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Let’s do it again, will we?
Welcome to yet another issue of Beorh Quarterly!
Beth J. Whiting wows us with ‘The Playground,’ another of her abrupt and beautiful takes on the strange existence many of us, for convenience, like to call ‘America.’
Then Noel Armstrong gives us terror as only two boys could experience it–and as only a student of the ‘other’ Speculative Fiction could write it.
Annie Blake then wows us with her prose poem ‘The Tenacity of Sin.’ This one gets right to the heart of the matter, maybe especially when people ask ‘What’s the matter?’
Need more fresh perspective? Thought so. Give ‘The Bundle’ by Hall Jameson a whirl…
and if you still need more inspiration, take ‘One Day at the Anthill’ by Jon Beight for a spin. You won’t be sorry, because, after all, these are the best stories out there!
a story by
Beth J. Whiting
Alison and Martin had been friends for ten years now. Martin remembered that, at seven, they had been enemies. He had been a bully, and taunted her. Something changed, though, to make them friends. His memory was kind of fuzzy on that point. Since Alison was his best friend, it made sense that he would tell her first about what he discovered in the playground. He took Alison there himself to show her. She was skeptical. “Why are you taking me to our elementary school playground?”
He had to admit it was kind of weird. Only, he had been babysitting his sister when it happened. He found a time portal. “It’s kind of by the veranda.”
The playground was huge. Most of it was land. There was a playground with swings and slides in the middle, with a sandbox. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. Alison laughed when she saw Martin feeling in the air for a portal.
“Come on! This is stupid.” Then Alison saw Martin disappear, and then jump back.
Alison was suspicious. “What is it then?”
“It’s a time portal for going in the past.”
Her face turned gray. She seemed disturbed. “Let’s not do that. I think we should let the past be the past.”
“Nonsense. The thing about it is that you don’t choose what time that you go to. It’s strange. I saw you and me and we were in junior high together.” He laughed. “Like I would like to relive those days.”
“I don’t want to do it.”
Martin grabbed at Alison’s hand. “Come on don’t be such a chicken.”
Alison let him suck her into the portal. Soon they weren’t in the playground anymore. They were in a house. Only they were invisible to the people in the room. It was Alison’s house. There was Alison, ten years old. She looked pinker in the face, but still the same. She had rosy cheeks. Her blonde hair was put in braids, and she wore a pretty white dress. It was a special occasion. It was her tenth birthday. Martin was there as well. Although he looked like a shrimp compared to now. He was shorter than her. He had the same black hair and dark eyebrows. Other children were gathered around the table as Alison blew out her cake.
Martin said, “See this is a good memory. I don’t see why you are so afraid.”
“For every good memory, there’s a bad one to replace it.”
“That’s not true. I think we have more good memories in this life than bad.” But then that was Martin. He was always more optimistic than Alison. “Come on, Alison. Let’s try one more.”
“I have things to do today,” she said, nervous.
“Fine. But we have to come back here.”
Martin wouldn’t let it go. For a week he talked of the portal and nothing else. “It’s interesting, but the portal won’t let you go to another time period. Like, say I wanted to go to the 1800’s and invent the computer and become a millionaire. I can’t do that. For some reason, the portal only connects to your own lifetime. It only explores your memories. It’s kind of disappointing if you ask me. Just yesterday I had to see my five year old self fall off a bike.”
This constant talk was enough to make Alison snap and say yes, she would go to the portal again. So they went to the portal. Only Martin was the one who turned out to be disappointed. The portal sent them to the first grade.
He saw Alison walking alone. She was less attractive than she was now. She didn’t take showers often then, and the dirt on her showed. She wore some mismatched clothes. His friends and he came from behind her and threw her books down. They laughed. Alison looked sad and had to bend down and get her books.
When they came back, Martin justified himself. “Yeah, I was a real jerk back then in the first grade. We both know that. What? Does the portal want to punish me?”
“The portal might choose random memories. I told you this was a bad idea. We should not mess with this portal. The past in meant to be left in the past.”
Martin may have seemed depressed by the last episode, but he was real antsy to go to the portal the next week. Alison reluctantly went with him. It sent them to the first grade again.
Martin had a slip of paper in his hand. He knew this memory right away. The other day the kids had a poll in the class to see who the three prettiest girls were. Well, now he had gotten the class to do a poll of the ugliest girls. Alison was on top of the list. Once the poll was announced, Alison cried. The teacher got upset and threatened detention to the person who made this poll to begin with. The kids ratted on Martin.
Martin thought that the portal would close this memory now, but it didn’t. It focused on Alison. She got up and took her backpack. She left the classroom. The teacher tried to stop her, but Alison was too upset to be stopped. She began to walk home. It was a long way. The whole time, she looked agitated, wiping her eyes. Her face was red. Finally, Alison stopped at her white suburban house. Then she went inside and started looking through the kitchen. She went through the cupboards in a messy way and found a box of matches. She went across the street to Martin’s blue house. She found the door unlocked. She threw a lighted match onto their carpet. Then she ran back across the street and went inside her own house. She called the police. Then she watched from her lawn as the fire rose up in Martin’s house. The portal ended then.
Martin looked at Alison with anger. That was what that started that friendship – that incident. She had been the one who called about his house being on fire. He thought she was brave. Finding that she was the one who started it changed things.
