Little Boy Blew

Little Boy Blew

“Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
Where is that boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack, fast asleep.
Will you wake him? Oh no, not I,
For if I do, he’ll surely cry.”

The sunrise was apocalyptic, setting the meadow aflame with blinding white light scintillating across early morning dew. Tom stood in the light, stunned, leaning on his pitchfork. A big man—and not at all Slim Pickings—he was as a scarecrow made of brick; more stone than stonemason. Even so, he stared at the sunrise with a look akin to haunted sorrow. When the flames of the morning did not reach past the distant trees, however, he loosened his taut muscles and continued pitching the hay into the nearby wagon. The pale horse in front of the wagon whinnied impatiently.
“I am hurrying as fast I can,” Tom said to the horse, grunting as he stooped and pitched the hay.
The cool morning mists scattered at the sun, like ghosts. The air grew hotter. The dew of the morning vanished while the dew on Tom’s brow gathered wetly. He did not wipe it away until he had piled the wagon high and could fit no more within its bed. Then he wiped his brow with his flannel sleeve and took hold of the horse’s reins.
“Go on, Old Henry,” Tom said, giving the reins a little whip.
Old Henry was, in fact, not “Old”, but young, and so impatient for work. He pulled at once, and nearly accelerated to a trot, but Tom gave the reins a little tug to curtail the horse’s impatience. The horse knew where to go, and so went to the barn directly, navigating the grazing cattle with little guidance or prompting. He came to a stop by the gabled barn, snorting contemptibly. Tom hopped off the wagon. Old Henry gave another impatient snort for emphasis.
“Fine, fine,” Tom said, untying the horse from the wagon. “Go on, then.”
The horse bolted, running across the vast meadow. At full-gallop it approached the fenceline—as if it would bound over it—but turned at the last moment and ran the length of the perimeter as if keen on winning the Kentucky Derby. While Old Henry ran his laps, Tom unloaded the wagon. By the time he had finished, his wife called him to breakfast. He rested the pitchfork against the wagon and turned toward the old farmhouse. As he turned he caught sight of something standing in the meadow, where the cows grazed. In his periphery it looked tall and wide of stance. He turned to look at it directly, but whatever it was, it was gone.

The kitchen was bright as the sun glared through the window. The tiles across the floor gleamed, recently mopped, and the chicken wallpaper was paneled with few shadows from the cabinets.
“Why don’t you get a tractor, pa?” his son asked. The little boy sat across from his father at the round table, looking expectantly at his father.
“I can make do without one,” Tom said. He grimaced as a gashing pain shot across the bend of his back, near the juncture of his shoulderblades and the tendons of the spine. He buried the awareness of this pain deep in the crowded bunker of his mind.
His wife, Lucille, sighed, but said nothing. She served them plates heaped with eggs, bacon, and pancakes. His son ate the pancakes with energy—more energy than he ever had for his chores—and Tom watched him pensively for a long moment. Tom then began to eat. He ate the pancakes and the eggs with an engineer’s exacting efficiency, but he did not touch the bacon. The bacon made him feel sick to his stomach.
“Lucy,” he said, “I thought I told you not to give me any bacon.”
His wife sat down at the table with her own plate.
“It’s good for you, Tom,” she said. “You need something to keep your strength up. You’ll work yourself to an early grave if you don’t eat more.”
Tom, who was broad of shoulders and barrel-chested, shook his head.
“I drink plenty of milk,” he said. “That is enough. Here, Little Tom, have at it.”
He slid the plate across the table to his son. Little Tom reached his small hand out and took hold of the bacon, piling it onto his plate with greasy fingers.
“Thanks, pa,” Little Tom said.
Tom stood up, silently, and went to the door.
“Tom,” Lucille said, turning in her chair to watch him go.
He paused at the door that led out of the kitchen.
“Don’t work yourself out there too much,” she said. “The heat’s not good for you.”
“I know heat’s not good for you,” Tom said. “Believe me. I know better than most.”
He went out the door.

Tom went to the garden to hoe the weeds. Occasionally he stole a glance at the cows, and Old Henry, and the farmhouse. Little Tom joined him, using a small hoe to stab at the black soil and uproot the weeds. Little Tom wore his own denim overalls and a blue shirt. On his head he wore a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap.
They were a long way from Brooklyn, but not far enough from Manhattan.
“When do you go back to school?” Tom asked his son.
The little boy looked gloomy in the shade of his hat. The midmorning sunshine chiseled the shadow hard along his round face. “Another month, I think?”
“You been keeping up your studies?” Tom asked him.
The little boy gave a glum, half-hearted shrug. He dug at the soil aimlessly; absentmindedly. He said nothing.
“We got those books for you so you could study,” Tom said. “You’re goin’ to need to study to get better in school so you can go to college someday.”
The boy sulked in silence for a while. He uprooted a weed and threw it out of the garden.
“Why can’t I join the Army?” he said, mousily. “Like you did?”
Tom’s face darkened. “I’ve told you already,” he said, his tone stony. “You’re not going into the Army. Or the Navy. Or nothing to do with war.”
“But you were a hero…”
“It ain’t like the movies!” his father snapped. “That propaganda swill! It’s all hogwash.”
Tom took a deep breath and sighed. They continuing hoeing the garden, but in silence.

The days of Summer were long. Tom aimed to make the most of them. After he and Little Tom had hoed the garden, he tied Old Henry to an old, rusty combine. It was small, but it served his purpose in the fields of wheat and rye and oats. Old Henry had more than enough gumption and endurance to make the combine efficient, and even had strength remaining afterward to pull the hay-rake. Eventually, however, Tom knew he would need to purchase another horse to ease Old Henry’s burdens. He might even have to purchase a herd of horses.
But he would not purchase a tractor.

The day grew hotter as the sun reached its zenith. The shade drew inward, shrinking in retreat. The cattle sought shelter under a copse of trees near the bullfrog-gibbering pond. Old Henry, too, sought what remained of the shade, returning to the gables. Tom sat in a rocking-chair on the porch while Lucille—sitting on the steps—mended a pair of his denim overalls. Little Tom lay on his stomach, glumly reading aloud from a book of collected works by Shakespeare.
“…and for one blast of thy minikin mouth, thy sheepe shall take no harme…”
Little Tom frowned down at the open book like it was a frog that had just spoken to him in French. He turned his head this way and that, like a box of crackerjacks from which he was trying to retrieve the sticker. Finally, he looked up at his father.
“Pa, what does that mean?”
Tom, who had been erstwhile staring out at something in the meadow, turned and looked at his son with some confusion.
“What?”
“What does ‘minikin’ mean? What does any of it mean?”
“Minikin?” Tom said, considering. “I think it means ‘small’. Like ‘munchkins’ in the Wizard of Oz. They’re small people.”
“Oh,” Little Tom said. He looked down at the book again, puzzling over the phrase. After a long beat, he gave up, and began to read again, mechanically speaking without emphasis or comprehension.
Lucille stood up from the steps and went to Tom, laying the overalls in her husband’s lap.
“Finished,” she said.
“Thank you, darling,” Tom said. His eyes remained in the meadow, but also seemed much farther away than that. He had ceased rocking his rocking-chair.
“We need more salt,” Lucille said, standing next to her husband. “And more flour.”
“We’ll have flour soon enough,” Tom said. “When I get the mill working again.”
“We’ll need flour sooner than that,” Lucille said. Her tone was one of threadbare patience. “And the salt. We need salt.”
“I’ll take Old Henry into town tomorrow,” Tom said. “If I leave early in the morning I should be back by the evening.”
“If we had a truck…” his wife began to say.
There was creaking sound that silenced her, but it was not the sound of the rocking-chair on the porch. It was coming from Tom.
“I don’t want to argue about this, Lucy,” he said quietly. “You know how I feel about it.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “But it would make things easier for us. Easier for all of us. We could even go into town for church on Sundays like a normal family.”
Tom chuckled mirthlessly. “You can pray here as well as pray there,” he said. “God ain’t gonna’ hear you, anyhow. He is deaf. We deafened him with that bang, Lucy.” He laughed a dry, cynic’s laugh. “He’s always been hard of hearing, come to think of it.”
“Tom,” she said, tremulously. “Tom, we all could use with some more society. You could go to Grenwich and see your friends. Talk to them. Maybe you’d feel better. And Little Tom needs to be around other children.”
“He’ll be around other children when he goes back to school,” Tom said.
“But he has to stay with his aunt, then,” she said. “And God knows my sister is good to him, but it makes this place awfully lonesome when he’s gone. Because you’re gone most of the time, Tom. You go off in your little world and you don’t even seem to be home when you are home…”
“Lucy…” Tom said.
“It’s not like I don’t know how you feel, Tom,” she continued, speaking over him. “But wallowing in it is not healthy for you. You got to see things the way they are. It was a necessary evil. If you like, a truck is a necessary evil, too. You don’t even have to drive it. I could drive it. I drove the girls around during the war. I could drive Little Tom to school every day. We have more than enough money. Daddy saw to that…”
“Lucy…” Tom said.
“And it’s not even the same, Tom. It’s just a gasoline engine. People use them all the time. It won’t explode or catch fire…”
Tom stood up suddenly, his eyes affixed somewhere far away. He stepped off the porch, walking intently toward the meadow. He did not stop at the blazing heat or the glare of the sun. He did not stop at the buzzing deerflies that swirled around him like hateful memories. He did not stop at the echo of his wife’s voice. He walked directly to the gate in the center of the meadow, halting only as its shadow fell upon his boots.
It was not a normal gate. Firstly, it had no fence upon which it hinged to open and close, nor did it have a latch. In appearance and function it was not a Western-style gate for cattle. It was a post-and-lintel construct with two rounded columns of wood and a curved lintel in the traditional Japanese style. It was what Tom knew to be called a “torii gate”. It was blackened and scorched, the wood seemingly ready to collapse unto ash at any moment. The gate appeared as if it had been struck by lightning and set ablaze. As he entered the gate and left the meadow behind he could hear the air raid siren. He heard people distantly. He heard wails of grief and screams of agony. He heard a distant hum, like that of thunder protracted unto a single deafening note. He was no longer on his farm. He walked desolate streets where wooden buildings had been scattered, their frames and walls smoldering like twigs from a dead bonfire. The sidewalks were littered with debris and soot. The air tingled and the sky was bright where the clouds had been blown away. In the distance a blinding light was only now fading, like sunset, and a cloudy figure danced on the horizon. It was a pillar of clouds, but it was also a dancing boy blowing his horn. Tom knew the name of that dancing boy. He dared not speak it.
There were no other people on the decimated streets. There were only shadows burned into walls that aped in deathly stillness the silhouettes of men and women and children. Tom averted his eyes, yet he saw them elsewhere also: along crumbling facades, on the posts of a temple, skewed on the sidewalk itself. Their ashes entered his lungs, making him cough. Tears came to his eyes, beckoned by the cindery air.
The people were gone, yet they were everywhere.
Tom turned away, staggering toward the torii gate. He could see the meadow between the charred posts. Both sides of the torii gate were bright, yet only one was bright with a natural light. He walked through the gate for the countless time. He had been through it so many times now and yet it hurt nonetheless.
Tom left the torii gate and stood once again in his meadow. The gate was gone and the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky. His wife stood on the porch of the small farmhouse. Ahead of her, running across the field, came Little Tom. He smiled as he ran, pointing up at the sky. A plane flew overhead, its engine whirring noisily. The minikin boy slowed, his smile drooping into a gawping frown. Tom heard a horn blast in the air. In horror he watched as his son began to melt before his eyes, his skin peeling and blackening like the skin of a rotten onion. Smoke spewed from his body and soon his eyes burst into flame, burning hollow to empty eye sockets that stared darkly into the realm of Death. He crumbled to a heap of bones upon the meadow. Tom fell to his knees and wept.
When his son reached him, he hugged his father with arms browned by the sun, but otherwise unblemished.
“It’s okay, pa,” his son said. “The war’s over. We won.”
“Not all of us,” his father said, hugging his son. “Not all of us…”

