What Happens After the Funeral

by Carrie Naughton

 

I know it’s George calling because I’ve set his ringtone to oogah horn. I yank my honking phone out of my purse.

“Yello,” I mumble, ducking into the lightbulbs aisle.

“Poopy doopy doop!”

“That’s me.”

“Are you on your goddamn cell phone?”

“I only have one phone, dumbass. That would be the one you’re calling.”

“When are you gonna get a real phone? With a landline. Like normal people.”

“When are you gonna realize that’s what normal people did in like, 1997? Besides, now you can talk to me while I shop for essential home items at Target and kill my afternoon gin and tonic buzz.”

“Oooh, Target? Will you get me one of those three packs of boxer shor—”

“I will not buy your boxers for you.”

“Come on. Nah, nevermind. Listen! When’re you gonna be home. I’m gonna pick you up and you’re going with me to Melrose.”

Ah, Melrose. My favorite town in all of Montana. Even if I’ve never been there. But it’s so beautiful when you drive by it on Interstate 15. Tucked in alongside the Big Hole River, shaded by giant cottonwoods…” How far is that? That’s like three hours from Missoula.”

“Maybe the way you drive. It’s two.” He takes a drink, and I hear ice rattling in a glass. “Two!”

“Why’re you going to Melrose?” Hhmm… Do I need lightbulbs? Maybe those little ones for my nightlight. Gotta have the nightlight on, to keep away the ghosts.

“Did I ever tell you about my lucky mug?”

“Maybe. Will these lightbulbs fit my nightlight? Do they make all nightlight bulbs the same?”

“What? Gahhhd. Get off the cell phone!”

“You wanna hang up?”

“When’re you gonna be home?”

“I’m almost done here. Twenty minutes. Melrose… why?”

“Cuz I gotta get my lucky mug. I left it at the fly fishing shop like six months ago when Jay and I were down there shooting that documentary.”

“And why do you have to go get it right now, at five o’clock on a Saturday?”

“What else you got to do? What, are you gonna go home and light some candles and put on some Carly Simon and take a bath?”

“No, that’s what you do.”

“You are.”

“You are. Fine. Pick me up in thirty minutes.”

“Righteous. And we’re goin’ to the titty bar in Rocker.”

“Whhyyyyyy?”

“What, you don’t wanna go to the titty bar? Don’t be such a girl.”

“I am a girl.”

“You’ll love the titty bar. I’ll buy ya a lap dance.”

“You’re buying drinks. You can have the lap dance.”

“Thirty minutes. You better be ready.”

“When am I not?”

“Mmmm… hey! Ginger? Hey!”

“I’m still here.” In fact, I’m on a trajectory to the checkout line by way of the snacks aisle. Road food.

“Bring your iPod. You got any Noisettes?”

“Is that a candy?” I pause between the candy and the chips ’n crackers.

“What? It’s a band. How come you don’t know about the Noisettes? You’re my connection to pop culture.”

“And you’re my connection to male menopause. Man-opause. Why do we need my iPod? You’ve got XM in the Forester.”

“Just bring it, poopy. And don’t forget the car connecter thingy. Bring the whole shit n’ kaboodle.”

I hang up, get some Maui Onion pretzels, and get the hell out of Target.

Thirty minutes later, George is honking a Subaru horn in my driveway. I barely have time to grab a fleece and a beer. He’s gonna piss off my neighbor.

“I brought snacks,” I tell him, slamming the car door. He waits until I’m situated with seatbelt on and purse safely stowed. This is George: obnoxious and gentlemanly. Short, well-groomed, in his midfifties. My BFF. Voice like a game show host and a predilection for liverwurst and martinis.

“What snacks? Oh… those pretzels that make your breath smell like butt.”

“But they’re so goooood. What’s this mug, now? This mug in Melrose?”

“It’s my favorite coffee mug. I’ve had it forever, since I first started working for the station.”

“What is it, like the plastic mug-with-a-lid kind? I’ve never seen it. What’s it look like?”

“Nothin’ special. Just a Conoco mug with a Falstaff beer sticker on it. From back when we had good slogans. Not this new pansy-ass New Age new shit.”

“New new new.”

He smirks.

“And so you left it at the flyshop.”

“Yep. I stopped in there to ask something, I don’t remember what now. And I just left it right there on the counter and didn’t realize it until we got back to Missoula.”

“Are they even gonna be open when we get there?”

“They better be.”

