Story Nine – Trio

“You’re a fucking animal, Carlson,” she said mildly. The rest of the fries mushed against my fingers as I scooped them up from the dirty parking lot. Their edges split on my hands and I could feel all their mealy softness as their structure broke down. Hey, just like me. Very nice to look at. An appealing golden brown. But mealy inside, and generally disappointing the next day.

I grinned up at Antonia from the ground and felt big and wicked and wonderful. I held out the palmful of fries and made puppy sounds until she took off her flip flop and threw it out me. Rookie. I flung the fries down again and chased her with her own pink shoe, smacking any available skin. She fled, defeated, before my onslaught.

  Rachel came bursting out of the huge plastic burger bun-shaped doors. Her purse strap caught on one of the pickle slice door handles and it yanked her back like a cartoon character. We froze in a ludicrous tableau, Antonia covering her ass with both hands and me with the flip flop raised high. Rachel could be difficult when thwarted in small things. You never knew. She might absorb that small shame and move on, or she might light a fire with it and spend the rest of the night burning everyone around her .

  One of the plastic sesame seeds fell off. She looked down for a moment that felt long but wasn’t. Her fingers swooped like a crane, I could almost hear the air rushing through them, and she seized her prize, came up grinning and tucking the stupid sesame seed into her shiny purse.

  We burst into crazed giggles and our cartoon sped back into life. I got off a completely solid hit right on Antonia’s left butt cheek and her cry of outrage was enough to end the game.

  Rachel gathered us up with clucking and shooing, herding us back to the car. All the boys were still inside it but since Rachel had told them to stay there and left the windows up, we had forgotten them as soon as the doors thumped closed. They were resentful. We were having fun so utterly removed from them, so out of reference to their presence, that it was an insult. We didn’t mean it to be an insult, which made it worse. If we had wanted to hurt them, it would have meant they at least weighed a little something in our soft hands.

Antonia opened the front passenger door and let it fall against her hip. She stared down into the interior with a face like a dare, then ducked swiftly towards the floppy haired boy sitting in her spot. His mouth opened a little as she whispered in his ear and then he wiggled backwards and spread his knees for her. She perched between them and leaned back with a sigh, content against his bony chest.

Rachel, of course, wanted to drive. But we have rules. Rules keep my atoms together and I cannot start breaking small rules because they might set a bad example for the big ones. And the rule is, in my car, I drive.

  She flung the back door open with excessive force and waved the backseat boys up against the far door. They surged in response. Like she was the sorcerer’s apprentice and they were the waves in the well and all they could do was rise and fall with the rhythm of her manicure. I laughed a little but kept it inside my mouth so it tickled me and I had to cough. Antonia glanced at me.

  “Let’s go, bitch!” she cried.

“You got no couth.” I turned the car on, checked my lights, my mirrors, my seat placement. Antonia hated it, she always wanted to peel out of places, leave the yokels in her wake (surely anybody she left behind became a yokel), leave them gasping in wonder and disapproval. This orderly departure was anathema. She glared at me, twisting in the boy’s lap and pinching the skin on his wrists. He winced, in a confusion of sensation. I smiled pleasantly and accelerated safely and smoothly into the street. 

  “You have to get out,” came suddenly from the back. I squinted into the rearview. Rachel’s back was pressed against her door, her body canted towards them but her neck was twisted to meet my eyes in the mirror.

  “What?”

  “Stop, they have to get out.” There was a murmur, confusion from the boys.

  “Rachel, this isn’t anywhere near the park. I thought we were going to the park.”

  “Stop. Now.”

  I pulled over.

  The boys in the back slid out their side, complaining now but not really unhappy to be leaving the basilisk stare glowing at them out of the dark. 

  “All of them.”

  “Awww, Rachel, mine too?”

  “I said now.

  The floppy haired boy wiggled silently out from under Antonia. She pouted and made herself heavy, but there was no brooking that tone. Besides, I could tell he knew something was wrong. His arms and neck were all goosebumps. He closed the door carefully behind him and walked quickly away, in and out of streetlights until he was gone.

  The three of us watched him go. He was better game than the other two, who were absolute lightweights, just dandelions on the wind. I was actually a little upset.

  “What the fuck was that, Rachel?”

  “I feel sick.”

  I twisted around and looked at her. She was a sketch in the dark back there, all her fire and splutter shaded. I popped the dome light on. She looked sick. Pale green, sweating, ugly.

  “Do you think it was that nurse’s aide in the alley?”

  She nodded, gulping.

  “Drugs,” she whispered.

  “Shit. Aw shit. Okay. Let’s go to the beach and we’ll help you throw up, okay? And then we’ll get something real in your stomach.” She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the seat.

  I drove less carefully than usual getting there but Antonia couldn’t enjoy it. She kept turning in her seat to glance back. I could hear her skirt squeaking on the pleather every time she did it and it made me want to scream.

