Husk

Content Warning:  Mature readers only.

Scout stood in front of the cornfield, her red Summer dress bright as a cardinal against the blue-green shadows of the corn. The moon hung in the midday sky, impassive as the pale eye of a corpse. The wind rustled the corn leaves into Wake-whispers, reminding her of the funeral home, and her frayed, knotted hair streamed across her face like the yellow yarn of a ragdoll. She stared down, at nothing, while her friends tried to coax her into looking up for the photo— not smiling, but at least looking into Cynthia’s black-eyed camera so it could obliterate her and recreate her with its pretentious photons.
“Come on, Scout,” Emily said. “Let’s see those pretty blue eyes.”
Scout did not remember buying the red dress, or even putting it on. Emily and Cynthia must have Barbie-dolled her up in it at the last motel room they stayed in. They treated her like a mannequin to be assembled and posed for their cross-country trip pictures. At times it was like they were trying to alleviate their own sadness rather than hers. But grief had her cocooned in its web, and had liquefied her inside until she could feel nothing at all— not even sadness. She hadn’t been eating or taking care of herself, and looked like a haggard, frayed doll left out in the rain. Had a tornado twirled toward her and lifted her up, she would have accepted it with the indifferent resignation of the dead.
“Next stop, more cornfields!” Cynthia joked in her deadpan way.
“So boring out here,” Emily sighed in exasperation.
“What do you expect in Kansas?” Cynthia said.
“Tornadoes, maybe. Scarecrows.” She glanced around. “Like that one!”
Emily pointed toward the corn on the other side of the highway, her jangling bracelets gleaming in the overhead sun. She had dark caramel skin and curly black hair. By and large, she was considered the prettiest of the sorority trio, and could get by wearing any type of dress in any color with any accessories she wanted.
“That is a weird scarecrow,” Cynthia remarked, grimacing. “Girl needs a makeover.”
“So does Scout,” Emily muttered. She went to Scout and put an arm around her shoulders, walking her to the other side of the road. The highway was not very busy right now.
“One more picture for the road,” Emily said.
The scarecrow was behind them as Emily and Scout looked into Cynthia’s camera. The scarecrow was a vague bundle of straw with a straw hat and a chequered dress, crucified on two wooden poles; indifferent to its own pain.
“Say ‘Cheese’,” Cynthia said.
“Heck no,” Emily said. “I’m on a diet.”
She smiled nonetheless, whereas Scout’s face remained vaguely devoid of feeling. After the photo had been snapped, they returned to Cynthia’s bright pink Prius. Piling in, they drove deeper into corn country.

***

“I love your car,” Emily said, sitting in the backseat with her sandals off and her barefeet out the window. The wind tickled her toes and she was grinning like the Queen of Sheba. “It’s just so…pink.”
“I told my dad I only wanted a pink car,” Cynthia said, barely paying attention to the road as she drove. “It had to be new and it had to be pink. People love it when I take it to weddings. I still think it is one of the reasons I get so many wedding jobs. Well, that and because I take the best photographs for wedding albums.”
The wind billowing in through the open window deafened Scout, but not enough. She rode shotgun in the passenger side seat.
“You do,” Emily agreed. “The best. When I get married— if I ever do— then I am going to hire you.”
“You don’t have to pay me,” Cynthia said. “I’ll do it for free.”
“I was going to have dad pay for it,” Emily said.
“Oh,” Cynthia said. “Then I will have to charge double.”
They both laughed, and looked to Scout expectantly. She did not laugh. Their laughter subsided.
“I guess we shouldn’t talk about that stuff,” Cynthia said. Her dark brown hair grazed the low ceiling of the Prius. She was the tall sorority sister, and was unusually tall even by that standard. “It’s not…appropriate.”
“Yeah, but, Scout, Tyler really was a shit stain,” Emily said recklessly. “I swear, he came onto me once at Brian Lauder’s party last year. Whenever he drank, he just became a different person.”
“Or showed who he really was,” Cynthia said. She sounded a little jealous. Not one of her sorority sisters’ boyfriends ever flirted with her inappropriately. They were too intimidated by her height, and too turned-off by her plain-Jane face.
“I need to pee,” Emily said.
“All right,” Cynthia said.
The pink Prius came to a stop at the side of the highway. Emily hopped out of the car, after putting her sandals on, and then waded into the cornfield. While she squatted, Cynthia stared out at one side of the cornfield. Scout stared at nothing.
“Is that the same one?” Cynthia said.
Scout looked toward the cornfield on the other side of the road. A scarecrow was crucified here, too, with a straw hat, chequered dress, and vaguely humanoid straw body.
“Maybe just the same Wal-Mart special,” Cynthia concluded, doubtfully. She rowed her window up and turned on the A/C. When Emily returned, she told her to do the same.
“But I like the wind between my toes,” Emily said.
Cynthia never argued with Emily— she envied her too much— and so she relented and rowed her window down, turning the A/C off, and taking the Prius on the road again.
They drove for many more miles through corn country.

***

“Tyler really was an asshole, Scout,” Emily said, her window now up because she had tired of the wind being between her toes. The A/C was on in the Prius, and the radio was down low, Katy Perry’s voice a wavering whisper beneath the acrid conversation. “A total asshole. Michael told me that Tyler called his dick the ‘Patriarchy’ because he said he had fucked over so many women with it. I shit you not.”
Cynthia involuntarily laughed. She coughed self-consciously, falling to silence.
“He was an asshole,” Emily said, twirling a curl of black hair around her finger. “He wasn’t a frat boy. He was a scat boy.”
Scarcely heard above the A/C, a rustling-grass sigh left Scout’s lips.
“Anyway,” Emily said lightly, “it’s no big deal. I mean, we’re on a road trip! No boys! No parents! No school! Just us!”
Cynthia grinned and nodded exuberantly. Scout remained silent in the passenger seat, staring at— and feeling— nothing.
The sudden blaring of a horn ripped through the quiet cab of the Prius, as did the roar of an engine and the rowdy shouts of voices. Speeding alongside the Prius, a large four-door truck kept apace with the smaller car. The truck’s windows were down and some local farm boys were hanging out the windows like Jack-in-the-boxes, grinning and shouting and gesturing like mad.
“Hey baby, baby, baby!” they shouted.
Emily bounded for the other side of Prius— not wearing a seatbelt— and rowed the window down.
“Hey darlin’!” she crooned in a put-on Southern drawl. “You boys are givin’ me the vapors!”
“We’ll give you more than that!” the passenger-side man said. He wore a Dale Earnhardt hat and a red-and-black flannel shirt. His arms were brawny and tanned— almost as dark as Emily’s legs—and his cheeks pitted with dimples and dotted with stubble.
“Sorry,” Emily said with a feigned pouty face. “Girls’ club only.”
“You sure, baby?” the man said. “I got a big present for you.”
The other young men in the truck hooted and hollered.
“If I want something like yours,” Emily said, “I’ll just jump a baby carrot.”
Emily laughed. She was the only one in the Prius that did. Cynthia looked very worried, eyeing the men as if they might swerve her off the road. Scout merely stared at nothing, the emptiness enveloping all things that her slow eyes crawled over.
“Bitch,” the man said lightly. “Let me tell you something…”
A vehicle was coming in the opposite lane. The young men withdrew into the cab of the truck and the driver slammed the gas. The truck’s engine roared, spewing black diesel fumes behind it as it pulled ahead of the Prius and moved over, in the nick of time, to avoid a head-on collision with an old station wagon. The station wagon’s horn went wild with fury, like a rabid gander with a hunting dog sniffing near its nest. The truck blew another dragon-plume of fumes as it accelerated down the highway, leaving the Prius behind in its black fury.
Emily tittered. “Silly redneck boys,” she said.
“You get off on that, don’t you?” Cynthia said, accusingly. She had slowed the car down to half the speed limit, letting the truck disappear into the distance.
“Blueballing little boys?” Emily said. “Yeah. It feels great.” She stretched her arms over her head, smiling broadly and relaxing in the backseat, laying down. She still had not put on a seatbelt. “Somebody’s got to cut them down to size.”
Cynthia sighed as if exhausted, shaking her head slowly. Scout watched the sun glare through her window, indifferent as it burned her unblinking eyes.

***
“Oh!” Cynthia said, slowing. “An old barn! I love old barns! They look wonderful in black and white!”
Cynthia slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road, backing up against traffic until she had returned to the barn they had passed by a few hundred feet. Hurriedly, she took her camera out and went toward the barn. It was an old broken gable type of barn, its two sides slanted at a bell curve outward, as if both wings were sinking into itself, the conceit of wood soon to collapse. It sat out in a field of green-and-yellow grass, a sudden break between fields of corn. Two large silos stood near it, their silver sides gleaming in the sunlight. They were obviously much newer than the barn itself.
“I need to get an angle so those metal things aren’t in the picture,” Cynthia said, ignorantly. She walked across the property, her back to the corn stalks. The camera clicked every few feet she walked.
“Boooooring!” Emily moaned melodramatically. She then yawned and fanned her breasts with her tanktop, flapping it against her bra.
Scout said nothing. She stared at the scarecrow in the field. It had a straw hat and a chequered dress. She then looked at the barn, seeing the ruinous sides and the moaning mouth. She felt something of kinship in its dilapidation. The difference was that there were cedars growing in the dead depths of the barn, whereas Scout had nothing lifelike growing inside her. There was only decay. There were only vacant shadows.

