Salutations peachy peoples,
First, thank you for partaking in our little project here. If you came here just to find out what this post is about, welcome, please feel free to partake in the rest of our work as well, it’s quite good. In particular, two of our writers are working together to craft a Stranger Things/Twin Peaks rip-off that has been going for a full year now. If you frequent our blog (there has to be at least one person, amirite?) know this is a bit of a departure from my (AJT) usual style. To celebrate Hallows Eve, the turning of the season, and just for fun, this year I am attempting to craft a short horror story a week for the next month. I will post all the stories individually, and add them to this anthology post as well. I don’t know if I have the chops for horror prose, but this seems like a fun challenge.
In the coming weeks, you can expect… Little Birdie (slasher piece), Sycamore Man (a gothic tale), Cat Scratch Fever (curses and nursery rhymes, oh my), & [F4M] Prey Seeking Hunter (grotesque, uncomfortable, psychological thriller). I look forward to crafting these, to having deadlines, and to hearing your feedback. Happy Early Halloween everyone!
Edit: I’ve fallen behind, but promise to finish the project!
A Short Story by AJ Tompkins
My father used to have me help him clean the kills he would bring home from hunting. The smell of stale tobacco and blood mixed sweetly in the garage, and I was always so happy to get to spend those Sunday evenings with him. He would have me pluck the birds, a menial task no one could mess up. The feathers came out in clumps and left the skin coarse, much like the stubble did my father’s face. It wasn’t until I was six that he finally let me make an incision or get my hands dirty inside the creatures. The removal of the guts was my favorite part at that age, I would lay them out and ask questions about the purpose of each little meat pile.
My curiosity was usually met with gruff responses.
“That’s the liver. Gets rid of toxins.”
“Do people have livers?”
And so on. By seven I could identify each part, its purpose, and with a little help from the local library could point out on my own body where that bit was located in the human body. By eight I grew fascinated by the ligaments. Father let me clean the birds myself by then, as I had proven myself extremely adapt at the whole operation. It gave me ample time to stretch, poke, and manipulate the workings of the corpses muscles and bones. Birds are simple creatures, but even they have awe-inspiring masterpieces built into them.
Preparing for the surgery, today, I think back on those first days, those first cuts. Perhaps I would have been an ornithologist if things had been different. I certainly wouldn’t have become the artist I am today if not for Charlie and the bike crash.
His barred flesh, the white of the bone coated in blood hurrying to oxidize, I’d be lying if didn’t admit I found God that day.
She was in a fuss as she walked out to her mom’s mini-cooper. First Justin had dropped out of going to the dance with her, then mom had made a big fucking deal out of her exposed back skin. Of course she wanted to look slutty, Justin needed to be put in his place, he needed to know what a fucking mistake he had made. All this culminated in her practically snarling at the Doctor next door as he called out, “You look lovely tonight, little bird. Big dance?”
She slammed the door, shoved the key in the ignition, and attempted to take a brief moment to compose herself. She needed a plan when she got to the dance. Maybe Derrick, that fucking douche bag, he would love a chance to grind his small dick against her. Him and Justin were friends, which would make the pain more real for him. She opened her eyes, fired up the car, and noticed the doctor still standing there, staring at her. “Creep,” she muttered, and backed out the driveway.
After seeing Charlie exposed like that, birds didn’t do the trick anymore. I stepped up my game to small mammals first. Mice, rabbits, the occasional cat. I picked up a book from the library on veterinary studies, conscious to treat each creature with respect. They were always dead when I went to work on them, carefully deconstructing and discovering the inner workings of this ancient order. Each body was unique but the same in so many ways. I saw the same understanding in my father’s face when I helped him work on the family Town Car. I saw it in my grandmother’s face when she played with her watches. I was sharpening the tools of a trade, I knew this. I was born, bred, to tinker, re-assemble the world around me. I could see, with each cut, the proper way to give the bodies their own personality.
At first I had always just waited for the animals to pass of natural causes, but this bore too few canvases for my curiosity. I soon began selecting and acquiring my own pieces. The process actually helped me, for finding out how the creature carried itself in life made its insides all the clearer. Neighborhood cats were the easiest, but like the birds, they grew boring. I snagged a few stray dogs, and father brought home a deer a few times, but the animal kingdom was all a bit too obvious. Charlie’s gnarled arm remained in my mind’s eye, a constant yearning.
She was going 60 mph when the truck slammed into the passenger side and rolled the mini. It had been traveling next to her for several minutes, though she never noticed. The last thing she remembered was seeing her pack of smokes suspended in mid-flight.
By the time I got into medical school, I had thousands of hours of studying human anatomy. I still had yet to experience the true rush of playing with the only beasts God made in his own image. I missed the first day of cadaver studies, my own joy at finally being at this place, at having made it this far without giving into urge and still getting what I wanted, no needed, it crippled me. I cried in bed for hours that day, kissing my texts book and the scalpel I purchased as a young boy.
The class, the professor, they all admired my handiwork. Hell, they told me I had the steadiest hand they had ever seen, that I worked like a true master. I had to fight to hold in my emotions that first time. I pushed my crotch hard against the table to hide the erection, and was grateful when I came halfway through the work. After a few weeks of excelling at the course, a fellow student, this little mousy brunette girl, asked me to tutor her.
