THERIOPHOBIA: FEAR THE BEAST Part Five
NINE DAYS AGO: WAXING CRESCENT MOON
The sound of leather meeting flesh echoed off the sandstone walls of the gully, a dry smack followed by a gasp of pain. The young woman knelt on the gravel of a dried riverbed, her knees and the balls of her feet grinding against the sharp stones. She leaned forward, prostrating herself, her dark hair thrown forward out of the way. Naked, trembling, Susanna stifled her outcry as the leather belt again fell across her back. She cursed under her breath, inarticulate Spanish.
Before her, resting atop the folding picnic table that served as its altar, lay the body of El Lobizon. The mangled remains of Marcus Vale.
“More!” Susanna hissed through her clenched teeth.
A tall man, shirtless and in jeans, sweat glistening on his dark skin, reared back and swung his thick workbelt. It fell across Susanna’s lower back. She jerked, emitting a small sob.
“It is enough,” he said.
“No!” Susanna hissed. “More!”
The congregation stood around them in an irregular circle, silent, bearing witness. All the faces–young, old, male, female–somber and silent. The belt fell again, raising an immediate welt on Susanna’s dusky skin. She whimpered.
“Enough,” the tall man said again.
“No!” Susanna gulped a breath. “Again!” She pressed her forehead against the ground, stretched her arms out before her, reaching towards the altar. Her belly and breasts scraped the ground.
The man gave her another lash. Susanna cried out, her hands clenching into fists. But she did not abandon her position of supplication.
“Again!” The belt fell across her shoulders. “Again!” Her buttocks. “Again!” Her entire back bore testament to the strap’s caress, her skin a patchwork of welts and stripes.
“Enough!” the tall man said. “El Lobizon is appeased.”
Slow, shaking, Susanna got to her feet. She wiped her tears, turning to address the group. Sweat plastered her black hair to the skin of her forehead, her shoulders.
“See?!” she shouted, gathering her voice. “I have served penance before El Lobizon! He has forgiven me this failure!” She turned towards the body of Marcus Vale atop its makeshift altar. “El Lobizon shall not abandon us!” she continued. “He will return to us!”
Another young woman voiced a scream, fell to her knees, cackling, strange words spilling out her lips. An old man threw back his head and howled.
“Now, let us accept the gift he has left us!” Susanna raised her voice to be heard above them. “This flesh he has sanctified by his presence!”
The entire group began to scream and howl. Some began to pray in strange, guttural tones, some tore at their clothes. One man fell to the ground in a fit of convulsions. The tall man with the belt began to flagellate himself.
“Let us feast on the flesh of El Lobizon!” Susanna shrieked.
The group rushed forward, fell on the body atop the table, tearing at it with their hands and teeth. Susanna waited until the last. As her final act of contrition, she let the others go ahead of her. Then she ran forward, joining her brethren in partaking of the flesh and blood of El Lobizon.
Lucas woke on the bathroom floor. His head hurt. He sat up, feeling sick and dizzy. He stared at the mirror above the sink. Unbroken, of course. He ran his hand over his stomach, finding no trace of a wound.
He cursed, loud and bitter. The nightmare had been the worst yet, the “night terror.” He cringed with the recollection of it, the horrid beast that had attacked him, chewed its way into his torso, and even such a slight movement as that made his head hurt worse. Lucas stood, his head spinning, and leaned on the countertop for support. For a minute he felt like he would vomit, but the feeling passed. The dizziness lessened, and he left the bathroom.
The telephone rang just as he reached the living room, the ringing like two ice picks being driven through both of his eardrums. It rang a second time before he could reach it.
“What?!” Lucas snapped.
“Lucas?” A female voice spoke. He recognized it. Felicia.
“Hey,” he said, massaging his forehead.
“Um, are you okay? It’s 8:30, and, um, well, you always beat me here, and…”
“I’m not feeling too great this morning,” Lucas answered.
“Oh? Well, why didn’t you call me before now? Do you want me to cancel your appointments for today?”