***

“Missy totally fucked Michael,” Cynthia said, offhandedly.
“No, Michael fucked Missy,” Emily said, an impish smile on her face. The wind through the window fluttered her black hair against her face, and she rolled her head to uncover her smile from the curls. “I heard he likes going in the backdoor.”
“That sounds painful,” Cynthia said, grimacing.
“Only if you don’t prepare for it the right way,” Emily said.
Cynthia gawked in disbelief.
“And if the dick isn’t too big,” Emily added for good measure.
“You mean like Tiny-Dick Teddy?”
Both girls laughed.
“Not that small,” Emily said. “You can do bigger, if you prepare first. Lots of lube, otherwise it will hurt. Sure. But Teddy probably couldn’t please a midget. I mean, it is so small. Or that’s what I’ve heard, anyway,” she added quickly.
“He’s got a nice body, though,” Cynthia said.
“Oh hell yeah he does. Ripped. And such a nice guy, too. Could be the full package if he had…you know…a fuller package.”
“What’s the biggest you’ve ever had?” Cynthia said. “Be honest.”
Emily’s crescent smirk was that of a girl who had been knowingly naughty. “Ten,” she said.
“Ten?!” Cynthia said, drifting into the other lane. No one was coming.
“But I couldn’t fit it all in,” Emily rushed to explain. “I mean, I am not that big of a hole.”
“And you know for certain it was ten?” Cynthia said, skeptically.
“Oh yeah,” Emily said. “The guy was a big dick and had a big dick so of course he had to prove it to me. He even brought a ruler with him to prove it.”
Both girls laughed loudly until a semi blew its horn and Cynthia had to jerk the Prius away from the opposite lane. After a breathless moment, she spoke.
“So how good was it?” she asked.
Emily shrugged. “Kinda painful, actually,” she said. “Like I said, he was a big dick with a big dick, so he didn’t really care so much about how I felt during sex.”
“Okay,” said Cynthia. “Then who was the best you ever had?”
Emily rubbed her chin pensively between her glitter-lacquered fingers. “Hmmm. Some are good in different ways. I guess if I could have it right now, and choose who, then it would probably be Greg. He was sweet in the sheets, and very concerned about making me happy. Plus, he had a pretty good size on him. Above average, but not too big above average.”
“How big is that?” Cynthia said. “And what is average anyway?”
“Average is just average,” Emily said. “But he was about eight. Not too small. Not too large. Above average. And he knew how to use it.”
“Oh,” Cynthia said. She looked enviously at her friend through the rearview mirror. “And what happened to Greg?”
Emily tossed her head left and right, biting her lip. “I kind of slept around on him,” she said. “Didn’t realize what I missed until he was gone.” She shrugged, then perked up. “But did you hear that Christy’s gone to Paris for the Summer? She’s already eaten a Frenchman’s croissant, if you know what I mean.” She shrieked with laughter.
“How was it?” Cynthia said with mild interest.
“Uncircumcized.”
“Ewww.”
“She’s pretty sure he was badmouthing her the entire time. But her French is shit, so he could have been saying anything.”
“What’s the French word for ‘ginger’?”
“Hell if I know,” she said. “I took Sign for my foreign language credits. It’s funner. Like Jazz hands.”
“Show me some,” Cynthia said.
Emily flipped her the middle finger.
“Har, har, har. Very funny.”
Emily shrugged a single shoulder. “It’s a promise,” she said meaningfully.
Scout remained silent in the front seat. Their conversation had drifted over her from a distance, faint and mostly indistinct. She remembered Tyler and their time in bed together. He had filled her up, but not just sexually. He made her feel whole. He made her laugh. When Emily told her she spotted him with a mutual friend, part of Scout had died. It had dried up to nothing and fell away, like rotten leaves. A vacancy remained; a hollowness immeasurable.

***

“Anorexia is not a good look for you,” Emily said, her mouth full of chicken nuggets.
“She’s right, Scout,” Cynthia said between bites of a fish sandwich. “You’ll be nothing but skin and bones if you don’t eat anything.”
Scout sat with her sorority sisters at the table in the McDougall’s restaurant, a carton of nuggets in front of her, untouched. She did not feel like eating anything, especially here. She and Tyler always went for lunch at McDougall’s when they had time for it. Now it just smelled like the leftover grease from yesterday.
“Come on,” Emily said, picking up one of Scout’s chicken nuggets. She held it up like she was feeding a toddler. “Here comes the airplane!”
The nugget zoomed around in Emily’s glitter-lacquered fingers, swooping in for Scout’s mouth. The latter did not open her mouth to receive it. It left a little oil on her lips which burned. She did not feel it.
Exasperated, Emily ate the nugget herself. “Hope you’re happy, Scout. Now I’m going to put on weight.”
Cynthia just shook her head and sucked soda through a straw. Scout did not even drink from her soda. Her lips were chapped and dry and cracking. The skin on her face was loose with dehydration, starting to become rough and wrinkle like a burlap sac.

***

P!nk was blasting on the radio as the sun settled into the corn like a bird into its nest. They had driven the last thirty miles without saying much, letting the music on the radio fill the silent spaces between them.
The corn fell away, revealing a small cluster of houses and fast food restaurants, all hemmed in by the fields. They came to a Pilot station and pulled in for gas. Shadows stretched long from the fields only to be obliterated by the bright lights of the lampposts and pumps. Cynthia got out and paid for gas with her credit card, then began pumping. Emily got out to stretch and to go inside to use the restroom. She dragged Scout along with her.
“Yuck,” Emily said upon entering a stall.
While Emily struggled to squat over the toilet seat, Scout stared at herself in the grimy mirror. She was hollow-eyed beneath the tumult of her blonde hair. Her red dress glowed luridly in the fluorescent lights, looking too real to be a thing hung on the tenuous unreality of her body. She felt as a phantom, and expected a wind to blow her away, the red dress slumping to the scuff-marked floor.
The toilet flushed and Emily stepped out of the stall, looking peeved.
“Goddamnit,” she said. “Don’t any of these mother fuckers know about bleach?”
She washed her hands, then took scout by the arm and left out into the lobby. Emily bought a Diet Coke for herself and a Mello Yello for Scout.
“You look like you could use some sugar,” Emily said. “And caffeine.”
Scout took the cold can that was handed to her, but did not open it. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew she was dehydrated and needed to drink, but the predominant voice overruled all others with its proclamation of earthly futility.
They exited the Pilot’s lobby and returned to the Prius. Cynthia had finished pumping gas and was standing around, waiting for them.
“What’d you get me?” she asked.
Emily cringed. “Sorry, I thought you didn’t want anything.”
Cynthia exhaled in aggravation and rolled her eyes. “Guess I’ll get it myself,” she said, walking off in a huff toward the Pilot.
While Cynthia was gone, Emily and Scout waited outside, spotlights carving the parking lot sharply out of the dimming dusk. Emily leaned against the car as if she was posing for a magazine photo, drinking from her Diet Coke with slow rotation of her head. She did not go unnoticed.
“Hey, it’s that prissy bitch!” a voice exclaimed.
The growl of an oversized truck came closer, roaring as it stopped in front of them. The young men put their windows down.
“Oh gawd,” Emily said in disgust. “I thought you boys were busy fucking pigs.”
“Oh ho, ho!” the man in the Dale Earnhardt hat said. “Girl, you have no idea what you are missing.”
“Bet she’s a dyke,” his friend said from the driver’s side. “All of ‘em are, I’ll bet.”
“Bunch of carpet-munchers!” laughed one of the passengers in the back-cab.
“Better than trying to get off on your tiny dicks,” Emily said, taking another swig of her Diet Coke. She smirked and folded her arms over her chest.
The man in the Dale Earnhardt hat opened his door and climbed down from the elevated truck. He walked with an easy, almost exaggerated, gait toward the Prius. Emily grew visibly alarmed, but Scout watched the imposing man approach with the same blank gaze with which she would have watched a fly crawl across a windshield. Even as he leaned over Emily— his hefty, haymaker arms to either side of her friend’s small frame— Scout could not muster an iota of fear or alarm or even concern for the situation.
“Get away from me,” Emily warned him quietly. “Or I’ll rip your balls off.”
The young man grinned, towering over Emily so much that the fluorescent lights of the pumps were crowded out by his height.
“I don’t think you will,” he said. “Not a little girl like you. Now, you better be nice to me. I’m a helluva guy, you know? You can ask all of my friends and girlfriends. One helluva guy.” He grinned at his friends. “Ain’t that right?”
“Helluva guy!” his friends said in chorus.
“Get away from me,” Emily said, her nose crinkled like a cat with nowhere to run.
“That the best you can say?” he said. “What happened to that smart mouth of yours? It sure is a pretty mouth. Shame it’s wasted on sucking butch twats.”
His friends back at the truck made obscene sucking noises.
“I don’t waste it on butch twats,” Emily said. “The only butch twat here is you. That’s why these lips will never go anywhere near you. I only like prissy twats that know I’m in charge.”
There was a long silence. The man in the Dale Earnhardt hat laughed. He laughed loudly and freely, as if he had never laughed so hard in his life. He then leaned back, upright, and stepped away from Emily. He rejoined his friends in the truck.
“You and me both, sister!” he said, still laughing. “You and me both!”
The truck roared to life and pulled out of the parking lot and down the highway.
Emily sighed. She was trembling, but whether from fear or relief or anger, she did not know. Cynthia came out of the Pilot sipping on a straw in a large Slurpee. She looked at Emily and Scout, back and forth.
“Something happen?” she said.

***

“Damn it, Scout,” Emily said, “you should have said something. You shouldn’t have just let me deal with the pig-fucker all by myself.”
“You did kind of start it,” Cynthia put in. “And Scout’s in no condition to handle anything like that.”
“You’re one to talk!” Emily snapped. “What were you doing in there, anyway? Blowing truckers? You took forever!”
“I couldn’t decide what I wanted to drink!” Cynthia said defensively.
“It’s all syrup water anyway,” Emily said. “It shouldn’t matter what you drink. Unless it’s diet.”
“Are you saying I should go on a diet?” Cynthia said quietly.
“Of course not,” Emily said. “The only weight you need to lose you can’t, because nothing works for losing height except taking off your high-heels.”
Cynthia glared at Emily through the rearview mirror.
“You know I don’t like it when you talk about my height,” she said. “Besides, you’re the one always on your high horse. How’s the weather up there in your own ass?”
Emily made a dismissive gesture with her hands, flicking her fingers outward as if shooing away a crow.
“Synth, I’ve told you before, you’ve gotta go to one of those Tall People dating sites.” She made a disgusted grunt. “I mean, can you imagine dating a guy shorter than you? Gross.”
“I wouldn’t care if he was shorter than me,” Cynthia said. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
“But it will matter to him,” Emily said knowingly. “It’s emasculating.” She smiled mischievously. “And, you know, the whole penis-to-vagina ratio will be really out of whack.”
“My vagina’s no bigger or smaller than average!” Cynthia nearly yelled.
“But if he is going to hit your G-Spot…”
“Then he has to be about average size,” Cynthia growled. “I’m not a cave down there. And I’ve had sex with shorter guys. Some have average penises. Some have smaller. Some have big ones that fill me up too much.”
Emily frowned at her friend skeptically. “And when did all this happen? I thought you were a virgin.”
Instead of answering her, Cynthia accelerated the Prius along the road, as if trying to get away from this conversation. They left the conversation like roadkill back at the mile marker and let silence be their entertainment. Scout did not notice either way. She felt empty, through and through. Twilight drew its gray pall over the world.