The lake parking lot loomed up on the right and I spun into it. Pay to park, but aren’t they all? I’m lucky when it comes to parking tickets. It’s a gift.

  Rachel rolled out of the back while the car was still moving and came to the ground on her knees. Her hands were white knuckled together across her belly. I rested my hands on the wheel for just a moment, to gather myself, and then I was out and beside her, bracing her lopsided weight and moving her towards the water’s edge.

  We sat her down in the sand and pulled off her shoes. She was crying now. I’d never seen Rachel cry. It made me feel desperate and loving. I rose onto my knees and picked her up under her thighs and behind her low back, scooting her forward her so that her feet dipped into the dark lake.

  She leaned over her legs and wheezed. Antonia had her rings off and scattered in the sand. She plunged her arms into the water up to the elbow and pulled them out immediately. Water poured blackly from them, more water than a surface holds, all the water wrung from a sponge.

  She closed her eyes and spread her fingers. They began to whiten and lengthen. They drooped from her hands like taffy and their ends fined into spider silk.

  “Look up, baby. It’ll be over soon.”

  Rachel moaned, but managed to lift her head. Blood vessels were bursting in her sclera, she was red and getting redder. She opened her mouth and the moon caught on her teeth for a moment.

  Antonia lifted her arms high and the rootling fingers skated across Rachel’s face and dipped, delicate, in her mouth. She lowered her hands slowly, with control. I could not see what was happening inside but I could tell when she hit the stomach because her whole body flinched as she began to absorb whatever poison the nurse’s aide had had in her system.

  “Feet in the water, Nia,” I whispered. She didn’t lift her feet but rather slid them back through the sand, keeping her weight even. She sighed as a wavelet licked up her heel and some of the strain in her face eased.

  The backs of her hands were starting to go pink by the time Rachel stopped crying. Antonia came back from somewhere and looked down, confused.

  “Oh. Is that enough?” Rachel blinked up at her, mouth filled with roots now fat and bulging with red. She tried to nod.

  Antonia grimaced. She took a step backwards but kept her weight canted forward so that she would have good control of the rate and draw her fingers smoothly and evenly from Rachel’s throat. Rachel gagged.

  The worst was over. They would both have bad hangovers tomorrow but death was not on the menu tonight. I fell back in the sand. The sky was so so high. Rachel gave a tiny burp. I sighed and rolled over to hold her, and Antonia came and clasped her from the other side. For a moment, I could feel the leaves shaking in our hair, the blood of honored sacrifices nourishing our roots, mountain sun on our bodies, mountain sage at our knees, blessings rolling out from us to a people who kissed us with their mouths and slept beneath us for true dreams.

Then it was gone and we were just tangled girls on a beach. And we were hungry again.

  

   

Story Nine – Trio

Story 8 – A Day In The Life

There’s a white ibis begging for beignets at the table across from her. Its legs and the patch of skin around its eye are a nice tender pink, not raw looking at all, just pretty and blushing. It marches. It stalks. It eyes the clustered smokers with speculation. 

  She can never smoke when it’s hot and bright like this. It seems like homeopathy gone wrong. In Korea, she knows, they eat fiercely hot soups in summer, treating fire with fire, but smoking in the sun leaves her dizzy and sinful feeling. After dusk, then it’s okay. Everything is padded with shadows and if you bump up against a bit of sin, well, it won’t hardly leave a mark. 

  She’s tired of stories where everyone’s unhappy and nobody does anything about it. She’s tired of sitting. She stands and gathers her things, sunglasses, keys, quarters.

  What’s the point if there’s no magic? She stands on the edge of the path and stares unseeing up into the Spanish moss. What’s the point if you have to shoehorn it in yourself? Parents being the magic for their kids until they’re old enough to have it destroyed. Girls in lakes pretending to be mermaids at night for the pique of the insomniacs. Churches hedging the little bit of magic they do have all around with coffee klatches and sexual abuse and bureaucracy and bullshit so it’s all tainted.

  Magical realism was the hope of her childhood, Peter S. Beagle and Francesca Lia Block and Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman and Emma Bull. Somehow they’ve made it worse though: the reassurance that in this empty bowl somewhere you will happen upon the wonderful. Well, it’s just not true, is it? They’ve set her up for failure. They were just protecting themselves from the desolation, reassuring themselves, shoehorning it in just like everybody else.

  When she talked to her guidance counselor about it, when she said just the very edge of the truth, she got a variation of her parents’ “the world just isn’t like that” speech with a side of pity and a palate cleanser of impatience. It seemed that other kids had real problems, hunger, drugs, drunk parents. Not just that there weren’t any fairies in the park.

  But it was a problem that there weren’t any fairies in the park. For her, it was a serious problem. A life or death problem. She couldn’t say that, she knew people would get upset and then it would be even worse. You can’t walk up to your grandma and say, “If there isn’t any magic, I don’t want to be alive.” She will take it amiss. People object to other people wanting to be dead, it makes them nervous about their own lives. They worry that they’re missing something.   

