The Witch-Doctor: Episode Three
Written by Equanimous Rex
Read by Kevin Brown
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
Thirty pounds of cured meat in the larder. Maybe a hundred potatoes. Add about another hundred pounds of fresh meat.
Calculations in mind, fingers twitching against the hide of her latest quarry. Artemis carried the beast on her shoulders, its legs splayed out to either side. She could feel a little of its blood running down the back of her neck, under her shirt.
Earlier, when she tried to bleed it, she got a niggling. A little wispy worm tickle in the lower spine. So she had carried her prey back towards town, ears perked for snapping twigs, crunching leaves. The way back to the bridge was grassy and overgrown, thorns bit her thighs and calves. She was glad when her boots touched the crumbling road, which meandered to the bridge.
The beam bridge spanned about a hundred feet, suspended over the river, but it felt like more, when you stared down into the gap. Asphalt, concrete, and steel, supported from below by old pillars, it was hard to say just how old it was. The townsfolk had patched parts that collapsed over time, logs the length of entire trees spanned portions, lashed together. All forms of mechanical or equine travel were treacherous across the bridge, if not outright impossible. Occasionally a new span would need patching, from those who made the attempt and failed. There weren’t enough to people to keep track of the diversity erupting out in the Wilder, but it truly seemed a free-for-all. The mutant animal she carried sported an odd numbers of limbs, a truly improbable body plan, but it appeared goat-like. It lacked a clear taxonomic niche, but judging from its patchy fur, she guessed it was mammalian. Whatever it was, it reeked to high heavens. Musky death-scent clung to both of them now, and there was not much to be done about it. She could already see scavenger birds settling in the trees around her. They cawed, but were somber, reserved, saving the racket for after their imagined future feast. What tasty tid-bits might be left behind by this predator? she could imagine them asking themselves. What morsels, what treats? Which of my nest-brothers will I have to eviscerate to get a bite to eat? Her mind flashed back to the old rhyme her father used to recite before bed every night, so far away and so long ago.
“The ravens they call, they squawk and shriek
O’ what morsels and O’ what treats?
The crows they caw, they bark, they scream
When will they get to wet their beak?
The magpies hem, they haw, they sneak
The blood is shiny, the blood must leak
Ho Hum! Ho Hum!
Squawk! Squawk! Squawk!
But the sun is fair, the time is right
They’ll have full bellies before the night!”
Her eye caught one of the ravens. Ancient and monstrous, it perched amongst its kind in the lower branches of a riverside pine. Its feathers were tattered and missing in spots. Even at this distance, Artemis could see the milky tint of its eyes, the tumors growing along its bald face. She stopped and gazed for a moment. The ravens didn’t budge. They stared back, statuesque, their alien minds working out solutions to problems Artemis couldn’t even begin to discern. She turned away from them, set feet upon the bridge, and continued. She could feel their eyes on the back of her neck, sharp as pinpricks. Circle of blood, circle of stone, circle of blood, Feyn bring me home. The words appeared in her mind, unbidden.
“Fine,” she said, forcing the words from her mouth, as if she needed to speak to break the spell. Setting down her quarry, she fished one hand around her waistline, and pulled out a small skinning knife. She plucked out the eyes of the carcass, all five of them, and set the organs on the dusty ground. They stared up at the sky, lost in the blue. Artemis seized the corpse and slung it around her shoulders again. Her biceps bulged with the effort.
She could hear the flutter and caws of the corvids behind her, as they fought amongst themselves for the eyes.
Halfway across the bridge, she crossed the sections of bound logs with ease. Sweat ran down her face, and under her arms. Her hair, which she kept tightly bound, was saturated, as was her shirt.
I smell, she thought, smiling slightly. Good. It means I’ve put in my work. But had she? Thoughts flashed back to the eyes of the parents of those lost children. She hunted the children, but it was their parents eyes that haunted her. Two missing from Nowell, and Artemis hadn’t done jack about it. Hadn’t been able to. She’d tried—gods know she tried—but she had been unable to find a single clue as to where the children had gone. No forced entry, no tracks left behind. It was as if the children had vanished into thin air. As if the town had imagined them, and they’d never existed at all.
“Gimme that badge!” Frank Callas had demanded of her, just two nights hence. She had been at the Ratskellar, trading with the proprietor. The never-ending stew always needed new meat, and Artemis didn’t know how to make vodka. In the middle of their conversation, Frank had grabbed Artemis by the shoulder. He’d tried —and failed— to turn her around to look at him.