***

“Oh joy,” Emily said, joylessly. “A Murder Motel. Just where I wanted to stay.” She grumbled and folded her arms childishly. “Next place we stay is going to be a 5 star in the city.”
“Easy for you to say,” Cynthia said. “Your dad’s not the one paying for this trip.”
Emily waved away Cynthia’s words with a limp hand, her jewelry jangling. “Oh, your dad has enough money to buy a hotel chain.”
“He offered to rent an RV for us,” Cynthia said.
“Gag me with the gearshift,” Emily said, finger pointing to her open throat. “I’d rather hitchhike.”
They pulled into the parking lot and parked. The Corn Silk Road Motel was a humble L-shaped run of small rooms. A small clerk’s office stood out in front, near its red-lettered sign that flickered on and off fitfully. Cynthia got out and went into the clerk’s office, bringing her purse. Meanwhile, Emily blew bubbles with her chewing gum, the pink spheres expanding and popping at impatient intervals. Scout stared out the window, lost in the receding horizon of cornstalks and sky. The cornfields stretched on forever here, a sea of black shadows. Scout saw amidst their darkening waves a familiar figure, buoyant in that sea. Its straw hat had been blown away by the fervid winds, and now only the stringy yellow straw hair hung from its bowed head.
Cynthia returned with their motel card, driving around the L parking lot and coming to the middle of the wing. They parked and got out, taking their backpacks with them. Clouds rolled in heavily from the West, black as soil and rumbling as if pushed slowly by gigantic bulldozers in the sky. A storm approached. The air was cooler now than it had been all day and the wind pulled at Scout’s hair and skirt. The first droplets of rain fell tentatively, as if practicing before committing to the heavy downpour.
“Jesus, just in time,” Emily said, shielding her dark hair against the rain with an upraised arm.
Cynthia swiped the card and the brown door clicked open. They entered the small motel room as the sky boomed with thunder and the parking lot was blurred by the sudden outpouring from a cloudburst overhead. The darkening day shimmered with silvery rain like a fish’s scales in the motel lights. They were glad to shut the door in the storm’s face.
The motel room was bare and basic. There was a bed, a recliner, a dresser and a television set. Since they kept only the bedside lamp on, the white walls and ceiling of the room were gray or black. Emily plopped down on the bed and took up the remote control for the television. She turned it on and flipped through the channels.
“What kind of hick motel has only twenty channels?” she groaned. She cycled through the channels a few times, finding nothing worth watching.
“Check the Weather Channel,” Cynthia slurred, her mouth foaming with toothpaste as she brushed her teeth. “So we can know what it will do tomorrow.”
A frown of disappointment on her face, Emily flipped to the Weather Channel. The weatherman said the rain would clear off by tomorrow afternoon.
“Ugh,” Cynthia growled. “I hate driving in the rain.”
“I can do it,” Emily volunteered with a grin. “If you don’t want to.”
Cynthia nearly gagged on her toothbrush. “No. I am the driver. It is my car.”
Emily mouthed Cynthia’s words back at her, tossing her head left and right with sass. She turned the television off and then flopped back on the bed, spreading her arms out and exhaling a disgruntled growl of boredom. Cynthia returned to the bathroom to spit out her toothpaste and rinse her mouth out. She took a shower and Emily sat up all at once.
“I need to take a shower, too,” she said. “But she beat me to it.”
She looked at Scout. Scout sat in the room’s one and only recliner, staring at nothing and thinking about nothing. She did not want to think about anything ever again.
For a while the only sounds in the motel room were the cadences of the rain, the boom of the thunder, and the hiss of the shower. After a few minutes, Cynthia emerged from the bathroom wearing a towel around her body and her hair.
“About time,” Emily said, rushing into the bathroom and stripping down. She took much longer in the shower than Cynthia had. By the time she had emerged— her torso and her head wrapped in a towel— it was nearly Ten.
Emily took up the remote control again and turned on the tv. Flipping through the channels, she found a reality tv show playing.
“Oh!” she exlcaimed. “‘The Bachelorette!’ I love this show.”
Emily and Cynthia watched the program until it went off an hour later. After that, they could not find anything worth watching.
“I’m boooored!” Emily moaned.
Cynthia nodded from the other side of the bed. Then she reached for her backpack. “Hey, I know what can liven the mood.”
Unzipping her backpack, Cynthia dug out a small plastic bag of what appeared to be brightly colored sugar candies. Emily saw what she had and leapt forward, kneeling beside her on the edge.
“Are those…?”
“Yes ma’am,” Cynthia said.
Emily’s green-hazel eyes sparkled. “The real thing? Nothing cheap?”
“I bought them from Doug,” Cynthia said, opening the small plastic bag. She pinched a small pill and dropped it onto Emily’s upturned palm. “They are the good ones.”
“Awesome,” Emily said. She stared at the purple pill for a moment, smiling at the smiley face imprinted on its side. Leaning her head back, she dropped it onto her tongue and let it dissolve. “Fucking awesome!” she said for emphasis.
Rain fell heavy, the puddles in the parking lot glowing red and green beneath the neon sign. Footsteps sloshed and raindrops pattered on umbrellas and windows. The constant thrum of the rain created a white noise interlaced occasionally with the brief sound of tires slicing through pooling water. Thunder boomed at a distance now, having moved on with its temper-tantrum elsewhere.
They gave Scout one of the colorful pills. She looked at it as it lay in her palm. It was small and yellow and smiled with more genuine feeling than she could ever muster. Reluctantly, she popped the pill into her mouth and waited to see what would happen. Part of her hoped she would die. Part of her hoped it would erase her memories, if only for a time. Part of her hoped it would make her feel happiness while the other part feared to feel anything again. It did nothing for a time, and she wondered if she had been given a SweeTart instead. She remained in the recliner for a while, the pill dissolving on her tongue. Meanwhile Cynthia and Emily rolled around on the bed, bare-skinned, their towels flung onto the floor. They cuddled and began to kiss, giggling. The giggles gave way to passionate kissing, and caressing, then stroking and stronger touching in private places.
“Let’s fool around like we used to,” Cynthia cooed.
Emily, entwined with Cynthia’s arms, nestled between the taller girl’s breasts. She showered her with kisses, then rose and went to Scout, pulling her toward the bed.
“Come on, Scout,” she said, coaxing her. “We don’t need silly boys to have a good time.”
Scout laid back and let them strip her. They kissed her breasts and licked her lips above and below. But she felt nothing. She sat up, after a minute or so of their teasing and fondling, and sat on the edge of the bed, stolid and indifferent. Her two sisters did not pay attention to her after a time, too preoccupied with their own pleasure to mind her. Cynthia, being bigger, laid on her back, knees steepled and spread, while Emily, being smaller, squatted down over her face, then sat down, leaning forward on all fours and plunging her mouth down onto Cynthia’s lips, making a Sapphic meal of each other’s sex. Their moans and puckering slurps were faraway in Scout’s mind— like an underground grotto where ocean waves lapped. She sat naked in the minimal lamplight, staring at nothing; feeling nothing. She could not even feel shame or embarrassment when the boy and his mother passed by the window. The careless curtain had not been completely closed over the glass, spread only so much, like labial folds to reveal a vista onto the lovers on the bed. The boy stared, wide-eyed, while his mother pulled at him in irritation until she glanced into the window. Her vexation exploded into horror with a shriek and she yanked her son away and dragged him through the dark rain. None of it mattered to Scout. Her mind was faraway.
Scout remembered how her ex-fiancé could make her laugh. He was so funny. But he was also romantic. He could make her feel the strongest of emotions about the littlest of things. Joy, regret, anticipation, lust, love, betrayal, anger, sorrow. Now things did not seem to happen to her, but around her; life echoed hollowly within her like water dripping from a stalactite in a vast, dark cave.
But she did feel something at last as the ecstasy coursed through her neurons and electrified their senses. It was a deep longing—a vacancy that was so perfect that it ached for form and motion. She saw something, too. She was in a vast field, and that field had been furrowed deeply with an inexorable blade. Her ex-fiancé lay within a furrow, silent and unmoving. Before she could wake him, the earth folded over the trenches, enveloping his inert body until only soil and grass remained. Then a field of corn grew up from where he lay; vast and pointless, bearing husks upon husks of insignificance that somehow assembled themselves into a familiar figure. The figure was a scarecrow crucified upon a cross, its head bowed as if in mourning over the grave from which it sprang. The scarecrow had a willow basket over its head; a weeping willow basket like a bridal veil. Scout walked toward its corn husk body, reaching toward that willow-woven veil. Removing it with trembling hands, she saw herself beneath the cage of withes. Her face was devoid of all emotions, its burlap vagueness an expression of resignation.

***

Scout woke the next morning on the edge of the bed, still sitting up. Cynthia and Emily were both naked, still, and nestled into one another. Scout stood up—wobbly at first and sore—and went outside. The storm had passed and ears of corn had been blown across the slick road. The stalks that remained standing were bent or broken in half, their cobs shucked from the plant. The scarecrow leaned in the field, indifferent to its wet dress and frayed body and tottering cross. Through the dark black clouds the sun glared, as if the glint of an eyeglass from which a child looked beneath the lid of his box of broken toys.
“Fuck you, God,” Scout whispered.
She knew she needed a bath— as she knew any abstract concept, like the numerical value of pi or the formula for Pythagoras’s theorem—but she did not care. Tyler had said he liked her natural smell. He said he did not care if she shaved her underarms or not, or anywhere else for that matter. He liked her soul. Or so he claimed. Now she felt like she had no soul. It had flown the coop, and she did not care if it never returned. Actually, she would have shooed it away had it returned, for it was nothing but a bothersome pest, like a pigeon roosting where it was not wanted and shitting all over the clean emptiness she wished to inhabit.

***

An awkward silence followed the sorority sisters out of the motel and down the road. They did not listen to music. The wind through the windows deafened them to everything but their own thoughts and frets. Emily and Cynthia would not look at each other. Awkward embarrassment was their fourth passenger, and would let no one get a word in edgewise. Beyond the car, the cornfields were battered and beaten and broken, though many of the stalks still remained standing in their confounding multitude.

***

Emily pressed her face against the window in dismay.
“Was there a tornado last night? It looks like there was a tornado.”
The devastation in the cornfield had provoked them to speak. They looked out upon the storm-blasted scene as if they were traveling through an apocalyptic country.
“Maybe,” Cynthia said. She slowed the car down as the pink Prius rolled its wheels over the green debris strewn along the highway. “Maybe three or four tornadoes.”
“Just like the Wizard of Oz,” Emily said.
“There was only one tornado in the Wizard of Oz,” Cynthia said, stiffly.
“I always liked that movie,” Emily said. “I always wanted to be Dorothy.”
“I always wanted to be Dorothy Parker,” Cynthia said.
“But I’d be the Tin Man,” Emily said, tapping the side of her head. “Because I’ve got no brains.”
“You mean the Scarecrow,” Cynthia said. “The Scarecrow had no brains and the Tin Man had no heart.”
“The scarecrow has no heart,” Scout suddenly said. Her voice was whispery and coarse, like wind through rough straw. It was the first time she had spoken to them in a week.
“I am pretty sure it’s the Tin Man that has no heart,” Cynthia said adamantly. “But he probably didn’t have a heart either since, you know, he was made of straw.”
Scout was not listening. She was staring at something out in the cornfield.

***

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Cynthia said.
Emily’s eyes lit up. “You mean…?”
“Yep,” Cynthia said. “Colorado.”
“All right!” Emily said. Her excitement mellowed out, however, as she saw the cornfields still stretching on seemingly forever. It was still corn country. “It doesn’t look like Colorado. It still looks like Kansas.”
“Just wait until we hit Denver,” Cynthia said. “It will look different then.”
“And then on to California!” Emily said in bubbly excitement.
“We still have a while before we get there,” Cynthia said.
“Pull over,” Scout said.
“How much farther until we get to California?” Emily said.
“Pull over,” Scout said.
“Next week at this rate,” Cynthia said. “I wanted to stay a few days in Denver…”
“Pull over!” Scout shouted.
Alarmed, Cynthia slowed and pulled onto the shoulder, parking.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Instead of answering, Scout unbuckled herself and flung her door open, nearly falling out of the car to scramble out into the cornfield. Her long blonde hair disappeared into the blue-green clutter.
“Shit,” Cynthia said. She and Emily hurried after Scout, but lost her in the cornstalks. “Do you see her?”
“You’re the tall one!” Emily said. “If you can’t see her, how can I?”