“I’ll be in. Gimme a couple of hours,” Lucas said. “Just reschedule the ones for this morning. Tell them I’m very sorry.”
“But if you don’t feel like coming in today…”
“No, it’s, uh, it’s okay. Just give me a couple of hours. I’ll see you then.”
“Are you sure?”
“Will you be okay driving?”
“I’ll be fine, Felicia. Thanks. I’ll be in later.” He hung up without giving her a chance to reply. Felicia, as sweet as she was, could pound a point into the ground and then want to discuss its depth. He didn’t feel like talking to her or anyone else this morning.
Lucas went back to the bathroom, stepped into the shower stall and closed the plexiglass door. He let the warm water spill over his aching head, picked up the soap and began to lather himself. The perfumed scent made him gag. He cursed, spat, a bitter taste in his mouth. His stomach growled. The beast in his belly.
Must be hungry.
Lucas shoved such nonsense out of his mind. Maybe he’d give Hank a call later in the day, set up a time to get together and talk about his most recent experience. Maybe he’d make a few calls and check up on Marcus. Be great if he could talk to his brother, make sure everything was alright.
He finished his shower, toweled off and headed for the bedroom. He passed the mirror above the sink. From the corner of his eye, he saw the Beast peering out at him. He spun around, seeing his own reflection, distorted by the moisture coating the mirror’s surface. No monster.
Lucas dressed, white button shirt with khaki pants, then went back to the bathroom and took a bottle of Tylenol from the medicine cabinet. He shook out four pills, shoved the bottle into his pocket, and swallowed the pills with a handful of tap water. He stood, staring. He wiped the mirror with his hand. His reflection had dark patches under the eyes, one a little darker than the other due to the fading bruise. Lucas knew that was no hallucination.
He went to the bedroom and got his car keys from off the dresser. He made it to the front door, opened it. Morning sunlight filled the room. Lucas groaned, covering his eyes, staggering back into the room. His head threatened to burst open. His stomach boiled.
“Shit,” he growled, still shading his eyes. Worse than a goddamn hangover.
He trudged to the car and dug in the glove compartment for his sunglasses. They helped a little. He went back inside and found the straw hat he wore when cutting the grass. Still the sunlight made his exposed skin, his forearms, where he’d rolled up his sleeves, prickle and itch, made the short hairs stand on end. They seemed darker than usual. He rubbed his arms, smoothing the thick hairs down.
Lucas drove down Kennedy Street, a 35 mph zone, at just over sixty. Ran the stop sign where it intersected with Highway 63. He passed the tractor dealership and garage, the veterinarian’s office and the IRONWOOD CITY LIMITS sign on his right, the Dairy Queen and Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses on his left. He drone through the red light between the Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly shopping centers, an angry horn blaring like a trumpet blowing fanfare, announcing his arrival. He turned right at the Ironwood Motor Inn, passing through a residential area suffused with oak trees and sculpted ivy hedges, turned into the clinic parking lot.
He took his time as he crossed the lot. By now the morning sun had turned the previous night’s dew into steam, the air sticky and unpleasant. But the weakest of breezes teased at his skin. He found himself wishing that night would come, longing for the coolness, the dark and quiet, the solitude. The feeling brought a strange tinge of melancholy, of loss. He shook his throbbing head to clear it.
The little bell dangling from the door chimed when Lucas stepped inside. The air of the cooled office rushed out to greet him, made his skin tingle. Lucas removed his hat and ran a hand through his hair, removed the sunglasses and folded them up, put them in his pants pocket. He dropped the hat onto a chair. The door closed itself behind him.
Felicia, from behind her little window, bounced to her feet. “There you are,” she said. “I was just about to call you back.”
“Sorry,” Lucas mumbled.
“Are you okay? You don’t look so good.” Felicia wrung her chubby hands in front of her large, sagging bosom. She frowned, the action stretching her laugh lines, puffing up her cheeks.