The Imposter: Chapter IV

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

Chapter IV. Prisoner

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

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

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

The Fall And The Fire

The lawn was buried with orange and brown oak leaves. More leaves clung to the branches above. It was mid-Fall. The breeze was cool, chilling Jordan’s bare legs as she stretched in the backyard. The leotard was thin against the Autumn cold, but practice would soon warm her limbs with the heat of her balance beam performance. And she lived for the performance on the balance beam.
Jordan kept her blonde hair shortly cropped, just like her Olympic hero, Kerri Strug, and just like Kerri Strug, Jordan was short. Also much like her heroine, Jordan was compact, stout, and compressed from years of gymnastic tumbling. She wanted to compete in the Olympics within three years, and she knew her strength lie on the balance beam. Her father had built this balance beam two years ago, for her thirteenth birthday, after much pleading and begging. He feared that she would harm herself in the yard. She said she needed more practice at home. Jordan’s father conceded, buying mats and setting them around the beam. These mats were now buried in leaves, much like the rest of the tree-columned yard. The yard itself was a mess. Her father had not raked it in a month. He had been too busy working overtime at the factory. And, with the exception of an acorn here and there, Jordan liked having the Autumnal detritus arrayed around her as she practiced. The leaves were jubilant in their colors and abundance, like tasteful confetti from a crowd that had recently passed through in celebration of her Olympic medal.
On the other hand, the thought of a loud crowd gave her conniptions. She did not like distraction. Cheers—real cheers from a live audience—did not energize her. She was not comfortable with her performance yet to perform for an audience and to feed off its energy. The good thing about living out in the woods—and not in the suburbs—was the silence. It allowed her to concentrate without distraction. That was not to say there was no ambience. The squirrels squabbled sometimes, and the birds chirped, but these sounds were negligible when she was focused.



Jordan stretched, warmed up, and mentally prepared herself. In time she felt ready to face the balance beam. She did not hesitate. Scattering the leaves with her bare feet, the young gymnast ran, vaulted, and wheeled gracefully onto the beam. She began her routine. It was an unbroken series of motions: tumbling, rolling, dipping, and rising into a handstand that halted near the end of the balance beam. Slowly wheeling over to grip the very edge with her toes, she then did a little hop to about-face, steadied and readied herself, then launched into a cartwheel, a back hand-spring, and concluded with a back-flip that triumphed with a peacock flaunt of the arms. It was all muscle-memory. She performed the series again, and then again. She felt like a squirrel as she went foot to hand to foot, vaulting and spinning and leaping and soaring. She felt like a bird, springing and kicking her legs out like the wings of a bird flapping toward the heights. Her soul was chimeric when she was performing gymnastics. The balance beam was a totem along which she traversed spirit animals with grand exultation. She focused her mind on breathing properly and concentrated her eyes on one spot while her body rotated about, so as to not make herself sick. Yet, the motion of the world still blurred and shifted in her vision, and she felt herself totter and sway with dizziness.
And so when she glimpsed the little man sitting on the bough above her, she nearly fell, halting and swinging her arms wildly like a cartoon character trying to fly after coming to the edge of a cliff. Regaining her balance, Jordan took a deep breath and exhaled, hands on her knees and her head feeling dizzy with the blurring motion. She was too heady. Blood beat in her ears like woodpeckers seeking worms. She was seeing things.
Or so she thought.
“What a lovely lass ye be,” a voice said.
Jordan looked up at the bough of the old oak tree. Head steadied now, she still saw the little man. He was real, to her surprise, and not just an image conjured by whirling motion and swirling vision.
“A lovely lass indeed! As an oak and a willow tree made as one! A dryad in the making!”
He was short and had orange hair—bright orange hair, like fire atop his head—and the freckles on his pale body flared like fire, too. A crown of antlers rose crookedly from his head. He wore a skirt of leaves, but, at such a high angle, the skirt did not conceal his furry deer legs, nor the genitals beneath the skirt. His priapism was comically large, and, as such, frightening to Jordan.
“What are you?” she demanded. It never occurred to her that the little man was a human being. Seeing him was like seeing a Unicorn or a Leprechaun: merely seeing them, though absurd, seemed to force the rational mind to surrender to the otherworldliness of it.
“What am I?” he says with a goat’s grin. “Why, ye say it as if I be what is unnatural, but, my lass, I am as natural as ye. And just as unique as ye.”
Jordan stood on the balance beam with her eyes averted from the little man. She could not look at him without looking at the obscene appendage beneath his skirt, and so she looked to the side, and only occasionally looked at him, just to verify that he was still sitting there; that he was still watching her with his lecher’s leer.
“What…do you want?” she whispered. She did not need to ask. She could see what he wanted. It was obvious.
“To ask ye what ye want,” he said.
“I want you to leave…” she whispered.
He stood up on the bough now, hooves apart, hands on his hips, arms akimbo, and the obscenity between his legs straight out at attention. He looked like an absurd Jolly Green Giant, only orange and pale and diminutive and lewd. He scratched his ear thoughtfully. It was the ear of a stag, not a man.
“I will leave,” he said, “if ye wish it. But in the depths of ye heart ye do not wish it so, my sweet dryad.”
Jordan looked at her house. Her father was still at work, and the windows were dark. Her mother lived with a boyfriend miles away from here. The nearest neighbor was a mile down the road. Jordan herself was no pushover, though. She had broad shoulders and arms stronger than most boys her age. She was an athlete, and though she was short, the orange-haired man was shorter. If she wanted to, she could kick hard as a horse.
Yet, his short stature made his obscenity seem all the larger by comparison. And there was a certainty in his grin, a self-assurance, and she did not feel the same confidence that he obviously felt. He seemed to have an invisible audience cheering him on, whereas the applause were silent for her.
Jordan’s indecision prompted the little man to speak.
“Ye seek the Flame, do ye not?” he said. “The old Greek Flame? The Flame of glory? The Flame of Olympus?”
“Flame?” she said, her mind awhirl with the iconic Olympic torch.
“Yes,” the little man said. “The Flame of olden days, and of days to come. It does not belong to the Greeks, nor to any one people. It is the Flame of Prometheus and Agni and Kagu-tsuchi and Loki and Gibil. It is the Flame of glory and celebration and…sacrifice.”
The last word he whispered. Jordan could barely discern it from the rustling of a squirrel amongst the distant leaves.
“Sacrifice?” she said. She fidgeted on the balance beam and, though she was merely standing still, she almost lost her balance. “What sacrifice?”
The little man’s grin spread wider. “Ye know of what it is I speak.” His orange eyes surveyed her, up and down, and he licked his lips. “Ye innocence.”
Jordan was wordless, oscillating on the beam. Unconsciously her hand adjusted her leotard, and the little man’s eyes grew wide with delight.
“Do ye wish to stand for years, my dryad,” he prodded her, “or do ye wish to fall from greatness? There is always a price. There is a price if ye do not feed the Flame. A bonfire is kindled for the village, and the world is nothing but giant villages now, my little leaflet. The bigger the villages, the bigger the bonfires, the bigger the Flame. From Marathon to Munich. Between the seasons of Beltane and Onsen and Burning Man and Thimithi, the Flame must be fed. The Feat must be done and the Flame must be fed. The season’s burning always returns.”
A chill in her bones made Jordan tremble. It was not the wind.
“Will ye bend or will ye break?” the little man wondered aloud, scratching the hairs on his chin. “And for what? Ye innocence slips away even now, so why not surrender it for a greater gain?”
“I will earn my place on my own,” she said. Her voice seemed tenuous in that Autumnal silence, as if it had been drowned beneath the cheer of an audience to which she was somehow deaf and blind.
“Pride precedes the Fall,” the little man said, his grin disappearing. “Just as Summer precedes the Fall. How confident humans are in the splendor of warm days and ample food!” He grinned again, maliciously now. “How bitter they feel when the cold winds rake at their starving ribs. Wouldn’t ye rather be a dryad than a mere human being? Wouldn’t ye rather be eternal than brief as a leaf? Dryads grow on Mt. Olympus, my lass, but no mere woman may go there unless she offers a god something of value.” Again he eyed her thighs, and the place between them where the leotard pinched. “The summit of Olympus is good soil, my lass.”
“No!” she gasped, finding her throat choked with fear…and sadness.
He shrugged, then turned as if to leave. Much to her own horror, Jordan called out to him.
“Wait!”
He grinned at her over his pale, freckled shoulder. Seeing his grin, she felt her resolve grow stronger. Her momentary weakness gave way to anger.
“I will succeed on my own,” she said. “I don’t need you. I have talent. I have skills and heart and passion!”
“So do thousands of other lasses,” he says. “But they grow no more than as saplings before wilting away into obscurity. Some are no more than acorns, stagnant and squandered in unfertile soil.”
The little man laughed, then stepped off the branch. He did not fall, nor did he fly away. He simply disappeared into the orange leaves like he never was.
As soon as the little man vanished Jordan forgot about him. She wondered how she had gotten off the balance beam and came to be standing in the leaves. Something else bothered her, too, but she did not know what it was. She could not remember.
Taking a deep breath, Jordan hopped back up onto the balance beam and walked to and fro, trying to shake the strange chills she felt in her limbs. The fire seemed to have gone out of her. She did some warm-up exercises, trying to rekindle it. All around her the trees were orange and fluttered as if aflame, yet the chill breeze stiffened her limbs. The cold stiffness clamped at her neck and shoulders and hips and knees. The icy claws dug in and clutched at her sinews and her tendons, tightening around her muscles and her bones.
Still, she persisted. She shook out her joints, warmed her limbs, and steadied her breath. She walked across the balance beam as if in a firewalking ritual. A matchstick struck against her heart and flared to life. The warmth spread and she felt her skin grow hot against the cool winds. Energized with heat, she renewed her practice, channeling her whole soul into her routine. She exulted in her speed and technique. She triumphed in her passion aglow with her own inner fire.
The stiffness was sudden and excruciating, seizing the arch of her foot with a paroxysm of pain. She felt her foot spasm with an arthritic grip, felt her body flail wildly as she lost her balance and, with her accrued momentum, tumbled off the beam. She then felt the impact of her head on the leaf-strewn lawn, felt the snapping of her neck, and then, at last, felt nothing at all. She was a broken sapling crumpled upon the ground. Somewhere in the flaming leaves overhead she heard a little man’s laughter. It was the last sound she heard as her hopes and dreams extinguished on the summit of Mt. Olympus.