***

Scout’s fiancé Tyler had cheated on her— with a mutual friend—and so Scout had called off the wedding. Though she was very upset, she was also conflicted. She had loved Tyler more than any other person she had ever dated. Part of her was jilted and part of her was ready and willing to reconcile. So, they spoke over the phone for the next few weeks, slowly working toward reconciliation. Then she had accepted an offer for coffee and had gone to the shop to wait for him at their usual table. But Tyler never arrived. Feeling angry, she went to a bar later that night and struck up a conversation with some random guy. They had a one night stand, which she enjoyed as much for the vengeance as for the sex. She could not remember the random guy’s name.
The next morning, while the stranger was still in her bed, she received a phone call from one of her friends. She said that Tyler had died in a car crash the previous morning, likely on the way to meet Scout at the coffee shop. Hearing this, Scout wept hysterically and the stranger in her bed— confused and afraid— left in a hurry. She cried on and off throughout the week until the funeral. While at the funeral home she saw Courtney, their mutual friend. Courtney was wailing as much as Tyler’s mother. The family comforted her while avoiding Scout. She had not known why until she overheard one of Tyler’s uncles say “It’s her fault he’s dead.” Scout was so outraged that she attacked Courtney in front of the viewing casket— closed casket, as it were—and then left the funeral parlor, her fingernails still full of Courtney’s brown hair.
Grief had justified many things. Impatience, anger, apathy, self-loathing, It freed you from many things, too: expectation, hope, happiness, the Present. In the cold wash of grief she had become numb, as if soaked too long in the ice water of a river in February, and she floated in it, insular in her ice cube; contained, impenetrable, apart and drifting carelessly through the chilly void.
Scout found the scarecrow waiting for her in the midst of the corn. Its vague face was a thing of easy relief— no personality or emotions stitched across its burlap head. Void of all human pretense or burden, it shrugged the world off as it slumped down from its cross.
“It will not hurt, will it?” she asked it. She shook her head, as if in answer. “It does not matter. A little pain and then Nothing. It is a fair trade.”
Scout lifted the scarecrow off of the cross, setting it on the ground. The effigy was surprisingly heavy, and she felt a twinge of guilt for her friends— briefly, then it was gone. She then ascended the cross herself, nailed to the boards as if she had always hung from it, the pain familiar, yet faraway. She let the weight of everything pull at the nails, but they were firm and held her grief up without fail. Hanging there, she felt finally lightsome and free; a thing floating above and apart from the world.
Her guilt crucified, the straw woman rose, then, to her newfound feet, feeling the wakening of life in her fibers, her newly-freshened nerves, her quickening heart and veins. She walked toward the Prius—stiffly at first, but loosening her limbs more naturally as she neared Emily and Cynthia.
“There she is!” Emily exclaimed, pointing.
“Thank God!” Cynthia said, her hands on her hips.
“And she’s smiling!” Emily cheered. “That’s what I like to see!”
“About time,” said Cynthia.
They greeted their newfound friend as she emerged from the corn, her chequered dress billowing softly in the wind. The new Scout tossed her blonde-as-straw hair with a shrug.
“What happened?” Cynthia asked. “Did we upset you?”
“No,” Scout said. “I just wanted to go out in the field.”
“Had to pee, huh?” Emily said.
Scout said nothing.
“Well,” Cynthia said. “Let’s get going! Lot’s to see! Lot’s to do!”
Scout smiled so broadly that her two friends looked at her in bewilderment.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Emily asked. “You look…odd.”
“I’m fine,” Scout said, her voice coarse as wind through straw. “I am just grateful to be alive.”

Mute Melody

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The lampposts along the boardwalk pinned back the heavy, wet curtain of night, the rainy darkness swelling against their small, sketchy dots of light. He stepped into the seaside bar, shrugging off the rain and the shadows from his yellow raincoat. The bar was deep-sea dark. Jarred candles lit glasses here and there upon the round tables, their little blooms of fiery illumination hinting at anglerfish duplicity. Bodies slumped around the tables, slouching in chairs or littering the floor in careless sprawls. Others laid face-down on the bar, or had tumbled off their stools. The bartender was behind the bar, awash with spilled beer. The scene looked like a forsaken opium den. All of the men’s and women’s faces were surrendering gradually to eternity, their eyes closed and their smiles lax on their euphoric faces.
The speakers on the karaoke stage were silent. No one stirred at the bar, even at the thrum-drum beating of the winds against the outside deck’s awnings. The hammering of rain on the windowpanes was like restless claws tapping on glass. Waves crashed against the poles on the boardwalk, shaking the planks. Nothing else could be heard in the bar except the faint sound of a lullaby song.
He approached the karaoke stage. The woman did not move. She used no microphone and the lilt of her soft song scarcely hinted at itself upon the sounding chaos of the sea. When she saw the man her song did not cease, but hastened, a defiant scowl upon her pale face. She had oily black hair that hung down her back and over her breasts. She wore nothing and her body was as pallid as a fish’s belly in the murk, glowing blue in the dreamy blacklights of the karaoke stage. A disco ball turned above her. Shattered-and-scattered stars glinted off of its silver mosaic sphere, reeling as the waves rocked the boardwalk and the bar.
To see such a scowl, and hear such a song, would have driven most men mad to appease her in any way they could, but he paid neither any mind. He could only see the long scar that split her lips to the right corner of her mouth. Guilt snagged in his heart, but he dismissed it as he raised his hands. Silently, he signed to her to come down. She snarled, revealing a jagged jigsaw of shark teeth between her lips, and continued singing. Some of the people sprawled out in the bar lolled in their chairs; those on the floor groaned in ecstasy.
Stepping closer to the stage, he signed again to her, imploring her from within the revolving twirl of the disco stars. He held his hand up toward her. Reluctantly, she took his hand into her webbed hand, its six vaguely humanoid fingers cool and wet. She stepped down from the stage, but she did not stop singing. He gestured toward the dark room with its multitude of limp, listless bodies, and shook his head, pointing to himself. A resentful frown curled her pale lips, and the ragged scar darkened to a sullen crimson. He touched her face, gently tracing the scar with his finger. He was a tall man with big hands, his fingertips calloused by a life at sea, but his touch would not have woken a baby from its sleep. Her eyelids fluttered at his touch, the dark gleam of her black eyes losing focus. She quivered, then shoved him angrily with her small hand. He stumbled upon a table, knocking over glasses and spilling beer into the laps of a man and woman. They roused briefly before nodding off into surrender to her song once again.
He signed urgently to her, but she turned her back to him, folding her arms. Slowly he approached her again, stepping over a man spreadeagled on the floor. Cautiously, he enwrapped her in his arms, hugging her from behind; tenderly. She quivered furiously, but did not pull away. He tried to sign again, his hands in front of her face, but she caught his big hands in her small ones, halting them and interlocking them over her heart. She smelled of seaweed and fish and brine— all smells familiar to him since he was a boy; smells beloved to him. For he loved all things of the sea: its smells, its vistas, its touch. But he had never heard the sea’s song, and for that reason he sometimes wept at night. He could feel the sea in her body when they made love. It tickled in his toes like the playful froth, and it relaxed him like wavelets upon an arid day. Her lips were as soft as wet sand on his chest and her teeth were sharp as coral on his fingers. Her tongue lapped deeply at his own when they kissed, an eel seeking his heart from the grotto of her mouth. Her fingers— long and lithe and fast— were as an octopus subtly scurrying across his skin. When they climaxed together it was a painful joy after which they both lay inert, his nerves stinging sweetly as if encoiled in jellyfish tendrils.
The sea had taken his father with its passions. It giveth and it taketh away. Of course the sea would claim him, the son, in time. To love her was to drown alive. And he had needed a break; a moment to catch his breath. A return to dry land. No one could love the whole of the sea without it sweeping them away with its riptides and dragging them below with its undertow. And its daughters were the same as their mother. They gave much, and they took away everything.
Like father, like son. Like mother, like daughter.
She continued singing. Her song was not a song in the meaning that most humans knew for a song. It was not a thing of aesthetics to please, but an instinctive tool. As a squid using its beak to crack shells and shred the flesh within, her song pierced the hearts of her prey so she, too, could feed. But her song had not worked on him when he had reeled her up from the sea, and she was human enough to want what was difficult to chase. He was so astonished when she emerged at the end of his marlin fishing line that he forfeited the fight. Yet, the hook had caught in her mouth, and she could not free herself. Kneeling beside her on the deck of his boat, he attempted to unhook her mouth. She fought him, flailing and clawing at him as he tried not to hurt her more than the hook already had. Even now his scars were tiger stripes along his forearms.
When he finally withdrew the hook, she hissed at him, then leapt away onto the railing of the ship, squatting there like a cat ready to pounce. The sun shone down upon her with unsquinting luminosity, yet the stygian depths remained in her eyes and in her oily hair. She had opened her mouth, revealing her teeth, and he had flinched to see their sharp edges. She then began her song, singing to him with the currents of the wide oceans. He could not hear them. Clearly perplexed by his immunity, and angered, she dove into the sea. He ran to the railing to look over larboard side, but did not see her.
She visited him every night thereafter, singing her song with a torn mouth. He remained immune to her song, but not to her dangerous beauty. He fed her from the fish he caught with his nets, and she ate his offerings raw. Eventually there came a night when she crept below deck, finding him asleep on his bed. The jagged fissure in her mouth had almost sealed itself shut. Laying atop him, they spoke to each other in rapturous silence— with limb and loin and wordless lip.
He had taught her to sign, and she had taught him more about the sea than any man had a right to know. He had recoiled from her truths, eventually, and stayed ashore. She remained in the sea, and felt the longing of his song in her heart; that song of silence that he carried with him. His mute melody. It called her ashore, and so she went. Now he was here. Now he would leave with her. He promised he would be with her forever if she would free the others.
So they walked to the door, and out into the thrashing storm. It subsided as they went together down to the shore, leaving the human world behind. The winds died and the rains lessened to the playful pitter-patter of fairy feet. The waves sighed and then loosened in their thrashing clashes. Like a great herd of beasts after a stampede, they slowed and came to an exhausted gait, gradually laying themselves down to sleep. The two figures disappeared into the still waters, taking with them her song and his silence.

The men and women began to rouse, sitting up in their chairs or sluggishly rising from the floor. The storm, the sailor, and the siren were gone. The world was drawn up and hauled out of the fathomless night and into the wakeful glare of daylight— wet, half-drowned, and shivering sickly. A fog thickened around the bay like a vague feeling of sorrow, and the people in the bar wept openly, though they did not know why.