“I’m feeling better,” Lucas lied. In truth, he felt worse now that he’d arrived. He started to sweat, skin hot and sore like he’d been sunburned. He swallowed, but his mouth was dry and he almost choked.
Felicia left her cubicle, came out into the waiting room. She took his arm. “Yeah, you’re feeling better, all right. You should have taken today off,” she scolded.
“Yeah, I guess.” He could smell her perfume. She always wore too much. She led him to one of the seats.
“Sit. I’ll go get you something to drink. You want a Coca-Cola?”
“Okay.” His head pounded. He held the side of his fist against his temple. Felicia came back, a straw protruding from a can of soda. She leaned down to allow him a sip.
“Here.” Her blouse drooped forward and he could see down the neck, could see her oversized breasts straining against the fabric of her bra. Lucas felt himself stiffen and swell, becoming aroused. He looked away.
What the Hell?!
“You want me to call and get you an appointment with Doc Sullivan?” Felicia asked.
“No.” He could smell her perfume, her being so close. It made his nostrils burn, his nasal passages.
“Well, at the very least, I think I should drive you home.”
“No.” He closed his eyes. Beneath the sensory buzz of her perfume, it seemed like he could smell the body wash she’d used in the shower that morning. Her deodorant, the hair spray and lotion.
“Here, take a sip.” She brought the straw to his mouth.
Beyond these, he could detect the smell of her sweat, through the deodorant she’d smeared into her armpits, her natural musk. Beneath the bouquet of her body wash, the scent of her cunt, her asshole. His erection throbbed.
He looked up at her. “Yeah?” He could almost taste her. His mouth filled with thick saliva. His head hurt so much it made him want to lash out, to hit something, tear something.
Felicia stepped back, her expression changing. “Lucas? What’s the matter with your eyes?”
“What?” He coughed. “What do you mean?” His voice sounded coarse, harsh. He coughed again. Something lodged in his throat. He grimaced.
Felicia’s eyes widened. “Lucas, your teeth!”
“Wh-wha…?” He tried to speak but couldn’t. He coughed, made a deep, guttural sound as he tried to clear his throat.
“Lucas, what’s the matter with your teeth?!”
Something inside him burst. Inside his head. Inside his belly. He felt it give way. It didn’t hurt; rather, it dulled the pain, eased it. He took a deep breath. He stood.
“Lucas?!” Felicia dropped the can of soda. It rolled away, voiding its contents over the cream carpeting of the floor.
“Lucas?” he said, voice better. “Why do you keep calling me that? That’s not my name.”
Marley woke late. Sunlight poured in through the window, making the bedroom too hot, uncomfortable, waking her. She kicked the sheets down to the foot of the bed, covering her eyes from the glare with the back of her hand. She dared a glance at the clock, groaned and sat up. The pink cotton panties she wore to bed had gotten twisted and her T-shirt had bunched up around her chest, so she paused to adjust them. Slipping on a pair of house shoes, she crossed to the door and opened it.
A large, dark form pounced, sending the door slamming into the wall. Marley staggered with the weight of the assault, the animal’s forepaws on her shoulders, a pink-purple tongue seeking her face.
“No, Chester!” Marley said. “Down, boy!”
The big dog’s tail thumped the door frame as he sat back on his haunches. He settled for licking her hands as she ruffled his coarse fur.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Marley said. “Love you, too. Now move.” She pushed past the big mutt, a mix of Great Dane and Irish Wolfhound. Chester followed her down the hall to the den, licking at her heels.
“Someone was out pretty late.” Chaney lay propped on the couch, still dressed in her own sleep attire, a pair of old flannel boxers, eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream. The TV showed the midday news, the volume low.
“I had a show.” Marley collapsed into a recliner. Chester lay his head on her lap.
“Uh-huh.” Chaney stuffed a spoonful of ice cream into her mouth.
“Is that your breakfast?” Marley asked.