  Somehow she cannot stand the idea of playacting. It used to appeal. It used to ease things a little. But now the idea of some city elf with blue plastic sparkles on her lips and silicone ears coming home at night to her apartment to make macaroni and cheese and go online makes her so hurt and angry that she feels like she’s been gutpunched. She knows it’s not fair to be mad at the Ren Faire people, the convention people, the cosplayers, festival followers, ravers. They’re all trying to scrape up magic. But she is mad at them. She’s humiliated for them and for herself. Pretending. Telling these soft pointless stories about something fierce and foreign and devastating.

She used to do rituals in the sandbox at night. Digging holes and cutting her finger into them, spitting in them, whispering the words that felt most right to seal it and then covering them over. Trying to make magic wake up and pay attention to her. Trying to open a door.

  It worked once. She tries not to think about that. It went…very badly. Not at all like she expected. But that was the point. It wouldn’t fit inside her moral parameters. It was not moral in the way that she was. It was too big.

  Did it change anything, that it worked that one time? It should have. It made her more scared. It stopped her doing rituals. But it didn’t stop the longing. It didn’t stop the feeling that there should be more, that something was missing and stuck and needed help to fill out all the empty Spaces.

  It doesn’t feel so bad in wild places. Not so thin.

  She can feel her fingers losing purchase on the day. She takes a deep breath and walks to her car, rolls down the windows and drives out to Jean LaFitte to look at the alligators. Alligators are magic all on their own. And so is the pink footed ibis. So are the butterflies in her backyard. So is anything given to her that she has not earned because they have no notion of her deserving or not deserving.

  There’s magic in Barataria. It’s not the kind she wants. It’s not flamboyant, it has no set story to lull her. There’s no witches framed against the moon, or hipster cool elf tweens eating the viscera of a fox on the path, or huge ancient shacky houses rising dripping from the swamp with calliope music coming from dark windows. It’s just wild things living their lives. It’s not what she wants. But it helps.

Story 8 – A Day In The Life

Story 7 – Evil Without Malice

Sometimes a person can get so hungry that they’ll do anything to ease it. With food, this is mostly easy. Not always easy to get it, but the pain in your tummy is addressed directly and then, you are full. There are so many other hungers, my love. They don’t really operate on a one to one ratio and people can never fill them with the things they suppose. Your mum isn’t bad, she’s just hungry. I suppose I could say that about anybody, really. But we can’t see her for a while, okay? Because right now she can only feel full by giving trouble and making us cry. And it’s not just that it hurts us, love, I know. I know it hurts and we have to protect ourselves now before there’s too much erosion, it’s not just that. It’s hurting her too. She’s got a notion that this is a good thing because it makes her feel better, relieved, at peace, for a couple of days. She can’t see she’s just making that hunger a stronger, louder kind of storm in her. The wanting won’t ever stop wanting, because that’s it’s job. That’s what it is. It’s not a wrong thing. You don’t tell a horse not to be a horse. But you don’t let the horse trample your garden. Do you understand?

Drink this, there’s lots of honey in it.

Oh my poor girl. Of course she loves you. Of course she does. She just forgot how to bridle that horse. She forgot that she even can. She doesn’t remember bridles exist.

I don’t know. People can start remembering in all kinds of funny ways. Sometimes they remember if they see a horse on tv or if a kid in a grocery store goes galloping past. Sometimes they can only remember if they’ve lost every single other thing.

Yes, alright, I’ll leave the metaphor. You don’t have to be persnickety.

Did you lock the windows in your bedroom? It’s five thirty, we better get to it. Can you do the whole upstairs? Okay, bring your stuff down when you’re done and we’ll get ready.

WHAAAAT? NO, THEY’RE ON THE LEDGE. I SAID, THE LEDGE. THE LEDGE.

You got em? Okay, sling em around your neck, honey.

No, they look fine. I always liked those earmuffs. They’re festive.

Take both necklaces tonight, I think.

No, baby, I’m fine, she can’t do a goddamn thing to me.

I’ll have you know I was a swearing woman when your mother was a twinkle in my eye and I won’t be dictated to by a baby, even if you are my very favorite baby. Don’t be a prig at me, Ella.

Alright, well, I’m sorry too. I know it bothers you. I’ll only save it for very special occasions. But your mom is always a special occasion. And she’s here almost every night. So…well.

Agree to disagree. Gimme kiss. I love you too, girl, let’s get the pizza.

Sun’s down.

Which movie? Fellowship again? Let’s watch Watership Down! You have not either, and if you did you were so young you won’t remember it. Well, there’s a lot about what a person (a rabbit, I guess) looks like when wanting things metastasizes. It means spreads. No, doctors use it. It means when cancer goes from being in just one part to being in the whole body.

Alright, alright, Fellowship again.

Hey, Ella?

Ella, did you lock the front?

I know I was supposed to do the downstairs, I was just asking.

I’ll be right back, angel, you just sit. Pop those earmuffs on, okay?   