It went well at first, but there was a communication breakdown on our fourth date. I ran my fingers up her abdomen the same way as before, feeling the little hairs on her belly stand up as I did so. I quoted from memory passages on human dissection from the assigned Rutty textbook as well as more archaic sections. She lay perfectly still, just like we talked about. It was amazing, to feel the heat of the body, the quick pulses of the heart and feel her moist breath on my cheeks but to still go through the motions that were both natural and necessary to my being. I don’t remember grabbing my scalpel, but the first knick threw the whole thing off.
She squirmed, writhed away from me, hitting my face hard. She screamed, called me names. Threw my own books at me. Called the cops on me.
I finished school elsewhere, and changed my last name to my mothers. I was careful to hide my talents. I made sure to learn from this experience.
I craved the warmth, but could not tolerate the fear.
First, there was cold. No, first there was light, then cold. Or maybe both at the same time. she felt the air on her naked flesh, and the sterile sting of exposed wounds. The cigarettes suspended in the air still lingered in her eyes. And the anger. She was mad at Justin. She was mad at Justin and she had been going to the dance and, and where the fuck was she?
She was lying down. She was naked. She was on a table, a metal table. Big, bright fluorescent bulbs illuminated the area around her. She couldn’t move. Try as she might, something seemed to prevent her from moving. Her tongue was heavy, as she tried to cry out the only thing that happened was a ball of spittle gathered at the back of her mouth and lay dormant in her throat.
There was movement somewhere behind her head. The shadow flickered across her open eyes, and a thick, heavy breathing accentuated the air. The whole room smelled damp and old, the stale of a basement or attic. Other than the cold lights shining on her, the room was dark. If she tried to look down she could catch a glimmer coming from by her left hand. something reflecting the light up and back at her.
“I’m the hospital,” she thought quickly. “I was in a car crash and now I’m in the hospital.”
The temporary comfort brought on by this thought quickly abandoned her as the black beak of a plague doctor’s mask blocked the light.
After graduating, I dedicated myself to my work. I loved the operating room, the sanitation, all the people standing around handing me the tools of my trade. The shocked looks as I performed magic before unsuspecting eyes, defying the rules and turning the bodies before me, those broken bodies, into working, breathing, living art. The admiration of my peers only enhanced the eroticism of my work.
The philosophical immensity of my power hit me one day as I lay on the couch in the lounge after getting through one particularly amazing surgery. My pieces came to me on the back of destiny. They had been built with perfect systems, with all the parts in the factory setting, and the same creator who had designed them had thrown them against the wall. Pushed them down the stairs. Riddled them with bullets or glass or cancers. He had been watching me all this time, and he knew I needed a challenge, a constant stream of new and intricate ways to demonstrate my abilities. God not only recognized and helped me build my skills, like a coach, but he knew I was capable of taking what was his and improving it, like a collaborator.
I started in the E.R, and after five years got moved to working primarily on invasive cancers. It was a special challenge, removing tissue with the purpose of entirely stopping the disease. Taking out and then attempting to fill the hole with nothing. It was the best time in my life. I worked, I gave speeches at universities, I worked, and I worked. Every now and then a co-worker or administrator (or god forbid, a patient) would offer to take me out for socialization and I would have to find a way to back out. What were they to me, besides canvas not ready to work on yet. Projects stuck in Heaven’s bureaucratic nightmare.
The cancer gig turned out to be my greatest joy and my undoing. I was asked to consult on most cases at my hospital, and as I grew more comfortable in my life, as the admiration that oozed out of the people around me turned more and more mundane, I started to get carried away in my ideas. Ever time I picked up the phone, I found myself in a room, looking at some jaundiced, yellow beast in a gown and worming myself in just enough to convince them surgery was the best route. Well the other doctors offered long, painful processes, I came in with promised immediate results. Their bodies had already betrayed them, all it took was me to push their mind along the same track.
The lawsuits began piling up, as did the bodies. Eventually, the hospital fired me for gross negligence, and I lost my certifications. I made it year without making a single cut and found that life had lost all meaning. I decided to kill myself.
She couldn’t feel much of anything, except temperature. She only knew the blade had dug into her left arm because of the sudden dripping warmth that spread from her forearm. The plague doctor had forced a leather belt into her mouth, and she bit down on this not out of pain but fear. Her eyes remained mobile, but she only glanced at the man cutting into her once before sharply closing her eyes. The figure had been shivering as if cold, and it hummed softly to itself as it diced up her arm.
As the heat from her own blood worked farther and farther up her arm, she dared glance again. The skin had been peeled away, and various chunks of muscle and viscera had been removed and repositioned. Some was entirely free from her body, some was attached by sinew. The figure was working by her shoulder. Bone could be seen in several places. She wanted to cry, perhaps she was. The mask glanced at her face, and its empty eye sockets looked into her eyes.
Its head tilted, and it turned around and shuffled away. When it came back, the scalpel had been replaced with a comb. The figure began combing her hair and making soft cooing sounds, the type one makes when they want to calm down a crying baby. Gloved hands cupped her face, and fingers explored her forehead and the concaves around her eyes. It smelled like stale cologne and hand sanitizer.