Martin yelled. “Someone could have burned in there!”
“But no one did. I was a bit of a criminal when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I began making friends that it stopped.”
“That doesn’t excuse your behavior!”
“We’ve been friends for ten years. Can’t you let this go?”
“You burned my house down!” Martin was boiling red.
“But I promise you that I didn’t do anything more after that.”
“How can I know that?”
“You’ve been my best friend for years. Can’t you trust me? You can’t just let ten years slip like that.”
“That’s why I’m going to the portal alone to find out what you’ve done these past ten years.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
a story by
I’d smelled this before. When I was a child I took the magnifying glass from my father’s desk and held it over a dead rat in the field behind our woodpile. I focused the sun to a white-hot pinpoint on the rat’s belly and breathed in the single line of smoke rising from its burning fur. The smoke bit sharply into my nostrils and flooded my eyes with tears. I dropped the glass and backed away choking and coughing.
But it was different now, after Jonah. This time I let the smoke engulf me, nearly overwhelm me. It filled my eyes and mouth, flooded my lungs, entered the pores of my filthy skin and seeped in through my matted hair. Still I did not back away from this fire. I watched it as flames burned dried skin to airy cinders that floated up with the breeze. I watched it as muscle and sinew were scorched to charcoal. I tell you I did not back from this fire until I saw bones split open and the marrow inside boil and spit.
I remember the summer afternoon when Pepper wandered into my yard. Gordon Shute and I were playing army, facing off with broom handle guns from ten feet apart and blasting each other a million times dead. As we started to argue about who was hit Pepper, Gordon’s German shepherd, wandered out from the alfalfa field by the lawn. The way she moved made us lower our weapons and stare.
“She looks goofy,” I said. “Look at her smile.”
“She’s not goofy, Spence,” Gordon said. “She’s panting. She’s hot.”
“She’s wobbly,” I said. “And her smile is goofy. Something’s wrong with her.”
“Pepper?” Gordon called to her. “What’s wrong, girl?”
Pepper took a few more steps and collapsed. As she lay there panting we saw that the skin of her left side was torn down in a rectangular flap, showing her ribs and muscle like a hanging beef.
“Spencer? Gordon? What’s wrong with Pepper?” my dad asked. We hadn’t seen him come from behind us. Gordon dropped his stick gun and I hid mine behind my back.
“She’s all torn up,” Gordon said. “Look at her—she’s dying!”
My dad went to Pepper with soothing sounds and checked her wound. “Gordon,” he said in the same soothing voice, “run and get your dad. Tell him to bring the station wagon.”
Pepper was almost still, but her breathing was shallow and quick like the effort was costing her. When Gordon’s dad came with the station wagon she allowed the men to move her to a blanket and lift her in with only a few whines of protest.
But once Pepper was in the back of the wagon and Gordon’s dad tried to move a corner of the blanket from her wound something happened. Pepper began to cry out with sounds that made my hair hurt. I had to plug my ears against her yipping screams as she snapped at the blanket and fought weakly to get to her feet.
“What’s happening?” Gordon asked.
“I don’t know!” Gordon’s dad shouted trying to keep her from jumping from the wagon.
“Leave the blanket,” said my dad. “It’s sticking to her like it’s glued.”
“Gordon, get in,” said Gordon’s dad, slamming the wagon’s tailgate. “Let’s just get her to the vet.”
I watched as they drove down the dirt road, Gordon’s face pale, his father trying to drive with one hand while trying to reach back and calm Pepper with the other, and Pepper’s cries echoing from inside the wagon.
My dad and I watched them for a few seconds until the car turned out of sight. “What happened to her?” I asked. “What was that?”
“Got me,” my dad said as he wiped his hands on his shirt. “She got into it with something, it’s anyone’s guess what.” He was right. Pepper was the alpha dog of the area, a ninety pound shepherd with no rivals, domestic or wild. She had ranged unleashed and unchallenged through the hills and mountains season after season, sometimes being gone for days at a time.
“Me neither,” I said. “Pepper can eat anything.”
“Maybe so, Spence,” my dad said with a hint of a smile. “But there are things. A mountain lion with cubs. A bear. She’d have a hell of a time with a bear.”
“You told me there were none. Not around here.”
My dad shrugged. “That’s what I can’t figure.”
“Not in a hundred years, you said.”
“I did, didn’t I? Ah, well, it’ll be nothing exciting,” said my dad. “She probably got hung up in a barbed-wire fence or thought she could push around one of Hal Shuler’s bulls.”
I thought he must be right. It would turn out to be something boring. It always did. Only later did I realize that the whole time we talked he was staring at the woods two thousand feet up the face of Mt. Loafer.
We lived in an unincorporated town called Salem Hills on the high desert bench of Mt. Loafer. It was a town full of dry, prickly things: stinging nettles, blow snakes, and the descendants of Mormon pioneers. We called it a town and gave it a name, but it was really just a few scattered houses connected by rutted roads and bad plumbing. We ran out of water so often that I can remember feeling lucky when I turned on the faucet and something besides mud and air came out.
Over the years my own dogs had come home from the hills with porcupine quills in their muzzles, skunk spray in their fur, cactus needles in their paws, or what we called “ear seeds” that made them cry out every time you touched their heads. But they had never been torn up like Pepper, and they were runts, little dogs that didn’t let any beating change their opinions of their high status.