“Nope,” Chaney said with her mouth full. “It’s my lunch.” Then, after swallowing, “You were out late, even for a night when you do have a show.”
“So?” Marley said.
“So, what were you doing?” Chaney pressed. “Or should I say ‘whom?'”
“Nothing like that.”
“No? You didn’t meet some fine young stud, go back to his place after the show, one thing led to another?”
“No,” Marley said. “What’s with the third degree, anyway?”
“Turn about is fair play,” Chaney said in a pretend pout.
Chester left Marley and walked to the couch, tried to put his muzzle in the bowl of ice cream.
“No,” Chaney held it up away from him. “Get down.” Chester whined, lay down on the carpet.
“So,” Chaney said again. “What were you up to last night?”
“None of your business.”
“That never stopped you.”
“Kiss my ass.”
Marley threw a cushion at her sister. “I’m still half asleep. Don’t mess with me.”
“I’m just giving you a taste of your own medicine.”
“Look,” Marley said. “Truce, okay? I already feel bad enough about Mom freaking out.”
“You shouldn’t worry the parents in their old age,” Chaney said, pointing with her spoon.
“You shouldn’t give them so many things to worry about,” Marley replied. “Selfish bitch.”
“Frigid…bitch.” Chaney giggled. “I couldn’t come up with a better word.”
“Another one for me.” Marley traced a point in the air, adding to an imaginary scoreboard.
“So, for real.” Chaney scraped the bowl for the last of the ice cream. “What did you do after the show?”
Marley shook her head, sighing in mock exasperation. Then she smiled. “Remember the Doctor?”
“No way!” Chaney sat up. “Details. Give me details.”
“It was nothing,” Marley said. “He came to see the show. Then we went out for coffee.”
“Did you kiss him?” Chaney flicked her eyebrows.
“On the cheek.”
“I knew it!” Chaney said. “I knew you had the hots for him.”
Marley smiled. “I like him, okay? We might go out, if he calls.”
“He’ll call,” Chaney said.
Marley eased the chair back, crossing her legs. “You talked to Dad yet?”
“I’m avoiding him.”
“Gonna be tough to do. He knows where you live.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“He’s just worried about you.”
“Well, he shouldn’t be.”
“I worry, too,” Marley said.
Chaney smiled. “I know you do. But I can take care of myself.”
“You could find a better hobby, you know.”
“Not all of us can be a musical genius,” Chaney said. She grinned. “I’m talented in other ways.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know.” Marley stood. “I’m gonna hit the shower. You got plans this afternoon?”
“Good,” Marley said. “You can come with me.”
“What’re we doing?”
“Helping Bernie get the shop ready for Miner Days.”
“Oh, no. No way.”
“I already promised you’d do it,” Marley said, heading down the hallway. “Don’t want to make a liar out of me, do you?” she said over her shoulder.
“I’m not going,” Chaney said.
“If you don’t I’ll call Dad and tell him to come over.”
“Bitch! That is so not fair!”
“Yeah, well, nobody said life was fair.” Marley closed the bathroom door. She could hear Chaney grumbling all the way down the hall. She chuckled, pulling off her T-shirt and underwear. Turning on the water, she tested it with her hand before stepping into the shower stall. She leaned back, letting the warm water splash over her skin.
Over the sound of the running water, through the door and the walls, she heard Chester barking. Not his usual happy bark. He snarled, growled. It sounded as if he might tear someone–something–apart. Marley shut off the water, grabbing a towel. She opened the door.
“Something’s wrong with Chester!” Chaney called out. Marley hurried down the hall. In the foyer, Chester stood before the front door, snarling. He reared against the door, leaped back, then reared again. The hair along his spine stood erect, his muscles taut.
“There’s nobody out there,” Chaney said. “I checked.”
“Chester!” Marley said. “What is it, boy?”
The big dog looked at her, then returned his attention to the door.
“Maybe he smells something,” Chaney said. “Another dog.”
Chester settled, backing away from the door. He took a few steps towards the girls, whined, turned and lay down, his eyes still on the closed door.