I don’t even bother pursuing this. George either called ahead or he didn’t. Who knows if the mug’s even there. I’m going to see Melrose. I’m going to walk its one street and think about how I’ll never live there because I would surely be run out of town as a commie treehugger.

We leave this crowded college town at a sensible speed and exit Hellgate Canyon in the sunset of a chilly late spring evening. I hate the Interstate right here. Everybody’s snowchains kill the asphalt and carve it into a washboarded gauntlet.

But I like this canyon, with its steep, piney cliffs hugging the road.

“This state is dying from pine beetles,” George complains. “Give it ten years, and every pine in Western Montana is going to die.”

I plug in my iPod and put on some Bette Davis. I know George will approve because he gave me the CD. And if you think I mean All About Eve Bette Davis, then you don’t know as much as you think you do.

Bette starts growling: …if I’m in luck I might get picked uuuupp…

George’s Forester zooms southeast on I-90 and we listen to Bette and shoot the shit.

“Have you ever seen Mountain of the Cannibal God?” George wants to know.

“Can’t say I have.”

“I Netflixed it last night. It’s got Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress in it. Or, as we used to call her back in high school, Ursula Undress. A buncha Italians made it, and it has to be one of the world’s worst movies. But it was filmed in Thailand, so there’s lotsa native tit.”

“Of course you suffered through to the end for that.”

“And the memorable scene where Stacy Keach says, “You never forget the taste of human flesh!”

It’s full dark by the time we hit Butte and catch I-15 South, and before you know it, we’re taking exit 93. Melrose. Seems like it should be a ghost town, but for the lights. A lot of ghost towns in Montana.

“What’s goin’ on tonight?” I wonder out loud. We turn off the frontage road into what qualifies as downtown Melrose, and there’s something like two hundred pickup trucks lining the street outside the Mint Bar.

It takes us longer to find a parking spot than it does for us to figure out that there’s a funeral going on. Or a wake. Whatever they call what happens after the funeral. There’s people packed to the walls inside the Mint, cowboys clutching bottles of Bud and staggering around on the sidewalks.

“Damn near every town in Montana has a Mint Bar,” George announces to me. “It’s a holdover from the mining and money days. Little bit ’o history for ya.”

We skirt the masses and I follow George down the bleary streetlamped sidewalk to the tackle shop. Which is closed. Dark and locked up. A lanky young cowpoke wearing tight Wranglers and Brut cologne passes by, and then doubles back to us.

“Harry closed up early for the fune’ral,” he tells us, squinting under the toxic glow of a sad little streetlight. “I think he’s down’t the bar.”

“With everybody else,” George adds.

“Come on over. Cel’brate the life of a good man with us.” He continues on, waving at someone up ahead.

“I could do some celebratin’ with him, at least.” I watch Wranglers amble his perfect ass into the Mint.

“This is gonna be a prototypical Butte Irish wake,” George says. “You ready to get your drink on?”

“Does this mean we skip the strip club?”

“Pffft. You wish. I’m thinking of this right now as Prelude to Le Titty Bar. Plus we gotta find this guy Harry. I want my lucky mug. Six months I’ve been using this other mug that in no way compares to the original lucky mug. It’s just temporary. My Temporary Lucky Mug. You’ve seen that one. I even wrote TLM on it. To remind me to get my ass to Melrose and get back my mug. Which is our mission tonight. Plus drinkin’. Maybe they’ve got Pyrat Rum. Now that’s good drinkin’. The Jaegermeister of Rum!”

“Let’s go then, matey. Operation Harry.”

I grab a wrinkled copy of today’s Anaconda Standard off a street bench while we walk.

“Wuzzat?” George slows down and peers over my shoulder.

“Somebody read the Obits and then tossed this.”

“It tell who died for this party tonight?”

“It does.” We stop, so I can read in the light near the bar entrance. The roar of mourners’ small talk rolls in waves out of the open doors, carrying with it the distinctive breeze of Marlboro smoke, sour beer, and cheap perfume.

“Donagh Doyle. Parents came from Ireland in 1887 and homesteaded near Melrose. He was born in 1916. Jeez. Served in World War II. Air Force ball turret gunner.”

“He musta been a little guy.”

“Aww, like you George.”

“Keep reading.”

“Flew twenty-six missions in a B-17.”

“Twenty-six missions?! Christ! You don’t see a belly gunner lasting twenty-six missions. Like, ever.”