I went to Gordon’s house later to see what happened at the vet’s. I kept thinking about the way Pepper had been crying as they drove away. I was sick with surety that Pepper had died or been put to sleep, but I was wrong on both counts. The Shute’s station wagon pulled into their driveway two hours after it left. Pepper, shaved, sutured, and coned, slept in the back.
“What happened, Gordon?” I asked. “What happened to her?”
Gordon shrugged and looked at his dad. Mr. Shute said, “Something got at her. You two give me a hand.” Together we lifted Pepper from the back of the car and lowered her to a mat in the garage. It was a clumsy move, but she didn’t even stir. When I left she was still sleeping soundly.
Three days later Pepper was trotting around Salem Hills, cone off, and her shaved fur was the only evidence that anything had even happened to her. I pestered my dad with questions and theories until I wore him out, but after a few days of ‘don’t knows’ and ‘maybe so’s,’ I gave up talking to him about it. Gordon and I, though, talked about almost nothing else.
“Where are you going?” I asked my dad. It was a week after Pepper had been injured. I found him in the garage filling a canteen, wearing a backpack and a wide-brimmed hat.
“Hiking,” he said firmly.
“You’re going hiking?” My dad liked to look at the mountains, liked to drive his truck to camp sites and light a fire. But he had never, to my knowledge, simply walked around on a mountain for the pleasure of it. He was as likely to delve into the poetry of Rumi or listen to a David Bowie album as he was to go hiking.
“Yes, hiking,” he said. “Mr. Shute and I are going to go exploring, have an outing.” He closed the canteen, said, “And no, you can’t come. Someone needs to change the water on the rows.”
“No buts,” he snapped. “No buts.”
Gordon and I met in my yard as soon as our dads left.
“They took Pepper,” Gordon said. “And my dad took his guns.”
“Guns? They took guns?” I paced back and forth, looking up at the face of Mt. Loafer. “Where are they going? Did your dad tell you?”
“Wouldn’t tell me,” he said. He waited for a few seconds then added, “But I figured it out.”
“You did? How? Where?”
“I heard my mom talking to him,” Gordon said. “My dad said Pepper was well enough to go to the hollow. My mom was upset. She said he was being reckless. Guess what my dad said?”
“What?” I asked, rolling my hand in a hurry up gesture.
“He told her,” Gordon said, “that it was reckless not to go. He said they had to do something, because anything that could do that to Pepper was dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” It’s a sacred word to a boy, and I said it with reverence.
My brain felt hot. I couldn’t keep still. What could drag my dad up the side of a mountain? Why the secrecy, the talk of danger? And the guns? Gordon and I couldn’t believe we were being left out. We were sure it was the only time in our lives anything ever had happened or ever would happen.
“They’re hunting,” I said. “They’re taking Pepper so she can track whatever it is that ripped her open. Then they’ll shoot it. And it’s not Hal Shuler’s bull and not some barbed-wire fence.”
“Yep,” said Gordon. “And you know what else? They’re nervous.”
“What should we do?” I asked. But I didn’t have to. Ten minutes later we went for provisions. We filled two canteens. I handed Gordon our small camp ax and I shouldered a training bow and a quiver of three arrows.
“We can catch them easy,” said Gordon. “They’re old.”
Elation. We were not only stalking our fathers, which alone would have made for a good day’s work, we were stalking whatever they were stalking. It was like we were some kind of secret double-agent hunting spies.
“Is this the way they went?” I asked Gordon. We had been walking for only a few minutes, but the dirt was hard and I couldn’t see any sign of our dads.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “This is it for sure.”
We walked for what seemed like a long time, up the face of Mt. Loafer, following a path that got steeper with every step. Old or not, our dads were proving harder to catch than Gordon said. We were breathing hard, my thighs were burning, and sweat was prickling in my hairline. I hit my canteen again and again, taking sips and then gulps. After the twentieth drink it was empty. A drip of water, too small to get my lips wet, was all that came out.
“Hold up,” I said. “My canteen’s out.” I held it upside down and shook it.
Gordon unscrewed his lid and took a tiny sip. “You should do it like that,” he said. “I have a gallon left in mine.”
Nothing was less helpful than that advice. “Let’s just rest a minute,” I said.
I sat on a stump and shed my pack. Somewhere along our hike the scrub oaks and sage brush had yielded to stouter pines and maples. The dry, brown dirt of Salem Hills was now a darker loam. In the trees above us a jay squawked as it crowded a pair of yellow warblers off a limb.
Gordon saw where I was looking and shook his head. “I hate those birds,” he said.
“Which birds?” I asked.
“Just all of them,” he said. I looked over at him and he shrugged. “They give me the creeps. I saw a magpie picking at a dead cat on the road. I could see pieces of the cat in its beak.”
“Yeah, it had to lift its beak to get the pieces down its throat.”
“I’ll never eat a cat again,” I said.
Gordon eyed me. “They’d eat you just the same as that dead cat—if they could.”
“Well, they can’t,” I said, but the thought was a little unsettling. “I like them anyway, even the magpies. My dad says they’re smart. If you cut their tongues in half they’ll speak English.”
“My dad says they’re flying maggots,” Gordon said.
I could see this wasn’t getting us anywhere. My breath was back. “We should get going,” I said. “Are you ready?”