The gun jammed. I had laid out plastic all over my bathtub, laid out the clothes I was to be buried in, everything had been made ready. At first, I was furious. I pulled the trigger a hundred times, I smacked the barrel, and still nothing came out.
Then I recognized it as the sign it was. God was not ready to lose me, I still had work to do, I still had to finish something truly glorious. I was put on this earth to show the full potential of the work God had started.
First, I began back with my old habits. Cats, birds, that sort of thing. I turned my basement into a workshop, spending nights on each piece, exploring a more… abstract side of myself. When I finished a work, I would take a single picture before clearing the workspace.
Picking a human canvas had been surprisingly easy. I knew, to truly create my magnum opus, I need something I could study for an extended period of time. First, my thoughts drifted to family and coworkers, people I had watched for years. Then she fluttered into my life. I had lifted my neighbors cat, and had been keeping it in my house to better understand the beast, when I saw her out placing “missing” posters in the neighborhood. It made the most sense. After all, I had been watching this girl grow up, albeit from a distance, for years now. This was the understanding I needed to accomplish what God, truly needed from me. I knew her toddler stumble, I had seen puberty lash its horrific claws into her, I had been afforded a front row seat to her blossoming into a young woman. At seventeen, she was the perfect figure. Supple, tender, and the inherited feline grace of a runner and acrobat made her bounce and glide across her parent’s lawn. She was the picture of health, something I had not been able to work with since my college crush, and I had to have her. I called two days later and returned the cat. I had been hoping the girl would be the one to come fetch it, or pick up the phone. Unfortunately I got the father.
I spent several weeks working on how exactly I would get her into my workshop, and several more gathering up the courage to put my plan into action. The anesthetics were easy to acquire from some old fans of my work at the hospital. The needles even easier to get. I began following her in my truck, waiting for the time to strike. There was a perfect stretch of road on her way to school, a corner that numerous vehicles had been pushed off, and wooded enough that it would be difficult for other traffic to see a stranded vehicle.
Her left leg had been opened at the ankle and worked up to the knee. The figure had entirely removed the muscle surrounding the bone. How she was still awake was beyond her. The temperature flashes had seemed to fade. She was somewhat aware of the sweat that coated her body. She was mostly aware of one thing. A fire, a hatred, a necessity. She needed to move. She needed to feel. She needed to escape. She didn’t have time to care about the figure, or her arm or her leg, or the pain she couldn’t feel yet. She had been reduced to an animal. Her brain could only process, not fear, but flight. She had to fly away from there, carried with all the strength that fear brings with it. Spittle bubbled out of her mouth, and her eyes moved with frenzy. All was a blur, all was red and bluish white, all was hummed out of the slow moving hand and blade of the figure, all was wrong.
It was working on her right breast, gently running the scalpel around the rim of her nipple when her head rolled away. The spit ran like a waterfall into her cut up left arm. She screamed.
She screamed, and she kicked, and she began to writhe with the intensity of a snake without its head. All the muscle left in her body contracted and pulsed, with no rhythm or plan, the convulsions spraying blood from her open wounds around the room and onto the lights. The table rocked.
It lurched back and let out a horrific, childish scream.
“NO! LITTLE BIRD, NO! YOUR RUINING IT, YOUR RUINING IT!”
The realization made her shake even more. She still couldn’t form words, but she screamed and gurgled as loud as she could, rocking and convoluting faster and faster. The little medical table tipped, and she toppled to the ground. The impact awoke the pain in her, and the sounds came faster and more awful.
How could she? How dare she ruin this for me! Together, me the artist and her the perfect clay, we were going to challenge the very concept of figure. We were going to change what the world recognized as beautiful. We were working towards a nirvana, and perfect shape.
How could she be so stupid? I had made the perfect finale for her, I was going to give her something no human can have, true permanence. Forever burned into the eyes of God, my art, my success in turning his opportunity into the great display. Did the Mona Lisa not offer every inch of her canvas to Da Vinci? Did the marble fight Michelangelo? Must the musician stalk and hunt his notes? Artists are only ever as capable as their medium, and here mine was attempting to flee immortality.
To work on her awake and alive, I meant to let her see the glory that was inside her. She was a co-conspirator, a muse that got to put even more of herself into the work. Yet she had given that all up, giving in to the same instincts of the beasts I had always began with. Like the first birds, she wouldn’t be plucked with her head still attached. So be it.
Art is pain after all.
A Short Story By AJ Tompkins
The Claye Family had arrived in the new world in 1704, stumbling into a large chunk of property near Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The third son of a baron, Oceanus Claye had departed England with the intent of winning his father’s favor (and perhaps a higher stake in his will) by proving himself an astute businessman. He made the move with his wife, Priscilla, and their two young daughters, Humility and Sarah.
Having won the Aspway Plantation during a gambling spree in London, the move promised to be a new start for the newlyweds and their children. Oceanus promised to forgo the gambling and drink, and Priscilla was forced to cut off her relations with the rakish Myles Johnson of Birmingham. The house and property were large, some of the largest in the area, and had already shown a habit of turning a profit in the rice trade. Much of the labor was done by a mixed crew of indentured servants and African slaves, who had endured much cruelty under the Aspway command. Oceanus, despite his flaws, had never had the stomach for cruelty, and he essentially retired the whip during his lifetime. Most of those in indentured servitude were released from their bonds, and Claye honored their deals, carving out small parcels of his own land for them to farm. Most sold it back to the plantation at respectable prices, seeking to move farther north.
