The Witch-Doctor: Episode Two
Written by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
The potato fields coughed up dust in the wake of their footsteps. Rain had not come for two weeks. Instead, sunshine poured down from the sky, unceasing, parching soil to barren motes.
The farmers worked those fields, scraped for the root systems of native plants, to discard and burn. Pulled from their telluric world into ours, the weed’s leaves quickly wilted under the sun, their roots curled. These were the competitors of crops, adapted to the whirling of nonsense seasons. They had evolved tough, thorny and poisonous. Displaced flora, at unending war with the tubers the town relied upon. From all angles their agricultural foundations were assaulted. Hidden soil conflicts, local lineages of noxious foliage vying once more for the birthplace of their clone-mothers. A quiet, long war, staged in and out of sight, beneath and above the ground. So it was for the farmers who worked those plants. The trees that grow in one season will wilt and die in another.
The above-ground world was no kinder. The fields looked like cobwebbed forests. Homespun netting hung over nightshade leaves, barely supported by bowing stems. Thumb-sized beetles wriggled in the netting, legs caught up in their attempts to feed. Farmers plucked them by hand, placed them in sacks. The burlap pulsed with their multitudes. The insects would drown in those sacks, pulverized to fertilizer before the sun would set.
Two old men stood straight-backed in the field. Their wide brimmed straw hats shielding them from the rays above. They dabbed at their sweat with handkerchiefs.
The taller of the two leaned on a hoe, its copper head half buried in the dust, mottled with an aged patina.
The shorter spat and scratched at the bulbous growth on the side of his neck, which was caked with white powder. He wiped his hand without studying it, leaving pale streaks against his dark pant leg.
“It’s gonna rain,” the tall man stated, nothing moving but his lips. Dark eyes behind half-shut lids, surveying the activity among the crops. “I can feel it.”
The other man spat, and resumed working fingernails into the inflamed growth. “I think it’s gotta. Eventually.”
“I can feel it.” The tall man shifted his weight off the hoe, and then back onto it.
“Well,” replied the other, wiping and digging. “We need it.”
“Mhm.” Intonation, deep like earthquakes.
“Shame, what happened.” Scratch.
“You figure it’s gonna rain soon?”
“Shame. It’s a damn shame what happened.” The shorter man, finally looking down at his hands, saw red congealing in the powder on his fingertips. He stopped worrying the growth.
“Yes,” replied the taller man. “It is.”
“What do you think they’re gonna do about it?”
“I don’t know, the town I ‘spose.” The shorter man bent over, grabbing a handful of dust, and clapped his blood-sticky hands together.
“The town,” the taller man rumbled, “You suppose.”
“Well, sure. We gotta take care of ourselves. Ain’t the Party gonna raise one hand.”
“Ain’t gonna, nope.”
“You know how they say,” the short man said, “about the carrot and the stick?”
“Well it’s feeling a whole lot like the stick end of the bargain these days.”
“I’d say you were onto something there,” the tall man said, taking his weight off his hoe. He lifted it in both hands, which tightened in anticipation of soil-work. It was said a Nowelite’s mind lived in their hands. “If I could have ever remembered gettin’ a carrot.”
The shorter man didn’t respond, didn’t know how.
“Well. We better be off helpin’ the kids.” The tall farmer said, “Lord knows they’re probably grab-assing by now.” He started to walk off towards the others in the distance. The shorter man trundled after him.
When the tall farmer stopped, they both did. They stared at a flurry of human activity near the riverside palisades.
“Looks like they’re opening up the docks.” The short man said, wiping sweat from his face, casting droplets down into the dirt.
“Yeah, I think so,” the tall man shouldered his hoe, “Praise the Lord Father.”
“Praise him in heaven,” the other replied automatically, “About time traders got back up this way.”
“I think there’s some dags with ‘em, too.”
The shorter man started scratching at his tumor again, but said nothing.
Steel scraped hard against skin, soap and hair flicked into a tin basin. Eyes, with too much white to them, stared into a scuffed mirror. Deliberate movements erasing another day’s growth. Chet finished up in the mirror, wiping away scum and lather with an old shirt turned rag. Push-broom mustache well-kept with more than a speck of gray, face smooth, and the morning ritual was complete. The sun had already risen, but he wasn’t in a hurry. The old-town would wait, unlike the needy scraps of green they called “farms”. The rooster didn’t crow for him, like it did for the farmers.
Scavvers had a reputation. For laziness, mostly. They were both appreciated and resented by anyone whose niche bid them rise early and work long. Most who crossed the bridge took a risk, but never stayed long, never had any kind of schedule. Chet was no exception. What he could fit into his bag often served well enough as a day’s pay. Enough to feed himself and four. Better than most.
The walls of his bedroom were covered in scavving trophies. They sat atop shelves he built, or they hung unnervingly from bits of wire. A collection of flashlights, busted. A handful of rifles, metal actions rusted and long denied upkeep. Machine pieces of unknown origin and use.
Throwing on a hempen shirt, he turned from the bedroom. He walked through the door-less frame and into a short hall. Though he was not particularly tall, the ceiling hung mere inches from the top of his head. The walls rubbed at his shoulders. The cracks between the logs were stuffed with clay and moss. Younger hands, and a younger mind had built this cabin. Naive overestimations of his own skill set, and of the quality of native lumber.
How many years am I gonna still be bitching to myself? Chet wondered. His eyes were still glazed from sleep as he left the hallway behind. His kitchen was simple, and as clean as water, soap, and vinegar would allow.
“It’s mustier’n my ass in here,” he grumbled. The room was bereft glass windows. Instead, he unfastened stretched oilskins and rolled them up. With clumsy fingers, he tied the oilskins in place with string. Light filled the room a little, and hot air seeped in with it. The window was on the east-facing wall and so the skins were still wet with morning dew. Chet touched a damp fingertip to his lips, and remembered they were out of water.