 

 

Venom Pies Part 7

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In the morning the starry night sky was concealed once again behind gray clouds thickly overlaying the castle, the fields, the moor. The day brightened, but was never bright; a solemn pall hung over the scythemen in the fields. Oxenford soldiers drilled presumptuously in the castle’s inner courtyard.
Eseus, clad in armor and armed with his father’s sword, gathered a group of his own soldiers at the stables, noisily readying themselves to set forth from the castle. Naturally, their clamorous preparations drew the attention of Commander Vant who, outraged, abandoned his drills to confront the heir of the House of Lorwynne and demand the meaning of his bellicose entourage.
“Foul deeds are afoot,” Eseus said simply, as if he had not the time or bother to explain to Vant. Heavy with armor, he was helped atop his mount by two soldiers. He took the reins impatiently, as if ready to ride roughshod over the Commander.
Commander Vant did not budge, but instead committed the impertinence of grabbing Eseus’s horse by its bridle.
“You must not leave the castle,” he said. “It is crucial that you stay here instead of fetching folly in whatever nonsense has you presently impassioned.”
Eseus regarded the Commander scornfully. “I haven’t the time! Do you not care for your Lady of Oxenford? Wickedness is being worked against her as we speak!”
This startled the Commander. His pale face reddened and the narrow slits of his eyes widened. “What wickedness do you mean?”
Eseus sighed irritably. “A bloody plot has been revealed to me. The Spider clan seeks to finish what it has started at the House of Oxenford.”
“That is impossible!” Vant nearly roared. “The Spider clan is no more!”
“Have you not seen the woman with whom I have been indebted?” Eseus said. “She has revealed to me the truth. A handful of members of her clan survived the culling and are now seeking the completion of their revenge on my kin. As they have slain my uncle, so too shall they slay my dearest cousin!”
The revelation struck all of the Oxenford soldiers to their hearts. Their knees trembled and they glanced betwixt themselves with uncertainty. Even their Commander was stricken to the heart, his mouth gawping impotently.
“Impossible!” was all he could muster against the revelation.
“Not impossible,,” Iadne said. “But inevitable.” She appeared from among the Lorwynne men, her hands bound in thickly corded twine. “My remaining kin will not rest until they have snuffed out all lines of the Oxenford family.” She stared at the ground, head bowed in the counterfeit of sorrow. “I would not take part in the death of an innocent maiden. It seemed cruel and unmerited. And then I met Eseus.” She gazed upon him with a tearful look unlike any she had ever given him; a look of utter and hopeless adulation.
“Why not reveal this treachery sooner?” Vant demanded furiously. “Why not when moments are utmost in importance?!”
“I…I found Eseus wounded upon the moor,” Iadne said, her hands upon her face as if she might cry, “and I thought him handsome. Having lost my clan, I wished to wed him and claim a new family for myself. One with power and wealth. But he professed his undying love for this maiden…Kareth…and I was jealous. I did not want him to marry his beautiful cousin. I wished that he would marry me. But last night he confessed his undying love for his cousin and so I…I regretted my selfishness. Thus, this morning I resolved to warn him before it was too late.”
Vant sneered hatefully. “You scornful women and your villainous wiles! I should have you stripped and whipped. As it so happens, however, I haven’t the time.” He turned to Eseus again and yanked impudently on the bridle. “And you! Little upstart lordling! You cannot lead a raid on these moorland demons! You could not ride across the moor without falling from your horse! I will lead a raid! Alongside my most trustworthy men!”
“It is my duty…” Eseus began.
“Your duty is to see to the women, little lordling!” Vant growled. “Now off this horse. I will commandeer it for myself, and all of the horses in your stables. My men and I will slake the moor’s thirst for blood.”
While Eseus’s men helped him down, the Oxenford men took the reins of the horses and confiscated the provisions for the war party. Commander Vant demanded that Iadne tell him all there was to know about the remaining Spiders.
“In which direction do they lie?” he demanded.
“Southeast,” Iadne said. “Be mindful, look to the large trees upon the moor. They will secret themselves in their canopies. Should you see such a tree, burn the tree or fill it with arrows. My kin will ambush you from behind should you pass such a tree and leave it unscathed.”
Eseus remembered the Giant upon the moor. He kept a grim silence.
“A savage tactic for dispatching savages,” Commander Vant said, considering. “Indeed, I shall heed your advice, tribe-traitor.”
Commander Vant mounted his horse. His men followed suit, mounting their own horses as the Lorwynne men were shoved unceremoniously aside.
“We will see them all dead ere they harm our beloved Lady!” Commander Vant shouted. “By the horns of Oxenford!”
“By the horns of Oxenford!” his men shouted in kind.
They then rode out of the castle, beyond the fields, and into the Gray laying heavy upon the moor. When they had disappeared, Eseus dispatched his men to gather up the peasants from the fields and bring them hither into the castle with all of the sacks of grain and foodstuffs they could carry. The majority of the livestock was butchered and the meat cured and packed in salt while the fat was used for rendering tallow. Only twenty heads of cattle remained— within the inner courtyard—for the sake of milking in the meantime and breeding at a later time. The chickens were largley gathered up into an improvised coop made from palisades, their eggs added to the evening broth. Palisades were also arranged around the moat to further impede an enemy’s approach. All waste— animal or otherwise—was shoveled daily and dumped into the moat. The drawbridge was raised and the portcullis was shut. Further preparations for war were made, in accordance to Eseus’s plans.
Things took their natural course. Now came the most difficult straits: the straits of Time.

***

It was a fortnight before Commander Vant returned. His forces were less than half what they began as upon the outset of their raid. The remaining men, and Vant himself, were half-starved, bruised and broken men upon their emaciated horses. Vant shouted with a strained voice, demanding to be let into the castle. Paled and trembling, his head bandaged from a terrible blow, he looked as a dead man would look in defiance of his own death. His voice shrieked hoarsely with sufferings endured upon the moor.
“Let us in at once, you traitorous by-blow!” he demanded.
Eseus answered his commands with an arrow from his own bow. When it struck its mark, Vant commanded only blood—his mouth hanging ajar like a door upon broken hinges. He slumped off from his horse and collapsed to the ground. His remaining men fled toward whatever doom awaited them upon the moor. Eseus was gladdened to see them go, but he was wise enough to know that the true battle had not even begun.

***

Iadne held in her hand what appeared to be a clew, or ball of spider thread. She held it tenderly, as if it was the most precious of treasures.
“What is that?” Eseus asked.
“A future generation,” she said. “Many generations, I hope.”
They walked side-by-side up the stairs to his twilight-shaded tower. It had been a long day of preparations. Eseus had drilled his men once again in accordance to the strategies he had conceived for the approaching siege. His mother and Iadne had spent the day seeing that the common people were reassured and well-fed. They had roles, too, in the coming battles. They split wood, made palisades and arrow shafts and tanned leather for specific implementations. Their work, Eseus assured them, was as important as the roles the soldiers had to fulfill upon the battlements and in the bowels of the castle should the castle be penetrated.
It would all be bloody work by the end, he warned them, but as necessary as any harvest.
As a show of solidarity, Eseus ate along with the peasants and soldiers in the courtyard— when it did not rain— and often this meant a large gathering with cauldrons of stew served in common. Tents were raised on the green, and though they were not so comfortable as the cottages they were used to, the peasants did not complain. They felt safe within the walls of the castle, and safety let them sleep easier than any bed that might be bloodied or set ablaze by the violence of their foe.
It was one such night that Iadne sat beside Eseus and his mother, all surrounded by the people of Lorwynne. Many of them had seen the Spider clan girl before, and knew to respect her for having saved the heir of their late ruler. Even so, many of them furtively glanced at the albino girl and her tumult of hair. Though she had woven a new dress in the Lorwynne style, she had not managed to wrestle her hair into any braid that was not somehow worse than her normal disorderly array.
Eseus had to remind Iadne not to show affection in public. This admonishment often earned him a scoffing reproach since she claimed she was not overly fond of the idea of public affection toward him, or even private affection at times. Regardless, as the day dimmed and the stars shone through the dissipating clouds, Iadne sat close beside him while she ate. And while she ate, the Spider clan girl did not relinquish her clew, nor even set it aside, eating her chicken and vegetable stew with one hand while the other cradled the spider silk ball. Eseus stared at it briefly, but did not inquire after it. He knew she deserved to retain her own Spider clan ways, for she had made great strides to .
Many among the soldiers were curious as to whom Iadne would be wedded. They had heard Eseus’s pledge when she first arrived at the castle, and while she was beautiful, many of them dreaded the idea that Eseus would force one among them to wed her. For, while some men, such as Percevis, married the Spider clan women that sought the House of Lorwynne for a life, not many albinos existed in the world. And though Eseus did not share their superstition, many among the soldiers, and the peasantry, worried that she was ill-omened by way of her complexion.

***

The peasants, and even the soldiers, grew restless. They obeyed Eseus’s commands and did not leave the castle, but longed to be beyond its walls. They had slept in cottages their whole lives, yet had spent most of the day in the wide open fields. They grew restless, and sometimes old quarrels grew vicious while goaded by the walls and the crowds around them. Eseus had forbidden wine and beer while in the castle walls, but that did not mean the craftier and sneakier among the peasants had not hidden away such contraband. Two men— drunk on beer and old grudges and the belief that moonlight was as good an accomplice as any— fought upon the ramparts. Before soldiers could separate the two men, one was thrown from the high wall and fell to his death down below, in clear view of many witnesses. The other man, claiming self-defense, was bound in chains and taken to the green to await judgment.
Eseus, having been abed with Iadne—the latter of whom often hid beneath the bed at a knock at the door—was summoned to pass sentence on the killer. By the time Eseus had dressed and descended his tower to the green, most of the peasants were awake and awaiting the execution. Eseus dreaded such duties, as had his father. There was no sense of fulfillment in it, or purpose, or justice. It was what his father often deemed it: “The profligacy of the human animal.”
A hangman’s rope had been quickly made, and an eager axe sharpened. Eseus looked upon these two instruments of death sadly. To carry out justice was to bleed the beast for having bled itself. The anticipation in his people’s eyes saddened him even more. There was much shouting and clamoring all around. Some peasants shouted in defense of the living man at the expense of the dead man, whereas others decried the living man as a cold-blooded murderer while extolling the virtues of the dead man as a saint. Listening to the discordant cacophony, Eseus could only conclude one thing: that it was all such a bloody waste.
Eseus knew that to hang or behead the man would be to invite the worst sort of animosities among his people; some reveling in the spectacle while others vowed vengeance, thus dividing them and weakening his people as a whole. In truth, he wanted to postpone passing a verdict until the morning. Yet, to do so would be to let the peasants stew in their feelings until rancid with either bitterness or blood-thirst. His decision had to be swift and absolute, but also a compromise. It was a dilemma, but not one without a solution. He decided to banish the man upon the moor.
“A life was taken,” he said, “and so a life must be punished. Upon the morning we will banish the guilty to the moors. As for now, the dead man must be buried and the offender must remain in chains.”
Eseus said no more. His soldiers undertook their lordling’s decision while pushing back the rabble. Neither side was pleased, and so Eseus believed he had chosen the correct path for Justice. He hoped the man would walk out upon the moor and disappear however was wished by both sides in the conflict: as a man doomed to death upon the moor, or as a man treading with hope to live another day. The ghost of his decision would haunt Eseus for the remainder of the night, and would become a terrible phantasm with the dawn.