I hefted my pack and began walking before Gordon had a chance to answer. He scrambled to his feet and fell in step beside me. Soon we were deep in the trees, and the shade made the climb easier. It became easier still when the trail leveled out, and then we were descending a short rise into a grassy clearing.
“We made it,” Gordon said. “Loafer Hollow.”
“How do you know?” I asked. “You’ve never been here.”
“Look around,” he said. “Where else could we be?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Anywhere.” But from what I’d heard I thought Gordon was right. The clearing stretched out for a hundred yards in all directions. It was a nearly flat meadow of tall, thick-bladed grass bordered by firs and quaking aspens. The grass was damp, and the air smelled like wet worms and pine sap.
“Which way do we go?” Gordon asked. The trail divided into three separate paths from where we stood.
I shrugged. “We’ll find our dads’ tracks and follow them. They couldn’t get through here without making tracks.”
“I’ll start this way,” Gordon said. He went to the left, searching the ground as he walked.
I turned right and did the same, scanning the trail and grass as I made my way to the tree line. I found a set of cloven, crescent-shaped imprints and said, “Deer.”
Gordon was several yards away. “What?” he asked.
“Deer,” I said louder. “Tracks from a deer.”
“Who cares about a deer?”
“I don’t,” I said. “And it’s more than you found.”
“Yeah, nothing here,” he said.
We came back to where we’d started our search. “One trail left,” I said. Gordon didn’t say anything. He was staring to the edge of the hollow. “What?” I asked him. “What’re you looking at?”
He looked down at the ground like there was something troubling him.
“What’re you thinking?” I asked. “You’re acting weird.”
“What if we don’t find our dads?” asked Gordon. “What if we find the thing that ripped up Pepper first? Or what if it finds us?”
Gordon’s words were like a doorknob rattling in an empty house. A drop of sweat ran down my neck and I slapped at it like it was a hornet. “Jeeze, Gordon,” I said.
“Well, you thought about it. You had to. Nothing could do that to Pepper.” He was right, but he shouldn’t have said it. Some things you don’t say. My mother taught me that you give the Devil power if you even mention his name, and Gordon had done just that. It was an unwritten rule in Salem Hills—maybe in all of Utah—that if you bring up a problem you become the problem, and problems lower the value of your common stock. That rule extended to everything from family conflicts to doubts about the historicity of talking donkeys, towers built to Heaven, or snakes that herded cattle across the ancient Americas.
Gordon turned around and looked back the way we came. “What should we do, Spence?”
“We should find our dads,” I said.
“You don’t want to go back?” he asked. “Back home?”
“No way,” I said, raising the bow. “We’ll be all right.”
Gordon looked from my bow to his camp ax. He bounced it in his hand a little, ran a thumb along its edge, then sized up my bow. He did not look reassured. “I guess,” he said. “Let’s go.”
We followed the path across the clearing and up a hill to a forest. I’m sure it was a beautiful place, full of aspens and maples, flowers and butterflies, but it wasn’t beautiful to us. The sun looked like a pat of cold butter far behind the trees. The birds sounded put upon. Even the trees even seemed to lean in like they resented our intrusion. Gordon and I had lost our strut, and it wasn’t because we were tired. Everything was different.
“Why did you have to go and scare us like that?” I asked.
Gordon knew exactly what I meant. “Who’s scared?” he asked. “Are you scared?”
“No,” I said. “No thanks to you and your talk.”
“Good,” he said. “Neither am I.”
We walked into the forest, sullen and deflated, leaving Loafer Hollow behind. I regretted making us go on. I wanted to turn around. But I wasn’t about to admit it.
“Watch out,” Gordon said. I had walked right into his back.
“Why’d you stop?” I asked. “What are you looking at?”
“Here, we’ve been walking all over them.” He pointed to an indentation in the soil, flat, wide, and poorly defined.
“Big deal,” I said, wishing I’d seen it first. “That could be anything.”
“Could be,” he said. “But it isn’t. Look back there and look up here. They’re footprints.”
He was right. Prints, all about the same size and shape, wandering on and off the trail. They were unmistakable. On some we could see five toes.
“They’re human,” he said. “Or pretty close.”
I put my shoe into one of the footprints. “Look how big they are,” Gordon said.
I nocked an arrow in the bow. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“What do we do?” asked Gordon.
“I’ll cover our tail,” I said, since I’d heard it in a movie. “You take the front.” I turned around and readied the bow. Gordon raised the camp ax to port arms. Gordon and I walked back-to-back as he followed the footprints and I swept the bow back and forth across the trees behind us, looking for any signs of movement.
“Do you have to crunch every stick as loud as you can?” Gordon hissed at me over his shoulder.
“I’m walking backwards!” I said. “And your breathing sounds like an air raid siren.”
“Well I have allergies,” he said. “You could step anywhere you want.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. I turned to Gordon and said, “Shhh!”
When I turned back I saw something move in the trees twenty feet away. My breathing stopped. It was huge, with white fur and bulging eyes. Eyes that were watching us.
I drew the bow and loosed an arrow before I could think. As the arrow spun off into the trees, Gordon looked back, screeched, and ran for his life, throwing the ax in the dirt.
I might have shot another arrow, but what was the use? Compared to the thing behind us my bow felt like a toy, and my arrows seemed like matchsticks tipped with gum wrappers. All ballast. I threw the bow in the dirt a few feet from Gordon’s hatchet and ran after him.