The dewtraps’ yields had been minimal, the past few days. The well was still spoiled. The town filters had fought hard to keep up. Everyone made sacrifices, but the crops and trees were dry and flaccid. There was plenty of water, but what ran through the river was polluted and noxious. The crops could not survive being watered with it. The townsfolk refused to drink it. The limits of the filters, and the lack of rain, had bottlenecked their agriculture.
Only the Wilder beyond seemed unaffected. Chet could see it stretching out, rising up beyond the palisades. The forests beyond the river were verdant, a jarring contrast to the muted brown existence of Nowell. Shades of evergreen and chartreuse mingled beyond that invisible boundary, the leaves blurring together in a cellulose amalgam. Harried by the wind, the borders of the Wilder swayed like living fire.
Peeking into the other bedroom, Chet saw splayed limbs and heard the soft hum of snores. He walked out the front door, feet still bare, and grabbed the handle of a plastic bucket.
His house had few direct neighbors. Nestled on the far side of a sparse grove, most of the resettled residential area was out of sight, encircled by tall grass. It grew unhindered by human hand for unknown decades before Chet arrived, and he saw no reason to get in its way. He let it go, the only exception a path he’d cut with borrowed scythe towards the old road that led into town.
When he got to the asphalt, he saw small groups walking his way, carrying buckets and water-skins. They were far ahead, too small to distinguish by sight. The way their voices shrilled on the wind however, made their identities apparent.
He caught up to and passed them by without trying. Despite their nicknames, they didn’t seem to be in a rush. Townsfolk had a habit of calling them the “Busy-Bees” behind their backs. Wives and sisters of the Benton clan, known shit-stirrers and price-gougers. He spotted Linda, eldest of the Benton patriarch’s adult children. With her was Beatrice, who’d married one of the older boys. Chet couldn’t recall the name of the third woman.
It took Chet a moment to spy Ralf among them, youngest brother of the batch. Ralf Benton was the only one Chet thought was worth a damn. The red-headed lad was practically still a child, but he was smart and kind, and not afraid to put in an honest day’s work. Puberty had hit the boy like a train, marking him with an almost-beard. Etching the transition, still in motion, from boy to man in the constellations of acne across his face, meanwhile his gangliness gave him a weaselly appearance, like a ferret stretched out and forced into bipedalism for the amusement of others.
Ralf looked up from the road at Chet, and they nodded at one another.
“Hey Chet,” Ralf said, adjusting so as not to lose a water-skin, pausing a moment. With his shock of red hair, and all the pimples, it was easy for the scars that lined his cheeks to get overlooked. Beatrice and the others walked a little further, then stopped. The lot of them turned with scowling faces. Linda pointed a finger at Chet.
“He’s not going with you,” she said, wagging her finger. “You know what my Pa said. One lost boy’s enough. Ralf’s Pa’s youngest now, so you better bet your ass he ain’t going with you.”
Chet cocked his head and shrugged.
“I didn’t ask… I don’t want him to come with me.” His reply got a grin out of Linda, and Ralf’s shoulders slumped somewhat.
“We better be going,” Ralf said. “I’ll see ya later Chet, maybe down at the Ratskeller?” The boy said this last part quietly, so only Chet could hear. The Busy-Bees whispered amongst themselves, and then Beatrice snapped her fingers. Ralf turned, noting the grimace on her face, did as he was told. Chet watched them walk away. They’d be heading down past his cabin, to the apartments, no doubt.
The Benton apartment complex, known as “Sunny Side” to Nowellites, was actually several buildings. Each had at least three functional floors, with dozens of rooms. It was the closest to luxury this town offered. Ralf’s pa, Carl Benton, lorded over the neighborhood, and he looked after his own. Outsiders, barring a handful of families loyal to old Carl, were not welcome to live in Sunny Side. A long-dry megacorp gas station ran out of the property, which they had retrofit into a provisioners shop. This is where Chet would often offload surplus scav, unless an opportunity arose elsewhere.
If you needed something, the Benton’s had it. If they didn’t, they’d get it supposing you paid the price. If you couldn’t, they’d lend credit. Chet had known more than one down-on-their-luck person who’d made that devil’s bargain. Rumors abounded of the Benton clan’s shady dealings, but nobody looked too close at it. Not in the Territories. There wasn’t a bigger family in all of Nowell, but neither had any other family lost as many to the maw of the earth. Old Carl had been around in the first batch, same as Chet. They’d never been friendly. These days, the Benton’s numbered in the double-digits. No small feat, but the family seemed to have a penchant for sickness. It seemed like every six months or so another of them had dropped. They were like rapidly spawning and dying mayflies, it was hard to keep up.
The rest of us just have the common decency to die and get it over with, Chet thought. He peered back at the giggling women, noticing one dragging her foot behind her, the long snaking trail she left in the road dust. Bum leg. Born that way.
He envied them, for reasons he couldn’t place. You lot will outlive God himself. Carl had married three wives and buried two, and was still producing children even into his winter years. But of all his direct line, of those who still lived, Ralf was the youngest.
What’s it been, a month now? Two? Chet tried to remember, but couldn’t. First Kal, then Corey… he didn’t like to think about it, but thinking about it was all he’d been doing. Time seemed to waver after the second child’s disappearance. Chet had three granddaughters, they were miracles to have even have made it past diapers. The idea of them getting snatched up and taken someplace… He banished it quickly, but not quickly enough.
He couldn’t imagine what the parents of the lost children were going through. He never wanted to be able to imagine it. He wanted it to stay in the land of campfire stories, terrors whispered amongst friends in the clutches of the night, far away from the sunlit day. He kept walking. It would be time for breakfast soon.
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