Mara, you get off of my fucking porch right now. Did you open this door? Or did one of your friends do it for you?

I don’t care if you need her. You need a lot of things, seems to me. I need you to not be this person. I guess we’re both out of luck.

Mara, you stop this. I don’t know if you can stop hurting people. It might be because I’m old or because I’m tired, but I don’t really care. All I care is that you stop hurting Ella. You can start by bringing this goddamn wind down so I can close the door!

Of course you hurt too. You won’t take a single fucking step back from your pain and your self. Yeah, tears used to work on me. But your tears haven’t run clear in a long time, my girl.

NO! Ella will NEVER NEVER come home again with marks on her. That’s all. You can’t control yourself? You can’t prioritize her? Well, you for Christ sure can’t come in this house and we don’t particularly need to go out at night for the rest of our fucking lives as far as I can see, so you can cry blood til kingdom come, it’s not going to get you anything. 

Oh Ella, baby, go back in the living room.

Ella, don’t listen.

She can’t come in, we don’t have to stand here and let ourselves soak up any of her nastiness. Pull out your necklaces, they’re stuck in the cardigan.

There she goes. I got you, I got you. I got you, my love, my own. I’m here. It’s okay. Might be time to buff up those crosses, though. Let me feed you some pizza, my heart.

I know you’re big, but when things are bad, anybody can sit in anybody’s lap. Normal rules don’t apply. When you’re big enough I’m gonna sit right down in your lap and you can sing me to sleep.

Yeah, Bram Stoker got it all wrong, huh? It’s just a mess.

Strigoi was the name before. They always come back home first.

Well, maybe some part of them misses their family but the other parts don’t know what to do with that. Maybe they feel missing someone and think it’s being hungry for someone. They can’t pull back and look at their feelings.

I think she’s still your mom. But someone can be evil without being malicious, do you see that? Selfishness and fear make evil just as easily, more easily, than wanting to hurt people.

It might be time to take some steps.

I love you too, Ella.

Press play on the goddamn thing.

Story 7 – Evil Without Malice

Story 6 – Thieving in the Modern Age

How did I end up here? Ah kid, it’s not that much of a story. And it was a long time ago.  Besides, I’m tired. It’ll be morning soon, why don’t we just wait it out, huh?

Okay okay, pipe down. If you’ll shut up for a minute I’ll tell you about it.

No, I don’t know how long ago. You lose track of time here.

So it was late October, coming up on Halloween. I had heard a nice tidbit about some local work from a guy who knew a guy. Nah, kid, I didn’t know the guy, I knew the guy who knew the guy. No, a different guy, a second guy.

Christ.

So this guy is like an internet guy, right? He does ebay, he does auction websites, antiques. Fancy stuff. One of those bums who goes to estate sales to rip off grieving widows. Piece of work, but good consistent info. So my guy that knows this guy, he calls me up one foggy day and tells me that Mr. Internet has found an absolute plum half an hour from me. It’s some lady who’s been buying gemstones for years, sapphires, emeralds, rubies, diamonds, the works. She has them shipped to her home and, see, this has been going on long enough and in large enough quantities that it has caught the attention of my unsavory friend’s unsavory friend. So, he does a little digging. Looks for any business under her name where she might be reselling the gems as jewelry or art or anything. Nothin. Okay, so, gets an associate to call around to the banks in town as said lady and say she lost her safety deposit box key and wants to arrange about getting another one. Not only does she have no safety deposit box, she has no accounts. Well, he’s starting to get a little excited now. There’s nothing like a miser who doesn’t trust banks to make a con man start drooling.

So now he hires out his digging to a specialist. Somebody who can turn a computer inside out. And this guy comes back with the info that she’s never had a bank account, she has no kind of modern home security, she’s unmarried with no dependents, and she lives a half mile from any neighbor.

  He’s tied a little too close to the lady, because they do have documented contact on the internet, so he sells the information to my friend for a tidy price.

  After looking over the whole prospect, my friend is about to come in his pants. Sorry, sorry, I mean he’s very excited. But because he is a cautious man, as well as being not inclined to do anything that might lead to a prison sentence, he calls me to scout it out. And it sounds pretty good to me, so a couple of days later I head down there to get the lay of the land.

  It was perfect. It could not have been more perfect. Isolated, sides and back surrounded by pine trees, the front yard its own whole lot, and the windows just left open. Actually open. If there was a goddamn pie sitting on the sill I could have taken it.

  Don’t get me wrong though, it was creepy. Big old victorian done in dark purples and greens, with all the plaster owls lined up along the widow’s walk. Definitely creepy. But I thought the creepy was on my side, you know? That I was the scary thing at that house.