“Our dog has gone crazy,” Marley said.
“You know how Bernie says animals can sense things?” Chaney said. “Like ghosts and stuff?”
“Don’t even,” Marley said. “You know I am the biggest damn wuss.”
Chaney giggled. “Okay, okay.”
Marley, dripping, the AC causing her skin to goose flesh, went back to her shower. At the bathroom door, she paused and glanced back.
Chester held his vigil. Whatever it was that constituted a threat in the big canine’s perception, it seemed it still waited just beyond the locked door.
Whatever it was, it was still out there.
Mathilda Jackson had to wait until she knew both Roosevelt and Rebecca would be away from the house for some few hours. The baby, too, of course. The baby most of all. She’d never dare work the magic with an infant nearby. Like walking through the woods in bear country, dragging a raw side of beef behind you, that would be. No, it wouldn’t do at all to have the baby around. It was dangerous enough just with her.
Roosevelt had gotten her steamer trunks out of storage a couple days ago. Lucky for her, he hadn’t expressed any interest in their contents. A good boy, that Roosevelt. Respected his elders. But if he’d known what Mathilda kept in those boxes, or what she intended to do with them, Mathilda expected he would not have been so accommodating.
Now Roosevelt had gone to work and Rebecca had taken the baby to some church function, and they wouldn’t be back for a while. There had been some concern about leaving Mathilda alone, but she had remained adamant, and at last they had relented. Now Mathilda could do what she had to do. What she most feared to do.
Mathilda had washed herself the prerequisite seven times. The bathtub and the shower had to suffice. Outdoors would have been better. A stream or creek or, best yet, a river. But water was water, after all. All came from the same place and went back there in time. So long as it was running water. That was all that mattered.
She’d fasted for a day. Again, longer would have been better. But a day would do, provided she followed all the other preparations. She poured the salt in a wide circle, two pounds of it. Mathilda doubted whether the added iodine would improve the potency, but neither should it hinder it. Next Mathilda lit the candles, red, black, white, green, blue, saying the proper spells for each. At last she got onto her knees and prayed for a good half hour. Mathilda knew and respected the magic, true enough. But above and before that she relied on the good Lord to protect her.
The blood would prove the hardest thing to clean up.
In the past, Mathilda always offered up an animal, often a fowl of some variety. But she had no access to such now, and any blood would do, after all. Plus, Mathilda figured she had plenty to spare.
She purified the knife’s blade in the flame of the white candle, then slid it across her upper left forearm. The pain made her grunt. Then she lay aside the blade and let the blood pool in her cupped right hand. Mathilda began to draw the necessary charms on the floor, the walls, the door. She removed the spell book and drum from her steamer trunk where it rested against the wall, its lid open and folded back against the floor. She’d had just enough room to trace the circle of salt between the doorway and her bed. In the center of the circle, Mathilda had placed the other trunk.
Folded up inside the second trunk lay a tiny blue mummy. Perfect in form despite its miniscule size. Not a child’s corpse, but a little man’s, not even two feet tall from head to toes, if it had had toes, and not curled, gnarled claws. Shriveled up, little more than a dried husk over brittle bones, and yet whole. Unclothed, and male, as evidenced by the shrunken, flaccid genitalia. Grinning teeth exposed by withered gums, stiff, wiry hair grown in clumps from skin that looked like burned newspaper, two little calcium horns sprouting from the little forehead. A long tail as thin as a clothesline curled around the body, tapered to a hardened point.
Mathilda stripped, sat down outside the salt ring, and began to chant. She cradled the little drum on her lap, pounding it with the flat of her hand. Blood still flowed from Mathilda’s lacerated forearm, glazing her thighs. She read from the spell book open on the floor before her, her voice rising as she played faster, faster.
She invoked the names of saints between each stanza, calling upon the spirits of her ancestors as she completed each quatrain. Mathilda felt hot, dizzy. Fevered. Still she played and chanted. The room filled with the sound. The candles flickered.