Karma

The scale of the moon carp gleamed in Katashi’s palm, flashing like polished porcelain, or perhaps lacquered bone. He returned it to the pouch hidden beneath his breastplate. The bamboo breastplate was charred and scarred, haunted by the battle from which Katashi had forsaken his sworn service to the Tanaka clan. It had been a sardonic retreat into the woods. He fancied the idea of finding another clan to serve, such as in Kyoto, but halfway there abandoned the plan. Having no home, he made a home for himself here, in this valley beneath the howling mountains, and earning his life as a bandit with a dull blade and sharp threats.
The valley was an ideal place to stake the tearaway remainder of his life. Cutting through its wooded beauty was an important road that led to Kyoto and, so, was frequented by both riffraff and riches. There was a river that flowed like a sacred serpent nearby, replete with fish and frogs and such, and the woods was an assembly of the loveliest trees. Cedars, pines, maples, sakuras, dogwoods, plum, cherry trees. There were momiji trees with their leaves like a fan of sharp spear blades, and mountain ash, and the mighty oaks, their strange limbs frozen in kabuki dances. Katashi cherished trees, and the lovely landscape. He may not have adhered to Bushido now, but the appreciation of beauty still burned warmly in his breast long after all other things—like etiquette and Zen Buddhism—had extinguished. Sometimes, too, when the moon rode the clouds high like a princess in a palanquin, Katashi composed poetry in his head in celebration of the beauty of that hour. Sometimes the poetry visited him in the hot noon when he cooled himself in the shade of the woods, or drank water from the pools that spooled together from the waters of the mountains looming over that valley.
And yet, Katashi was not happy. He could be content, and even feel vacant of want, but such moments ebbed away as the flames and smoke rose again in his memories, reminding him of the Tanaka estate collapsing to ash. Whereas he used to meditate, now he could never sit still long enough to find inner peace. Rather, the memories assailed him on raven wings, like Tengu hellbent on mischief. In many ways, Katashi was a bitter man, and tasted much of bitter fruit. His life under the Tanaka clan had been a sweet fruit of privilege fed on the bitter duty of blood. This was why he had always enjoyed persimmons, whether ripe or unripened. The bitter and the sweet had their place. Green tea, too, was what he enjoyed, and the bitterer the better. It awakened his senses and concentrated his mind before battle. And after each battle in service to his lord, when he had often returned to the Tanaka estate, he was pleased to eat sweet rice and candies. He had taken pleasure in the indulgence of life in all of its diametric opposites.
Nowadays Katashi gathered and dried his own tea, and fished, and stole sacks of rice as he needed them during the Winter. He had few possessions, but they were enough to sustain him: his dull blade, a fishing spear, a tea cup, and a pot with which he cooked his fish, his rice, and brewed his tea.
And then came a day of yet greater change for the ronin. It had begun like all others. He rose, brewed tea, speared his breakfast in the river, cooked, ate, and then surveyed the valley road for passing spoils. He soon found them.
It was a group of monks, three in all, escorted by two samurai. The three monks surely had coins for their journey. The eldest monk looked especially old and presumptuous. The middle-aged monk looked chubby about his jowls and had a protuberant belly, meaning he ate well. The third monk was a young man; slender and almost feminine of feature. Surely, Katashi thought, these monks had coins.
Katashi then studied the two samurai closely, wondering which one he should dispatch first. Before he could come to a decision, however, a volley of roars rose and a group of bandits besieged the small group. They must have been new to the area, for Katashi had never seen them before. They wore bits of stolen armor here and there, used axes and kamas and secondhand blades. One used a fishing spear. Katashi watched grimly as the samurai were overwhelmed. He would have, at least, killed them honorably, not dishonorably ambush them with lackeys to assist. Face to face duels were his way. This, on the other hand, was a shameful display. Even so, one of the samurai managed to deflect the ambush and maim one of his attackers before he was cut down. He died with hatred etched on his face, and without a yelp of protest. Katashi would have felt honored to kill such a man, but the bandits did not indulge such thoughts. The moment the samurai fell the bandits fell upon him like dogs, arguing over who would claim his blade. There were five bandits in all, but the fifth was weeping on the ground, his lifeblood spilling out of his severed arm. The monks huddled together, but were untouched. Either they had nothing the bandits desired or the bandits feared hurting holy men.
Katashi never feared hurting holy men, nor killing them. They were often possessed of more wealth than their escorts.
At length, the four bandits had taken what they desired and fled into the forest. The fifth remained on the road, coiled like an infant and clutching the severed stump of his arm. The youngest monk attempted to tend to his wound, but the other two monks upbraided him.
“Let the dog die,” the eldest monk said. He wore a white robe and his eyes were hard, cold, and black like onyx. “Karma dictates his fate, and his fate will see him as a dog in the next life, or something worse.”
“But master…” the young monk said.
The other monk spoke up, his voice authoritative. “Do not question your better. You must remember how fortunate you are to have been taken upon this journey.” This monk wore a black robe and was of an age between the eldest and the youngest. “Let the dead lie, and let the dying follow suit.”
The youngest monk rose reluctantly and went from the bandit to the two dead samurai. The latter two had been stripped and bled freely from their fateful wounds upon the road.
“Do not touch the dead,” the black-robed monk commanded. “You will taint yourself with the corruption of death, and so doom us all. We must return to Kyoto and acquire another escort.”
“But the mountain…” the young monk protested.
“It will remain until we return,” the middle-aged monk said. “We must not dare the mountains unprotected. A hasty foot leads to a foolish fall. And youthful feet are hastiest of all.”
“But the demons will kill again,” the young monk said. “We have waited too long to protect the people of the village. Too many have died, and many more will die tonight.”
The two older monks reddened at the young monk’s words, scowls drawn on both men’s faces.
“We could not address this problem until now,” the middle-aged monk growled. “Lord Noteru had no Samurai to spare, as you know, and now we must report to him the deaths of two of his loyal men. He will not be pleased and will likely not be urgent in sparing more men in our mission.”
It was then that Katashi emerged from the shadows of the woods.
“The boy has bamboo for a spine,” he said, “or perhaps bamboo for his head.”
Katashi was pleased by the surprise on the monks’ faces. The two older monks stepped back as the imposing ronin approached. The young monk stood defiant. Katashi looked him up and down, grinning.
“Perhaps both, though he looks more a woman than the last I rutted upon.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk asked. “Did your gang not spill enough blood already?”
“I do not belong to them,” Katashi said, a grim smile upon his face. “If I did belong to them I would have cut them down rather than see them fight an outnumbered force so cowardly.”
“A murderer with principle!,” scoffed the middle-aged monk.
“What is a Samurai except that?” Katashi said. “Though also with a master, and since I have none, I am simply a ronin.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk demanded. “Our escort has been slain and stripped of all possessions. There is nothing we can offer you. We are holy men. We have no need of earthly possessions, and so no wealth to tempt your wickedness.”
Katashi laughed mirthlessly. “The thick robes of holy men have always concealed secret wealth, and secret wickedness. I ask only for wealth, however. Coins. Now.”
The two elder monks exchanged irritated glances, then disdainful glances toward the corpses of their guards. The eldest monk nodded to the middle-aged monk. The middle-aged monk withdrew a pouch from his robe. It jingled.
“You profane man,” the middle-aged monk complained. “It will buy you only your way into the next life as a worm.”
The monk handed the pouch of coins to Katashi.
“A peaceful, needful life,” Katashi said. He put the pouch within his breastplate, beside the pouch with the white koi scale. “Tilling the earth and helping a fisherman’s hook to feed his family. Much more needful a life than that of a monk, I should think.”
“You despicable blasphemer!” the middle-aged monk ejaculated. “You do not deserve that gold!”
“Or perhaps I could devise a need of you, after all,” Katashi said. He drew his katana. “My blade is dull and wants testing. Perhaps I should test its sharpness with a holy man’s neck.” His eyes went from one monk to the other. “But which one?” His eyes fell upon the eldest monk. “The oldest? His is sure to be tough enough to test a blade. His neck is so corded with age, like a tree’s trunk.” He looked at the middle-aged monk. “Or perhaps the fat one would be a better test of a blade. His neck is thickly swollen and surely as difficult to severe as a hog’s head from its body.”
The middle-aged monk backed away, as did the eldest monk.
Katashi turned toward the young monk. “Your neck is young and strong,” he said. “It might prove to be the best test of all. What do you say to that?”
“If you must test your sword,” the young monk said, “then please do so. But please do so after we have cleansed this mountain of corruption.”
Katashi was taken aback, but did not let on. “You care very much about this mountain,” he said.
“It is not just the mountain,” the young monk said. “It is a matter of the villages near here. This is crucial for saving lives and easing suffering.”
“The mountain must wait,” the eldest monk said.
This caused the youngest monk more upset than anything the ronin had said to him thus far. “But master! We must purify the mountain!”
“We cannot even defend ourselves against this wind-blown ruffian,” the middle-aged monk said, turning on the young monk. “How are we to defend ourselves against what we will face in the mountains?”
Katashi sheathed his blade, and laughed.
“Why would you not simply trust in the Buddha to see you safely to your destination? Why would you need armed warriors for escorts? Or is it that Buddha is a matter of your occupation rather than your belief?”
“We do believe in Buddha,” the middle-aged monk retorted testily. “But not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes behaves as if they believe.”
Katashi laughed again. “Very true. Just so, I believe in Buddha, and I carry a blade with me, for Buddha does nothing for us. He is too lost in the bliss of his own Satori to care for us or anyone except himself.”
The monks gasped. The middle-aged monk glowered and spoke with scorn.
“You are an endless well of blasphemies!” he snapped. “Your soul is lost! You will never break the cycle! Instead, you will descend into blood-madness and become an Oni!”
Katashi nodded gravely. “Perhaps I have descended and become an Oni already. I have killed hundreds, you know, and the Buddha never interfered on their behalf. Nor on my own. Rivers of blood have flowed and, in the center of it, like an unfeeling stone, the Buddha has slept, indifferent to the world.”
The two older monks exchanged looks again.
“It is time to depart,” the eldest monk said, folding his arms and turning away. “Come. Leave the wretch to his fate.”
“Do as you please,” Katashi said. “Your coin has bought you your way. Tread your path as you wish, but know the Buddha does not care.”
The two monks began to walk down the valley path. The youngest monk did not follow.
“I will not forsake the mountain,” the young monk said. “I will continue on alone.”
“It will be dark soon,” the elder monk said. “And you have no protection.”
“I have faith in the Buddha,” the young monk said. “I need nought else.”
Katashi should have laughed, and yet he did not. There was a steel-edged resolve in the young man’s tone that reminded Katashi of the battlefield. And while he may have dismissed the Samurai code and the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, he did not dismiss the courage of a man, especially combating that devil known as Circumstance.
“A fool, then,” the middle-aged monk said. “I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you in the hope that you will be reborn into a fairer realm. Farewell.”
The two monks went their way. The young monk went his way, through a torii gate and up a long-forsaken mountain path. Katashi, curious, followed the monk from within the woods. He was in want of diversion, and would find it.