It’s freezing out here on the streets of Melrose, even with the warm boozy air rushing out of the bar. I look at George, and it actually starts to snow, little flurries whirling around us. At first I think somebody’s cigarette ashed on us.

“Weird spring weather,” says George. “What else?”

“Donagh married his childhood sweetheart, Birdie. They bought a ranch and started roping wild horses up the canyon, broke ’em and sold ’em as saddle horses. Birdie died in 2002, but the family still runs the ranch.”

“Damn,” George breathes. I half-expect him to whip out his Moleskine notebook and jot down notes about the life of Donagh Doyle. But he only nods and says, “Let’s go celebrate this good man. And find Harry.”

Operation Harry commences and ends within two drinks and ten minutes of shuffling and elbowing our way through the bar. George can be charismatic and persistent, and the tipsy, grieving folk of Melrose are friendly and obliging. But Harry isn’t among them. He’s up at the town cemetery with a backhoe, readying the ground for Donagh Doyle.

When we get up there, after several wrong turns, it’s coming down snow like it’s Christmas Eve. And Harry isn’t alone.

“Ahoy!” George calls out, lifting an arm to wave as we walk up the hill toward the fake sun of a portable light tower. He takes a sip from his flask, which he somehow got the bartender to fill with Pyrat. I’m still carrying my bottle of Scapegoat, which I snuck out inside my jacket even though nobody in Montana cares about that.

“Help you?” A tall, angular man steps out of the shadows and sagebrush. He’s yelling as loud as George, because of the noise from the backhoe. He’s very bald and reminds me of a pale spider.

“Are you Harry?” George yells. George looks funny when he yells. Like a cartoon character.

“Nope! He’s runnin’ that backhoe!” Skinny guy nods, as if that settles it. A woman steps up next to him, moving through the gleaming swirls of snow.

Suddenly, the backhoe engine cuts off, and in the ensuing, graveyard quiet, the woman yells “Who’re you two supposed to be?” She’s maybe in her early sixties, with long black-dyed hair and garish red lipstick. She’s wearing pack boots and a black trenchcoat. Also she’s drunk off her ass and working her way, it appears, through a bottle of Bushmills.

“I’m Agent Mulder, and this is Agent Scully,” George says. “I’m here for my lucky mug. Is this your cemetery? Cuz if it’s not, it should be. You two really look the part.”

The woman takes a stagger-step backward and blinks snowflakes off her eyelashes.

“What’d he say?” She glares at us, and I decide she kinda looks like a casting call for a vampire movie.

Then Harry clambers down off the backhoe. “Don’t tell me… you’re George,” he says.

“No, he’s Agent Mulder,” explains the Bride of Dracula.

Harry grins, walks toward us with one meaty arm outstretched in a too zombiesque manner. I seriously consider dropping my beer bottle and running for my life, because suddenly this meeting in the graveyard is wigging me out. But Harry just wants to shake hands, and George introduces me, too. George and Ginger. It always sounds like we’re a pair of circus elephants.

“You come all the way up here to find me so you can get that mug back?” Harry folds his arms across his chest. They don’t stay there long. The arms are short and the chest is barrel, and so within a moment his hands kinda pressure-pop out from inside his elbows, like he’s an inflatable toy.

“So you did call ahead,” I nudge George. “Shocking.”

George ignores me. “You still got my mug?”

Harry shrugs. “’Course. But… it’s down locked up in the shop. And I gotta get this hole dug tonight in case the ground freezes. I waited till the last minute, but of course, you know with these spring storms. Might happen.”

I want to express my doubts about frozen tundra in April, even in Montana, but I stay silent. Mr. Skinny has one long arachnid arm around Dracula’s bride, and she’s watching me with narrowed eyes.

“Why you need Harry to get you a mug? Are you here for Donagh’s funeral? Do you even know Donagh?”

“How do you know Donagh?” George fires back.

“I know him,” she mutters, and lifts her bottle. We all toast the dearly departed. Surprisingly, George looks more somber than the rest of us.

It’s right about now that I understand we’re standing on a hilltop in Melrose, in the dark, with a buncha outcasts from a dead man’s wake, haranguing a guy about a plastic mug while he digs a grave.

“George, maybe we needa come back another time,” I tug at his sleeve.

“Naw,” Harry waves me off. “Can you all just wait a bit? I’m almost done with the requisite six feet.”

“The requisite six feet,” George laughs. He repeats anything he thinks is funny.