Without preamble, the body sat upright in the trunk.
“Ain’t no reason to be gettin’ up,” Mathilda said, putting aside the drum. “You ain’t goin’ nowheres just yet.”
The tiny man shook with a sound like dry leaves crackling underfoot.
The voice Mathilda heard did not emanate from the corpse, but from somewhere either above or below her, behind her or in front of her.
“Why, woman, won’t you leave me alone?!”
“I needs you again, Oscar.”
“Damn you to Hell, woman!” the voice boomed. “You have troubled me enough.”
“Won’t never be enough,” Mathilda said.
“Damn you, woman! Did you at least bring me a present this time?”
“No more presents for you, Oscar.”
“But I need it! I must have the blood if I am going to walk for you.”
“You ain’t foolin’ me, Oscar. You’ll do as I says do, an’ you ain’t gettin’ nothin’ for it.”
The cadaver trembled, shuddered. The dry bulb of the tiny skull turned on its stem with a crackle, as if the hard little gray stones that were its eyes were staring at Mathilda. “You’ll pay, true enough, woman. Sooner or later, you’ll pay.”
“Shut your jawin’, Oscar,” Mathilda said. “We’s gots work to do. For the first time, you goin’ to do somethin’ worthwhile. You does it up right, maybe I’ll sets you loose. Maybe I won’t. You does it right an’ we’ll see.”
“You are a liar, old woman. But I’ll do as you say. And I won’t forget that you owe me when the time comes.”
“Ain’t gots no choice but to do’s I says,” Mathilda said.
“What do you want of me this time, woman?”
“Fightin’ fire with fire,” Mathilda said. “That’s what I aim to do. You is a monster, Oscar. Always was an’ always will be. Well sir, I’m a gonna use a monster to kills a monster. You is goin’ to kill a monster for me, Oscar.”
Drums, pounding. Like they were inside his skull. Else his skull was the drum, beaten upon with sticks. He forced his eyes open, covered his head with his hands. No, the drums came not from within, but nearby. He rolled onto his belly, the carpet wet beneath him. He was wet, his naked skin wet. The air-conditioned room chilled him. His living room. Lucas Vale got his knees under him.
More drums. The front door. Someone outside, pounding on the front door. Lucas got up. He didn’t see his clothes. He staggered down the hall, getting his bathrobe from the closet. He felt weak, dizzy. His stomach churned, threatening. Another three knocks–more like hammer strikes–at the front door. Lucas hurried as best he could back through the dim room, his head swimming.
He turned the deadbolt and opened the door. Two men stood outside, a black and a white. The black man, bald and bearded, flashed something at him. A badge.
“Dr. Vale? Lucas Vale?”
“You must be a very sound sleeper,” the other man said, tall, curly-headed. “We damn near had to beat the door down.”
“I’m sorry,” Lucas said. “I, um, I’m not feeling too well.”
“So you did take the day off?” the first man asked.
“Who are you?” Lucas asked. “What’s this about?”
“I’m Roosevelt Brewster,” the man replied. “This is Jr. Chief Whitlow. We’re with the Ironwood City Police Department.”
Lucas blinked. The light, though fading towards evening, hurt his eyes. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
The two men exchanged a glance.
‘There was a fire at your office,” the second man, Whitlow, said.
“Someone was inside.”
Lucas worked his mouth, but no words came out. “What?”
“We’re pretty sure it was Felicia Stroman, Dr. Vale.”
Lucas felt his knees buckle. The door frame caught him, held him up. “Felicia?”
“I’m afraid so,” Brewster said.
“Oh, God!” Lucas said. “Felicia! Oh, no!”
“Take it easy, Dr. Vale,” Brewster said. “We just need to ask you some questions.”
Lucas heaved, vomiting the contents of his stomach at the policemen’s feet, splattering Brewster’s polished leather shoes. Twice, three times Lucas retched. His vision clouded and he went down backward. Then the two men were beside him on the floor, helping him sit up.
