmed in the fog.  Directly overhead the green star glowed bright and sickly.  It was bigger than before.  Greg tried not to look at it, or the other people crowding the street.  He focused on the door.

The crowd parted as he passed.  Their green eyes followed, and they never stopped spewing the green fog, but they did not impede him.  He soon saw why.

Alison greeted Greg at the door.  She was wearing a Summer skirt and a green tanktop.  Her blonde hair was permed into lively curls.  When she spoke the green fog sputtered from her mouth.

“Join us, ” she said, her voice distorted with static.   “There is nothing to fear.  Do not live in fear.  Do not fall prey to their control. ”

Greg backed away, holding his mask tight to his face, but the crowd closed in around him, blocking his retreat.

“Alison, ” he begged.   “Please…you need help.  All of you need help…  You are infected. ”

“Do not fear, ” Alison said, her voice a digital drone.   “Do not live in fear.  Live in liberty.  Do not be controlled.  Think for yourself.  Join us. ”

The crowd enclosed her.

“THINK FOR YOURSELF.  JOIN US.  BE FREE.  BE UNAFRAID. ”

The green fog swirled thickly around Greg.  He had nowhere to go.  The green star reigned above him and beyond him.  It grew larger, coming closer, and what was a star became as a sun, its corona making the night as if a day bright with a pestilent color.  The green light burned brighter than the sun.  His lungs ached.  He could not breathe.  An iron maiden clamped upon his brain.  The mask could do nothing.

He had already been infected.

Spider Tea

Amongst cobwebs I sat on her love-seat

while in the kitchen she turned up the heat

on her big pot, setting the tea to boil;

her house was old, dusty, lit with lamp oil

and so dim, illuminating the night

as if reluctant—for fondness, not fright,

and I saw a deck of cards, the Tarot,

arrayed by a book faced with a pharaoh

and I thought what an eccentric lady,

but did not mind, for, however shady,

she had a good figure, like an hourglass

in a red and black dress, and a big ass

that made my loins rigid with excitement

as I waited there, despite the light scent

of metal that lingered in the stale air

and the scurrying I heard here and there.

At length, she returned to the living-room,

holding two cups and a teapot abloom

with a wispy strand of spider-spun steam

that rose to the webbed ceiling, like a dream,

and she a dream herself, smiling at me,

saying, “Oh, you must try my homemade tea.”

Before I could speak, she turned about-face

and set the cups down on the mantelplace

above which were photos, old and faded,

black and white, the people grim and jaded.

She was old-fashioned like them, yet she smiled

and I liked her hair, like a beehive piled

atop her head, and the webbed jewelry

which should we soon get to tomfoolery

I would have liked her to keep on, just so,

as well as her black stockings, thigh to toe,

whereas all else would be shed, as a husk,

while entangled from dusk to dawn to dusk.

“I’m a witch,” she said with a mocking tone,

handing me my cup, pewter white as bone.

I said, “You don’t seem like a witch to me,”

for she was young, graceful and quite pretty.

“But I am,” she said, sitting herself down

right beside me and smirking at my frown.

“You see, I have used my cauldron to brew

this especial spider tea just for you.”

“Spider tea?” I said, looking at the cup,

the fragrant steam like phantoms rising up.

“Indeed,” she said, not at all like a crone.

“It is quite tasty when one’s all alone

and cold in the long winter months to come—

just as good as any brandy or rum

or hot cider or bourbon you might drink

to help you to, and also not to, think.

I said, “But what is it really made of?”

She smiled and said, “A black widow’s love

and the aloofness of a fiddleback

all smashed together, pressed in a small pack

and their eggs, too, along with their cocoons,

aged in a dank cellar for many moons

and steeped in my cauldron, or my teapot

if you will, until it is nice and hot

to bring about the best acridity.

I noted, then, the tea’s acidity

and remarked upon it, to which she said

“Quite.  The venom gives a kick to the head

which invigorates the intrepid blood

to swell and flow like a river in flood.

Not many men may stomach Spider Tea,

nor many men who may satisfy me.”

“I can handle it,” I said, sipping more

as I felt sweat drip from every pore.

I grinned and said, “I’ve had lots of rotgut,

from white dog to hooch, no drink ever cut

because a real man has a lead belly

and doesn’t have insides made of jelly.”

“Oh, you big boy,” she said, licking her lips

to which I grinned more, taking a few sips.

“Big in lots of ways,” I said, leaning in,

my hand slipping up her arm and down again,

and since she did not pull away, I kissed

her fingertips, her palm, and her pale wrist.

“Drink up,” she cooed.  “Don’t let it go to waste.”

I drank all the rest, not minding the taste

since I knew she’d soon sweeten the flavor

with her body, which I longed to savor.

Spider Tea now drank, she caressed my thigh,

then kissed me with lips succulent and sly,

and I felt so hot with lust at her touch

that I did not mind the pain quite so much

while my guts boiled badly from within, then,

and I breathed scalding steam like an engine.

“Do you want me?” she asked.  “Tell me you do

because I brewed Spider Tea just for you.”