It was not long before the sun set and the shadows stretched, darkened, and pooled as a lake in the valley. Despite the darkness of the woods, the monk did not falter, but continued up the mountain at the same determined pace as when there was still sunlight with which to see.
To Katashi’s surprise, there were lights along the path up the mountain— burning blue lights here and there among the trees and along the path. Voices whispered and murmured as the monk approached. Katashi heard them, too, coming from behind him, beside him, above him, below him. He was used to opponents of flesh and blood, not apparitions which a blade could not wound. Yet, he would not cower so long as the monk did not.
The monk pulled up his orange sleeves, exposing his hands. Within them he clutched prayer beads. As the burning blue flames encircled him, he bowed his head and raised his hands, entwined by the beads. Within the angry convergence of the blue light the monk prayed. The flames drew nearer, as if to engulf him, but he did not mind them, continuing with his prayer. The flames began to dwindle, and their voices became desperate. They cried and they wailed. They vowed revenge, and enumerated their sorrows. Nonetheless, the monk prayed, his voice a steady lullaby in the otherworldly light. By and by, they diminished, becoming so small that they were like fireflies among the trees, and then faraway stars, and then glinting embers. At last, the flames dissipated entirely, leaving only the monk on the path, and Katashi in the woods.
The monk turned and looked directly where Katashi concealed himself behind an ash tree. The ronin stepped forward
“Your blade will not always protect you,” the monk said. “Often it will harm you, even if it never spills one drop of your blood.”
Katashi stepped forward onto the mountain path. “What were those flames?”
“Onibi,” the monk said. “Lost spirits. The victims, I believe, of the evil that lurks atop these mountains.”
“Where did they go? Did you destroy them?”
“I sent them forth from their suffering,” the monk said. “I hope they find peace in the next life to come.”
Katashi snorted. “Doubtful. There is no peace in this life or any other. They go from one storm to another, and there is no refuge.”
The monk withdrew his hands and prayer beads into his sleeves, then crossed his arms. “Why do you shadow me?” he asked.
Katashi ignored the question. “I am surprised you could sense me. I am silent as a fox when I desire to be.”
“Your walk is not of the woods, however much you wish it to be. You are a man too much in disharmony with himself to ever be in harmony with the world.”
Katashi frowned. “You speak with high-hand when you wish. Were you born of a noble family?”
“No,” the monk said, continuing his uphill walk. “I was born of a humble fisherman.”
“And yet the Buddha was a prince,” Katashi said, following the monk with an easy gait. “He knew nothing of suffering, yet is supposed to somehow teach us how to overcome it. Not all of us have castles and kings to keep us sheltered from suffering.”
“You wish to antagonize me,” the monk said. “But you only succeed in revealing the extent of your own suffering.”
Katashi grinned mirthlessly. “I have not suffered more than most, except, perhaps, those whom I met and slew upon the battlefield.”
“You relish in death,” the monk said. He shook his bald head with pity. “Just so, I will pray for you, invoking the Buddha to guide your soul to its inmost peace.”
“There is no peace hidden there, either,” Katashi said, his tone harder now. “No more than there is peace in the inmost of a storm. Lightning crashes all around. The winds howl. The rains fall. The sky grows dark and the people tremble in their splintered homes. Life is dynamic. Only after death is peace attained, and even then it is not stillness, but decay as Life again eats away restlessly upon the ruined flesh.”
“You do not respect the Buddha’s teachings,” the monk said.
“Nor the teachers of those teachings,” Katashi said grimly. “If you only knew how many holy men I have slain, you would quiver in your robe.”
“Why have you not slain me?” the monk asked. “Why did you not slay my brothers? You could have easily done so.”
“I did not slay your brothers because they will return with more coins,” Katashi said. “And you…well, I did not slay you because I judged it more entertaining to witness your failure upon the mountains than to kill you outright. Or, perhaps, I may just test my dull blade on your neck after all.”
The flapping of large wings and the strange cawing laughter of a crow interrupted their conversation. They looked to the treetops and saw a winged shadow pass over the pale moon. Its laughter echoed within the woods; at one moment behind them and another moment ahead; to the left, then to the right. The creature’s laughter was as coarse as an old crone’s cackle.
At length, a branch shook overhead and creaked beneath the weight of the figure.
“What a pair to see!” the coarse-throated voice crackled. “A monk and a ronin. What fun to be had! I can scarcely decide what to do first! Should I eat the monk’s eyes and replace them with his prayer beads? Or should I remove the ronin’s genitals and place them in his mouth?”
Katashi unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward the shadowy figure. The dull blade gleamed white in the moonlight. His voice rang out in challenge.
“Come and face me first, you presumptuous creature! I will cut your grandstanding pride down as a sickle the sapling!”
The branch shook and a great gust of wind rushed downward with the winged figure that landed before them.
“Face me, mortal,” the creature said, “and we shall test how well that dull blade cuts.”
The winged creature wore a black robe and a black raven’s hat, like a priest, but had a long nose extending out from a red face. In one clawed hand it held a black-bladed katana; in the other it held a scroll such as would adorn a temple. Written upon it was the Lotus Sutra, but distorted. Perverse.
Katashi stepped forward as the Tengu grinned. The monk interceded.
“Tengu,” the monk said. He held up his hands with the prayer beads entwined. “You must not face him. You will not win. Tengu were the demons that taught the warrior arts to Man.”
“I can fight him,” Katashi said, “and I will.”
“You will die,” the monk said.
“Then it shall be a glorious death,” Katashi said.
“And a glorious feast, too,” the Tengu said, laughing like a crow. “As are all the feasts provided us by the pride of Man.”
The creature slipped its blasphemous scroll into its black robe and held the handle of his katana with both clawed hands. Katashi dropped his sword into a low stance. The moon disappeared behind a wayward cloud, plunging the mountainside into a sea of darkness. Blade crashed against blade, and the darkness was flecked with flashes of light. Three clangorous strikes sounded and then the moon reappeared. Katashi and the Tengu had switched places. The young monk stumbled back in surprise, the Tengu only a few paces away from him.
“Clever creature,” Katashi said, “to use the darkness against men. But you fail to understand. I am no mere man, for you face a demon also.”
“Your boasts are most unseemly,” the Tengu said. The laughter was gone from his coarse corvine voice. Now remained only dreadful menace. “Luck struck thrice for you, and so is gone. Now only your dull blade and your skill remain, and what paltry things to safeguard your life! It will tatter like the flimsy threads of a spider’s web.”
“So says the firefly,” Katashi said, readying his blade in the high position. The moon gleamed, reflecting off of his blade to illuminate more clearly the dark eyes near which the blade arced.
The two warriors faced each other silently for a long time, as if waiting for another cloud to blind the moon. When the cloud came, at last, like a raven’s wing, there came five shrieking strikes of blade on blade, and sparks that seemed to alight upon the leaves of trees and burn a moment before fading once again into the uniform darkness.
The moon emerged again, and with her emergence came a gasp from the monk. Katashi stood beside him, and so, too, did the Tengu. But the Tengu remained standing only because Katashi’s blade held him up. The Tengu’s blade dropped to the ground and the Tengu slumped backwards, toward his crumpling wings. The Tengu’s words were mingled with blood and pain.
“Bested by a lowly man. What a pitiful thing.”
“No,” Katashi said, withdrawing his blade and letting the creature collapse upon the ground. “Bested by a superior demon.”
The Tengu dissipated into a flurry of black feathers, all of which were subsumed into the shadows. Only the demon’s sword remained. Katashi stooped and picked it up. Surveying its black blade for a moment, he discarded his old, dull sword and claimed the new black blade in its place. He sheathed it and was pleased by the shriek of its blade in the scabbard.
“A demon’s blade befitting a demon,” he said.
“You may yet be a demon,” the monk said, reproachfully. “But I will thank you all the same.”
Katashi faced the monk with a sardonic frown on his face.
“If the Shogun wished to exterminate these demons,” Katashi remarked, “he should have sent an army, not three defenseless monks.”
“Bloodshed only feeds the demons,” the monk said. “You win only a temporary victory at best. This Tengu will return with the new moon, as will any you happen to slay this night. The portal to the realm of the Oni must be closed with an exorcism, otherwise neither the mountains nor the valley nor the villages will know peace.”
“When I kill someone,” Katashi said, “he remains dead.”
“A human, perhaps,” the monk said, “and perhaps not even then. Perhaps you have peopled this mountain yourself with the deaths you have sown upon previous battlefields. Perhaps you have a burden in all of these ill-begotten creatures and their insatiable bloodlust.”
It was Katashi’s turn to feel perturbation, yet it passed quickly. He had no time or patience for emotions that might disadvantage him on the battlefield. The monk continued up the mountain. Katashi followed.