“That is not funny,” says Vampira.

“What is her deal?” I whisper to George.

“Her deal is for me to get as far away from her as possible,” he says. “Okay, we’ll just wait over here, then,” George announces, and we walk thirty steps to the porch of a little house, which is either the groundskeeper’s office or—

“You can just have a seat on those steps there,” Harry points. “They had the viewing inside earlier, so…”

“Well, we might wanna pay our respects.”

“George! No.” I sound like I’m training a puppy.

“Well, why not? He was a hero.”

Harry looks at Mr. Skinny. Mr. Skinny, propping up the Vampire Woman Who Knows Donagh, looks back. His lips quirk, a quiet skitter of the mouth. I can see that even from twenty yards.

“Sure, go on,” Harry tells us. “If ya like.”

George turns to me. “Yeah, we like,” he mutters.

“Are you serious? Do you really wanna wait an hour up here on Boot Hill before we can go get your mug? Do you really wanna go look at this dead guy? How much rum you got left?”

“I got plenty. And it’s Donagh Doyle. Not ‘this dead guy.’ What’s wrong with waiting? I know you’re all damp to get to the nudie bar, Ginge, but I want my mug. And while we’re here, we can drink to Donagh Doyle.”

“I am not damp to get to the nudie bar.” I take a swig of my beer. Two swigs, and it’s finished. “They probably think we’re total assholes. Your charm only goes so far. Maybe you shouldn’t interact with people at all. Just stay at home and do those mail order animal skeleton assembly kits. Or be a forest lookout. Or the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.”

“Caretaker at the Overlook Hotel,” George chuckles, and it’s impossible to be mad at him.

“Fine. You go inside first.” I shove him.

“Aw, is this your first cadaver?”

“Yes. And you’ll be my second.”

George laughs his stage-show laugh. “And you’ll be my second…” he imitates me.

The inside of the cottage smells like furniture polish and carnations. People say carnations don’t have a smell, but I say they do. They smell like the inside of a florist’s cooler.

We’re standing behind several rows of folding chairs, with Doyle’s somber, closed casket on a dais at the front of the room.

“Whoa,” George stops as the door closes behind us. “I haven’t been in a funeral parlor since my dad died.” The lines of his face deepen. He’s a good human despite the dick jokes and the manpig bluster. Or perhaps because of all that.

“You okay?”

“Let’s see if they put lotsa pancake make-up on the poor bastard.”

Dear George. He’s the one who lifts the lid on the coffin. I stay back a few feet.

Donagh Doyle looks like a dead ninety-three year old Montana rancher. His face is lined and thin, and while there’s not too much make-up on it, there is a kind of melancholy. I expect if he were to open his eyes they would be sad, but the idea of those eyes opening is enough to make me take a step back.

His coffin is lined with white silk and he’s wearing a dark brown suit with a bolo tie. There’s a white carnation in his lapel buttonhole and a wornout pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots on his feet.

George is quiet for too long, staring at the dead guy.

“I think I’d almost rather be wrapped in muslin than put in clothes when I’m buried,” I tell George as I grab the flask out of his hand. “Something about clothes rotting is worse than rotting gauze. Or maybe I don’t like the idea of people playing dress-up with my corpse.”

“Or you have a mummy fetish.”

“Oh, for sure. Wrap me up and bury me with all my worldly treasures.”

“Yeah, like what? Your iPod and your Birkenstocks.”

“And that about sums it up.”

“I’ll make sure your iPod’s playing Neko goddamn Case.”

“What—like I’m going first? You’ll be toast long before me, you cantankerous old fart.”

“I think he just moved.”

“Shut up. It is kinda cold in here.”

“He moved. I’m serious.”

“I’m outta here.”

The door to the cottage bangs open. I half expect to see Harry and his cronies shamble toward us with Night of the Living Dead lurches and growls.

“Good news,” Harry claps his hands.

“You’re not a zombie,” I say.

“Huh? Listen, Jacob says he’ll finish the backhoe for me, and then we can go down to my shop and get your mug, sir.”

“That’s terrific,” George reverently closes the lid on Donagh, and I follow everyone out, with a couple glances back over my shoulder. Did he really move? Did the lid just move?

The actual obtaining of the lucky mug is quite the anticlimax. For me, at least. I swear George almost hugged it. Good thing he didn’t, because a moment later he popped the lid off and a smell like I imagine Mr. Doyle’s gonna exude in a few months reeked out of the cup and nearly knocked us all down.