  I had parked my car about a mile back in a grown over drive way. Nobody had lived at that place in a long time. I was posted up in the scrub across the street with snacks and water and binoculars and my tool bag, just waiting. She came out of the house in the late afternoon, maybe four thirty or five. I almost laughed when I saw her. Thin little noodle arms and a haircut that made her look like a sheep, big long wool skirt and baggy tie dye muscle shirt. The sleeves on the shirt kept sliding off her shoulders (although calling them shoulders is a courtesy) and she kept hauling them back up without really noticing. She just looked vague. She looked like a person who would lose their keys. She looked just as perfect as the location, she looked like a housebreaker’s dream.

  She came out with this big basket and walked around the huge front garden talking to herself and the plants. She was taking lumps of something out of the basket and crumbling it into the bases of the plants and then the wind came up and the plants started to move, but they weren’t moving with the wind, they were moving with her. She bent down to a thing like a rose but it wasn’t. I know roses, my dad used to grow em when I was a kid. The petal shape was all wrong   and the thorns curved up, like fingernails. You know the one I’m talking about. That thing’ll take a bite out of you, kid, watch yourself with it.

  So I’m spooked now but I know there’s a crop of gemstones in that house worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and I’m not leaving without my harvest. She wanders around with the plants for another fifteen minutes or so and then goes back inside.

  It’s starting to get pretty dark now. I go through my tool bag, make sure I have everything. Tidy up the wrappers and junk from the day. A light goes on over on the side of the house and it throws a gold trapezoid on the grass. I know where she is. I shift my bag onto my back, jostle it to make sure everything that’s going to gets the clunk out of its system, and I head across the street. 

  I go up along the right hand edge of the garden. There’s barely a path there, between the flower beds and where the trees press in. There’s a breeze going straight up my neck. My calf is cramping. I have to pee. The usual.

  I’m about halfway down that barely there path when I see movement. I stop and watch. Nothing, so I think it’s just clouds letting the moon out, but when I go forward again, it happens again. I start to walk a little faster and then the moon does come out and I see that all those freaky ass plaster owls, the bird scarers, are turning their heads. All together, like they’re pulled on a string, watching me. And I know they’re not real birds because I can see the lines of cheap paint on them, see that their lumpy talons are glued onto blocks of cement that keep them upright. But they’re still turning their heads to follow me as I run, cursing my friend, cursing the internet, wishing I never came.

  I make it to the lighted window and she’s in there, the kitchen it is, humming and mumbling and going back and forth between a table and the counter with bowls of things. I’m breathing hard and I look in at her and hate her and her house and her garden for making me scared. So I go in the side door hard (it’s unlocked, like every door here), because I’m scared and I’m hating and I want her to be scared. But when I burst into the kitchen she just looks up at me and smiles like some moron and says, “Did you need a cure?” The she sees the bag, and the balaclava sitting on my head that I didn’t pull down because let’s face it, I’m probably going to kill her now for the things I had to feel tonight, and her smile goes sideways. She looks even dumber, cloudy and confused. I’m so mad I can’t think.

  “Oh. You’re a robber.” She sighs and sets down the little paring knife on the table, pulls out a chair and flops into it. “What were you thinking of stealing?”

  My heart is beating so hard that I start to choke on my own pulse. I gag on my heartbeat. I feel insane. She sticks her tongue out at me and draws a shape in the air, then spits at my feet. As soon as the spit lands on my shoes (nice shoes, too) I can breathe again.

  “I’m sorry, I always wonder if my security is too much. I don’t like to hurt anybody, but it is correlated with the degree of evil intent and you look like you’re about to bust, so you must have pretty bad intentions?” She cocks her head at the end. I want to cry, in a way I haven’t since the third grade when Margo Rooney said stuff about my mom in front of the class, and I hated her and my mom both in a brand new way.

  The witch sniffs. It sounds like a motorcycle is stuck in her sinuses. She sighs again.

  “Please tell me what you were going to steal and why.”

  “Gemstones. For – for money, to get rich. To be rich. I don’t know.”  It feels like a really stupid thing to say in this house, in this moment.

  “Oh honey. The gems are all gone, I finished up with them weeks ago.”

  “Gone?”

  “All gone.”
  “But, but you didn’t sell them or anything, we checked.”

  “I grind them up. They’re very important for fertilizing certain plants. And certain wishes. If you want something just for pretty, I think amethyst is much nicer. I’ve never understood why diamonds are so expensive.” I feel numb.

  “Artificial shortages,” I mumble.

  “Oh!” she exclaims and smiles like we’re friends. “Smart boy, of course!”

  “What are you going to do with me?” I’m still scared but I’m not mad. The mad just washed away like a wave and now I’m tired.

  “I’m going to make you part of my security detail. You have all the expertise already and you’ll be especially good if your friends come looking, because you already know what they look like and everything if they pretend to be vacuum salesman or something.”

  “You’re…you’re going to make me part of the thing in the air that makes you scared?”

  “No, silly. I’m going to make you one of the owls. You’ll have, let’s see, Sundays and Thursdays off, room and board, medical of course (hah, the best medical you can get!), dental although owls don’t have a lot of dental needs.”