We flew from the creature. I didn’t dare to look back to see if it was following. My nerves knew it was; knew that claws were about to rip up my heel cords and teeth were inches from my spine. I had only one goal: Pass Gordon! I had to get Gordon between the white thing and me. It’s not something I’m proud of, but Gordon wasn’t helping me pass him, either.
“Oohh Lord!” A voice cried from behind us. “I’m shot!”
Then I knew. My brain caught up with my nerves and I knew. It hadn’t been a monster in the trees, it had been a man. And from the sound of the racket he was raising, my arrow had hit him.
“Help me oh Lord!” He was wailing loud enough to wake the dead. “Aaaahhh!”
“Gordon,” I gasped. “It’s a man! I shot a man!”
Gordon didn’t slow. He shouted “Good!” and kept on running.
“Wait!” I said. “We have to help him!” But Gordon was having none of it. He didn’t turn back and didn’t waste his breath answering me.
The man started howling like an arched cat. It was unbearable to hear. My mind flashed with gruesome images: the man pinned to a tree by my arrow like a mounted beetle; the man with my arrow protruding from each side of his neck like Frankenstein’s bolts; the man reaching deep into his opened gut to try and pull the bloody shaft of my arrow out.
I slowed, came to a stop. I had to do something. But what could I do? I was terrified of the man and terrified of what I’d done. I stayed low and crept back toward him. I spotted him, lying on the ground in a fetal ball. He didn’t see me. Yet. I couldn’t stand to hear him suffer, but I wouldn’t even think about going to help him. I could only think of one thing to do. I walked back a few steps and shouted, “Gordon.” I listened. No answer. “Gordon!”
“Hey you kid!” I turned back to see that the man was no longer writhing on the ground. He was glaring at me. As I stared back he pushed to his feet and came for me. “You! Stop!”
He marched toward me like a soldier on drill. I wouldn’t believe I could literally be frozen by terror if I hadn’t experienced it at that moment. Not only couldn’t I move, I couldn’t think.
He held my arrow up and shouted, “Stay your course, Loo-see-fur!” He was a bizarre man, shirtless and barefoot, clothed only in a pair of ragged Levis and a sheepskin that he draped on his shoulders like a cape. The huge eyes I had seen in the trees were a pair of thick-rimmed glasses with coke-bottle lenses.
He stopped in front of me, leaned into my face. “Ha!” he said. “You failed again!” His breath was rotting teeth and tonsil nuggets. He pointed to a small bruise on his stomach. No bloody hole, no slippery guts, just a little dark spot on the skin. He broke the arrow on his thigh and tossed it into the dirt.
I found my voice, said, “I didn’t mean to hurt…”
“Lies! You’re the child of Leviathan!”
“No, sir! Gordon’s dog was hurt…” I said. “Something hurt Pepper….”
“Dog?” he asked. His eyes darted around. “Where’s a dog?”
“Pepper’s not here. She’s Gordon’s dog,” I said. I knew I was rambling, but the words just came out. “She was torn up.”
“Shhhhh!” Spit flew from between his teeth. He grabbed the back of my head in one hand and clamped his other hand over my mouth and nose. “He’s here, eyes on us, somewhere.” His fingers were damp and smelled like pit sweat. I tried to pull away but he pressed harder, pressed until it hurt. “Looking for a torn dog?” he asked. “Leviathan has a pile of them.”
I couldn’t get enough air. My chest heaved with the effort. I tried to scream, tried to push his hands away, tried to punch his arms and chest. My blows felt as weak against him as birds fluttering against a wall.
At last he pushed me away. I fell to the ground gasping.
“You know the pile,” he said. He wiped the hand that had covered my mouth on his sheepskin. “You know Leviathan.”
“No sir,” I said. “I don’t know any of that.”
“You know!” he said. He moved close, loomed over me, tapped a finger on his temple, “Jonah the Lamb discerns you. Every damned last one of you.”
“No,” I said. I crab-crawled back, trying to open enough space to stand and run.
“The light of truth,” Jonah the Lamb said, “confounds the darkness.” He snatched up the broken arrow, pointed the tip at me as I backed away.
“I’ve chased Leviathan across the Earth,” he said, “Chased his servants!” He bent down and grabbed my ankle.
“Stop it—let go of me!” I shouted. “Gordon! Help me!” I tried to jerk free, but his grip felt like an iron manacle.
Jonah raised the arrow to the sky and studied it for a few seconds. I kicked and twisted until I thought my knee would fail but it was no use. The manacle just got tighter. Jonah began to lower the arrow.
Then total confusion followed. Jonah’s sheepskin seemed to fly from his shoulders. He buckled forward. The arrow fell from his hand. I jerked free of his grip. Jonah cursed and put a hand to his shoulder and blood seeped from between the fingers. He looked around frantically and saw Pepper. Pepper! She had Jonah’s sheepskin in her mouth. She sharked it back and forth, worried it to dandelion fluff.
“Come on!” Gordon yelled. He was behind me, dragging me to my feet. “Run!”
“Where’d you come…?”
“Jeeze!” Gordon yelled, tugging me along. “Let’s go!”
Pepper dropped the skin and went for Jonah. He screamed and kicked to ward her off but she was too quick. She dodged, lunged and snapped, retreated and growled. She positioned herself between Jonah and us, nipped his feet and backed him up, not letting him turn to the right or left. Jonah cursed and flailed at her with his good arm.