All in all, the first years of Claye ownership were prosperous. The region had weathered assaults by the Spanish and French, and the Algonquin natives made several pushes against the colonists during the first few years the Clayes lived there, but the plantation was left unscathed. However, the winter of 1710 saw a harsh illness hit the workforce, and the younger twin girl, Sarah. She passed from consumption in January of 1711, and the mild-mannered and jolly Oceanus never fully recovered from the loss.
Despite attempts, Priscilla never bore Oceanus a male heir, and as the couple aged it became clear the plantation would fall to Humility. The girl understood this responsibility early, and acquired a good head for mathematics, writing, and strong business savvy. Some in the town even believed she was running the manor long before her fathers passing. She was an intimidating figure. Her pointed chin and hawk-like face bore strong resemblance to her baron grandfather, and her cross demeanor made her a likely spinster. That is, until James Williams Dillard, who had recently inherited the smaller estate just south of the Claye’s, road up one morning and begged for her hand in marriage.
Perhaps he believed himself able to control the scrawny Humility. Instead, he was met with a quick acceptance of his proposal, and found himself subservient to the powerful woman. Humility did not take his last name, incorporated his land into the Claye’s, and from all accounts domineered the meek Dillard until his suicide in 1728. His time on the Claye estate, although short and powerless, was not fruitless. He managed to give the Claye’s several male sons, who also all took their mother’s surname. John, Isaac and Oceanus the second grew up in the shadow of their mother. John, the eldest, was the only to receive a formal education, and the only to be prepped for the task of taking over the plantation operation. It was also John who found his father dangling from the tree. Whether this made him the contemplative and quiet man he was, or his mother’s powerful presence was unclear, but the result was a withdrawn young man.
John married a young dame named Katherine in 1754, the same year Isaac passed in an early battle in the French-Indian war. Oceanus joined with a group of privateers, and was not heard of until the summer of 1760. He had lost both his legs at sea, and would haunt the porch of the plantation until his passing.
The plantation continued to turn a profit under John’s watch. And he continued his grandfathers practice of treating the labor force with, if not kindness, then respect. He made true attempts to keep his workers happy, going out of his way to purchase family members that had be separated on other farms. Aspway plantation relied upon the horror of slavery, but it had never reveled in the exercise. John and Katherine were even known to invite all the slaves into the house twice a year, once for Christmas and again in the summer, to celebrate the solstice. Katherine helped deliver every baby born unto the Claye operation, and John played regular games of chess with Andre, and elderly man who had worked the fields under both his grandfather and mother.
It was into this world that John’s only son, Samuel was born. Samuel received the same education as his father, but come the revolution he abandoned home and took up with the rebels. Several false reports returned to the plantation during the war of the untimely death of Samuel, and all were surprised and overjoyed when he returned following the last canon shot. He returned with more than his life, bringing home a Yankee wife named Rose and a son, one Christopher Claye. Samuel was more than proud of his new country, and to have brought forth a member of the first true generations of Americans. He would create several more as he took over for his aging father.
To Samuel, Rose bore not only Christopher, but also William, Humility, Elizabeth, and Isaac Claye. “A whole brood of Americans,” Samuel would proclaim to all who visited the plantation. All would leave interesting lives in the blossoming country, but when visiting the realm of the bizarre and intangible, it is Isaac Claye that draws the attention. Even as a young boy, Isaac was like honey to which insect-like oddity and misfortune was drawn.
Isaac was a sickly boy, who could not enjoy the vast lands his family had romped upon for generations. Rose, who by all accounts had been a loving mother, was in some way repulsed by her youngest son. His siblings, who rarely saw their bedridden brother, spoke cruelly behind his back, and this talk managed to sink down to the Africans in their humble abodes as well. The overseers would invoke Isaac’s name when mocking the laborers as the Carolina heat wore them down in the hot months. Only Samuel was proud of his son, who he went of his way to make him comfortable and provide the books over which his boy poured. He even scoured the countryside and slave markets for a house worker who could help in the education of his son. This led him to find Coffey, whose back had been deconstructed countless times by the whip and in accord with the time made her ineligible for house work.
Isaac and Coffey found solace in each other. Amongst the ranks of their peers they were helpless and disturbing, but to each other they were fast friends. Both had voracious appetites for stories, and they would spend hours a day sharing and brewing new tales.
Christopher trained to take over his family business. William shipped off with a merchant marine. Humility and Elizabeth were married, one up to Virginia and the other shipped back to England. Only Isaac remained on the plantation past his expected time. He had gained some strength in his teenage years, and his father pulled several strings to get his son enrolled in Harvard where he was to train to become a preacher. His departure was a sorrow for the aging Coffey, who was left to the whim of her peers who saw her as a lackey to those who owned them.