  “The owls on the railing upstairs? But-“

  “I know, it may seem unfair, but you did try to rob me and I think you were going to kill me, because the Defense Spell has only ever gone off like that on one other person and he was definitely trying to kill me. So I think it’s perfectly just, actually.”

  And then, kid, you know what happened next, because you’re up here too. And I’m here to tell you, it’s not so bad. We have some good times, and she makes really nice pies in the fall. And it’s not forever. I don’t know how long it is, but there’s guys who’ve left. They come back and visit too, bring her presents. That’s where the goat came from, one of the old guys brought it. You just gotta settle in, live your life, do the time. Hey, I hear her coming up the stairs. Aww, you smell that? Sugar cookies. Hell yeah.

Story 6 – Thieving in the Modern Age

Story 5 – Farm Life

Hey friends. So I have set myself a challenge to write a short story every day. My only goals are that they be at least a page and that they have a goldurned ending, because endings are hard. That is why they are so random! Here is another one. I love you and pie and I’m in Illinois and that’s the haps, caps.

 

At the lowest levels of the castle, beneath the storerooms of potatoes and beets, beneath the few stinking dungeon cells, there is a dark place. A place where even a candle is not permitted to shine, where a man may be killed for lighting a cigarette, where a stray firefly would be caught, excommunicated, and executed.

  This is where the Shade Pigs live. I’ve been around the world a fair bit in my life and my village is the only place I’ve ever heard of Shade Pigs, so I’ve no notion if they’re any particular breed or if they’ve just been Shade Pigs bred from Shade Pigs so long that they’ve become their own breed.

  They are black, firstly. Although how anyone knows that for certain, they haven’t told me. Seems like anything would look black in blackness. In fact, now I think of it, any description of a Shade Pig must be totally composed of hearsay, conjecture and moonshine because you can’t see the damn thing. Tchuh. Well, that doesn’t stop the minders going on about them and their great milky eyes and onyx hooves, their jet bristles and translucent tusks. Even though the minders are supposed to keep their well paid traps shut, it’s two pints of cider and they’re all scaring themselves talking about the poor beasts they slop and curse at every day.

  I suppose they’re just pretty ordinary sorts of pigs going about their piggish lives. But they do say as the darkness does something. You see, around about Halloween, they slaughter the pigs, down in the cold room beside the pens. Old Nan is the one who dresses them, and she has been blind so long that she doesn’t mind about doing it in the dark. Her fingers are so fine and sensitive that she cleans them as well as any sighted cook could. Now Nan is not one to get in her cups and she has only ever said that a pig feels like a pig, so I am more than ever inclined to think the minders are full of hooey.

  She dresses the pigs and on the morning of October the thirtieth, they build up the fire in the smoking chambers. The light of the fire mustn’t touch their flesh, so the smoke is piped through a series of grilles into the cold room where they’re hung until they are as cooked as cooked can be and no fine lady will be able to complain of worms in her belly on the following summer.

  On Halloween day, the servants black out the castle. Thrice lined curtains in every window, every chimney closed, silver and crystal hidden in cupboards, fires banked, candles snuffed. It must be bloody cold, that supper, but the family insists. Then all the servants save Old Nan are sent home to their families to have a bit of a rest and a gossip until All Souls.

  I know I said Old Nan is a closed mouth sort of cuss, and I stand by that, but the year I turned seven, just after her boy died, she came to my mother at night in need of mourning company. And my mother, who is a kindly sort, gave her apple brandy and rye bread and let her sit as long as she needed, which turned out to be all night. It put a dent in the apple brandy, I can tell you. And if there had been an equal dent in the rye bread, perhaps Nan might not have said the things she did that night, all the truths she keeps wrapped up in her belly about everyone in the village, the Family not withstanding.

  I was hidden under the loom. I was a curious child and grief was a mystery I hadn’t yet been inside. Of course, Nan just cried and carried on for about the first hour so I fell in and out of sleep. I woke and stayed awake when she began to talk about the blacksmith, and my eyes nearly popped out of my head when she said what she had to say on the miller and her family, so I was awake and listening hard when the castle and the Family and their ways came up.

  You see, it’s Nan who serves that Halloween feast. She’s the only one who knows, the only one who’s been inside.

  When dark has fallen, she carries the pigs up on her own through the night black house and lays them out on the great teak platters some great grandfather brought back from foreign parts. She rings a gong that sounds dreadfully in the emptiness and all the family files in, some orderly and prepared, some nervous and knocking into things, some rambunctious, but all silent. Their chairs scrape out and they sit while she carves and serves. It is their understanding that she then retires to the room across the hall to wait out the day. She mostly does. Their have been years, though, when she remained. Tired of the heavy mystery and the airs, tired of the nervous idle speeches of the people she serves. She remains in the room, silent. They say a prayer in some old language she doesn’t know and then they eat, like pigs themselves, gobbling and snorting and grease running down their chins, no doubt.