***

A group of men had rushed the chained man and slew him in the predawn murk. The soldiers on duty attempted to stop them, but were too exhausted from the previous day’s labors to react quickly enough. By the time the soldiers’ spears and swords had routed the mob, there was nothing to be done for the man in his scarlet-slicked chains.
Eseus never truly fell asleep that night, tossing and turning long after he had kissed Iadne goodnight. Irritable with fatigue, he rose to find the inner green divided between two bellicose factions. To one side were raging would-be avengers, and to the other side were the complacent mob that had exacted their revenge only moments earlier. Between the two stood the soldiers— a steel wall of armor and weaponry that was reluctant to be where they stood. All of the women and children had retreated into the inner sanctum of the castle.
Eseus and Iadne looked out over the scene from the top of the stairs leading from the main body of the castle. To see his people so clearly divided sank Eseus’s heart like a capsized ship into the depths.
“Oxenford has already won,” Eseus said. “And they needn’t have killed one person to do so.”
“You advised them prettily enough through an ugly encounter,” Iadne said. “You have no fault in this. They reap their own poorly-chosen actions. They are as spiders stuck in their own misbegotten webs.”
Eseus shook his head ruefully. “But now I must extricate them from their poor choices, or we are all doomed. Father would have found a better way. Father had a defter mind for handling the emotions of his people. He had experience, and the natural aptitude. I…I never wished to be a Lord.”
“It is a heavy weight, being a Lord,” Iadne remarked pensively. “When we marry, will I… being a Lady….have to make such decisions?”
“So long as I am alive and with my wits, no,” Eseus said. “But I would ask your advice if you would be willing to give it.”
She shook her head slowly, as if beholding a dreaded thing. “I know not what advice would be of use in such impossible predicaments. It would take a wizard to unwind such a confused knot.”
“I doubt wizards would waste their time on an enigma without a good answer,” he said. “Other rulers might simply cut the knot and threaten the subsequent threads with shortening them. Though I regret the truth of it, sometimes the promise of violence is the only way to staunch the wounds already dealt by it.”
They descended the stairs. Much to Eseus’s frustration, the sight of the lordling only redoubled the inchoate shouts of the opposing mobs. They pleaded for justice, and screamed for vengeance, and lobbed obscenities at one another, all while pressing against that wall of armor that separated the two mobs like the teeming flanks of two beasts with a ferocious rut upon them. Eseus regarded both sides, feeling exhausted. Iadne touched his shoulder, then pointed to the sky. The black specks of crows flew there.
“They watch us,” she said.
This revelation only infuriated Eseus more. He raised his hands for silence, but the anticipation of an ensuing silence convinced either side that they might be heard. The growls of the two beasts became deafening roars. Red with fury now, Eseus shouted down the mobs, nearly becoming a frothy-mouthed beast himself in the process.
“Silence!!! Silence or I will open the castle and let them take you, one and all!”
The rancor subsided into restless muttering. These mutters angered Eseus as much as the shouts, like the petulant squabbles of children. He scowled at both sides until these mutters fell, at length, to silence. He resumed speaking, loudly as before.
“What good would it be to defend ourselves against our enemies behind these castle walls if we are to bleed ourselves from within the walls?! You pigheaded fools! You wish to kill for two men who defied the Law! Why do you think I forbade such drink?! Why do you think I forbade the freedom of the fields and your homes? Because Death awaits you there! Death crouches in every shifting shadow and unassuming corner! Do not mistake me! I understand how you feel, but that does not excuse this…this…mutinous upheaval! And should you think I consider it a mutiny against me, you are wrong! It is a mutiny against yourselves! Against your loved ones, your children, and your own heartbeat! Who wins when two foes meet upon the battlefield? The victor? The slain?” He paused, letting the question riddle them into bafflement, for the answer seemed so self-evident that they could not divine his meaning. “Neither!” he shouted. He pointed to the black shadows fluttering overhead. “It is the Crows! Crows always win on a battlefield, for they reap a morbid banquet of both the slain and the victor, given time!”
Eseus stepped down from the stairs and walked along the wall made by his soldiers. Each soldier he commanded to set down his weapon and retire to the barracks for rest. The soldiers hesitated, naturally, but he reassured them to go. Grave concern written deeply upon their faces, they did as they were told. At last, only Eseus remained between the two mobs. Now standing alone— while Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne stared on in apprehension— Eseus addressed his people once more.
“See these weapons laid before you?” he said. “If you really desire bloodshed to slake the throats of the Crows, then take up these arms and strike each other down! Strike me down and give to them the goodly feast they desire! Come! Prove yourselves the unthinking beasts you are! Or, if you seek another way— the way of the living—set aside this blood debt and help me repel the Crows! Those are your only choices. Nothing else between the twain! But remember you this: should you squander the eyes you’ve to see clearly, the Crows will not hesitate in plucking them out to make better use of them in their morning meal!”
A man stepped toward a sword. All eyes fell upon him, including those of the Lord of Lorwynne. The peasant stared at the sword for a long time, standing over it, then looked to Eseus, and up at the crows circling over the castle. He grimaced and abruptly turned his back upon the sword. A great sigh seemed to exhale from the two mobs— like a gale loosening its fury into a languid breeze—and their tensity abated, dissolving into shamefaced forlornness. The mobs broke away, sitting upon the green. In time, the women and children were fetched from inside the castle. They returned to their men, their relief giving way to tears. The men were not so prideful as to hide the relief they, themselves, felt at the dissolution of that wrathful storm.
The Lady of Lorwynne and Iadne both greeted Eseus as he returned to them, their eyes sparkling with relief. Yet, however much mother and lover wished to embrace him, they could not, for he was now unquestionably the Lord of Lorwynne, his father’s son and rightful ruler. To have embraced him would have meant unmanning him, and so they smiled and walked beside him as he mounted the stairs and went into the dining hall. Once there, he ate a hearty meal of eggs and sausage and porridge, then promptly fell asleep in his father’s chair by the hearth, his troubled head hanging low beneath its heavy weight.

Beggarly Kingdom

Sometimes I feel as if
I can conjure whole worlds
with the merest of words,
like a wizard with illimitable power,
or a king at whose summons
his subjects hastily gather
to serve,
and at other times I grope
ineptly
like a blind vagrant
for coins spilled from his
beggar’s bowl.
Even now
the words roll away from me,
impoverished as I am
of the rich tributaries of poetry.
Yet,
even when the floodgates open
and alms are offered in
abundance
with gratitude’s cornucopia,
whatever wonders
I manage to conjure
cannot muster the worth of a
hovel
with words alone
and, so, I return to the
mill
to grind my own bread
from a wealth of wispy, unwelcome
dreams.

Venom Pies Part 3

 