Isaac returned in the winter of 1801, and Samuel made sure his eldest son arranged for a full feast to celebrate the return of the young man of the cloth. Several plump ducks were slaughtered and prepared, along with a terrapin stew, golden pork tenderloins, and a plethora of roasted vegetables from the garden. Several bottles of whiskey graced the cups, along with Caribbean rums and a peach cider from the Charleston markets. Most importantly, were the rotund and glossy beignets. A special treat the cook, who had first spent some of her years in New Orleans French quarters, was famous for. The meal took all day to prepare, and was set for the proposed arrival time of the youngest Claye.
Isaac did not arrive on time. In fact, his entrance to the manor was delayed by four hours, so that the food had grown cold and the winter moon provided much of the light across the plantations shaded main path. Christopher and much of the family ate after the first hour of delay, making much fuss out of hoping Isaac was okay while shoveling the gourmet food down. Only Samuel and Coffey, who had been waiting the table for the others, remained into the waning hours when the door creaked open and Isaac entered.
His slender figure strode into the dining hall, still wrapped in his cloak and hat for travel. His boots were coated in mud, and it slapped down behind him with each limping footfall. He waved weakly to his father and Coffey, both of whom let out great exclamations upon his arrival. He sat at the far end of the table, slowly removing his overcoat and hat, but leaving the scarf wrapped tight around his face.
“Apologies for my delay. The cart was waylaid on the road, wheel jumped right off the spoke. Blasted bum of a driver didn’t seem capable of fixing the rig himself, so after some time I simply up and left him and made it by foot. I,” He glanced around at the mostly consumed food, “I am glad I did not disturb the dinner hour, would hate to have been a burden upon you all.”
“Oh Isaac, my dear boy, it is so good to see you. So good to have you home, so good of you to bring some holiness to this darkness that likes to settle this time of year,” Samuel hollered, a single tear wiggling down his creviced checks.
“Ha, it is good to be back here, to see the halls of my youth. I am grateful of you all to tolerate my intrusion for a few weeks.”
“You will only be here a few weeks? This is news indeed, I thought you had returned for sometime?”
“I wish to return to Massachusetts before the way becomes impassable. The word of the lord is all consuming, and to bash back the flames of hell and protect the flock the shepherd must be all consuming of this word.”
“Good. This is good. It brings me such joy to see my son work in this way. You have become a true man Isaac, and it does a father good to see his boy transcend that boundary and become a man. You even look to have grown taller, something in that Yankee water, eh?”
As the small silence filled every corner of the vast hall, Coffey took several steps forward. Isaac seemed to pay her no mind, instead fixing himself a plate of the remaining food. Samuel cocked his head and saw her trembling, baby steps forward.
“Ah, go ahead girl. I know how you’ve missed the lad, and I’m sure the same could be said for him.”
Isaac looked up as Coffey walked closer. He nodded curtly, and rose suddenly from the table.
“Father, if it wouldn’t be a problem for you, I wish to retire to my room. This journey is tiresome in the cart alone, and I was forced to amble here on my own two feet. We may speak more in the morning, I know you must have so many questions of how the North fairs these days. Industrious lot, but they lack the common manners of so many. I fear I may have gained some of their lack of courtesy. Let me rest, and awaken with refreshed vigor to tackle the many inquiries of your sharp wit,” Isaac stated. The whole piece failed to carry the weight of a question, instead it shot of his mouth with the force of a statement. “And send the house girl to my room, Coffey. I wish to swap tales like we used to.”
Coffey stepped back, offended after not being recognized. Samuel looked at his son with some concern, and then at Coffey, before nodding, “Of course lad, of course. What of your bags? Where are they?”
“The carriage. I assume they will arrive tomorrow if that dullard can manage to figure out which end of the wheel goes up. My thanks, father, and goodnight.”
Coffey cleared the table with the rest of the girls, and helped the frail Samuel to his chambers after the cleaning.
“The boy seems rather changed by his time at the university, don’t you think Coffey?” Samuel asked.
“He sure seems different, Mister Claye.”
She helped the old man slip into his nightgown, and stoked the fire in the room as he continued talking and stuttering around the room extinguishing candles.
“He always was a bit different, you know that. Perhaps the other youngings at the school took to him the same way his siblings did. That would be a shame, and explain his brash attitude. Didn’t even take a beignet! You ever seen a Claye turn down one of those frosted-treats? I mean, sure, maybe he just has gotten into his preaching a bit, likes all the melodrama of it…”
“Oh, psh, let me think my thoughts about the church. You was raised right, that’s sure true Coffey, but let me tell you, that lot is nothing but a bunch of money-grubbing snake charmers…”
“Auch. I don’t know why you’ve taken to the white man’s religion all that much yourself…”
“I was born here Mister Claye…”
“hmmm. You baptized?”
“I… I don’t know sir…”
“Well maybe your choir boy can get that taken care of for ya. Sure God almighty has room for a negress in his kingdom. I hope they treat ya better up there than your lot gets down here, I’ll tell ya that.”
Samuel had retired into his bed itself by that point. He held his candle close to his face, and was squinting towards Coffey, his eyes searching her figure for some sort of sign. She kept her head turned down, making occasional glances up at the old plantation owner. His look was kinder than most she had experienced in her life, but the inquisition it imposed on her still felt like a violation of her soul. Perhaps it was just his blasphemous talk that made her feel so uncomfortable. She was still reeling somewhat from Isaac’s cool behavior at the table, and to have him act as if he didn’t recognize her felt like a total betrayal.