“Fuck off, Frank,” she had replied, still looking at the proprietor. Frank tried to reach back and snatch the sheriff’s badge from her hat. She bent his pointer finger to near breaking point, and laid him on the ground. He saw himself out after that, yelling “You’re no sheriff! There ain’t no more sheriffs and you ain’t one! You freak! You…consorter!” Then he he had left the patrons of the bar sitting in awkward silence, nursing their drinks. For her part, she had finalized the trade, carried a gallon of potato vodka back to her home, and got shitfaced.
Maybe I’m no sheriff, she thought, hopping off the logs suspended over the river and back onto sure-footed asphalt. But I’m the closest thing we’ve got. Which probably means we’re boned.
It was an uneventful walk to the water lines. The gate was open, allowing Chet access to the river bed. He knew this dirt trail well. It led steeply past a small guardhouse that used to be a machinists shop, and sloped down to the water.
The way was largely empty. Chet could see Harvey Fortin, every aged wrinkle of him, sleeping in the chair outside the guardhouse. Harv’s cap was pulled down to block the sun from his eyes, his musket leaned up along with powder horn against the wood-shingle siding.
Whys Harv’s name even in the guard’s lot anyhow?, Chet thought. Well ain’t that just the goddamned testament of Nowell, if there ever was one…
Most had already come and gone, except late risers and a gaggle of farmers, who made their umpteenth trek from the fields to the filters, horse cart sans horse.
One such straggler pulled near Chet, bearing a gang of youths with ropes wound around their reddened fists, the cart behind packed near bursting with empty containers. They carried the haggard Nowell look, slight, wiry, seemingly made entirely of tendon and leather. The shortest of the pack lost his grip and fell to the ground face-first. The cart shot to a halt, containers rattling. One of the others helped him up, while the others jeered.
They secured the cart where it stood, and the group joined the queue, all the while shouting an endless litany of expletives amongst themselves, “I’m not!” “Shut your fuckin’ yap.” “You’re both so dumb. Like wow.” “Fuck!”
They fell in behind Chet, but Chet ignored them, staring instead at the woman walking in front of him with false indifference. He could see her struggling with a steel cooking pot. How many moons had that pot been dutifully scrubbed of rust and crusted stews? Chet once thought it an heirloom, a freak occurrence of stability, of persistence. Something passed on through the years. Now he wasn’t so sure.
The youths hushed behind him, interrupting his thoughts. They dispersed suddenly and conspicuously, leaving Chet and the woman to walk together.
As they cut in further down the line, they grew louder once more, joking and shoving.
Chet coughed, “c’mere, let me help you, Gerty.” The woman turned and smiled at him, setting down her beloved cooking pot.
“Lord Father bless your heart,” she told him, “I thought my arms were gonna give out before I got down there.”
“I gotcha,” Chet replied, grabbing the pot with one hand, bucket in his other. “How were you planning to get it back up? Where’s your girl?”
“Hell if I know. I can’t keep up with her these days. She was gone before I woke up.” Less stooped, she walked freely alongside Chet down the path. “Can I tell you a little secret?” Her eyes glinted.
“Always,” Chet said.
“I slept in!” Gerty cried, grinning.
Chet opened his eyes in mock shock. “Gerty, you layabout. We should have thrown you to the wolves when we first got here.”
“Though,” he paused, “don’t tell anyone, but I may have just woke up myself.”
She snorted, and then coughed into a palm.
“I’ll help you bring it back up,” Chet told her. “You aren’t that far anyhow, no trouble at all.”
“Us old Nowell folks have to stick together, eh Chester? Too many of us are ghosts now, walking these woods,” Gertrude cooed.
He remembered Gerty as a young woman, and his mind could peel back the layers of damage the years had piled on her. They remembered what it was like, to trek out into the unknown. Something these youths had no inkling of. Those who wanted to talk big about the first years hadn’t been there. To them, it seemed mythical. To Chet, it was a bad memory he had no intention of breathing back to life.
Chet remembered how the horde of them had been unleashed, sent to reclaim land once held by man; and how they lost, through neglect, to the wild, only to be forgotten themselves.
It was old history. He tried to stop thinking about it.
