The Witch-Doctor: Episode Zero
Written & read by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
“Little bird, little bird, white as snow, white as snow.”
A hushed song in the darkness, “Close your eyes, close your eyes, and dreaming time you’ll go.”
A girl’s eyes closed slowly, thoughts flitted like sparrows behind her eyelids. Sightless, she felt her mother’s hand leave its resting place upon her shoulder, a warm kiss through her mop of hair. The bed seemed to sigh in relief as her mother rose, and the girl heard her exit the room, taking care not to trip over any of the carved wooden toys littering the floor.
“Goodnight Kal,” her mother whispered, easing the door closed, hinges squealing rodentlike. Kal imagined her mother’s face, familiar wide eyes and lips pursed in her matronly trademarked “O” for “Oops”, the face she reserved for life’s little upsets and inconsequences.
They had lived in the house all of Kal’s thirteen years, and her parents a decade before she was born. Even then, every night it was as though her mother heard the squeaky hinges for the first time. Hissing, cursing under her breath, the reactions always carried the sharp edge of sincerity.
“Absentminded,” her father would tell Kal on occasion, well out his wife’s earshot. Such statements always followed by a conspiratorial wink and grin, aimed carefully at his daughter, not unkindly. “Lord bless her heart, she is one of the most absentminded women I’ve ever met.” And so it was.
The house was empty her Pa’s heavy footfall and seeming inability to speak in hushed tone. No doubt at the Ratskeller, tossing a few back. He would not be home for hours, and Kal knew he was in for it upon inevitable return. Contrasted to her father, Ma was an outspoken teetotaler. Discontent with mere abstinence, she would refuse all invitation to bonfire parties or celebrations, forcing Pa into awkward conversations with their friends. More than once Kal had caught her father apologizing to a neighbor for such, always haphazardly, as if the concept of foregoing the drink was alien to him. The girl felt sorry for her mother, who she loved and liked, who she knew had taken it rough when the cancers had swallowed up Pa’s leg. Ma was not —as the next-door boy had called her— a ‘bitch’.
No matter what nobody says, Kal thought, seeing red in reminiscence.
The girl understood however, that her Pa’s absences, his late night carousals, were tallied meticulously and measured in arcane and unknown ways by the matron of the house. His illness had not been shocking, not in this part of the territories, and only afforded Pa minimal reprieve from the thorny ethos of his wife.
Often spying around the homestead, Kal would occasionally catch her mother staring off, brow furrowed, mouth working and chewing at her lip. Though there was never any evidence of outright malice in Ma, the girl nevertheless imagined diabolic machinery grinding away beneath her mother’s skull. When Ma’s friends would stop by, snippets of gossip could be heard around corners and on patios, stains against the summer winds.
What schemes her mother was up to, Kal was never really sure, but neither was she particularly interested. Small-town whispers were not nearly as captivating as frogs, or books, or food. They were not even as interesting as watching the muties across the wall at daybreak, dragging themselves back into the wilder, obscured by sprawling ferns and cracked-bark trees, and such a sight had long lost it’s wonder. Laying idly, Kal made up her mind. Tonight was the night. While Ma would be busy planning her small vengeances against Pa for his marital sins, she would be on an adventure. The girl was on a mission.
For three nights in a row, while the fat, almost-full moon hung dully in black sky, Kal had woken. She had been alert, no traces of grogginess marring her perception. Each night she stared at the wall for uncountable minutes, feeling neither bored nor excited, dispossessed of any emotions she could clearly recall or put into words.
The first night, she didn’t try to move when she saw the faint corpselight, which she took for moonbeams until it grew brighter, nearer, glowing in hues of emeralds and oily wine, casting sharp and strange shadows across the far wall of her bedroom. From her vantage point, Kal had watched, nausea turning to terror. Her horror was magnified by her paralysis, her traitorous limbs at odds with her revulsion. The girl had not turned to look, had not even attempted to, and the room had been plunged into darkness a heartbeat later.
Whatever the light emanated from, had been turned off or carried away.
Kal knew the stories. She had heard them told around campfires and dinner tables since she was much younger. She knew that the forest held dangers, that the Wilder was nothing to trifle with. That this was land abandoned even by the Lord Father, who she prayed to every night. But Kal also trusted in the walls, and in the bridge, and in the adults who took turns making patrols through the streets and around the palisades. It was with this faith, held whole-heartedly as so many children do, that she resolved to catch her nocturnal visitor in the act.