“Gaakk!” George gags. “Nastynastynasty.”

“I ain’t touched it since you left it here last fall,” Harry protests. “It was just sittin’ under my counter here. So whatever was in there is what you put in there.”

“I’ll wash it out when I get home,” George says, cramming the top back on lucky nasty mug.

“You really come all this way out here just for this mug?” Harry asks for the second time tonight. He walks with us to the door. We wind our way through racks of inexpensive flyrods, gear vests, and waders.

“It’s my lucky mug,” George explains. “Reminds me that I’m alive.”

Harry smiles. “We all need that.” He flips off the lights, and I almost scream. “After you,” he says, and I fumble with the doorknob and yank the door open, shop bell chiming.

With a final round of handshakes, Harry leaves us on the sidewalk and departs for the bar. My guess is, he’s really glad we showed up and saved him from gravedigger duty.

“It’s colder than a well digger’s brass monkey tit out here,” George frowns. “Where’d we park? It’s still snowing. Mother of God.”

“It’s Montana. I’m glad you drove.”

“Yeah, me too. You’d run us into a ditch.”

“Piss off! I was saying that cuz you’ve got four-wheel drive. Where’d your ‘I got my lucky mug’ good mood go?”

“I got my lucky mug!” George does a little elfin jig, brandishing his mug, with its crusty Falstaff sticker and gnawed-looking handle. “I got my lucky mug!”

“And it smells like scrotum fug!”

“Scrotum fug!” George caws. “D’you make that up?”

“It rhymed.”

Back at the car, it takes forever to warm up.

“I can still smell that coffin,” George says.

“Gross.” But it does smell odd in the car. Like cold carnations. “My liver hurts,” I complain.

“Have some more rum, Gingie Poo.”

Then we’re on the road with the heater blasting and Melrose, dear Melrose, behind us. And I didn’t even get a good look around. Coming off the entrance ramp onto the slushy Interstate, we get stuck behind a slow-moving 18-wheeler, dirty wet snow clinging to its flanks.

“Why don’t you look at property here if you like it so much?”

“Yeah, like I can afford it.”

“You just—” he starts to say, and then we both scream as a huge rock ricochets off the semi’s wheels and hits our windshield with a violent crack.

“Shit!”

“That’s gonna need some crackstop.”

“Jesus, I’m surprised the airbags didn’t deploy.”

My heartrate slows down and I reach for the radio. “It’s XM for the way home. I need my satellite radio fix.”

“Fine. But if there’s Peter Cetera, you have to change the channel. I hate him with a hatred reserved for Nazis and the guy who convinced Garrison Keillor he could sing.”

“I know you do, you poor man.” I scan through the channels and stop at channel 62, Heart and Soul, playing After 7. “Oh-ho,” I laugh. “This one.”

Can’t stop… the boys from After 7 croon, and go on to describe how they’re diggin’ on and bein’ dug by their special lady.

“Yeah, I remember this one. What were you, in preschool?”

“I distinctly remember this new jack hit from my high school days,” I protest. Then the song cuts out mid-chorus.

“Why’d you change it?”

“I didn’t.”

We watch the digital numbers morph from 62 down through 28, pausing there, then continuing on to channel 4. The 40’s on 4.

…in Shangri-La…

“Is that Peggy Lee?” George knows all the greats.

I read the display. “Yeah. But I didn’t change it.”

Peggy Lee’s smoky voice curls out of the Subaru’s crappy speakers.

“That is great,” gushes George. “Write that song down. Get my notebook and write that down.”

The song ends, and tinny big band music squawks at us. I flip the dial.

“Now what’re you doing?”

“I wanna listen to Deep Tracks.”

“Deep Tracks. I’ll show you deep tracks.”

The Rolling Stones are wailing about how it’s allllll over now…

“This isn’t a deep track,” George complains. I turn up the volume and sit back and listen to the Stones. A song from The Faces comes on next. And the channel changes again, all on its own.

“You’re not doing that,” George observes.

“No shit.”

“Is it broken?”

“Just watch the road, I don’t know.” I watch the numbers flip back to 4.

It’s Doris Day and Buddy Clark, apparently, and they love somebody.

“Why’s it keep going back to channel 4?”

“Pull over,” I tell George. “There’s a gas station at the next exit.”

He doesn’t say anything, so I know he’ll do it.