“…very sorry, Dr. Vale,” Brewster was saying.
“What happened?” Lucas managed. “How?!”
“We aren’t sure of anything yet,” Whitlow said. “A neighbor saw the smoke and called it in. Firemen found the body. Ms. Stroman’s car was in the parking lot.”
“She taught Sunday School at my church,” Brewster said. “I’ve seen her several times. I’m pretty sure it was her. The husband’s on his way down to try and make the positive ID.”
“How’d she die?” Lucas almost whispered. “The smoke?”
Another shared glance between the two officers. “We don’t believe so at this time,” Brewster said.
“Did she burn to death?” Lucas’ eyes blurred with tears.
“We don’t believe so.”
Lucas sobbed, recovered. “What happened, then?” he demanded.
“The, uh…” Brewster hesitated, looking at Whitlow. “Ms. Stroman’s body, um, parts weren’t burned as bad as others. Like I said, I’m pretty sure it was her. Her face, her head was okay, for the most part”
“What?” Lucas shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“The body had been dismembered, Dr. Vale,” Whitlow said. He paused to let the words sink in. “Mrs. Stroman was murdered.”
The afternoon’s clouds had been carried away on a passive northeasterly wind, providing for a nice evening. The sun, lowering in the dome of blue sky, glimmered the same crisp yellow as the wildflowers growing along the ditch banks, the bright yellow of the taxicab. This vehicle passed the occasional other as it followed the county road out of town, moving at just above the posted speed limit. It passed over the train track, eliciting a grunt and an admonition from the passenger in the rear seat:
“Slow down. Ain’t in no hurry.”
It passed the Lawrence cornfields, brown stalks coming right up to the ditchbanks, held back by strung barbed wire. The claustrophobic view continued for over a mile, the road a swath through the corn.
“Like the waters a’ standin’ up for Moses,” the passenger commented.
They drove past the Black Warrior Mine No. 3, where the car’s AC sucked in the odors of coal dust and diesel fumes. A gray and brown splotch of dead ground, capped by concrete and gravel and baked dry by the heat. The main office and the main building, indistinguishable in their aluminum siding, beneath which the elevators raised and lowered the working men and women of Ironwood into the bowels of the earth. A dump truck sat beneath a cylindrical steel column which was bent into a crook at the top, spitting a hail of crushed coal into the bed of the truck. The coal mounded up like tiny black diamonds, glinting in the sunlight.
“Much more?” the driver asked. By happenstance, the same young Latino who had chauffeured this guest on the previous occasion.
“Couple a’ miles.”
“You, uh, you sure you got the fare to get back?” the driver asked, trying not to sound insulting. But Mathilda Jackson took offence to the question anyway.
“Don’t reckon I is so old an’ senile yet I can’t figures it up,” she snapped from the backseat.
“Yes, ma’am,” the driver said, averting his eyes from the rearview mirror.
They drove on, past the occasional mobile home or older house, cow pastures and an abandoned garage. A little service station had been converted into a Church of Christ. They crossed a bridge over a dry creek bed.
“Stop here,” Mathilda said.
“Here?” The left side of the road rose to a crest of limestone crags and pine trees. Smaller chunks of rock rose here and there amidst the dry brown grass, as did a trio of burned stumps. On the right there was nothing but woods.
“Used to lives right up there on that hill,” Mathilda said. “Momma and Daddy an’ all eighteen us young ‘uns. All dead now. Cem’tery right up there past that big ol’ oak. Course some my folks buried down to the city cem’tery.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to be seen out there now,” the driver offered. “You go off wandering, you might fall and break your leg.”
“I be fine,” Mathilda said. “Used to lives right here. All us, in one room. Burned the house down long time ago. We had chickens an’ Daddy raised corn an’ ‘maters. Used to live right over that hill.”
Mathilda opened her door, swung her mammoth thighs over, hitching up her dress. She wore clean white socks on her feet and her shoes had been wiped clean. She carried a picnic basket.