  Before they have half finished, they fall into faints. Each at their place, they tumble, forwards or back, on the table or on the ground and how they moan. Cries like animals, men speaking in women’s voices and women in men’s, bird calls and wailing like cats in battle. Nan says it gave her quite a turn the first time. This lasts an hour or so she thinks, and then they are quiet but breathing hard.

  That first year she listened to their panting through the night and slipped out quiet as a mole just as the dawn was coming.

  The next day, All Saints, they are furiously engaged in business. Letters and wills and land and plans, investments and travel itineraries, parties and marriages. All is arranged on this day. They sleep heavily on All Saints Night and on All Souls when everyone comes back, they’re as usual as they ever get.

  The second year that Nan stayed to watch, it progressed just exactly the same, hooting and screams and then hours of panting. I think she got a bit bored, to be honest. But she’s a cautious woman, our Nan, and didn’t go thinking to do anything foolish without all the knowledge she might get beforehand.

  Well. The third year, when they had all gone off in the swoons and were lying like dominoes and heaving away, Nan slipped up to the table and took a piece of pig for her very own, to take back to her room and find out what was what. She said it trembled in her hand as she moved through the dark rooms but I think it was she that was shaking.

  She lay down on the cot in her room across the hall and she ate that piece of pork. It tasted of earth and smoke and night. It tasted like the half hour before a storm hits. It tasted like waiting for something bad to happen.

  She hushed then and gulped brandy and rocked on her chair. Mother, I could tell, was mostly asleep but she made an encouraging hum and Nan went on.

  She dreamed the future that night. She saw births and deaths, gains and loss, spring through winter of the coming year. She dreamed of holding her boy, Owen, as he burned with fever through a long long night but the vision broke up as that day’s dawn came and she was whirled into other nights. She would see only the things that happened in darkness. Secret things. Hard things. Night things.

  She kept Owen inside all that year, to keep him safe from sickness or injury or whatever evil seed would grow the fever that wracked him through her dream night. But lack of movement made him listless and lack of sun made him sickly and he died anyway.

  Nan wasn’t crying anymore by this time. Mother was snoring quietly. I had my right fist stuffed into my mouth to keep quiet when I positively heaved with excitement.

  I was just small and didn’t know how to hurt with the hurt of others. All I could think of was magic and knowing the future and looking down at the world like a god, to right all petty wrongs and to make a glorious fortune for myself.

  Nan scraped up out of her chair and rustled her shawl around herself. She capped the brandy and made her way to the door by feel, thumping her hand along the wall joists. I heard the door open, a small sigh, and then she was gone.

  I am twenty now, and Old Nan is very old indeed, not as strong as she was and rheumatic to boot. I have been many places and seen many things but the mystery of the Shade Pigs, the mystery of my home, still knocks around inside me. I am back to stay, my ruined eyes almost healed and a job as Nan’s assistant waiting for me. This is the year I will eat of their meat. This is the year I will know my future.

Story 5 – Farm Life

Story 4 – Under The Influence of Agatha Christie

A diner is a terrible place for a murder. Cramped. Dirty. The air is already positively saturated with the smells of thin coffee and old grease so that when a quantity of blood is added to that mixture, it becomes very difficult indeed to breathe easily.

  I would not have chosen the diner, no, I would not have. But it turned out to be the best place for it. He adhered to such a rigid schedule, you know. At his office there was always security, at his home, the dogs. I suppose I could have dealt with the dogs but I have always been fond of animals, and while I admit to the charge of murder, I should not like to add cruelty to my list of sins. It seems much heavier, somehow.

  Because of course, he did need to be killed. I think you can all see that. You might hem and haw and turn to page ten in your bibles, look at me reproachfully and say, “Thou shalt not kill, Miss Dorsey.” And you’re very right to say so. Normally, one should not kill. But there are times, you see, when an antibiotic is required. Anti-life. It sounds dreadful, and it is dreadful to think of oneself as being an agent of anti-life. But it’s no good weeping and carrying on about killing the weeds in your garden, or the worms in your puppy, or the virus in your lungs, because death is required in order for life to flourish. It’s a hard thing to think about, especially now when we are all so distant from the farmyard and the deathbed. But if you will set aside for a moment your dreadful pink and blue nursery school morality, you will see that I am quite right.

  So, it had to be the diner. He takes that huge beastly car there on his way to work every morning, taking up quite three spots on Wafer St. (which is as thin as its name) It was there that I waited, with my chipped mug of coffee, both weak and bitter. Quite good eggs, though, and decent toast. Not really good, not like it used to be, but acceptable.

  I sat in the far corner from the door, facing the counter, my profile towards him when he came in. He was a rather stupid man, not very observant. Not one to remark profiles. Even though mine is very like my son’s. 