I bet it’s Grant, She thought, or Paula. Those asses. Why can’t they just lemme alone…
Slipping off her covers, careful not to make a sound, Kal rolled out of her bed, and slunk, like a mouse scrambling to avoid the gaze of a treetop owl. She stayed low to the floor and out of sight of the pitch black beyond the bedroom window. Ducking under the windowsill, Kal snatched at the strap of her haversack, pulling it from beneath a pile of dirty clothes. The faded leather creaked under her fingers as she drew it closer, untying the string holding it shut. She upended the haversack, and the detritus of her childhood tumbled to the floor, muffled by the clothes they fell upon.
Dropping the pack, she rifled through her possessions until she found what she was looking for; the familiar bundle of thin rope and small cloth patch sewn into the center. The shepherd’s sling was wound haphazardly around a carved wooden figurine of a stag, homespun rope tangled in it’s antlers. Kal separated the two, fingers deftly working, and let the carving fall to the floor.
“Two rules,” her father had told her, when he had given the sling to Kal on her twelfth birthday. “One, if you shoot anyone with it, they get to shoot you back. You’ll have to stand there and take it. Second, you kill something, you’re eatin’ it. The world’s gone hard enough as it is without my kid mindless’ killing. Waste not.”
Kal took the sling and slung it around the back of her neck, each half of the cord hanging down along her sides. Next, she retrieved a handkerchief, its corners tied together to form a pouch. The bundle made a soft clattering noise as she handled it. She could envision the rusted bolts, ball bearings and other bits of an era long passed—filled with memories, and all manner of improvised projectiles.
Her Pa had made a habit of pocketing such artifacts, back in his scavving days, before the tumors had remade his leg into a rigid facsimile. Collected over the years, these gifts had ceased suddenly when her Pa had “found a new career opportunity” and “some very interesting prospects”. The fact that his new job never seemed to consist of actual work —his frequent “meetings” at the Ratskeller hardly seemed to count— was not lost on Kal or her Ma.
Yet, they never went without. Food stocked the pantry, which while not large was enough to prod back the slow-bubbling dread that accompanied territory living. Whispers of potato-blight, of drought, of Party crackdowns on border settlements. Innumerable variations, primeval architecture, even Kal started to notice their increase as of late. The dagger-men had come to town several times in the last month, all hard eyes and dead masks.
Things had not been right in Nowell for some time. People laughed, but only as if play-acting their parts. Sour expressions spread like pox among the sun-baked faces of the citizenry. An invisible sculptor shaped the clay of their world into ragged and easily toppled spires, as if the Lord Father himself put a finger on the scale of every interaction, every barter, poking and prodding his creations to contempt and anger.
Kal had tried to tell her Ma about the light beyond her window, the morning after her first nocturnal encounter, “You’re an idle rogue, Kalliope” had been her mother’s only response, and Ma had sent her down to the potato fields to help till the soil, despite all of Kal’s protests.
“Well, what did this light look like?” Her father had asked her later, when she broached the subject. His breath had smelled of fermented apples and oats, cheap swill no doubt filling his belly.
They had been sitting outside that evening, the sun overhead, makeshift chairs made from hewn logs beneath them, an old fire-pit made of stones laid before them in a circle. There had been a bonfire there a week previous, but all that was left were the sooty black and gray smears of stale merriment. Kal had thought for a moment, her Pa gazing at her neutrally, but when she tried to speak, tried to elucidate her experience, all she could think of was ash, and it seemed to coat her tongue and fill her throat. They had dropped the subject.
Pocketing her father’s small gifts, Kal tugged on her leather boots and wrapped herself in a colorless shawl. Protection more from the mosquitoes that had spawned in droves since the last spring rains than from the cold, winter now a faint recollection. She sidled up to her bedroom window, hiding beneath it’s panes, hands grasping the sill, pulling herself up slowly to peek into the void.
Nothing. No mysterious glow, no neighbor kids, no nothing. She could not even see the normally visible palisades, nor the bridge the second story of her home overlooked, the bridge across the river toxic, the bridge that led out of her town and into the ruined parody left to rot beyond, and beyond that…the Wilder sat like a watching predator, out of sight.
There was no moon out tonight, no stars. The day had been cloudy and the clouds had not flown with the falling of the sun. The world outside her bedroom reminded her of basement darkness, underground and chthonic.
Kal stood up and unlocked the window. She started to open it, but hesitated, her parent’s disapproval hanging thick and theoretical in the air. If they found out…
Anxiety replaced bravado, and her mind worked double-time to get her back to bed. Dangers, punishment, uselessness. There were far more reasons to stay than to go. Her consternation was stymied however with a small gasp, as she saw movement in the distance. Her eyes focused, the familiar corpselight hung beyond the town towards the forests, obscured by bushes and trees, and it winked out a second later. Kal’s nose was pressed against the glass, her hands on either side of her face, and she waited for it to return.