It was a long hike, and the moon guided them. As the night progressed the howling of the mountain increased. It was a faraway whisper at first, but soon became as a wind just on the other side of the trees. The monk spoke suddenly.
“If you do not commit yourself to the Eightfold Path you will never reach Satori, but will continue in the cursed cycle of reincarnation.”
“It matters little to me,” Katashi said. “I do not care to be part of some divine realm. Does the tiger wish to be declawed and defanged? How happy could such a pathetic creature be?”
“If you persist in violence you may indeed become an Oni.”
Katashi shrugged. “I am worse than an Oni, little monk. Most men are. For we are shameful hypocrites. At least the Oni do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: blood-drinkers. They eat men without justifying it. They do not say, ‘I kill for my master,’ or ‘I wage war for the sake of peace.’ They kill and they enjoy it and they do not taint their tongues with falsehoods to ease their conscience.”
“And you enjoy killing?” the monk said.
“I enjoy surviving,” Katashi said. “And you must kill to survive.”
“It seems you enjoy little,” the monk said, “not living, and maybe not even surviving.” Katashi scoffed.
“And that is the hypocrisy of monks. They claim to live for peace and to avoid bloodshed, but all the while they must employ warriors to kill their foes on their behalf. Monks do not live more peacefully. They simply burden needful violence upon others, like a lord sending his peasants to the paddies to harvest and store the rice.”
The monk was thoughtful for a long moment, and then sighed. “You are not wrong,” he said. “The burdens of this world are often unloaded upon others. And we monks are as guilty.” He took a deep breath. “And, so, if you wish to leave my service, please leave. I will not burden you with the karma entailed in this task.”
“I am not in your service,” Katashi growled. “I am merely sharing the path for a time. I seek entertainment. Nothing else. Well, no, that is not true.” His hand went to the handle of his new sword. “This new blade pleases me. For that, I suppose I am grateful to you.”
“I would rather have died than led you to further bloodshed,” the monk said solemnly.
Katashi snorted. “How did such a one as you come to be a monk? Did the Buddha come to you in a dream?”
“How did you become a warrior?” the monk countered. “Did Hachiman put a sword in your hand and a blood-thirst in your belly?”
“I kill men,” Katashi said. “It is what I am good at, so I do it.”
“What of women and children?” the monk asked.
Katashi took the monk by the arm, halting them both. He looked at the monk directly, and in his gaze was a hardness that cut quick and sharp like a blade.
“If a youth dares to fight me, then he is a man in his own estimation, and I would not dishonor him by refusing his challenge. And I never harm women. Ever.” Katashi scowled. “You did not answer my question. How is it that you became a monk?”
The young monk said nothing. He put a finger to his lips, hushing any talk. In the howling wind of the mountains there was a strange sound of chattering—a creeping, crawling, chattering among the trees. Katashi peered at the shadow-swollen trees. Things uncoiled there; things with sharp claws and gnashing pincers and long segmented bodies.
Katashi drew his black blade as the long-bodied creatures came billowing through the darkness on their many legs. The nearest creature lunged for the monk, but the monk ensnared its pincer-snapping head with his prayer beads. With a quick prayer the beads glowed with white fire, radiating energy as the chattering centipede blazed and burned away to ash.
“Namu Amida Butsu,” the monk said.
The other two demons undulated toward Katashi like long ribbons, their movements interweaving with one another so as to confuse and dismay their intended prey. But Katashi’s senses were sharp, splitting the shadows with which the demons concealed themselves. One lunged, and then the other, and with two slashes Katashi had split the giant centipedes in two, their bisected bodies writhing wildly upon the ground. In two subsequent motions he plunged his blade into one head and then the other, swiftly silencing their chattering once and for all.
The monk and the ronin continued up the mountain path.
“You did not answer my question,” Katashi said. “How did you come to be a monk? Was it in search of respite from agonies? Or was it to seek agonies through self-denial?”
“Life is hard and full of agonies,” the monk said. “That is the purpose of Buddha. To offer respite and refuge from the sorrows of Life.”
“What do you know of sorrows?” Katashi demanded. “Monks live apart. They are chosen as children, raised in monasteries, provided protection by the same warriors whose means of life they shun.”
“I was not always a monk,” the young monk said. “I was, for the longest time, an orphan.”
“Born from a bamboo stalk?” the ronin mocked.
“My father was a fisherman,” the monk said. “My family lived in a small fishing village on the coast. I do not remember my parents and siblings very well. They were drowned in a tsunami. I was found afterward, clinging to a bundle of bamboo that floated in the aftermath. I was found by a kabuki group, of all things. They made jokes about it, saying I floated into the Floating World. From then on I grew up in the kabuki theater. I learned how to perform and how to play music on the shamisen. I became a very popular kagema. I performed in the dress of a woman, and even played Amaterasu, and dared to think I could shine as brightly as the sun. Men hungered for me, and paid for me. They used me as they would a woman, and wealthy women paid for me as well, and I made money for my kabuki group. But I hated it. My life was suffering.”
“And so your precious Buddha saved you? Or did he visit you in the night? I have heard that monks enjoy kabuki, too, and hold private audiences when the world is silent except for the chirping of lonely crickets. They enjoy kagema as well.”
The young monk ignored him.
“I shuddered at the touch of men and women both. I wanted to run away, but felt guilt and shame at the thought of selfish flight. The kabuki players had rescued me as a child. I felt that I owed them my life.”
Something in Katashi’s posture shifted. It was not so rigid, even if it was as flint-to-flame ready.
“Why did you leave?” Katashi asked, his voice neither soft nor harsh.
“I was violently abused by one man. When I attempted to tell the others they told me to keep silent about it. The man was very wealthy, and was a noble. Thereafter I cut my hair and fled to the monastery. The monks refused to take me at first, knowing who I was. You are correct, ronin; the kabuki actors are paid to visit monks— some monks, but not all—and I had been very popular among the Zen masters. They hated the shame of my presence on their holy grounds, but I persisted. I invoked the sayings of the Buddha, and the Sutras I had learned while in the kabuki theater. Still, they refused me.”
Katashi may have sighed, or hissed. Something in his bearing shifted. The monk continued.
“Then one night I met an old monk while wandering the woods. He told me to speak his name to the monks. His name was Eiji. I spoke his name the next morning and the monks were astonished. They asked me where I had heard his name. I explained that I had learned the name of the man from the man himself. They immediately accepted me. Eiji, they said, had been the great exorcist in the monastery. He was respected even by the Shinto priestess of a local village for his ability to exorcize malevolent entities.”
“And now you exorcize demons,” Katashi said. “Where is this Shinto priestess? Could she not aid you in your quest to cleanse these mountains?”
The monk inhaled and exhaled. “She was slain but a week ago by an assault of demons in her village. Many holy men and women have been slain lately while trying to protect their villages against the demons.”
Katashi thought about all of the many nights he had spent in the woods, a mere raven’s flight distance, from this mountain. No mischief befell him. No malevolent spirits had stalked and attacked him. Why?
“What hope have you in standing against the source, then?” Katashi asked the monk. “It seems as foolish as a fish trying to hold back the river.”
“It may be foolishness,” the monk said. “But I refuse to stand aside and let more people die from inaction. The Shogun is too concerned with destroying the warlords plotting against him to concern himself with demons. And so long as men wage war the demons shall invade and feast and prosper in our lands.” The monk paused, turning to look Katashi in the eye. “So…you now know this to be a doomed endeavor. Do you wish to continue shadowing me?”
Katashi did not hesitate. “I am bored of stealing from peasants and holy men. I wish for more excitement, and more blades against which to test my mettle. Folly invites much diversion.”
They continued up the mountainside. Summer’s blooming abundance cluttered all around them. The slivers of moonlight led them onward and upward. The night was warm and balmy, the mountain forests thick with foliage and mystery. Long abandoned huts reared here and there, the dilapidated structures sinking into their own bamboo bones and haunted by unnatural fires in their dark depths. A temple, too, sat behind a torii gate. Eyes peered from within its cobwebbed shadows. Whatever kami were worshiped there had long given the temple over to more malignant entities.
“A man’s soul is like a woodblock,” the monk said. “Each life we live, reincarnated, is a print from that woodblock.”
“Another lecture, is it?” Katashi remarked.
“The Buddha helps us cut away the details,” the monk said, “removing the jutting imperfections used to stain the page until all that remains is a flat, smooth expanse until a pure whiteness remains, the impurities of this world slipping off of us, untouched by the ink.”
“I am rather fond of woodblock prints,” Katashi said. “Especially those of Mt. Fuji. Why should we not enjoy what imprints our lives and makes us who we are? Why would anyone not stain the page with the beauty of this world?”
“Why are you a ronin?” the monk countered. Before Katashi could answer, the monk spoke again. “Because this world is transient and fleeting. It is fickle. One day you have a place with a master, and then next day you are adrift after a great calamity. Not even the peaceful trees are spared. The seasons are restless and wait for no man, however painful the cold Winter winds are on his old bones.”
“Even so,” Katashi said, “I love this world. It has beauty. It has strength. Perhaps I will never reach Satori, but what of it? I would rather stay earthbound with the changing of the seasons swirling around me than elevate to a realm of sheer consciousness. The world is a fickle mistress, but she remains beautiful, whether a maiden or mother or old crone.”
The monk was silent for a long time. He stared at the beads entwining his hand. At length, he spoke.
“And that pouch you clutch within your armor? What is the meaning of it?”
Katashi bristled. “There are secrets dear to a man, and he would rather die than reveal them to anyone. Even to your precious Buddha.”
The silence between them opened around them and they leaned into it as they ascended. It did not comfort them, but it did not provoke them either, covering the soreness between them like a scar. Distantly they heard the howling of the mountain’s summit.
They continued to ascend the high path up the mountain.