“You know why I sent Isaac off to that school? Cause stories was the only thing I ever saw him get excited for. He was never happy cause I had entered his room, no, he was happy cause I was going tell him about what was going on out in the world. We were only ever escapes for him Coffey girl, just retreats. I figured a school, with the big old book, well, with that he at least could take that and put it to some good, maybe. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I’ve just shown him that stories and being pompous can make you feel good. Maybe he’ll turn that knowledge of the bible and use it to strike down all those who wronged him. Moral high ground, eh? I know the rest of the family don’t care for him. Rose, bless her soul, even in her old age, on her death bed, didn’t have any words for him. She told me once, she told me he was just a empty pot that never filled, no matter how much the rest of us dumped in. Ain’t that something for a mother to say about her son? Her baby boy?”
“It’s something, Mister Claye…”
“I’ve kept ya long enough girl, the old ramblings of this patriot can’t mean all that much to someone like you. Besides, your works not finished, you got to go try to fill that pot one more time…”
Coffey entered Isaacs room with a soft knock, and found him sitting in front of the fire, still bundled for the road. His plate was covered in the bones of the fowl he had consumed, and half a bottle of whiskey rested in his right hand.
“Ah, Coffey, my dear, please come in. Would you care for a drink?”
“No, thank you, Isaac. I… I didn’t know preachers could drink?”
“I’m sure I’m not supposed to, but what those bloody puritans don’t know won’t hurt them, and a drink now will just add to my own list of sins. No one is pure, no one can uphold all those promises to God. Better to beg forgiveness than spend all of life afraid. Do you agree?”
“I suppose so. I’m not rightfully sure. You’re the educated one.”
“Ha, aye. I’ve been forced to endure the rod, so now I’m educated. By that measure, you are twice as educated as I could ever be. Why, there are some boys up at the school who would die to have a back like yours, pocked with the lashes of the lecturer.”
Coffey sat across from Isaac, and for the first time since they had met, refused to look him in the face. Earlier, with Samuel, she had looked down out of years of conditioning. With Isaac however, she dared not look at how grotesque this school had made him. Or to hide how grotesque age had made her feel. Was her appearance as unrecognizable as his soul and tongue were now?
“I feel my metaphor has been lost upon you. At school, we are given something that lacks substance. You can’t hold your education high, strut it for the ladies at the balls and horse races. No, we second and third sons get something lesser, something astral that none can see and that we must make them believe in. our only indicators are the slaps on the wrist. Just like you, with your tattered ebony hide, we can only show our life experiences in twisted marks of punishment. Signs of a crucible endured. By making me leave, father has reduced my position, he has removed my ability to choose for myself my fate. Now I will be relegated to some fat-bellied, pew-laden house that isn’t even mine, subservient to some higher power and those who grovel at the door to be told they haven’t tainted this world with their existence… I’m sorry Coffey, this tirade is not for you. It is not for anyone, save the bottom of this bottle. My bitterness from the road is all. No, I have asked you here, tonight, for a special reason. I wish to hear a tale, an old one, from when I was younger.”
“Oh? What story?”
“Tell me of the Sycamore man.”
“yes, please, I implore you.”
“Why, that’s just an old fiction. Just a old ghastly one to scare little ones.”
“He told me you knew the story…”
“Sorry, I met another gentleman at university. He had been told a similar tale, under similar circumstances. Of course, we see through it now. Looking out for your own kind, trying to teach us fair-skinned boys to respect our darker siblings. But hearing him tell the tale rekindled my desire to hear it. Please, do tell me the story Coffey.”
“It’s just a made-up tale, surely you want to hear about what has happened here in your absence?”
“I care not for the on-goings of this family or this plantation. Now I demand to hear this tale!”
“I… of course Isaac.
Silas worked on a big farm in Georgia. They grew cotton there, lots of it…”
“Indigo, actually. The man at school said it was indigo.”
“Oh. Alright, they grew indigo there, lots of it. The work was tough, the overseers tougher, and the plantation owner was as mean as a cornered mountain lion. All the slaves knew it was best to keep your head down and work, and Silas, big and strong though he was, tried his best to not start any trouble at the plantation. That is, until his wife, who he wasn’t supposed to have, grew fat in the belly with child. Silas didn’t want his kid to be born into that world, to be the property of those people. So Silas settled to do what anyone put into a tough spot would do, he sought help. One of the older hands, he was always telling tall tales, and one night, while pondering what to do to save his unborn kid, Silas overheard the old timer telling of the witch who lived in the mountains to the West. She had all sorts of powers, and she had come down and visited with the older blacks sometimes in the night, to learn of the magics they brought with them from the old lands. Silas grew curious, and asked what sort of powers this witch had. The old man told all sorts of nonsense to Silas, but Silas only wanted to know if she could help his unborn kid. Send it somewhere safe, change the wicked owner’s mental state, anything that would give his babe some protection in the world. A charm even.
So Silas stole off one night to look for the witch of the mountains. I can’t say myself if he ever made it up to the witch. That bit was never in the version I heard. What I do know was that Silas was caught four days later. Tattered, lacking water and food, the man was practically knocking on deaths door when they saw him wander back on the master’s land. The overseer caught him, and dragged him to the big house. The master of that plantation was beside himself when they dropped Silas at his feet. He didn’t care about how big, how strong Silas was, how good a worker the boy was. The master decided to make an example of him right then and there.