I was starting to fade. Jonah, Pepper, Gordon, all of it had moved far into the distance. I could see Jonah’s mouth shouting, could see Gordon yelling something at me, but their words sounded like they came from the bottom of a mine.
“What’s wrong with you?” Gordon was right in my face. He pulled me forward and I followed, holding his arm until my head began to clear. It took several seconds, but I began to steady.
“I’m okay, I can run,” I said to Gordon, and we did. I followed Gordon, watching only his back and the branches that whipped my face and neck. A narrow game trail out of the woods, a grassy slope by the side of a ridge, into more trees.
When Pepper caught up to us we slowed to a walk. My legs were shaking. My eyes stung with the threat of tears.
“What a creep,” Gordon said. “Is he the one? Did he hurt Pepper?”
“I don’t know.” I said. “I hate his guts.” Tears came then, and I turned from Gordon to wipe them.
Gordon pretended not to notice. We walked in silence as the trail we were on grew fainter and faded away entirely.
“Where are we going?” Gordon asked.
“I thought you knew.” I said. “You were in front.”
“Then let’s follow Pepper,” I said.
“She doesn’t know anything,” Gordon said.
“Well it has to be downhill,” I said. “We’ll just go downhill.”
We walked a little further and came to the top of a ravine. Gordon and I looked back and forth at it and each other. I didn’t want to think about turning back. I wanted a hundred miles between Jonah the Lamb and me.
“We can follow this,” I said.
“No one will see us if we walk along the bottom,” Gordon said, and we started into the ravine. But we felt it right away. Something was wrong. Pepper wouldn’t follow us.
Gordon tugged my arm. “You hear that?” he asked.
I did. A high-pitched buzzing noise. It was faint, but getting louder.
“What is it?” I asked. Gordon didn’t answer. He couldn’t hear me. The buzzing became intense, like impact wrenches going off in my head. It hurt my ears and I covered them with my hands. I saw Gordon do the same, but it wasn’t helping. The sound seemed to get in through our mouths, our nostrils, the pores in our skin.
I don’t trust my memories of what happened after that. The sound is overwhelming. A million needles stab into my eardrums. Gordon hits his temple with the heel of his hand. He whips his head back and forth like a wildebeest trying to shake out a botfly. Spit flies from his mouth. He loses balance, tips, and rolls to the bottom of the ravine. I try to reach out to him but my body follows my hand and I’m falling end over end after him.
Pepper is howling at the top of the hill but I can’t hear her. I lie on my back next to Gordon. The ground spins, the sky pulses like a frightened heart. The noise! It thrums in my teeth, in the long bones of my thighs.
A tree looms over me. Its cinnamon bark is arranged in huge plates. It’s impossible—the tree is too big to be here. It towers above the sides of the ravine. Insects swarm around its trunk. Fat, bloated flies with blunt heads. Birds flutter in broken patterns above its branches. I try to stand, but lurch to the side and land on Gordon. His eyes are rolled back and twitching with vertigo. One of the birds careens into the tree and sticks to it like a gnat on flypaper. I try to right myself, to push myself to my feet but the whole world is unhinged and the noise is omnipotent. I see the wing of the stuck bird flapping weakly then going still.
Jonah the Lamb is on the steep hill at the far side of the ravine, throwing dirt with his hands and feet as he scrambles away from the tree. He’s frantic with motion, but as directionless as a whirling fish. One of the tree’s limbs falls on the bare skin of his back and pins him to the hill. Jonah flails madly to get out from under the limb but its weight carries him back into the ravine. Flies swarm in a loose cloud to where he is pinned, then coalesce into a solid mass and descend on him. It is like an explosion in reverse. And as quickly as it began, the buzzing sound fades and is gone.
I feel queasy. I crawl to Gordon. His eyes find their focus. From under the flies Jonah is screaming. Limbs from the tree fall over him, popping like logs in a bonfire. Gordon and I push to our feet, leaning on each other for support. We hobble away from the tree, fall, and rise again.
A sound of groaning timber, like a great ship being broken on rocks, fills the ravine. Jonah lets out two or three choking screams and is silent. The buzzing noise starts again. Gordon and I flee down the ravine in a stumbling, stiff-kneed lope. I break into a full run, careening blindly down the mountain. I can’t escape the echoes of Jonah’s shrieking agony.
How long I run, the route I take, how many times I crash to the ground and scramble to my feet again, or where Gordon is during my flight I don’t know. I am next aware of him leaning against the wall of my house, sobbing, as I lay collapsed on the ground in the same patch of grass that Pepper had fallen into two weeks earlier, certain I can still hear screams just below the level of hearing coming from a forest on the far side of Loafer Hollow. My father is carrying me and my mother is sobbing and I cover my ears and I shout that Pepper won’t stop yipping and Jonah won’t stop screaming and the flies won’t stop buzzing and that Leviathan’s eyes are on us.
I am cloistered in my room for days. I tell my parents what happened twice. Both times they look concerned. Not frightened, concerned. My mother starts to cry and my dad speaks to me in the same maddeningly soothing tones he spoke to Pepper in. I want to talk to Gordon but I’m told he is visiting his grandmother in Panguitch. He’s a little shaken up by the whole thing, my dad tells me. We’re all a little shaken up by what happened, he says. But I can hear in his words that he doesn’t understand.