There was a waterfall somewhere. Its rushing music swelled as they neared it. The land beneath their feet leveled for a time, and the forests opened wide, falling away to let the moonlight play vastly in the mist. Neither the ronin or the monk spoke. They heard the strumming of a koto mingled in with the waterfall’s cascade. Approaching, they saw the heavy breath of the crystalline cataract aglow with moonlight, and, within that heavy breath, the large figure of someone sitting upon a rock in the pool.
“It is a demon,” the monk whispered. “It will not let us pass.”
“We shall see,” Katashi said. “Wait here.” He approached the waterfall.
Strangely, the nearer he came to the waterfall, the less he heard of it, and the more the beautifully sad music of the koto echoed in his ears. At length, the music continued, but the figure leapt from the rock. Still shrouded in mist and shadow, it walked slowly forward. It grew taller as it approached, cradling the large koto in its long arms and still somehow plucking at the strings to haunt the mountains with its melody. Such long, unfolding arms. Such long, unfolding fingers.
A figure emerged at last, tall and imposing, her kimono black and her long hair white. Her face was like a grotesque Noh mask, only it was not carved of wood to frighten children. The sad, fang-cluttered smile was her own as well, as were the horns upon her crown and the glowing red eyes. Even now her long, blood-stained claws plucked and struck at the strings of the koto. She was a kijo: a mountain ogress.
Somewhere behind him Katashi heard the monk muttering incantations. The ronin hushed him with a wave of his hand. He then walked toward the tall creature, listening to her song as if it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When they came face to face he did not flinch, nor did he unsheathe his sword. Instead, he unsheathed himself, casting his sword, armor and the robe beneath aside. He stood boldly naked in the phantom-spun moonlight. The only things he wore were his scars and the pouch whose string hung from his neck, its singular content being the scale of the moon carp.
The kijo stared at Katashi, her red eyes glowing with hunger. She ceased playing her song and set down the koto. The koto was as long as Katashi was tall. Its board was made of bones and its strings made of sinews and tendons. The ogress gazed at him for a long moment, eyeing him up and down, her grotesque face full of hunger, and sadness.
The ogress raised a taloned hand high above her horned head. Katashi awaited its fell plunge, but when it plunged even he was startled by its boldness. Her hand went to the fold of her black kimono and peeled it away from her tall, angular body. She stood before him as naked as he dared stand before her, her breasts pendulous and her womanhood glistening. He did not flee, but stood fast before her as her long, bony arms embraced him. He embraced her in turn, and she pressed her fetid mouth against his own, tasting of blood and death; a familiar kiss he had tasted many times on the battlefield; a taste that thrilled and repulsed him, enlivening him and sickening him with that katana blade sharpness of contrast. Her fangs cut his lips sweetly.
Katashi sucked at her breasts while she pressed herself atop him vigorously. She kissed him many times, and with each kiss he recalled a blade or arrow or spear that kissed his skin, leaving a scar. He no longer felt repulsed, nor even thrilled. This was familiar; this was his life written in the characters of kisses and scars and terrors, all tracing the imminence of death. Even her grotesque face did not repulse him, nor was it truly ugly after a time. His whole life had been ugly and bloody, soaking battlefield after battlefield; enough blood to drown a dragon. But when the Tanaka clan fell, he saw the fruits of his efforts wither and decay on the shorn vine.

The monk ventured further up the mountain path, moving slowly beneath the cover of the trees. A wide berth he gave to the two lovers. To him it seemed their lovemaking was both sacrilegious and beautiful—grotesque and sincere. He was reminded of the many nights he had pleased men and women after his troupe’s kabuki plays. He never enjoyed any of these encounters, save one. And the pleasure of that encounter scared him, even now.
There had been an older woman that had often attended his plays. He had seen her in the audience, distinguished by her gaze, for she was transfixed upon him, her eyes as bright and hot as two toro lanterns. She paid only once for him, and even then seemed shy and embarrassed as he disrobed before her. Yet, once she had begun to touch him her passion kindled and she was as lively and ferocious as any woman half her age. But there was a tenderness to her, also, and genuine love in her lovemaking. She sought to please him as much as to enjoy him, and he found that he was genuinely affected by her care. Afterwards, when the sakura blossoms had been shaken fully from her desires, she lay within his arms, her forehead against his chest. She sang a song—an old folk song—and sounded almost as a child. The lines beneath her dark eyes had smoothed and she looked fresh and young though she was old enough to be his mother.
Even now her song haunted him.

“Cherry blossoms take flight
like butterflies,
the stars of Obon night
like lovers’ eyes
awake in bed, though soon
to drift asleep
beneath the lantern moon
where dreams will keep
living on—ever on
after we part
at the coming of dawn
and the dimming of my heart.”

The monk came to the cresting crown of the mountain. A pagoda gleamed white in the moonlight, towering like a mountain unto itself. It was made of human bones. Perched atop its many eaves were Tengu, their black crow wings arched behind their backs. They cackled and cawed riotously. Down below, and standing on the pagoda’s various stories, were Yokai and Tengu. Worse of all, there were Oni. They were large, grim-faced ogres with sharp teeth and long claws. The monk knew that he had now come to the place of evil infection in the mountains and would need to exorcize the place of infection.
Looking about, he found a circle of oaks. There was a natural power here. He could sense it. It was powerful with benevolent kami. They would lend him their aid. He readied his incense burner, his kindling, his prayer beads, the Lotus Sutra, and his nerves. He began the purification ritual, chanting and rolling his prayer beads in amongst the incense smoke.
The monk went unnoticed for a time. Yet, he was soon spotted by a Tengu flitting about the skeletal pagoda. The Tengu squawked like a crow in alarm, pointing to the circle of oaks. Soon the Oni and other Yokai descended from the pagoda. They came in a languid tide at first, and then rushed on like a wave. The monk knew, then, that he had no time to complete the ritual. He knew he would soon die.
And then Katashi arrived, crashing into the beastly creatures like a divine wind. He drew his blade and slew a handful of the twisted creatures without ever clashing swords. He moved like water through a sieve, seemingly untouched by the horde. But the horde was numerous and boasted many formidable foes. His initial attack was effective, but the element of surprise was gone. The larger Oni gathered around him, even as the smaller Yokai attempted to slip past him only to be cut down. The Oni grinned and could have easily overpowered him, yet their pride did not allow it. One by one they faced him, and one by one he tested the black blade on their thick hide and horns and heads.
The moon reddened, like a basin of blood. All that was touched by its light was stained with a crimson glow. The mountains seemed drowned in blood. A strange castle could be seen in the night sky. It, too, was made of bones and sat in a lake of blood.
Katashi’s black blade dripped blood, and his ferocity was whetted by his bloodlust. He struck at the Oni and Tengu with such power that it forestalled them, even pressed them back. But Katashi could not truly defeat them, and soon suffered injuries. Slashes and lacerations bled him; the trenchant pains of war staggered him and belabored his breath. He felt so alive, though, and determined. He exulted in the battle.
But then the demons began to mock the ronin. They called to him by his name.
“I remember you, Katashi!” a two-headed Oni said. “You slew my brother and I upon the field! We did not expect to see you here!”
“Did I slay your courage as well as your bodies?” Katashi said. “Why did you never seek me when I was so close to you?”
“The Oni value your contributions to their armies!” the two-headed Oni said, grinning his canine fangs. “You have been a faithful servant of blood and carnage!”
As before, Katashi cut down the two brothers, though now he was more shaken than when he had dealt them their first deaths. For the first time in his life he paled and trembled. Another demon sprang forward: a one-eyed giant with a spear and gnashing fangs. Katashi tightened his hold on his sword, raising it upright beside his head. The blood oozed down the black blade. It was red like human blood; like the countless crimson ponds Katashi had spilled upon countless battlefields.
“Katashi!” the giant yelled in joy through his fangs. He laughed a deep, bellowing guffaw that shook the heavens. “So many warriors and generals!” The giant gestured to the expanse of demons. “And all because of you, Katashi! You have made the demon world strong! So strong! So numerous! So unstoppable!”
“I will cut you all down again!” Katashi vowed.
The giant laughed. “Cut me down and I will return! I return every night, Katashi! Every night since that night beneath the sakura tree! Remember? Remember me? The one whom they called the Spear-Tongued Giant? You challenged me for the honor of being Lord Tanaka’s personal guard! You slew me without mercy, though the duel was meant to be bloodless.”
“You drew blood first!” Katashi roared, slicing at the giant with his sword.
The giant deflected the strikes. “True! If only I drew enough to kill you! Then, perhaps, I would have been the one peopling the demon realm and be esteemed among the legion! But you won, running your sword through my eye and killing me!”
The giant laughed again, seemingly as joyful of his fate as if he had won the duel.
Katashi circled the giant. “I will run you through your other eye, fool!”
The giant swung his club and Katashi rolled beneath the knotted wood, rising to his feet with a slash of his sword splitting the giant’s eye. The giant roared, his bellowing voice staggering into lunatic laughter as he clutched his ruined eye.
“Katashi!!!” he laughed. “You have not changed!”
The giant swung his club blindly, his muscular arms whirling in a frenzy. Katashi retreated discreetly while the giant’s blind attacks struck the other Oni rushing past him to confront the intruders. Small and large Oni were flung away, broken and crushed by the giant’s club. The horde did not baulk, but laughed as if the carnage was the greatest merriment to be had. Eventually a Tengu swooped down and beheaded the giant with his blade, if only to cease his flailing, and the blinded giant’s head fell to the mist-glimmering grass, still laughing.
“I will be back, Katashi!” he vowed. “Upon the next moon I will eat your eyes and drink your blood and welcome you among your true brethren for all eternity!”
The Tengu that had slain the giant now flew toward Katashi. Katashi raised his crimson-cloyed blade with one hand. With the other hand he stealthily drew his tanto blade from its concealed sheath. As the Tengu swooped, Katashi threw his tanto, piercing the crow-demon’s chest. The creature collapsed to the ground, barreling over the smaller Yokai below in a tangle of limbs and feathers. Stepping through this cobbled road of mangled bodies was a horned Oni with red skin and a large scythe. He seemed in a good mood.
“What are you trying to be now, Katashi?” the Oni said. “A nio? Laughable! And where is your fellow guardian?” The Oni looked past Katashi, seeing the monk in the woods. “Ah! A monk? To think you would ally yourself with a monk! I will sully his soul with the filth of his own flesh!”
The Oni dashed toward the trees, his scythe raised for a bloody harvest. Katashi dashed after the Oni, slashing the demon’s leg. It was a feint, however, and the demon spun about, his scythe seeking Katashi’s neck. Katashi twisted sideways, throwing his left arm up against the crescent blade. The blade drank deeply and Katashi nearly fell. Instead, he rallied himself through the blinding pain with a flaming fury and swung his black blade with his one good arm, beheading the Oni at a single stroke.
The Oni’s body fell, and beside it Katashi sagged to one knee, clutching his sword. The wounded arm hung limply, bleeding from the shredded socket. He was pale and a clammy sweat drenched his forehead. His eyes blurred in and out of focus and he felt drowsy; so tired that he should sleep forever.
The horde of Oni gathered around. They did not rush. They pleased themselves by mocking the ronin and his . Their taunts roused Katashi. He glanced back at the monk, his figure wreathed in white fire as he continued his chants. In among the white fire he saw other figures: small and large, strangely shaped; some humanoid, others not nearly so. These figures clustered around the monk protectively, driving back the smaller Yokai that had slipped past Katashi. He realized, after a moment, that they were kami. Nature spirits. It was then, at this realization—when he knew that Nature itself was aspiring to protect the Buddhist monk—that Katashi could not surrender. If the land of Nihon would aid the monk, then Katashi felt that the monk was worthy of Katashi’s service, even if the Buddha wasn’t.
Grimacing, Katashi wobbled as he righted himself up to his feet.
“I will rest in my death,” he told himself. “But for now…I must test my blade.”
The exorcism continued in earnest, and the battle continued in desperation. The floating castle began to fade, as did the howling of the demonic winds. The crimson moon waned, bleeding out until it was pink, and then dull white. Katashi bled out, too, and paled as he weakened. Still did he swing his blade against the horde, even as he fell to his knees again and again. Blood flowed from one eye, and blood clouded the other eye. His whole being was fury and pain.
The Oni and Tengu realized what the whitening of the moon meant. They fled in fear, as if from the chittering of a hungry Shinchu. It was too late for them. The castle faded from the sky and the pagoda faded from the mountaintop. With the latter faded the cursed creatures that had inhabited its towering stories and eaves. Soon all that remained was the mountain, the moon, the monk, and a dying man. The young monk hurried to his side.
“I will perform the rites,” the monk said, kneeling beside Katashi. “You have served the Buddha well and should be rewarded.”
“I served…Nihon…” the ronin said. A burst of blood in his throat shook him. Dropping his sword, he withdrew the pouch beneath his shattered breastplate. Out of it he took the white koi scale and held it up to look at it with his remaining eye.
“Your secret,” the monk said, softly.
“Yes,” he said. “The joy of my life…a smiling face…reflected in the moon pond…” He coughed up more blood, his breathing labored. His face was white and his lips red, like a kabuki actor. “Her smile…she loved the koi…”
“She was your lover,” the monk said.
“And my master’s concubine,” Katashi said, his voice slowing. “She…loved the moon pond…the koi…she said…she was like the koi fish…gave me…gave me this porcelain scale from…her hairpin…”
“She cared for you very much,” the monk said.
“Yes…she would…play the koto for me…sometimes…before we made love…” His bloody brow furrowed with pain. “During the invasion…she killed the lord of the Tanaka clan…herself…and fled to the woods… I do not know…what happened to her…”
“I will pray that both of you are united in your next lives,” the monk said.
“I do not…wish for much,” Katashi said, grimacing as a laceration in his gut broke and bled freely. “Just…just a peaceful life…of isolation…silence…without violence… without…wrath…and with the…beauty of the seasons…all around…such as when…when I told her…she was my moon…”
Katashi’s final breath faded away. The monk prayed over the ronin, repeating the Lotus Sutra to bless his passing. When morning came, so, too, did the sun, and the mountain was bathed in purifying light. The Oni and Yokai were gone. The kami rejoiced in their silent, subtle way. The monk purified Katashi and buried him, marking his grave with a stone. He then descended the mountain path.
Where the monk passed he met with no demon or ghost. The mountain had been completely cleansed. When he came to the waterfall and its pool he did not see the kijo anymore. Rather, the place was serene and uninhabited. He glanced at it for a moment, then turned to leave. The gleam of white motion caught his eye and he turned to look at the pool again. Floating in the pool, serene and content, were two pale white kois. They gleamed with a porcelain luster as they floated up. They were so white that the carved edges of their scales were invisible in the sheen along their flanks.
A leaf fell from a maple tree—burning orange like a phoenix’s feather. The monk bowed and then left the kois to their reward.