By the time Chet got back to the cabin, bucket of clean water in hand, he saw smoke rising from the chimney. His stomach was set rumbling at the smell of food. He opened the front door and saw the face of one of his girls. Her head still only reached his ribs while standing atop a stool, cooking eggs in a pan ably as any adult. The logs inside the wood stove spat and snapped; the heat made Chet’s pores open. The girl hummed an off-key tune, something he couldn’t place. She didn’t react to his entrance.
“By god, Olivia. It’s hotter in here than it is outside.” Chet set down the bucket.
The girl whirled around, her reverie broken, and the stool teetered. She hopped off, leaving the spoon behind, and put her hands up, fingers splayed as if to show she was not armed. “I wanted it to be a surprise! I thought you were sleeping! I swear to God!”
Chet approached the kitchen table, pulled out a chair, sat down, and leaned back. When she didn’t move, he waved a hand.
“It’s fine, you’re fine,” he said, softly. “Why don’t you bring some of those eggs over here and let grandpa have a few?”
“They’re not done!” Olivia shouted at him, her voice squeaking with enthusiasm. She ascended the stool once more, wobbling. The girl began worrying the eggs with the spoon.
Chet groaned, stretched, and stood up. He walked over and gently took the wooden utensil from her hand.
“Do me a favor, go wake your sisters up, tell them breakfast is almost ready,” he said. The girl hopped off the stool and bolted for the bedroom. Chet winced, “But be quiet! Don’t wake your ma.” Olivia giggled and disappeared into the dark room.
Soon the eggs sat steaming on a plate, set in the middle of the table. Around it were three pairs of carved oak utensils and plates.. The two youngest girls came running out and took their places.
“I had a dream,” Marytbeth said, rubbing at her eyes. She looked like she’d been crying. Chet felt the hair rise on his neck.
“Let’s not talk about dreams right now, okay sweetie?” he said, studying her. She’s gotten so skinny.
“I wasn’t,” she whined.
The disappearance of Kalliope Smith had taken a toll on his family. How many times had he seen them playing out by the road? Playing make-believe? Pretending to be heroes and witch-doctors and scavvers? Even Nat, who pretended to scorn “little kid games” would join in from time to time.
In fact, hadn’t it been after Kal got…after Kal disappeared, that she stopped all that “little kid” stuff? Chet thought it had, felt stupid for only noticing it now.
He supposed it was all the commotion. The girls were exhausted. All those late nights, all those dreams cracked open and spilled into the waking world. Marybeth screaming her head off, confused, upset. With him bolting upright in the dead of night, peace shattered. Those screams always sent him running, by laws writ deep in his nerves and blood, to comfort and protect.
Chet thought it was nightmares at first. He’d expected nightmares. Fear. There was plenty of it going around these days, spreading like a pox. Picked up by the wind. Transmitted. But it wasn’t nightmares.
The first time Marybeth woke him, he tried to calm her, saying everything would be okay.
“She’s back! Kal is back! I saw her!” Marybeth screamed in reply, her cries waking the rest, except for her mother who slept like the dead.
Chet had been flummoxed, unsure what to say.
“You’re dreaming, sweetie,” he murmured, after checking out the window, seeing nothing. He lowered his voice, trying to lull her back to sleep. She couldn’t keep her eyes open.
“Why can’t I go with her?” his grand-daughter asked, before she drifted off once more. “She wants me to go with her.”
Chet replayed those words in his head the next time it happened. When she had sleepily looked into his eyes, and told him that Kal just “wanted to play”, she was “lonely,” and “why can’t I go grampy why can’t I?”.
Not long after, Marybeth began to talk about Kal regularly, always in the present tense. As if she was only down the street and not…wherever she was. Six feet under, or someplace worse.
Chet still felt guilty about the talk they’d had: by the end she’ was sobbing inconsolably. He had tried to explain that Kal was missing, that nobody had seen her. That what Marybeth was remembering were dreams.
“Why are you lying grampy!?” she asked, red-faced and snotty. “Why do you lie!? I want to go!”
“I WANT!” “TO!” “GO!”
Chet grew more concerned as the nights passed, without a solution, until the day Marybeth approached him. He had been stacking firewood out behind their home. She told him with a succinct formality altogether alien to her, that she would not be talking about Kal anymore, because it upset him. Because she was sparing his feelings.