Before we get off the Interstate, I change the channel again. Back to Deep Tracks. Only a few verses of Mott the Hoople, and then we’re back to the 40’s on 4. Woody Herman, with that old feeling.

George pulls off the road and into the glare of an Exxon pump island, coasting through until he parks the Subaru at the edge of the store, near a dumpster and a weedy field.

“Okay, what’s wrong with this thing. Wait. I need coffee first. Aw, dammit. My lucky mug’s still nasty.”

“Didn’t you bring your temporary lucky mug?”

“Nooo. Why would I bring that when I knew I was gonna get my real lucky mug?”

“Go get coffee. You can deal with a To-Go cup. I’ll figure out the radio. You’ll just get mad and punch it.”

“I would.”

“Get me hot cocoa.”

“Hot cocoa?! Nine-year-old kids drink that!”

He leaves me with the engine running. I play with the dial on the satellite radio, trying different stations and waiting. Nothing happens now. I leave it on Hair Nation, it stays on Hair Nation. Well, whatever. I get out of the car and let the snow tickle my face. It fluffs onto the curb and the newspaper racks, but it won’t last. Spring snow always melts within a few hours.

“Did you fix it?” George rejoins me, and we climb back inside the Forester. He shuts his door, and I’m about to take a sip of my cocoa when I feel suddenly nervous, as if a stranger has just walked up to my window. I look out into the snowflaked night, but there’s no one there. Someone’s behind us?

I turn around in my seat.

George is fussing with dials on the dashboard. “Why’s it cold in here again? Why’d you turn off the heater? Did you fix the radio? Didjoo fixit didjoo fixit didjoo fixit?”

“Shut up for a second!”

He slurps coffee. “Aahhh that’s gooood.”

“I feel like someone else just got into the car with us.”

“What?”

On the radio, Poison stops doing “Fallen Angel,” and the XM channels scroll down to 4. Dinah Shore and a full horn section.

…blues in the night…

“You didn’t fix it,” George sulks.

“It’s not broken,” I shiver. “Something’s doing that. Do you smell that?”

“Whaddayou mean?”

“Carnations.”

“Yeah, but did you fix the radio.”

“I’m telling you, it’s a ghost.”

“Aw, what, you see a dead body and now you’re all, I see dead bodies…”

“It’s dead people.”

“Well, yeah. You claim to.”

“I’m just saying…” Just what am I saying?

Dinah Shore keeps singing about the blues in the night.

I turn again to the back seat, and there he is. Donagh Doyle.

“George,” I squeak.

“Ginger.” He slurps more coffee. “I can’t wait to clean out my lucky mug.”

“George,” I grind out through clenched teeth.

“Ginger. We’re only twenty miles from Rocker. You ready to go to Sagebrush Sam’s now? Meth-ed out Butte girls with some fiiiine tat-tays waitin’.”

Donagh Doyle doesn’t look at me, but he is smiling. Like he’s listening to some old-time favorite radio show. He’s wearing that dark suit and the bolo tie, but I can see right through him to the pile of papers and George’s crumpled Montana Grizzlies sweatshirt on the backseat.

“There is a ghost in the back seat, George.”

“That’s funny. Very funny. I’m not falling for that. When we get to Rocker, we’re gonna get you even drunker.”

“Just turn around and look. Look at him.” Dead Donagh Doyle, duded up in his spectral suit and cowboy boots.

“I’ll look when we get to Rocker.” George reaches out and bumps my arm, changes the channel. “I dig Dinah Shore, but how ’bout the Bob Dylan Radio Hour?”

Donagh Doyle frowns, and then he looks right at me with his sorrowful eyes. I suppose they are eyes that saw his childhood sweetheart grow old, saw wild horses running across the Big Hole Valley, saw bombs rain down on Germany from the belly of a flying fortress. But now, they’re the hopeful, somewhat lost eyes of a hitchhiker who’s just hoping you’re going his way for a while and maybe you like listening to the wartime era hits.

“Can we leave it on the 40’s on 4?” I ask George. “At least till we get to Rocker?”

 

Double Trouble

by James R. Stratton

 

Mary flashed into the transmat booth surrounded by the darkness of the night. She spun in the close space to survey her favorite place in all the world. A mixed crowd swirled by the dim light of the booth, the marks on their way to the clubs, half-dressed pros hustling the crowd and the geeks looking for a score. She felt her heart pulse as she drank it in. Here came a woman in a sheer silver dress laughing as her date’s eyes wandered over her. There was a huddled knot of college kids chattering as they tried to watch everything at once. The people walked by in singles, couples and groups, all with faces glowing. Mary smiled. I live all week for this just like you.