When the light erupted next to the glass, she let loose a small moan and fell scrambling backwards, landing on her pile of dirty clothes hard enough to send tears to her eyes, tail-bone flaring in pain. She crawled backwards a few inches with wide eyes and watched as the light filled her room. She could not turn away. Her eyes leaked, and her heart drowned the room with the bellows of a meaty drum.
The light diminished but did not disappear, and she saw something daintily land on the sill outside. There was pressure in her chest and she forced herself to breathe. Her lips formed the words to call out for her mother yet her lungs were too busy, too preoccupied with keeping her alive to comply. The greasy dead-light filled her then, casting off the dingy windows in a kaleidoscopic dance with the gloom. A feeling of calm washed over Kal then, and unhesitating, she rose and walked to the window.
Outside, sitting on the sill, was a luminescent moth. It was bigger than her hands, a little under a foot long. It was a pale green color, and it’s wings were covered in what looked like black scrawlings in some alphabet Kal had never seen before.
“A mutie.” She breathed, relieved. “Just a dumb mutie moth. Lord Father! You scared me.”
Kal leaned in to inspect the insect, whose abdomen radiated the warbling, rolling light she had seen all those nights previous. It made the moth difficult to focus on, her eyes kept losing their fix, unable to anchor in it’s oceans. It looked perpetually a few inches away from where it should be, and when she corrected, it was yet in another place, though it never moved a hair. The inky sigils that spread over it’s wings writhed and warped she saw, snickering silently in the language of deep roots and rotting skulls.
Piercing the glass, Kal thought she could hear it now, that she could make out a voice among the implications. The silence was total and yet behind it, beneath it, something skittered. She put her palms to her ears then, and fell to the floor on her knees, the dark light filling the room, her choked sobs only in her head, her calls for help muffled by the anti-illumination, the quiet implosion of everything and all timelines and every teardrop from every suffering sentient collection of dreams and hopes and oh god, oh no, the end, the search for the end, the prayers of new beginnings as dust and ephemera and-
Like a background noise only noticed when it is gone, the room was dark. Not the strange dark of the moth’s light, but not plain old dark either. It had a sheen to it, as though peeking out were the forms beneath the furniture, the ideals in every lovingly crafted sock, and they jostled all around her in an embrace of love and warmth. Her pocket, full of brick-a-brack, sang.
Turning to face the window, the girl saw the moth remained, diminished and dull yet luminous still. It’s parchment wings fluttered into the air and the moth whipped out towards the bridge, towards the wilder. While it flew, the insect cast long shadows divorced from physical reckoning.
In the space between the blinking of eyes, Kal thought she saw elongated shapes, humanoid and blankly staring, onyx and empty, waiting with the pseudo-neutral patience of owls, or spiders. They stood back to the palisades, in her backyard.
Kal stood there, hands shaking, synapses snapping repetitive until she couldn’t form a thought at all. She felt something cooling on her chin, and wiped at it unthinking with one sleeve. In the rapture of the moth, her mouth agape, she had drooled herself. But when she glanced once more outside, she saw no one.
Breathing slowly, the gears in her mind caught teeth once more. Questions grew within her like an illness. She rubbed at her eyes with balled fists, and saw her own hands leave trails of themselves in empty space, the fractional past hitched poorly, anchored incompletely to flesh.
“Not right,” She moaned. Her voice sounded far away, an underwater siren. “Help me Ma…”
The room warbled and the sounds within ricocheted irrationally, disobedient. Kal took a step backward, away from the window, but then she stopped, opening and closing her hands. Every animal instinct screaming to dig and crawl, every lesson learned insisting the utmost caution, prescribing as internal doctor slow-going and eggshell-walking.
Find your mother, whispered the room, find your father. She knew she must.
“I hafta, I hafta go,” She murmured.
“No?” She asked, deflated.
Silence. Kal waited, forgetting to breathe.
“No,” she said, relenting. “You’re not Pa.”
“Please, help me, someone,” a note of begging in her voice. In the darkness she could see soft clouds in efflux, dust tickling her neck and wafting about her face. The smell of open wounds packed with summer flowers drifted to her nostrils. Cold breath caressed her scalp.
Kal started to turn her head but was stopped, her cheek meeting resistance, a clammy finger pressed with nails jagged into her skin, directing her to look forward once more. She could feel her lungs fill with the dust, and her cheek tingled painfully where the finger had left a musky print.
“Yes.” Came the voice, an inch from her ear. “Help.”
Her face was enveloped then in fishbelly hands. Blinded, she felt herself be pulled back, into nothing.
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