I did want her, and I said so, again and again

while my lust burned and boiled outside and in,

and I melted for her, body and soul,

while she sucked me dry, drinking me whole.

Confessions And Silence

There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods.  No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over.  The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion.  And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea.  And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.

 Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God.  Some said a god died there long ago.  Some said in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher that something yet more ancient than gods had died there.  Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits.  And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death s release.  It was what they strived for beneath the preacher s watchful eye.  It was what they all wanted more than anything.

 That was, all except for Tilda.

 Tilda was the preacher s daughter.  She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers.  She especially disliked being the preacher s daughter.  Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows.  Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden.  Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes.  Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin.  Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.

 She hated Confessions most of all.

 Her father s sermons were dreary things.  For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored.  Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such.  Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father s mouth.  She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith.  She liked how her father s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed.  She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday.  Of all the Biblical passages she liked few though they were she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes.  That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.

 

 There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp.  No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like.  They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk.  The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became.  After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash.  She was now determined to meet the witch.  She knew it was her destiny.

 And so one night Tilda crept away from her father s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky.  The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named.  Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch.  It was common knowledge.  Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp.  A candle illuminated the hut s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch s fireplace.

  Come in, my little fawn,  a voice cackled from within.   I have been expecting you.

 Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut.  It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also.  She was an old crone  as witches often were and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak.  Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.

  You will make me a witch,  Tilda said.  She did not cower from the witch s scowl, but was emboldened by it.   You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps.

  Do I know such things?  the witch pondered dubiously.  She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman s of the same-seeming age.   I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn.

  I am no fawn,  Tilda said defiantly.   I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such.  I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help.

 The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.

  Dear me, you are a presumptuous one,  she said.  She looked the preacher s daughter up and down from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul.   You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent?

 Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly.  She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.

 The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face.   And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn?

  By reaching between the fire and the heat,  Tilda said proudly.   Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides.

  You speak rightly enough,  the witch said.   And you manage a magic…of a crude sort.  But what of your soul, my little fawn?  What can you manage of it?

 Tilda scowled.   You are squandering time, beldam.  The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night.

 The witch s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself.  For a moment  just a moment  the beldame s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree.  This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.

  Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron,  she remarked.  She stood up from her stool or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut.  Perhaps both.  At length, she settled down, or shrank.  Her voice was low; calm and quiet.

  Know you lemongrass, my little fawn?

 Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.

  And what of belladonna?

 Again Tilda nodded.

  And hemlock?  Wolfsbane?  Yarrow root?

 Tilda nodded to all three in succession.

 The witch smiled wryly.   Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me.  I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand.  Baby s breath.  A good man s guilt.  A double heart.  And so on.  Now leave me.

 Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision.  She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch s face had unnerved her.  A glint in the witch s eye sent her to the door and back home.  It was such a glint as a cat s eye had upon spotting a mouse.

 

      ***

 

 Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise.  She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk.  Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night.  Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats.  Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.

 Tilda s father was summoned.  He counseled the aggrieved parents.  He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way.  Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own.  When pressed by Tilda s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners.  Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.

 Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods.  While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing.  The woods were a haunted place, after all.  Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming.  Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal.  Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere.  Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger.  The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do.  They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.

 Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required.  Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime.  Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day.  When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged.  Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.

  You are playing with devilish mischief!  he roared, indicating the basket.  He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin.   When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”

 He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved.  Her hands stung and were bruised.  She returned to her bedroom.  She did not sulk.  She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due.  She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts.  She thought of power.  She thought of revenge.

 And so, at the darkest hour of night when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires  Tilda crept out of her father s house and went to find her willow basket.  It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.

 Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket.  Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up.  A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.

 Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch s hut.  When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before.  Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before.  The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.

  Hello, my little kitten,  the witch said as she stirred the cauldron.  Her voice was different.  It was lower, older.   She said you would bring what was needed.

 Tilda approached the witch with empty hands.   I had gathered them,  she said, trying not to cry, but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and…

 She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before.  She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.

  Those never mattered, my little kitten,  the different witch said.   What matters is the trouble of gettin  them.  The willingness.  The sacrifice.  Especially the punishment for gettin  them.

 The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.

  Come, my kitten.  Hold your hands in the steam.  It won t hurt you a bit.  I promise.  In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth.

 Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron.  Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid.  But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge.  The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.

 Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot.  The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms.  The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer s day.

  There we have it, my kitten,  the witch said.  She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve.   Now you must drink it.  Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek

Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid.  She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation.  Her repulsion stayed her.

  Do you desire power or not, my kitten?!  the witch screeched.

 The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater.  Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared.  Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting.  The more she drank, the more she craved of it.  She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep s gut stuffed overfull.  Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron s yield.  Conversely, she grew lighter.  So very light.  Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions.  She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive.  Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.

 Silence.

  Now is the time, my little kitten,  the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit.  The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking.   Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten.  Do as you will, and do much.

 As a dream Tilda went wandering.  Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast.  The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud.  Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her.  She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch s hut on the Borderlands.

 Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name.  He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling.  He was not supposed to defecate in the brook no one was but he did so anyway.  His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days.  He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook.  She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled.  Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him.  Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.

 Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on.  She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air.  He blinked at her in confusion.

  Wallace Eckridge,  she said.   You will come with me.

 Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.  

 Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch s hut.  She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him.  She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure.  The creatures in the woods did not bother him.  Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased.  A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself.  Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.

 To the hut they came at last.  The witch thanked Tilda for the offering.  Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared.  She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.

  It is true what they say,  the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls.   True power does not die, nor does it rot away.  It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it.   Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady.   Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass.  My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth.  They grow stronger.

  What are they?  Tilda asked.

  What is earth?  the witch countered.   What is the sky?  What is hate?  What is hunger?  What is the meaning of things?  So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things.

  Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god?  she asked.

  How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist?  the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure.   We exist, do we not, little lamb?  And that is all that matters.

 Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home.  The power had gone from her at daybreak.  She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air.  She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world s men with a word.  She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.

 

 Her father awaited her in her bedroom.  But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise  or worse, make Confession of her he was summoned away.  Wallace Eckridge s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft.  At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace s lecherous advances.  Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together.  They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers.  Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.

 But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace s disappearance.  She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic.  Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister.  This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village.  Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart.  Much ado was made of it before the day was done.

 

 Before nightfall Tilda s father returned.  He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter.  Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night.  Her tears were her sole company as she waited.  Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again.  She wept as she walked, each step painful.  Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.

 The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.

  Hello, my little lamb,  the witch said softly.

 Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.

  My little lamb,  the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind.   My poor, dear little lamb.  Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe.  Let it console you.  Let it invigorate and strengthen you.

 Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again.  To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten.  Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep.  Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut  which was more a house now than before and went floating through the woods.

 Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook.  At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott.  Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her.  Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.

  You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott,  Tilda said, for you do not believe the innocence of your wife.  Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.

 Tilda s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him.  She led the man out to the witches  hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared.  Alongside him disappeared Tilda s powers once more.  Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.

  My dear little pup,  the witch said, gladdened by Tilda s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott s sudden evanescence.  Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye.   You have done so well.  And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup.  For you are strong in the ways of us witches.

 The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.

  What do you do with the men I bring to you?  she asked.

 The witch s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile.   My pup, it is but a matter of conference.  We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet.  In time, they welcome the Silence.

 This all meant nothing to Tilda.  She could not understand the witch s real meaning.

  They are dead?  she ventured.

  No more than the gods,  the witch said.   My little pup.

 

 Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn.  Her father was not there.  He was busy blessing the water from the brook.  He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening.  He also used it for Baptisms.  He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort.  As a man must, he claimed.

  We should aspire to be as this brook,  he often admonished his flock.   For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction.  We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife.

 Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.

 No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott.  Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge.  Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin.  Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.

 

 Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession.  A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron.  Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.

 Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods.  The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns.  When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically.  For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.

  Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge,  Tilda demanded.   I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest.

 The woman s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods.  Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming.  They came to the house-sized hut and entered.  Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold.  The witch who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil told her more arcane secrets.

  Primordial gods do not fade.  They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself.  We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp.  All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands.

 

 The next day Tilda s father was in a foul mood.  Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her.  Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life.  Perhaps even her soul.  The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.

  It is God s wrath,  he proclaimed, and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety.  We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith.  We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil.  We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire.

 Tilda s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night.  After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled.  The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.

  My dear little fledgling,  the witch said.   Whatever is the matter with your legs?

 She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night.  Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however.  She muttered through her

 “I want to complete my transformation,  she said.   I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call.  Not just borrowed powers.  I want to be a master adept, like all of you!

  Oh, my little fledgling,  the witch sighed.   That is such a momentous change.  Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now?  Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people?  Surely it is enough, isn t it?  It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you?   The witch smiled furtively.

  I am ready,  Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks.   I wish to be untethered.  I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties!

  If you wish it,  the witch said, then your wish shall be granted.

 The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house.  A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly.  But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated.  Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge.  Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession.  The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself.  She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches.  Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world.  They were not debased.  They were exultant.  They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.

 The steam was not hot.  It was cool, like mist.  It reminded her of a heady miasma.  She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup.  Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid.  It did not burn.  It did not scald her.  Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.

 What did she feel?  She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking.  Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness.  All grew dark and still within the cauldron.  Deathly.  Soon, however, she felt life stir within her.  It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot.  The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her.  It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what.  At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.

 With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods.  She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook.  To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.

 She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell.  Tilda floated above him for a time.  Then she entered him through his empty spaces  as he so often did her while in Confession and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her.  Taking her time, she led him through the woods.  The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut.  The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered.  Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses.  Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.

 He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.

  I have made abomination with my daughter,  the preacher said.   I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years.  I have sullied her, and made ruin of her.  I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt.  I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite.  I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be.  I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence.  God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell.

  No,  the witches said as one.   Not Hell.  To something…purer.  To something Holier.  To the Silence.

 Tilda s father vanished into the Silence.

 

 Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp.  As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before.  The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager.  She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.

 Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless.  Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms.  And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago.  And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures.  One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.