He didn’t have a response, and she hadn’t waited for one. She turned, and walked, with exaggerated stride, back into the cabin. That had been the last of it, and she seemed okay enough. At first.
She still carried that almost-sick and haggard look about her. Marybeth sometimes gave Chet the impression she was an old woman trapped in a little girl’s body. Weary from the countless years. The exile. The scores of dead husbands and miles of hand-tilled farmland, and the thought scared him. She was too young to be so tired.
When he asked her how she was sleeping, she’d said “Good!” and that was all.
If it keeps up, I’m taking her to the doc, Chet swore.
“Grampy! Hellooo?” Olivia clapped her hands in his face, trying to get his attention, no doubt eager for breakfast.
Olivia was only a year older than Marybeth. It struck Chet as uncanny, to see them side by side. How similar they looked! Not only to each other, but to his own daughter at their age.
Unlike Natalie, who joined them last, dark skin around her eyes, pursed lips. The spitting image of her father, now long dead in the ground.
“Any milk?” She asked.
“Nope,” Chet replied. “There hasn’t been any milk in this cabin for three years.”
“Don’t I know it.” She grumbled.
This again. Chet could feel heat rising from inside him.
“So why do you ask?” He snapped, and the two younger girls stopped playing at the table, and fell silent.
“Because I wish we had some is all.” Natalie told him, not raising her voice, but not lowering it either. Chet started to speak but his voice caught, and he cleared his throat.
“Well there isn’t any. I wish there was. But—” He pointed to the plate of eggs, still hot. “We’ve got plenty of eggs. Those chickens were a good idea Nat. You’re doing good with them.” Chet paused, scratched his arm. Natalie stared off blankly. “And I really wish we did have some milk, but we don’t, and we aren’t gonna. There isn’t one milk cow left around here, since Mike’s passed, and it was expensive as all hell before that.”
“Cussing!” Olivia reprimanded, frowning, her finger pointing. Chet scowled back at her, and raised his own finger to mirror her gesture.
Suddenly, he jerked to attention, rigid and formal. Chet gestured at the eggs as if showing off a prize, and gave an extravagant bow. The younger girls shrieked with laughter. Even Nat smirked.
“Eat up! We’ve got an eggsss-cellent meal in front of us,” Chet said, drawing out the pun so they wouldn’t miss the joke. When they didn’t react, he grimaced, playing the curmudgeon. “And I brought water up. Make sure to fill your canteens, it’s going to be a sweaty one today.”
“Thanks gramps,” the oldest said through mouthfuls of food. Natalie served them while Chet took a silver cigarette case and opened it with a click. One of his most valuable possessions, scav from Old Nowell. The case caught the light and shone Marybeth in the eye.
“Blinding me!” she protested.
Chet turned, obscuring the reflection, pulled out a hand-rolled smoke, and set it between his lips.
“Miss Sumner says you shouldn’t smoke,” Natalie told him. “Says it gives you cancer. Says that’s science. She said that she read it in these books she has. She says—”
“I don’t want you to get cancer, grandpa!” Olivia shouted, over her sister. Chet plucked the cigarette from his mouth.
“It isn’t even tobacco,” he told them. He wished it were.
“Doesn’t matter,” Natalie replied, and left it at that.
Chet put the cigarette back, and closed the case.
“Well,” he declared, watching them eat, his own stomach empty. “I better get going. You girls enjoy your eggs. I’m gonna say good-bye to your ma.” They were too absorbed in their meal to acknowledge him, except Marybeth.
“Pick me a wylrose?” She asked, egg on her chin, pouting. Chet smiled and gave her a wink.
He snuck away to the dark bedroom the girls shared, a figure lying covered in blankets. The oilskins secured over the window were not rolled up. The room smelled slightly, and he hated that he noticed.
“Suze, you awake?” he whispered, to no response save shallow breaths. The blankets over the prone form rose and fell weakly. He walked over and saw that she had covered her entire body in them, despite the heat. Chet pulled the top down slightly, and kissed her on the top of her bald, exposed head.
“Make sure you save some for your mother,” he told them on his way out the front door. He held his boots and scavving pack in one hand, his simple muzzle-loading rifle in the other. Chet closed the door behind, and stuck the mothsbane cigarette between his lips.
It was time to cross the bridge, to go back to the ruins across the river. Back to Old Nowell.
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