But I understand. I catch glimpses of a wing fluttering at the periphery of my vision that vanishes when I turn toward it. I hear the noise of breaking timber and cover my ears reflexively. In my dreams clouds of thrumming flies coalesce over animals, people, over my father and mother. I understand and I wait.
Two days, three days, a week. I show interest in my food. I make small talk, help with cleaning. Then a Sunday morning comes and my parents ask how I feel about going to church. Not yet. But I’ll be fine if you go. Am I sure? Oh yes I’m sure.
When they are gone I fill two canteens, one with water and the other with gas. I dig a book of matches from the coffee can in the shed. I follow the trail up the mountain, across the hollow, along a single track.
The ravine is still there. It is at peace. But I understand. I empty the gasoline in a tangle of dry grass in the far downhill end. I light the match and watch flames spread from the grass to the weeds and willows, then catch in the trees. The fire gets hotter as small trees are fully engulfed. There is no sign of the flies, no sound of buzzing, no cinnamon plates of bark on a great trunk. But I understand that, too.
As the fire spreads I climb out of the ravine and stand at the side, watching. My eyes sting, I cough and cover my mouth with my shirt. I’m lightheaded and drop to the ground in a patch of dirt to get out of the smoke. I pull myself to the edge of the chasm and stare down into it. Fire is consuming the small bushes, the grass and weeds. I wipe my eyes to see shapes revealed as the underbrush is cleared. The skull of a cow, deer antlers, a collection of bones. The fire burns away more. A skeleton of something smaller with sinew still clinging. My face is hot and my eyes burn, but I look deeper into the ravine than I’ve ever looked before. The weeds are gone, the grass is gone, the trees are gone. Even the dirt has burned away so I can see it. Beneath all is the mound. Half-decayed flesh loosely bound to bone. Hair, skin, faces of animals, the face of Jonah frozen in perma-scream, still twitching as the fire comes close. The mound starts to whistle like a teakettle as the fire takes hold. I roll to my back as the fire lights in the branches of the trees next to me like the heads of great matches.
Noel Armstrong lives in the Colorado mountains with his wife, kids, and a land porpoise named Max.
The Tenacity of Sin
a prose poem by
You drink my gold and silver. My cry tears through the winter wood staining crimson, the sapling and then the ancient tree; spilling brighter and thicker against the waning moon. But it is you who drinks my gold and silver and robs the night of its shining stars! With every passing hour, I hear that cry break louder. The jingling coins make you keen and the rum and gaieties froth on your highest shelf. My nocturnal eye feverishly opens, drinking pain through the sweaty walls and I hear your footfall—leaden, through the grimy hallways. The curse of your flashing eye and pale heart kindles the fiery, hot storm and withers the field before the seed can dance.
Dark remembrances master the ray and I find myself a traveller against the open winds. The inky, treacherous waves arch their backs and crush me to pieces. Sleep will not let me sail and the flowers do not smile or play. How can my soul weep under the shadow of the great demon? Your hand soaks in sin. It is washed and dried until threadbare, frayed and tattered.
I never knew your accessory would throw a heavy cloak to the moon and snuff out my stars. Her sepulchred sob strangles my wife and children. The composure in her laugh abrades me. Her impassiveness is practised and her diverting eye—a craft refined.
But the claw-like hands of mercy—oh how she swoops! Her entwining, lithe feather embraces my wedding finger. Her swift wing dissolves the cloud. A great war divides me from my forebears. I air out my heart and make room in my soul. She implants in me human eyes and I hear the groan of our young ones when they sing and frolic with the haunted ghouls.
Dampen the burning glare and pacify my untied emotions. Keep the door and windows barred, for your seething throat shall swallow my gold and silver no more! Mercy—oh how she flies and throws her spell! I, a phantom-bird, soar through the bars to brush the fire moon—gold and bright! And cloud—to breathe out its silvery, sheer ribbons upon the wood.
Annie Blake is a former teacher who resides in the west of Melbourne, Australia with her husband and five children. She is passionate about writing and enjoys period literature and films – her favourite texts being of the original Gothic Horror genre. Other interests include music, surfing, and research in psychology and sociology.
a story by
I fell asleep midafternoon while resting in the crook of an ancient deciduous tree, the kind that grew along the edges of streams, a cottonwood, or Russian olive. In the dream that followed, an enormous beast chased me along a narrow wooded path as roots and vines reached for my bare ankles, trying to trip me up. When he was almost upon me, a sound woke me: a branch snapping, or a trout jumping. I opened my eyes and the sun flashed as it rounded the steeples of high pines that surrounded the thicket.
The light shimmered in jewel tones: royal blue, emerald, and gold. Within the network of leaves and branches, dozens of perfect spider webs floated, dew-flecked, illuminated by the early morning sun. I shifted and discovered that I was bound in a milk-and-peppermint-scented wrap. I twisted and tried to stretch my arms, but could not free myself.
Shapes wavered at the edge of my vision and I willed myself to wake up, because surely I was still dreaming. I screwed my eyes shut and clenched my jaw, but when I opened my eyes, my circumstances had not changed. I squirmed, but found the more I panicked, the tighter my shroud felt.