An ancient, knotted old sycamore grew right in front of the house itself. The kids, white and black, would play round that old tree all day on the plantation. It was from that tree that the master decided to hang poor Silas. Now, I know you’re a man of the church, and won’t believe in any superstitions anymore, but you gotta know that that tree had seen the whole affair. And it took pity on Silas. See, trees, they don’t have legs, they never know the freedom of a change of scenery. That’s why they grow so tall, to get a better glimpse of what else is out there. It saw a kindred spirit in Silas, and it vowed to help him out.
So as the rope got swung over the first branch, as the noose was tightened, all the Negros forced to gather round and watch, as the horse lifted Silas’s body up high, the branch broke. And the second try, the second branch broke. And the third, and the fourth. The master, he grew angrier and angrier, and he hollered and he screamed and they got another rope, and the branches, these thick branches just kept breaking and setting Silas free again. Desperate, the master, he grabbed Silas’s beloved, and they tore her dress off right there, and they began beating her. The whip cracked, so did her skin, and she cried out for Silas, and Silas cried out for it to stop. They was still whipping that girl as they tried again to lift Silas up.
And again the branch broke. With the whip tearing into his wife’s flesh, Silas began begging the tree to hold, begging for a swift end to all this pain so his love would be spared this awful thing. Trees don’t know the pain of human suffering. They don’t get attached to each other like we do, only that hope of a better view, of moving somewhere and seeing something new. So the tree kept breaking, and Silas kept begging and pleading, and the whip kept cracking.
Soon the master’s men couldn’t reach the branches, even with a ladder. Only the tallest remained. Driven into a complete rage, the master looked around and saw that this runaway wasn’t gonna go that way. The girl, bloodied and unconscious, kept getting lashes. Silas couldn’t see through the tears dumping out of his eyes and his heart was as broken as the body of his wife. He begged the master, to make it all stop, to put an end to this, to take him from this world. It was with no kindness that the master drew his pistol and shot Silas, right there against the tree. The shot went straight through the body, embedded deep in the tree, taking Silas’s blood with it. With that, the events of that day ended.
The girl recovered, but she lost the baby. Life went on the plantation. The master and overseers got meaner and meaner. And the sycamore tree, it withered and died, becoming a pock on the whole big estate. First, the master tried to have it removed. No ax could dent its bark however, and no team of horses could get the behemoth to rock. It just sat, defiant and ugly, taunting the master and reminding the slaves of the brutality they had witnessed.
Now, there isn’t a good reason for the rest of the story. I was told it was Silas’s revenge, but you probably know better by now. First, the tree took the master’s little baby girl. She was out playing, for kids showed no fear under that old tree and did like kids always do. The mangled old branch dropped with great speed on her, cracked her skull right in two. The doctor was called, but it was too late when he got there. The efforts to remove the tree doubled after that, but to less avail than before. Axheads broke off, flying through the air and hurting overseers and slaves alike. Vile, blackened roots sprung up and ruined horse ankles. The more the master fought to remove the tree, the worse it’s punishment. As the years passed, the whole estate just tried to ignore the cursed thing, giving it a wide berth, except the master. He went out everyday and tried to fell the beast.
As he slipped further into his mission, the plantation began to rot. A frost ruined the entire crop, and the money was never made back up. Most the whites in the field quit, going to work for others. The missus of the house, having lost her precious girl, and her husband to his insanity, well she fell into a deep depression. Going out to work on the tree one morning, the master found her, dangling by the neck from a weak little branch that had regrown lower down. Now the master really lost it.
He put the entire workforce to task bringing that tree down, still with no result. It was some fortnight after the lady had hung herself that the thunderstorm came rolling through. The winds howled, the rain was like moving sideways and with such force it shattered the windows of the house. The master, he just stood on his balcony and cursed that tree, the same as he had done every nigh since it had taken his wife. That wind brought his triumph though, as the tree began to rock and writhe. The master, he watched, joyful tears in his eyes, as the roots uplifted, and the whole tree came crashing down on the manor, taking the master with it.
All that remained when the storm passed was the slave quarters, and the bedroom of the master’s young son. The slaves found him the next morning, crying into the shoulder of his crushed father. As they approached him, he screamed out sorry! Over and over, begging their forgiveness, begging for his father back, apologizing for all the wrong that had been done to them.
And that’s all I remember, Isaac.”
Isaac sat, slouched in his chair. Coffey had heard the whiskey bottle rise multiple times throughout her story, and as she finally looked at the man sitting across from her he looked totally passed out. The bottle was completely empty.
“Yea, that’s about how I remember it too…” the hunched figure groaned in a gravelly voice. “You were a lot prettier before the whippings, I remember that too. You went by Ruth, too, didn’t you,” the man asked. The scarf had fallen from his face, and Coffey realized too late that the man sitting across from her was not Isaac Claye. “There it is, that recognition. I look just like him, don’t I? The cruel master of your story, come back from the grave. Course, I never died. Always wondered why the tree spared me. Course, probably just cause you lot couldn’t kill me, the innocent boy. Then again, you killed poor Susanna, dropped that goddamn tree branch on her head, didn’t you?”