  Well, of course, he sat at the counter, where he always sits. He was very rude to the beautiful dark young man cooking because he didn’t drop his spatula and grovel immediately. He’s been going there for years and just doesn’t care to notice that the cooks don’t take orders from customers. He was just starting to yell when the nice red-haired waiter with the round face came up and poured a lot of soothing talk in his ear. He let himself be gradually soothed but you could tell he was enjoying making everyone around him nervous of his temper. A power play. He was truly vile. Yes, ma’am, you in the back. You’ve worked in service? Myself as well, we know the kind.

  So the waiter took his order and was fiddling with something at the drink dispenser, the cook was over the grill with his shoulders hunched like he was expecting to be hit. I have never worked a grill but I should not like to have my back to so many strangers all day.

  He spread his paper out and planted his elbows practically in the plates of the people beside him. And I just pushed my chair out, folded up my napkin and tucked some money under my plate, walked up behind him and cut his throat with Joe’s old straight razor.

  And it was actually rather good planning, you see, because the paper kept the blood from flying everywhere. I worry a bit about the nice boys who were working, especially the cook. It’s not good for sensitive people to see great quantities of blood. But the representative who came to visit me said they’d be getting therapy, so I hope they’ll be alright.

  He died quickly, but there was so much blood! I suppose it’s good they have tile floor there rather than wood, because it would have stained wood, but it pooled in a nasty way on the tile.

  After I was quite sure that he was dead, I walked out the door and sat down on the bench by the picture window. I just sat and looked at the clouds until the police came and arrested me, and booked me, or whatever you call it. They sent me a pubic defender but I can’t imagine he would have done a very good job. He would have lied to you, I’m afraid. He would have had to if he had any sense of duty in his work. He would have tried for an insanity plea, told you that I was out of my mind with grief and didn’t know what I was doing, which is nonsense. Or he might have tried for a guilty plea with extenuating circumstances, that it was revenge for my dear Joe, my beloved boy, and a mother avenging her child was almost akin to self defense. Which is also nonsense. Of course, I miss Joe terribly, and I should not have embarked on this path if he remained in this world. But more than anything, Joe’s death drew my attention to a wrinkle where the world should be smooth. I have endeavored to smooth it. I know that that is not what you’re supposed to say, and that telling the truth when you’re not supposed to is it’s own kind of insanity, but I was raised in an old fashioned way, and I have not forgotten what my dear mother used to tell me, even if the rest of the world has. It’s a sin to tell a lie.

Story 4 – Under The Influence of Agatha Christie

Story 3 – Written Under Self Imposed Duress

This is a tale of a cover band. But not just any cover band. A cover band who reached for heights undreamt of, who opened their calloused palms to receive a gift of the muse spurned by those around them. A gift that traditional halls of music cried out against. A cover band who didn’t let the shortsighted critics, the petty, puling masses or their own faithless families deter them from the truth. Harmony, phat beats, and God were their guiding star. They were The BeachGee Boys. And this is their story. 

“Hey, Sam.”

“What?”

“Heh, what-what if, listen. Shut up, dude, just listen. What if we did, like, a cover of Surfer Girl but had the track to No Sleep til Brooklyn behind it?”

“That’s stupid.”

“No, no, listen. We’d be….The Beachie Boys.”

“Woah.”
“Yeah.”

“But how would people know it was still Surfer Girl if it just sounds like No Sleep?”

“We keep the words and we do fuckin’ sick stacked harmonies but that go with No Sleep chords instead.”

“Dude, there’s like no melody to that song. I don’t even know if it has chords.”

“Of course it has chords, it’s a song, dude.”

“Um, not all songs have chords. Lime in the Coconut is one chord.”

“Seriously.”

“Dude, yes.”

“Fuuuck, man. Well, how do we do it, then?”

“DUDE. OH SHIT, DUDE.”

“What? What?”

“Dude, what if we add another band to the band mashup?”

“Why? Beachie Boys is perfect. You can’t ruin it with some other band, it’ll mess up the name. Man, don’t mess up my name, okay? It’s like the best one I’ve thought of in a really really long time and I need this right now. Clara left and Mom’s sick and, like, everything’s just so shitty, I just need this, okay?”

“Bro, I will not mess up the name. Listen. Are you ready?”

“Dude, what, just say it.”

“Are. You. Ready?”

“JUST SAY IT, SAM, FUCK.”

“The BeachGee Boys.”

“……….”

“WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT, BEACHGEE? THAT ISN’T EVEN A THING, IT DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE. THAT SOUNDS FUCKING STUPID, JESUS, SAM!”

“Mike, dude, it’s The Beach Boys and The Beastie Boys and The BeeGees!”

“Woah.”

Right?!

“Woah, okay. We could have a drum machine AND a real drummer! And Mike Leblanc who lives on the other side of Kroger has a killer falsetto, I bet he would be down. Actually, he would totally be down, his mom just got married again and he needs to get out of the house.”

“YES, YES! Dude, yes!”

“This is so sick.”

“So so sick.”

“Sick.”

Yes, there’s a lot of stars in the firmament, but I don’t know if one ever shone so brightly as…The BeachGee Boys.

Story 3 – Written Under Self Imposed Duress