20181028_212600-1-1

A new day dawned in the Gray and the sun was a pale-faced phantom through the thickening clouds. All day was as twilight. Only at dusk did the day differ itself, night encroaching over the world. Eseus pressed his horse forward, however, over the vast moor. Occasionally he found himself upon the Oxenford Road, and so would veer from it, keeping in parallel to its stubborn dirt scar.
The night deepened, its shadows saturating the far-flung expanses of the moorlands. Suddenly, the horse halted, neighing fearfully and nearly bucking its two passengers. The horse’s cries echoed long after Eseus had calmed the horse to silence. He eyed the darkening land suspiciously, not knowing what his sight sought. To his surprise he saw, across the misty moor, the broad trunk of a strange tree with a bushy head of leaves that blended in the upward heights of the looming darkness. He did not know why, but the tree alarmed him more than any Crow or wolf pack or even bog-wyrm could. Perhaps it was because it was such a solitary tree, since he had not seen trees since leaving the outskirts of his uncle’s lands. His passenger leaned toward his ear.
“There is no such thing as a benevolent tree upon the moor,” she whispered.
Eseus waited, and watched. The tree was black and had no branches. It was all trunk and foliage and nothing more, so far as he could see. He felt the chill of the fog mix with the chill of the sweat on his brow. Gasping, he watched as the tree split in two, yet the twin trunks shared the same head of foliage.
“Flee!” she hissed urgently. “Or we are doomed!”
The twinned trees bent and stepped forward as two large legs, their gigantic feet booming upon the moor. Eseus yanked the reins, driving the horse in a long-curving arch around the approaching legs, whipping his horse into a full sprint.
The Giant roared with a voice like an earthquake, and shook the moor as if to crack the contintent unto two. But as vast as the Giant’s stride was, he was slow and could not maintain even his slow speed for long, losing the riders in the fog even as his large, gnarled hands searched for them with grasping, hungry desperation.
“He should not follow us,” the Spider clan girl said. “It should be safe to slow now.”
Slowing the horse to a trot, and then to a stop, Eseus dismounted, thereafter helping his captor down.
“I have never seen a Giant before,” he said, breathing heavily. “It pretended to be a tree.”
“Many Giants do,” she said. “They wear kilts of leaves and stand very still, one leg in front of the other, digging their toes into the earth, rooting themselves in place and waiting for unwary travelers to pass by in the dark. Then they claim them and eat them. They are not very fast, and are almost always famished and tired. Their large size makes them so, as does the scarcity of food on the moor.”
“I have heard of Giants,” Eseus said, “but I must confess that we always thought them the tall tales of men too deep in their cups.” He wiped his brow clear of the clammy sweat beading there. “His legs looked like they were covered in bark.”
“They are,” she said. “And his face is gray and chiseled roughly, like stone, and hair covers much of its torso, colored green and yellow and brown. You must be careful of steep foothills. Most rise laxly, almost sleepily, from the moor, but there are those that rise too sharply toward their summits. Anything abrupt is not sleeping upon the moor. Giants also curl like foothills in the fog, biding their time to grab incautious prey. They are ambush predators.”
“My horse sensed the danger,” Eseus said. “Yet, I did not. I should have known a solitary tree upon the moor to be highly suspect. I was too preoccupied with the concerns of my home.”
“It is an assured way of never seeing home again,” she said. “The moor can use your love against you. Giants are kindred to the moor, and thus are children of the Gray. Yet, the Gray can be a barren mother, and so the Giants are often too groggy with fatigue and starvation to think clearly. In this way does the Gray humble its children. If Giants were clear-headed there would be no stopping them from running riot over the lands, feasting upon every living creature.”
“They would be a terrible army to behold,” Eseus agreed.
“Fortunately, they are no more merciful toward their own kind as to us. The smaller ones must be wary of the larger ones, for food is food to them, whatever its origin.”
“Smaller ones” he said. “Like children?”
She frowned at him and shook her head. Her white tangles of hair shook wildly, and the way she looked at him with her red eyes made him feel like he was speaking to an otherworldly creature.
“There is no such thing as ‘children’ among anything except humans and animals. Fairies, Giants, Titans—they have no ‘children’. And the smallest Giant has outlived the oldest wizard by a thousand years. Do they teach you nothing in your stony castles?”
“I have been taught many things,” he said. “Human history, for one. How many kings can you name? How many wars do you recall? Or the strategies employed?”
“What good are such things to me?” she snorted. “My clan taught me how to survive.”
“Such things as I know help me to survive, also,” he said. “For your life, knowing the moor and its flora and fauna is important. For me, knowing humanity and its lessons helps me to survive. I will not belittle your knowledge just because it is different from my own.”
“You are right, of course,” she said. “I…I forgot myself. Knowing what other people are capable of could have saved my people. I would have never thought it possible that the Crow clan would make an ally of the Oxenford line to destroy us. But perhaps with your people as allies I may have my revenge replete.”
“Revenge is a bitter pie,” he said, thinking of the pie that had killed his uncle. “And you may eat it only once.”
“Yes, but what a feast to remember!” she said, smiling bitterly. She eyed him warily, thinking. “Would you dissuade me from vengeance? Do wish to spare my enemies?”
“No,” he said. “I only want to focus on defending my people right now, while I still have people to defend. I will think of vengeance only if…” He shook his head and let the thought die in the mist-heavy air. “I do not wish to think of it.”
The sky thundered suddenly, portending rains. There was a rush of warm wind coming on like a phantasmal army.
“We should camp near the Oxenford Road,” she said. “The Giants do not go near it. Nor do most things upon the moor.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
“It is cursed,” she said, “as is everything bearing the Oxenford name. There is a reason why the moors do not retake the Road with gorse and grass.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but refrained. He retained his silence.
“I do not like to be near the Road because of the curse,” she told him, noting his irritated expression, “but it is better than being snatched up while we sleep. We must not light a fire, however, for it will bring the Crows to us. They stay sheltered in their tents during storms, but their crows are ever scouting.”
Carefully, they walked in the dark until they came to the Road. The Spider clan girl had an unfailing sense of direction while upon the moor, even in the dark. She led Eseus by the hand, and he led the horse by the reins. When they reached the road, they sat beside it, huddling beneath her robe. Eseus attempted to sleep, but as with the night prior, sleep came but fitfully. At length, he sighed.
“What is wrong?” she asked.
“I am too worried to sleep,” he said.
“About your people.”
“And my mother.”
“But they have stone walls to protect them,” she said. “Surely that is enough in the meantime.”
“Stone walls did not help my uncle,” he said.
“No,” she said. “They did not.”
“I sometimes wonder if my family is cursed,” he said. “My father’s House is the House of Lorwynne, but he, too, was an Oxenford, only it was through marriage to my mother. House Lorwynne is an old house, and strong, but not as old and strong as House Oxenford. My father and my uncle grew up as rivals in many ways. During the tourneys they competed together, and more than often my father won. This bred resentment in my uncle. He and my father also both loved Lady Kareth’s mother. But her mother was much like Kareth herself, craving only power in a husband. And she saw power in my uncle. Not power of skill or of wisdom. But of willpower. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to dominate and control others. My aunt, therefore, was a perfect match for him.”
“As a werewolf to a full moon,” she said.
“Just so,” he said. “My father was bitter about their marriage at first. He had bested my uncle in many ways But then he met my mother— my uncle’s sister—at the wedding. He realized how fortunate he was to have dodged the arrows he had nocked for himself. My mother gave my father a tress of her hair and he began courting her almost at once. I do not doubt that my uncle resented their pairing, and begrudged my father even unto his own death, but I also believed that he thought it a fortuitous event for himself, for it meant he might someday rule the House of Lorwynne as well as the House of Oxenford. Before he died, my uncle pressed me to marry his daughter, my cousin, Kareth, and unite our houses. Kareth, herself, urged me to do so also. With the two largest Houses of Oxenford together she might have the forces to annex more provinces beyond the Oxenford Compact. She might annex the Northlands as a whole, in time, and extend her control to the Midlands, rivaling even the Valorian Empire. It is no secret that was my uncle’s dream, for it was my aunt’s dream, and so it is my cousin’s dream.”
“I saw your cousin at the feast,” she said. “She was a pretty little creature, in her own way. Fragile as a flower, though.”
“That is her strength,” Eseus said. “Looking vulnerable. But there are talons there, as ready for blood as any Crow’s. I have known Kareth since I was a child. Her stratagems have not changed. Even then she would instigate fights amongst my other cousins and myself, demanding that we fight for her favor. She took after her mother in that way, I suppose. My eldest cousin, Artell, was mad for her. He challenged and beat all of my cousins in turns, coming at last to me. He was bigger than myself, and as crude as a bad tempered buck in rut. The hammer blow of his fist sent me reeling. Yet, I picked myself up afterward and ran at him. He struck once more, but I evaded beneath his arm. My swordmaster had taught me the weaponless arts as well— even when young—and so I snapped his arm at the elbow, rendering it useless. He crumbled to the ground, weeping, and I stood in shock. Erstwhile my fair cousin laughed in delight and favored me with a kiss as I stood there, dumbstruck to idiocy.” Eseus’s words became lighter, but his tone was nonetheless remorseful. “Artell cannot use a sword to this day, but he begrudges me no more. Indeed, we are on amicable terms insomuch as the present is concerned. Youth enflamed with passion leads to great tragedies. And to be young is to be passionate. The blood has not yet cooled.”
The Spider clan girl considered all that he had said.
“I never knew that lordlings had such…traumas in their lives,” she said. “We assumed you were pampered and coddled. But there seems to be more wilderness in your lives than that of our nomadic clan. At least those of a clan will not strike against their own. That much I can claim as a blessing.”
“Politics are always dangerous,” Eseus said, “and gaining a lady’s favor—especially the heir of a powerful house—is the most precarious of politics. Battles with pens can cost more lives than battles with swords. An errant pen can orchestrate a thousand catastrophes, bleeding long after the ink has faded upon the scroll.”
“Your lives are more complicated than I should like,” she said. “The moor is misleading, too, and can imperil with feints of good will, but it never smiles when it undertakes its machinations. This…Kareth…she seems to me to be a crow pretending to be a dove. But I pity her.”
“You pity her?” Eseus said, dismayed. “Why?”
“Because she does not truly care for her clan,” she explained, “and she who cannot care for her clan has no clan to care for her. She is alone. She is the mistress of her own sorrows.”
Eseus considered this. “You are right, of course. Then again, we Oxenford heirs have a habit of tailoring our own tragedies. This Road, for instance— you said it was cursed. Well, you might be right. Do you know how we came of the Oxenford name? My family named ourselves for the same feat that created this Road. My ancestor tied a plow to a pair of oxen of unnatural size and drove them through the moor— through heath and bog and hill and all—until this road remained. He forded without concern for impediments or imminence. Or so my father claimed. Some think he was a wizard and used celestial bulls. The curse you spoke of may, therefore, be partially true. Grass does not grow here, nor gorse, nor weed. Worms do not till it, nor will any plant grow within it. I know because I tried as a child to grow yams in its dirt near the castle. The yams grew on one side and on the other, but the actual Road remained untouched by vine or root or leaf. At the time I faulted my own ignorance as a farmer, but now…now it seems you are right. Only humans dare its path; humans and whatever other beast a man might press to tread its dirt. It must be cursed.”

***

When they woke, the rains had gone and the sun limned the moorlands wanly. The Road itself was utterly dry, as if the rain had dared not touch it. They began at a gallop once again, but the horse was soon overworked, and underfed, the moors providing little for a beast to sustain its strength for so long a ride. Eventually they dismounted and walked alongside the fatigued horse. Eseus was agitated, knowing he was well behind the progress he should have by now made.
“At this rate it shall be a week before I arrive home,” he complained. “Everything seems set against me. I should have arrived home today!” He eyed his captor sidelong. “Of course, that would have been so had I not an additional rider to burden my horse.”
The Spider clan girl gawped with fury. “Without me you would be but a corpse in a puddle with the crows pecking at your soggy flesh. Do not direct your frustration at me.”
Eseus scratched his head angrily— almost as if to pull his hair out—but suddenly relinquished his anger. “You are right,” he said, begrudgingly. “I am acting like a child. But I fear for my people, and the most rotten of luck has visited me. It is a hobgoblin sitting on my head and refusing to budge.” He reached into his satchel, finding only carrots and radishes awaiting his hand. “We will deplete the food I stored for the journey very soon. Do you…do you know of any food the moor might provide us?”
The Spider clan girl scanned the horizon. “My people survived making elixirs of various herbs and grasses on the moor. But such elixirs would not help you. Often they kill those not accustomed to their toxins. That is also why we have named ourselves the Spider clan.” She smiled with some satisfaction. “But we also ate food like the rest of you may eat, if you would deign do so. Rabbits. Foxes. Groundhogs. Any kind of bird. Especially crows. Whatever we might have killed with arrow or willed over our fires, we ate.”
“I have no bow,” Eseus said. “Nor do I have your talent for willing beasts to do as I wish.”
“There are always bugs,” she said, seriously. “Or is that too beneath you?”
“They are quite beneath me,” Eseus said. “Beneath me, in the earth.”
When she did not laugh, Eseus explained that it was a joke.
“Starvation is no joke,” she said. “And certain bugs are quite filling. They can strengthen a man as much as any beef or poultry might.”
She knelt down at once and placed her hand upon the wet turf. Eseus waited patiently nearby, curiously watching her as he held the horse’s reins. The grass began to move, and small holes opened in the ground, as if dug by fingers. Bright orange grubs wiggled up through the damp grass. The Spider clan woman plucked them up and held them in her bone-white hands. There were seven fat grubs in all.
Eseus grimaced. “Do you not cook them beforehand?” he asked.
“If you wish,” she said.
She abruptly dumped them in his free hand and knelt down to make a fire. She gathered together gorse and grass into a rounded pile. She then withdrew flint and a striking stone from her voluminous sleeves. With these she quickly struck at the flint, spitting sparks into the wet grass. To Eseus’s surprise, the wet grass caught flame and a small fire burned upon the soaked turf.
“How?” he asked, baffled.
“Hurry,” she said. “Dump in your bugs.”
Eseus let the orange grubs fall into the flames. The flames eagerly cooked the grubs black. When she decided they had been cooked enough, the Spider clan girl stuck the flint into the fire, reabsorbing the fire into the black rock.
“That is dragonrock, is it not?” Eseus said.
“Of course,” she said, slipping the flint and the striking stone back into her sleeve. “Ancient dragonrock whose fire has almost burned out.”
“I know of it,” he said. “It was once the bone of a dragon, long dead. A dragon fossil, in fact, or near enough so. They say it absorbs flame, and gives flame when struck. Unquenchable flame. It belongs to one of the Immortal Dragons. If it were ever fed enough flame the dragon would be reborn.”
“Which is why I do not give it more flame than I take from it,” she said.
“They say that fire from a dragonrock can set water itself ablaze.”
“I have never tried such a thing,” she said. “I only use it sparingly when the grass is too wet to burn normally.”
“That is wise,” he said. “It is a priceless artifact. Many wizards and witches would…well, it is good no one knows you possess such a thing. Great mischief could be worked upon the world with such a powerful item.”
“It was my father’s,” she said. “The Crows threw it away as sentimental rubbish. But I knew its worth. I found it and have kept it as an heirloom.” She handed him a few of the burnt grubs, and took her share in hand. She stared at them for a long time, thinking. “Sometimes I think I would like to throw it into a large fire and let the dragon be reborn. Let it scorch the world in its fire.”
Eseus frowned in disgust— but whether it was disgust at the grub he had eaten or the intimation his captor had made, he himself did not know.
“Many innocent lives would be killed,” he said, chewing bug. It did not taste bad. It did not taste good. It was merely bland.
“Many guilty lives would be ended, too,” she said, eating her second grub. “Why should it matter, after all? I have no attachments in this world anymore. And I have the dragonrock at my disposal. If I feel nothing for anyone left, then I should not fault myself for letting the world burn. It is my right, and I am answerable to no one.”
“But what would your parents think of you?” he said.
She turned away from the fire, and from Eseus. “They are dead. What they would think does not matter, not even to them. I am free to do as I please.”
She stood apart from him, back toward him, and staring out across the moor. Eseus ate the remaining grubs and said nothing. He could see her shoulders shaking beneath her robe, but he said nothing. He let her moment of grief pass. When her shoulders stopped shuddering, she spoke again.
“Do lordlings believe in a life after this one?” she asked
“Many are Matharists,” Eseus said, “But my father believed it a lot of dragon feathers.”
“And what do you think, Eseus?”
Hearing her say his name for the first time gave him pause. He cleared his throat.
“Part of me wishes it so,” he said, “so I might see my loved ones again. But because I wish it so I doubt it. When has this world ever answered wishes?” He thought for a moment, his brow flexed with the world in the balance of his scales. “No, I believe it a lot of dragon feathers as well.”
She nodded, curtly, and then began to walk once more. There was nothing more to be said about it by either of them.