Coffey backed up fast, terrified of the man posing as her friend. After several pushes though, she found her back up against the fire, with the man blocking her only escape.
“Your boy Isaac was a talker, wasn’t he? Told me all your little tales, Ruth. Weak little snake, that one. I practically danced when he told me that story. He really liked you, you know? Hell, he told me your story almost verbatim. I never thought I would get to take my revenge, get to finish what my father couldn’t. No cursed tree around these parts, I bet your little body will go up real nice.”
Coffey was gasping erratically. Fear had paralyzed her. This man, they boy, they couldn’t be the same. The scars on her back felt freshly enflamed, her mouth felt hot and dry like the fire that licked at her back. The images of that fateful night came roaring back and burned themselves into her retinas, the broken branches, the red faced master, the cracking whip and her screaming Silas, his face the image of sorrow. All of that, and the teary face of a young white boy, staring at her crumpled naked figure.
“Your Isaac was easy to kill. We roomed together for a while, until he drowned in the bathtub. Doctor thought it had something to do with his illness. He barely fought. Had he not been such an unbearable craven I might even feel bad about it. But this, no, this is all what it was supposed to be.”
The man leapt on Coffey, smacking her hard upside the head, and she fainted.
She came to her senses deep in the grove that grew on the Eastern portion of the Aspway Plantation. Christopher, like many of the male heirs before him, had left this area unfarmed to provide a reservoir of local game for hunting. The pale moon dangled in the sky, a silver ball on a spider web, casting wicked, gangly shadows across her body and view. A lantern illuminated the man, who was busy pulling on a rope with a thick noose.
“Good, your awake. I want you to see what I’ve found for you,” he snarled, waving his hands wildly towards the large sycamore. It looked somewhat frail, lacking its full plumage, but she had watched him yank hard on the rope and knew the branch he had selected was sturdy.
For sometime, he stood, panting heavily and looking at her. She lay on the ground, hard tears cascading down her eyes, her voice and scream failing her and bottling up inside. “Come on, please, beg me to let you be. Do that for me Ruth, beg for your life, beg like your husband did.”
The man looked just like his father had, eyes wild and black, frail arms waving about manically in the soft light of the lantern and moon. She felt a defiance growing inside her, the same defiance she had when Silas told her about his foolish plan to consult the witch, the same defiance that had gotten her through the beatings and the years of not belonging on the Claye operation. She thought of sweet Silas, the way his sweat smelled just like the beer he liked to brew in secret after the days work. She thought about Isaac, scrawny little Isaac and the kindness he had known despite being shown none his whole life. She closed her eyes hard, opened them, and laughed. She laughed out clear and loud, a sound that reverberated and echoed throughout the darkened grove.
“You bitch,” the man mumbled, “You no good, evil witch. Come here.” He picked her up easily enough, dragging her body towards the tree. Coffey didn’t fight him, but kept laughing, now directly into his ear. A joyous, light laugh, a church bell laugh. He slipped the noose around her neck, hot tears now dumping down his prematurely wrinkled face. The insults kept pouring out his mouth as he heaved, lifting her feet off the ground, up into the air for a better view of the grove. As the noose closed around her windpipe, the laugh kept coming, struggling to break the bonds of her own esophagus. She laughed, for she had seen something impossible, and she found out that she perhaps had been wrong all along.
He tied the rope off with his third heave, leaving Coffey’s feet kicking at about his head level. Her laugh came out in struggled gasps, but the clarity still could not be questioned.
“What are you laughing about,” The man pounded his feet, he swung his arms, spittle and foam burst from his mouth. Coffey slowly raised a hand, pointing behind him. He cocked his head curiously at this gesture, and as he raised his wild arms again found them to no longer be in his control. Thin branches had closed around his wrist, roots were entwining his feet, and the entire grove was leaning in close to his skinny body. More branches reached, and tore with claw-like tips his clothes. The roots spiraled up his body rapidly, pulsing and tightening as they climbed. His scream was that of a horrified animal, a rabbit running from hounds. Skinny, pubescent twigs clambered for the open sockets of his mouth and nose. A thick branch closed around his torso. With all the speed they had grabbed him with, the trees began heaving in opposite directions, tearing at his flesh. He continued to scream and wail, as the loud crunch of branch and bone snapped throughout the woods, reverberating and amplifying. The pieces of him scattered, much the way leaves do for the first fall wind.
The rope lowered her gently to the ground, where she collapsed. She lay there, eyes closed and smiling, for some time. the brown leaves on the ground were soft, and provided a soft cushion for her body.
Slowly, She began to smell tobacco and beer and sweat, and as her eyes opened, she saw the thick brown arms of Silas wrap around her. His skin seemed hard and knotted, but to be held by him again was more than enough. He lifted her up, raising her high in the air, and she snuggled deeply into his embrace. He pulled her into his core, and she kissed his thick, sappy lips, running her hands over his bark-crusted hide. “I’ve always been here baby, always been here, standing up on my tippy-toes to see you,” Silas whispered, and Coffey gave into his embrace, crying tears of joy and planting herself firmly beside her husband.
Cat Scratch Fever (Coming Soon)