Horror Writer

A monarch of nightmares,
a scribe of grotesque tales,
searching through limbic lairs
and various pits and hells
to find the dreamscapes deep
in the strange hearts of men,
like one who cannot sleep
except with eyes open,
mapping the world’s shadows
with a typewriter’s keys
to illuminate those
fears, those territories
of the soul and the mind
which, in ancient times past,
spurred men to glance behind,
not knowing if, at last,
that lurker had now sprung
to pounce atop its prey
and lick with a cold tongue
the spine, without allay,
to shiver the great ape,
to remind him of his fate,
of death without escape
and the hour…growing late.

Curves, Curses, and Cloved Hooves

Dwayne Padgett had loathed his wife of six years,

thinking the woman of less worth than all

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

her voice unwelcome as a raven’s call,

and out of his wife Dwayne took not one joy

as she was too lean and plain in his view,

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

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

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

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

silent and abiding, she was, with sense

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

Sure enough she needed it, crowned often

with fists to the head like knots on an oak,

and so many times it seemed to soften

her tone and tongue whensoever she spoke.

Maud spoke little, but worked hard on the farm,

sunup to sundown, never relenting—

growing leaner, rougher of hand and arm

which she employed in prayer, repenting.

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

his disgust brimming over each nightfall

and he thrashed her worse than all else his own

sleeping placidly in each hay-stuffed stall.

The Appalachian hills and flooding vales

had no fertile soil to bear much harvest,

withered were the vines, and wispy the bales,

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

of Maud herself, drooping dry at the teat,

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

so that each year’s crop seemed only replete

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

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

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

Maud held her tongue, and only cringed in pain

as her husband spat each bilious word,

for her manner was meek, silent, and mild,

brow-beaten now for six years of marriage;

more whipped than a horse many times as wild

and would be thus unto her death carriage.

Dwayne thought of other women, like Rose Hall,

the pretty wife of a wealthy neighbor

who attended the local church, St. Paul,

and whose bust made many men’s breath labored.

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

heedless of whether his wife heard or not.

“And I’d love to see that body in bed

with those curves all pink and flustered and hot.”

Dwayne shuddered with excitement at the swells

of her breasts and hips neath her modest dress.

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

he said, hands moving as if to caress

the figure of the woman he desired

until Mrs Hall and her husband left,

Dwayne watching them leave, his eyes and thoughts mired

in curves and heft and her undisclosed cleft.

He contrasted Rose Hall with his wife, Maud,

reproaching the latter her narrow build,

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

of your slight bones, and, if Heaven so willed

that you be struck dead, by flu or folly,

I’d appraise it a loss less than spoilt souse

and would dump you in the troth, by golly!

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

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

slamming the table so the plates clattered.

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

Afraid I’d hit harder if you chattered?”

Timidly, Maud parted her trembling lips

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

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

What good are you barren women to men?”

Maud wept, then, but also managed to speak,

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

to love you.”  Her trembling voice became weak

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

Dwayne’s jaw was as stiffened as wet leather,

and he spoke as if the leather might tear.

“I hate you because we are together,

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

Wish I’d never married you for this land

because you’re a dogchain keeping me down.

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

the look of you and your dowdy old frown.”

That night, as with many nights before it,

Maud went to bed weeping while Dwayne stayed up,

sitting on the front porch, cigarette lit,

and drinking bitter beer dregs from his cup.

But unlike other nights, Dwayne felt cinder

in his heart, a hateful spark in his life

and—feeding that fire with ready tinder—

he aspired to kill his woebegone wife.

And so Dwayne ventured at the witching hour

into the bedroom, where Maud was asleep,

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

prepared a soul for the Reaper to reap.

Yet, Maud never could sleep a restive night

and was still awake as he approached her;

she saw the shovel, his cigarette light,

and surmised his purpose ere he poached her.

She shoved him aside with surprising strength

and fled the house swiftly, through the black elms

of the forest that fringed the farm, at length

coming to a ring of mushrooms, like helms.

No refuge found she, crouching on her knees

and watching for the light of Dwayne’s lantern

as it neared, flinging shadows from the trees,

the wan glow flashing and swaying in turn.

Crouching, Maud hurried away from the light,

and flung herself deeper into the sticks,

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

bleeding from her wounds, and pimpled with ticks

till she tripped over roots and tumbled down.

Down and down a hill she rolled, like a bird

hitting a windshield and twirling around,

coming to rest, at last, without a word,

breathless for a long moment on the ground.

Over yonder she saw the light, faded

by both distance and darkness, far afield,

then she rose, slowly, weeping, then waded

through the underbrush where the shadows spilled.

To a clearing she came, far down below

the Appalachian knobs, and the full moon,

limping, sobbing, not knowing where to go,

but knowing she needed to leave, and soon.

And then she was not alone—there stood Dwayne

dim in the moonlight, hunting rifle raised,

taking aim with the same eye whose disdain

found her figure wanting when it appraised.

A single gunshot rang out through the vale

between the hills and woods of God’s country—

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

the feelings of one whose woes were sundry.

She fell with as little sound or complaint

as she lived, and Dwayne buried her swiftly,

not offering prayer to Christ or saint

on her behalf, nor headstone, but thriftily

saw the evil done, and soon forgotten

after returning uphill to the farm,

wanting more drink to celebrate his life,

imagining Rose with him, arm in arm

and loin to loin as his consummate wife.

For three days heavy rains poured thereafter

and Dwayne drank himself silly as a clown

in a rodeo, giddy with laughter

as his bull-bashed barrel spins round and round.

Come the fourth day the rains ceased their weeping,

though the skies remained a grim gravestone gray

and mists rose from the hills like ghosts creeping

through air chill and clammy, all night and day.

Hangover to hangover, drinking more

to chase the hair of the dog with moonshine

till he had no alcohol left to pour

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

Dwayne was desperate for church, and so went,

not seeking salvation in Sunday’s Mass;

nor seeking his Christ so as to repent,

but Rose Hall and her figure to harass.

A shameful incident followed, of course,

and Dwayne was expelled with a bloody nose,

his brains sloshing in his skull, his remorse

only being pride at the trade of blows.