Strands of silk covered my head like a hood, but I could swivel my neck. Above me, beyond the line of clear sight, a dark thing waited, part of its shadow covering me. It twitched, and I wriggled in my restraints. I felt the fibers tear and almost cried out, but the thing above me jerked again and I froze. When it grew still, I began again, and this time the silk ripped open at my chest. I strained my arms, pushing up and out, the fabric tearing at my throat and falling away. Freed, I clung to the branch, delighted to discover that I had wings, though crumpled and soggy against my back. I strained and they popped apart, perfect white edged in black, resembling stained glass when the sun found them. I marveled at their velvety texture, amazed they belonged to me.
There was movement at the top of my branch and I look up expecting to see a spider, but instead found another creature like me. It slowly opened and closed its black and white wings. I echoed its movements.
Gaining strength with each pump of my new wings, I took to the air. I flew over the marsh, the spider webs, the shivering leaves of my deciduous tree, and saw something odd: A human form, face up in the marsh, unmoving, wrapped in something heavy. She was familiar, this woman half-submerged in the murk, her body wrapped tightly in a rug, the white skin around her throat ringed with purple bruises. Above her head, spider webs stretched across the branches, the leggy tenants visible, mandibles trembling as they decided what to do with this unexpected gift.
Another figure, a man, walked away, a strand of frayed rope in his hands. He disappeared in the woods. I would have followed if not for the darkness, it reminded me too much of my dream from the night before.
I floated back over the body and landed on the carpet, following the braid of the rug. A memory flickered.
The rug from my living room. The one in front of the fireplace.
I crawled up onto the dead woman’s chin.
This was me. What I was before.
My thoughts evaporated as the sun rose in the morning sky, my senses consumed by the scent of lavender and lilac.
One Day at the Anthill
a story by
“It’s a beautiful warm day out today,” said Joey’s mother, as she shut off the television. “Go outside and play. The sun will do you good.”
Preferring the air conditioned house to the unrelenting heat of outdoors, eight year old Joey protested, but lost. He put on his shoes, grabbed his magnifying glass, and went into the backyard to look at the anthill, which sat in the dry grass and brush near the far corner of the yard.
The late morning sun shone bright on the ants and their little ant world, as they went about living their little ant lives, as only ants can live it.
Joey walked up to the anthill and paused. He tilted his head back to face the sun and squinted. It was hot on his face.
What Joey didn’t notice was that his shadow had come to rest on the anthill. The ants noticed the shadow on their little ant world, as only ants can notice, but continued to do all the things that ants normally do, because shadows are not an uncommon thing.
As Joey went to his hands and knees, the sun was once again shined on the anthill. Joey used his magnifying glass to watch the ants up close. Being the toiling creatures that they are, the ants continued to work and paid little attention to him.
Joey soon tired of observing ants at work, and the dried grass and brush that surrounded the anthill captured his attention. He drew back the glass to focus the light on a few of the dried stalks of grass, and with a wisp of smoke the beam of light cut through the stalks and left glowing red stumps. He moved the magnifying glass up and down and back and forth as he cut a fiery swath through the grass.
The ants began to notice the changes in their little world as a second sun came in and out of view. This was not normal, and the commotion made the ants stir from nervousness, as only ants can stir.
They scurried to make sense of these unusual occurrences around and above them. They moved in all directions, bumping their antennae into the antennae of other ants as they exchanged information, until all the ants knew what all the other ants knew. Then, once they all understood, the ants calmed down and went back to going about their business as only ants know how.
But Joey wasn’t happy simply letting ants go about their business. He decided that ants must pay a price for being ants. As Joey began to focus the light on the world the ants had built for themselves, their warning systems and danger sensors caused their frenzied activity to begin anew.
The light from the new sun cut a path back and forth across the anthill, indiscriminately passing across the little bodies of hapless ants. Some were hit directly and became tiny cremated specks amidst the minute rubble. Others were only partially burned, the seared ends of their bodies vanishing in the flash of light. Searching for an answer, the antennae of the wounded ants swung wildly back and forth as their remaining legs struggled to escape the pain and terror. Other ants, being ants, were not capable of helping them in any way. They could only sense the screams of agony when their antennae touched. Since Joey had no antennae, the ants did not know that Joey laughed.
Hysteria threatened to overtake the ants, but their survival instincts soon gained the upper hand and they headed for the safety of their underground sanctuary. They left their dead and dying behind, and mourned their losses as only ants can mourn.
With the holocaust playing out and holding firm on Joey’s interest, he noticed too late that the surrounding dried grass and brush had caught fire, and he was trapped in the middle of it. Panicky, Joey tried to stamp the fire out, but the flames were too large for one small boy to extinguish. Realizing he was in trouble, he screamed for his mother, but she was inside their home and couldn’t hear him.
The flames grew, the heat intensified, and the smoke was thick. For Joey, there was no escape. Were it not for a moments glance out the window, Joey’s mother would never have seen the smoke. Running toward her son, she saw his clothing in flames as his arms flailed. She fought through the smoke and fire and pulled Joey to safety.
The ants stopped doing the things that ants do, and watched as the firemen put out the fire. They watched as the inquisitive neighbors stood and gawked. They watched as the medical team loaded Joey and his mother into the ambulance. But since the firemen, the inquisitive, gawking neighbors, and the medical team had no antennae, none of them could hear the ants laugh, as only ants can laugh.