***

There was nothing but monotonous moor and bland gray sky stretching on forever. They stayed parallel with the Oxenford Road, walking within sight of it and within sight of the easy-rising foothills. The clouds thinned overhead, but sunlight never broke through to the moor. The world was awash with the Gray. In the distance— seeming at first a mirage of overlapping shadows and fog—a caravan moved upon the Oxenford Road. Eseus squinted his eyes, but could not discern much about them.
“I cannot see their banners,” he said.
“I may be able to,” his captor said. She raised a hand toward the seemingly desolate sky. Within a few moments two small birds arrived, resting on her wrist. They were very small gray birds, and Eseus did not recognize their breed. Before he could ask, one bird pecked at the eye of the other bird, plucking its eye out cleanly with its beak and dropping that tiny eye into his captor’s accepting palm. The two birds then flew away in two different directions. The blood-beaked bird went as it willed. The one-eyed bird fluttered toward the caravan, its gray body vanishing at the distance.
Taking a deep breath, the Spider clan girl peered closely at the tiny eye in her palm. After a moment, she spoke.
“They are heavily armored men,” she said. “With many lances and swords and pikes. The banner they fly is purple with a white ox upon it, its horns long.”
“They fly my uncle’s banner, then,” Eseus said. “We must circumnavigate them, or they will see us.” He pulled the horse to the West, circling wide of the encampment. “They are a war convoy…and I know where they go. But we must arrive first. Can you…can you watch them for a span?”
“I can,” she said. “But I cannot walk while I do so.”
“Then you will ride,” Eseus said. He helped her atop the horse, leading it by the reins from the front. As he walked and guided the horse, she spied on the caravan. Eseus looked to her occasionally, wondering what kind of toll such a talent took upon her. Her red eyes did not blink once. Sweat broke upon her brow.
They had followed the caravan at a distance for an hour or so before the Spider clan girl informed Eseus that the caravan was halting.
“They are setting camp,” she said. “They are resting for the night.”
“It is not yet twilight,” Eseus said. “We should ride around them now, while we have the chance, and gain more time on them.”
The Spider clan girl tossed away the bird’s eye, blinking her eyes rapidly and nearly swooning. Eseus caught her before she could fall off the horse. He mounted the horse behind her, holding the reins while steadying the young woman against him.
“Will you be well enough to ride at a swifter speed?” he asked.
“I need only a moment,” she said, “and I should recover.”
Eseus gave her a moment, and in that moment’s time she swayed with each light step the horse took. Gradually, however, she righted herself up, straightening her spine and gaining a hold upon the mane. Eseus noticed, and was glad for it.
“When you feel stronger,” he said, “we must switch places. I…I cannot see around your hair.”
The Spider clan girl actually blushed at that— with both fury and something else— and she nodded curtly. Unconsciously, she pulled at the wild disarray of her white hair.

***

Twilight came, and with it the Gray deepened upon the moor. The moor, however, was hemmed in in the West by a great bog.
“Beggar’s Bog,” Eseus said. “We would do well to keep away from it.”
His captor concurred. “Lest we wander its depths forever.”
Beggar’s Bog was vast— almost as vast as the moorlands—and was drenched in shadows from its ancient trees. The air hung heavy with the stench of stagnant waters and dead vegetation. Occasionally the stench of a dead animal wafted through the air, pungently punctuating the danger entailed in its gurgling, gaseous bowels. Will o’ the wisps flared here and there, like blue torches flaring and fizzling out. There were howls among the trees, and growls among the waters. The screech of a death pierced the mumbling ambience, and a tree shook intermittently, as if shouldered aside by something too big to be faced with sword or spear or even catapult. Moss hung from the trees like draperies, and the trees receded like columns into a temple of shadow. Not many men wandered into Beggar’s Bog and returned alive. And if they did return, they begged to be granted the mercy of a swift death and thus a swift cessation to whatever things they had seen that now haunted their minds.
Perhaps it was this latter knowledge that made Eseus halt the horse when he first saw the woman kneeling down at the edge of the swamp. He mistook her for some unfortunate soul lost in the woods, or perhaps a grieving mother trying to summon her hapless child from the merciless peat.
As he approached, he discerned a sad croaking sort of song. A wailing, gurgling, laughing song. He thought perhaps she had gone mad with grief.
His captor had fallen asleep, exhausted from her uncanny espionage upon the caravan. Eseus, thus, called to the woman, hailing her without first seeing her for what she was.
“My good woman!” he called. “What troubles you?”
The Spider clan girl roused at once, gasping and clasping her hand around his mouth. She hissed for him to be silent, but it was too late. The woman turned around and revealed herself to be a hideous, gray-skinned hag.
“Well hello, dearie!” she cackled. “Have you some laundry for Nanny to wash for you?”
Eseus realized his mistake upon seeing the creature’s mushroom-warted face, the hooked nose, and the needle-like teeth. She wore a dress made of what appeared to be skin and had white hair upon which black mold and lichen grew. The sight of her abhorred him, yet he knew the rules of the Game. Gray Nanny Needleteeth did not deal fairly with those who forewent her Game.
“Come, dearie, don’t be rude,” she said, growing testy. “Have you anything in need of a wash or not?”
The Spider clan girl released his mouth, whispering in his ear urgently. “Play along.”
“I know,” he whispered back.
“What are you saying, hmmm?” Nanny said. “Best not be whisperin’ about poor ol’ Nanny. She don’t like that! No, dearie! Not one bit.”
“Of course I have something in need of washing,” he said, dismounting from the horse. He looked back at the Spider clan girl, gesturing that she remain with the horse. “I was just thinking, Nanny, that my cloak is soaked with blood. I suffered a nasty wound and I fear I have ruined my favorite cloak.”
Eseus removed his cloak and, slowly, fearfully, edged closer to the hag.
“Oh, my poor dearie!” Nanny said, reaching out for the cloak with long, taloned fingers. Mushrooms riddled her arms as much as her face. “My poor dearie boy! Don’t you worry none about your favorite cloak! Nanny will clean it as good as new! As good and sweet as a newborn, delicious baby boy!”
“Thank you, Nanny.” He tried to smile as he handed the torn cloak over to the hag. She was taller than she appeared at the distance, and stank of foul, putrid waters. “I…truly dislike bothering you.”
“Tis no bother, dearie,” the hag said, clutching the cloak in her gnarled fingers as if to squeeze the blood stains from it. She grinned vastly, and the green needles of her teeth gleamed. “Tis no bother a’ tall!”
The hag hobbled quickly to the edge of the bog, wringing the cloak as if to wring a neck free of its spine. She bent down, kneeling, and submerged the cloak into the peat. The stench of the bog increased as she feverishly worked the cloak. Eseus glanced back at the Spider clan girl and the horse, tempted to flee. His whole body screamed to flee, for it knew— on some primal level—that this creature was frighteningly unnatural. But he knew to flee would be to die gruesomely. When he turned back to face the hag, she was standing in front of him, holding the cloak up— so very close—to his face.
“Did not Nanny do a good job, dearie?” she asked, her breath rancid with old meat. “Did not Nanny do her sweet little boy’s cloak a good turn?”
Eseus looked at the cloak in front of him. It was covered in peat and foul water. Mushrooms bloomed along its fabric without ceasing. Eseus swallowed hard, trying not to gag at the sight and the stench. Nanny grinned broadly.
“Try it on, dearie,” she said. “And tell Nanny she did such a good job cleaning her dear boy’s garments.”
Eseus could barely breathe. Swords were no good here, nor even magic, for this was a thing born of a curse. It was, thus, a game, and the Game had its rules, and he had to obey those rules to survive intact and unaltered.
Eseus pointed. “I beg your pardon, Nanny, but you seem to have missed a spot.”
The hag’s yellow eyes bulged. “Missed a spot, dearie?” she said. Dismayed, she looked from Eseus to his cloak, and then cloak to Eseus to cloak, and flung the cloak in the air, screaming wildly, tearing her white hairs out of her mushroom-dotted head and running toward the bog. She flung herself into the swamp with a long, tapering wail that ended in breathless gurgles.
Too shocked to react, Eseus stood there a while. When the Spider clan girl touched his shoulder, he nearly jumped.
“I was spellbound,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “but you still won the Game.”
“I did,” he said, still in disbelief. His brow was a swamp of sweat. He had suffered a fear unlike any he had ever felt.
He reached for the defiled cloak, but the Spider clan girl interceded.
“Leave it,” she said, “or become as she is.”
She said no more, but led him back to the horse. The mounted again and rode farther into the North until night bid them halt and rest until daybreak.

How Things Pan Out

Washing a pan that was more hope than gold
in a waterfall’s pellucid stream,
he was bent and tired and wasting old,
chasing the elusive American Dream.

He sighed aloud, unhappy with his yield,
the pan but silt and flint and rock,
and a young man approached from afield—
a jolly fop stopping by for a talk.

“Why so glum?” the young man asked.
The old man answered, “In all my many dawns
I have yet to find one golden that basked
in a sunrise, or blessed by Leprechauns.”

The young man glanced up the mountain
and saw the waterfall’s mist-borne cataract.
“There is your rainbow, that pretty fountain
as lovely as any Fairy’s golden contract.

“For poetry is the thing that enriches a man,”
the young man continued to say with a smile,
“and rainbows and beauty and all which can
inspire the spirit— that is what is worthwhile.”

The old man did not look up, not a span,
and continued sifting water over mud and silt,
gaining nothing in his old rusty pan—
not even pyrite, or such half so gilt.

Cursing, the old man smacked the stream
with the traitorous pan that denied him,
then glanced up at the foppish fool of a man
that smiled obliviously beside him.

“Can I buy food with rainbows?” he said,
“Or shelter, or clothes, or a doctor’s care?
“Listen to me, and let this settle in your head
like a dragon on his hoard.” His eyes did flare.

“You will understand more about real needs
when you are older, and by then it will be too late,
because the foolhardiness of youth only leads
to squander and squalor, for that is a man’s fate.

“You speak as if rainbows were themselves
something substantial to bridge empty air,
but they are things conjured by Youth’s elves,
so try walking those colors, if you dare.

“My complacency is as silt washed away
and all that remains are material dreams—
small, it is true, as bits gathered day by day
as I dig the darkness for whatever gleams.”

The old man said no more, standing with his back bent,
and grabbed his bucket, his pan, and his pickax,
walking toward a ragged, moth-eaten tent
where he rummaged for food amidst dirty sacks.

He sat down and ate from a bowl of gruel,
his face devoid, like a hopeless slave’s,
then took up his tools, being his own pack mule,
and walked uphill again, toward the caves.

The young man watched the old man ascend
and vowed never to be such a sad-looking man,
but his high dreams, too, came to nothing in the end
except a few bits of gold in a rusty pan.