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

and, having no drink for consolation,

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

pitied himself and his lonely station.

All day moping, Dwayne drifted house to barn,

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

till night fell and, head feeling stuffed with yarn,

he sat down on the porch and fell asleep.

Dwayne woke to strange laughter later that night

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

Bleary-eyed, he stood and followed that light,

a sleepwalker through dreamy reveries.

He felt as if floating as he followed

the milky radiance of the forest

and he never thought to question what glowed;

no more than a baby its mother’s breast.

There, in the bosom of those bristly hills,

he found a woman dancing in a ring

of fat mushrooms with white caps and brown frills,

dancing and laughing, singing and squealing.

“By the love of a man whose love is flesh

and by the soul of a man steeped in skin,

make love as a pagan to his fetish

to manifest the sweet children of sin.”

What she sang, Dwayne did not care while entranced

thinking of nought except her swells and squeals

as she danced and jiggled, her curves enhanced

with her fruitful heft as she kicked her heels.

Her wide hips rocked to a fairy’s music,

her breasts bouncing and swinging in rhythm,

and Dwayne salivated at the dew, thick

on her teats, lactating from within them.

His brain’s marbles were as pearls before swine

as he gazed upon that buxom stranger

and heard her squealing laughter, so fine

that he felt no sense of fear or danger.

She had color to her skin: pink and peach,

not brown or leathery, such as had Maud,

and curves aplenty, formed as if to teach

Man the way to lust, as a dowsing rod.

She danced away from him, graceful and coy,

as though to stir his lust to a frothy boil,

and he followed, stumbling like a lost boy,

keeping apace, however slick the soil.

At last she surrendered, lounging anon

in a bed made of Autumn’s soft bounty,

and Dwayne fell on her, rutting thereupon

in a clamor heard county to county.

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

Dwayne rutting and moaning as if to bust

and she squealing and squirming without cease

beneath Dwayne’s amorous, clamorous lust.

There were folds of pink flesh overflowing

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

than he could fondle, the hot flesh growing,

her body like teeming tides on his shore—

never ebbing, nor ever abating

as she rallied in ardor and measure

that were as unrestrained as beasts mating,

but twisted by a man’s pain and pleasure.

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

waking alone and shivering, stretched on

the matted, wallowing leaf floor, no clue

of his new lover and where she had gone.

Chilled to his bones, Dwayne stumbled along

and headed home as if a long-lost lord,

yet still listening for the squealing song

of the woman with the curves of a gourd.

Coming home, Dwayne found his cattle scattered

and his sheep huddling together in fear,

their eyes wide to the whites, their fleece splattered

with the blood of the dead sheep, laying near.

The dead sheep were gored, eaten, disemboweled,

their entrails strewn in messy disarray;

seeing the dead, Dwayne stomped and raged and howled

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

The barn had been smashed as if by a storm

and was strewn in splintered piles, near a ton.

Dwayne inspected the blood, and found it warm,

so he put on some clothes and fetched his gun,

following the blood trail into the wild,

rage as a crimson mist clouding his gaze,

and the white mists not yet dispersed, nor mild

as his warpath wended through the dawn’s haze.

A familiar route, it was, and yet

he did not realize till it was too late,

coming to a grave he hoped to forget,

ringed round with mushrooms in a figure eight.

A monstrous sow nosed about the fresh grave,

her beady brown eyes looking up at him—

the pig sniffed, snorted and with a smile gave

a squealing laugh that shook Dwayne, limb to limb.

Taken aback by its size, and the blood

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

trying not to look at the charnel mud

and raised his rifle.  His shaky voice rasped,

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

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

Dwayne aimed his rifle, his heart now thrilling

in thoughts of the pork he could eat and sell.

But before Dwayne could even fire his gun,

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

and danced and squealed and leapt into a run

across the vale, as fast as she could go.

By and by, Dwayne overcame his dismay,

but the sow had vanished into the hills,

and so Dwayne walked home, all along his way

mumbling to himself and trembling with chills.

That night Dwayne dreamt of the sow in the vale

and his lover who sang in the forest,

and he saw them in turns, swell unto swell,

and rutted atop them both—both abreast.

Each morning Dwayne would wake in a cold sweat,

knowing he had lain with them once again,

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

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

Meanwhile the wild hog ate all of his sheep,

one by one till none remained in the pens

and Dwayne feared waking someday from his sleep

to find her eating him up, feet to shins;

nor did she stop with sheep, but ate each beast

belonging to Dwayne’s farm, nor the pigs,

nor the cattle, one by one, a fine feast

as the giant sow crunched their bones like twigs.

Always at night she struck, while Dwayne lay

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

not waking till the coming of the day,

with a shrill scream, sweat christening his face

as if baptized in such fetid waters

as would roll slow in a putrid river

swarming with Lilith’s vile, temptress daughters—

dazed, Dwayne rose and stumbled, all aquiver

with disgust at himself, and the creature

that caused such hell-loosed chaos in his life,

vowing each morning to be the teacher

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

But for all his cursing and swearing such,

Dwayne never could glimpse that large porcine head,

nor could he wake from the amorous touch

of his lover in his widower’s bed.

All that remained was the late morning mess

both in the barnyard and in his britches,

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

thinking it the work of hell-bound witches.

Despairing of earthly means, Dwayne applied

to the priest, pleading that he must invoke

the angels of Heaven to take his side,

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

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

Dwayne tried to beg, but the priest grimly said,

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

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

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

“And pay sevenfold for wickedness done.

Whatever this beast eats has been meted

by God himself, the Father and the Son.”

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

You gotta’ come and expel that demon!”

But Dwayne was, himself, expelled, and swiftly

after confessing guilt of his semen.

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

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

Dwayne cursed the Catholic priest, and his Lord,

and hastened home, hankering for a beer.

No beer.  No whiskey.  No moonshine or gin.

No friends.  No allies.  No solace.  Nor god

to save him from his choices, from his sin,

nor drink to carry him away to Nod.

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

kicking over the dresser where Maud’s gowns

hung thin, tenuous, once white, now yellowed

by dust and tears and years and silent frowns.

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

was to see Maud dead in her shallow grave,

her nightgown bloody, her bones thin, her gaze

vacant and dark as a Stygian cave.

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

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

He tore her dresses apart, cloth from stitch,

including the dress worn when they married.

This latter dress he tore with great relish,

like a sharp-clawed cat on a pillow pile,

although, at length, even this seemed hellish

to do after he went on for a while.

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

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

He fetched his rifle and, as his rage flared,

he stomped out toward Maud’s grave without stall.

Through veils of mist that curtained wayward woods

like the funeral shrouds of those bereft

and misty-eyed beneath their tattered hoods,

phantoms watched from beyond the weave and weft.

If Dwayne sensed them while in his reckless ire,

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

his mind wild with violence and the fire

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

Dwayne was not quiet as he stomped about,

and the porcine beast knew of his approach,

the bulky behemoth barreling out,

large and fast as a thunderous stagecoach.

Dwayne fired his rifle with a frantic aim

and caught a long tusk along his torso;

man and beast tumbled together, each maimed;

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

Yet, the sow rose first, and then limped away

as her bristly neck bled from a deep hole;

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

but hobbled on, enraged, his entire soul

fixated as upon cross-hairs, his eye

rolling upon the blood the boar had bled,

which, beholding, did also testify

that the devilry could—would— soon be dead.

Through his ragged breaths, he laughed and rejoiced,

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

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

and limped forth to see this curse to its close.

Down the hills and through the woods he wended,

coming at length to the field where Maud lay

and where the sow lay, belly distended

with the animals she had made her prey.

The beast snorted softly, vastly content,

sleeping as her wounded ribs rose and fell;

Dwayne did not wait, but raised his gun and spent

a bullet from its smoking, hollow shell.

Yet, after the smoke had lifted Dwayne saw

a sight that chilled him to his deep marrow,

a sight against Nature’s most basic Law—

blasphemous offspring; a man-faced farrow

suckling at their mother’s milk-swollen teats,

undisturbed by the stark, sudden stillness

of their mother, or the loud heartbeats

of Dwayne Padgett in the throes of illness.

The sow now dead, and the piglets blind,

Dwayne staggered away, thinking himself free

from his sins and his past, all left behind

in the gore of that flesh-borne heresy.

He limped on a while, bleeding from his gut

where the sow had kissed him with vengeful tusk,

but soon he wearied, weakened by the cut

and crumbled down like a lax scarecrow’s husk.

He slept for a time, then woke to the sound

of babies cooing and giggling at rest,

seeing the piglets gathered all around,

nestling his wound for succor, as a breast.

Too weak to scream, Dwayne moaned a short prayer

for mercy from the beasts at his bowels,

but no mercy came, and long was it ere

the snouts stopped digging like trenchant trowels.

At last fed to surfeit, they wandered off

to grow and breed among those bristly hills,

and though some Appalachians may yet scoff

at the strange notion, others know the chills

of a breaking branch or the odd footfall

while walking Kentucky’s wilderness trails—

to hear the squeal, or laugh, or caterwaul

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

Vacation

Scott saw the lake from the highway,

sprawling at a lower elevation beyond the

guard rails and the trees that rose between.

Its green surface was still, untroubled,

silent,

undisturbed by the windless afternoon

while Scott drove by, going home from the

buzzing, banging, screeching noises of the

Amazon warehouse; the rush as he dashed

from one row to another, scrambling to pick

and pluck and rummage another profligate

item, Made In China, that was as needful

to the average consumer

as a scarf in summertime,

trying to meet the quota demanded of him,

minute by minute,

hour by hour,

day by day

unto endless days.

Going home to an empty apartment

after a twelve-hour shift

was like

dumping himself into a box

in accordance to his bin number

and mailing himself out the next morning

once again

to the same Amazon warehouse

to pick and pluck and drop all over again.

He wanted a vacation.

A real vacation.

He wanted to go to that lake —

not to fish

or to camp

or to swim,

but to plunge his car

headlong into the depths of it and let

that placid stillness envelop him

as he sank to the bottom,

apart from the hectic human world,

uncaring,

detached,

lungs filling up

while his life emptied out,

and the tranquil bosom of the lake

sealing up, like a wound —

reconciling him within its serene silence.

The real horror of his

life

was that it went on and on and on.

Closer

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

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

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

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

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

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

       ***

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

 “Snow day?” Alex asked.

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

 “A sink hole?” Alex said in alarm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      ***

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

 It looked afraid.