“I don’t think you should go wanderin’ around out there,” the driver tried again.
“Lord mercy,” Mathilda said. “Told you I be fine. You just set here an’ wait. Don’t you go off an’ leave me out here.”
“Okay,” he answered. Once Mathilda had made it to her feet and slammed the car door behind her, she heard him mutter something in Spanish. Mathilda couldn’t understand Spanish any better than she could read or write in her own language, but she knew well enough what the young ‘un had said.
“Crazy old bitch.”
Let him think what he wants to think, Mathilda said to herself. She stepped over the narrow ditch and started up the hill. I ain’t crazy. Wish I was, but I ain’t.
It took her a long time. She panted and sweated her way up the hill, walking against time, into memory. Ghosts flitted along the edges of her vision. Ebony-skinned children running and giggling, brothers an sisters whose faces she had to struggle to remember. Her own face as a child, blurry and indistinct. Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked them away. Through the wet haze, she made out the sharecropper’s shack amidst the limestone ridge, its one door and one window. Mathilda saw her father standing in the doorway, dirty work shirt and dirty overalls, leaning on the casing with one arm, the other hand on his hip. Keeping an eye on her. Mathilda half expected him to speak and, when he did not, almost called out a greeting herself. Mathilda looked away.
She paused near the thicket of pine and hardwood. Somewhere down in that basin filled with shadow would be the cemetery. Her blood, her kin, asleep in Jesus. She considered trying to find it. She patted the top down on the picnic basket, checking to see that the clasp was still secure, and moved on. She wouldn’t want to be visiting with the family today. Not when she had company with her.
Mathilda went down the other side of the hill a short distance, the terrain not as steep, the going easier. Weeds and brush gave way to proper woods. Here moss coated the limestone that stuck up above the dark earth like bones through dry-rotted flesh.
Mathilda stopped. There, on the far side of a tiny forest of ferns, waited the cave. Its maw seemed to radiate darkness. Roots dangled over the roof of its mouth, red clay and gravel protruding out from its base like a tongue. Mathilda remembered the first time she’d ventured into that cave, the older kids leading the young ‘uns. She shivered in the cool shade.
Mathilda set down the picnic basket and undid the clasp. On top were a pair of oven mitts. Mathilda pulled them on. She wiggled her fingers, working the coarse granules inside the mitts over her hands. Mathilda had filled the gloves with salt.
Beneath the mitts lay Oscar, packed in rock salt.
Mathilda took him out. She’d bound him up with an old necklace, a string of faux-pearl beads. Covered his head with an old sock. But it was the magic that held him. Mathilda knew that.
She walked to the mouth of the cave. Oscar mumbled something she couldn’t make out.
“The spell wear off soon,” Mathilda said. “Then you be able to get free. You knows what to do then, Oscar. Rouse up the other ‘uns. Be ready when I come.” She pulled the sock off Oscar’s head.
“You goes on home now, Oscar,” Mathilda said. “If you does right, maybe I takes the ju-ju off you an’ you can stay.”
Oscar started to reply, but Mathilda reared back and threw him as far as she could into the cave. She took off her gloves and tossed them aside, left the basket behind. They had the taint on them. She hurried back over the hill and down the other side. She wanted to be well away before it started to get dark.
She’d sworn she’d never turn Oscar loose. Not as long as she lived. But now she had no choice. No choice at all.
And Mathilda figured she was as good as dead, anyway.
WAYNE MILLER is the owner and creative director of EVIL CHEEZ PRODUCTIONS (www.evilcheezproductions.blogspot.com, www.facebook.com/evilcheezproductions), specializing in theatrical performances and haunted attractions. He has written, produced and directed (and occasionally acted in) over a dozen plays, most of them in the Horror and Crime genres. His first novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT CHRISTOPHER: WEREWOLF, is available for purchase at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/734763
MORTUI VELOCES SUNT!