A street walker sidled up to the college kids. Would they bolt? Maybe they’d surprise her and do some business. Shouting, the prostitute chased the kids up the street. Wrong, wrong, you’ll never make it like that, Mary thought. You’re wasting your time if you can’t get punks like that to come to you.

Mary’s mood crashed and she thought of dialing herself home. She’d asked Leslie and Joan to join her, but they’d passed.

Finally she shook her head as if dark thoughts were dandruff to be shaken off. “It’s Friday night!” she shouted at the half-moon peeking from behind an old brick town house. “I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar! No twelve-hour shifts, no tight-assed customers with their shitty tips.” She grinned at people staring. “No work ’til Sunday brunch, and I get to make this town jump and shout ’til then.”

She slid her finger up the coin return slot of the booth, pulled on her headphones and slapped the door-release button. Her favorite band, Action! Action! Action!, blared in her earphones as she boogied up the street. Mary smiled at the people she passed as she moved her 240 pounds vigorously in time with the music. Her breasts and butt bounced in counterpoint rhythm to the rest of her.

People paused and watched Mary strut by, most smiling with her. One old couple frowned their disapproval at her; Mary gave them the finger. Mary didn’t stop at the newest clubs at the top of the block. They never let her through the velvet rope. But further down were her kind of night spots; cheap and sleazy. Her one-woman parade halted when Mary found her way blocked by a great slab of a man. He towered over her, her head just came to the middle of the hairy chest peeking out of his Hawaiian shirt. “What can I do for you, big fellow?”

Overhead a holographic sign declared this to be the Easy Come Saloon. Mary frowned. A new club. Down here? Alerted by sensors that eyes were focused its way, the sign’s artificial intelligence lased images directly to her retinas of dancers inside.

The big doorman’s lips moved as he pointed inside. Mary heard not a word, her blasting music drowned out everything. But his meaning was clear enough. Through the entrance, Mary could see glistening dancers under flashing lights. She licked her lips and grinned. “Thanks for the invite. I do believe I will!”

Inside, Mary slid onto a barstool. A thrill ran through her as she looked the club over. The music blasted so that she could feel it on her chest. The lighting was dim and the air hazy, scented with sweat and herb smoke. She shivered. This was her destination for the night! She could smell the animal tension in the air. All around, people sat alone staring at the dancers or in tight knots wrapped up in each other. Mary breathed deep and gripped the edge of the bar. This is how it should be on Friday night in a hot new club. She could feel a knot of tension grind up her back, just like her days on the runway.

Once Mary had danced up the street at the Jericho Club. Every night, she got drunk on that special power as she made marks sweat with just a smile. They used to throw handfuls of cash to make her stop and chat for just a moment. Her nights on the runway had been like a lusty circus, a nonstop no-drug high. But dancing is hard physical work, meant for the young, tight kids. Mary glanced at her sagging breasts and big butt. Nobody pays to see a fat broad stagger around half naked.

A male dancer, strutting along the combination bar and runway, stopped in front of her to do the bump-and-grind wearing nothing but a tiny silk loin cloth. Mary smiled up at his oiled thighs. She winked and blew him kisses until he stepped closer, then yanked the silk away. The dancer hopped back and glared. “Aw, don’t be mad,” Mary pouted and waved a bill. He flipped her the bird as a heavyset, bald bartender walked over. “You got a problem, lady?”

Mary laughed and pounded the bar. “Yeah, I don’t got a goddamn drink.” She flipped the silk cloth across the bar. “Gimme a Russian Stinger.”

“Easy, lady! Easy. I know how to make a stinger, but what’s the Russian part?”

“You add 10 milligrams of speed. And make it snappy. My throat’s as dry as an old bone.”

“Cool,” he said. “But don’t be taking liberties with the artistes. I’ll have to bounce you out otherwise.” Mary winked. She turned to the guy next to her and smiled a friendly smile.

*****

At 3 A.M., Mary still sat at the bar nursing her last Russian Stinger. The music was off, the lights were up, and the dancers were gone. The clink of empty glasses being cleared away tolled the end of the night. Mary glared as a couple floated out arm in arm. Damn it! I’m not going home alone.

The bartender walked over and nodded at the clock. “Last call. You want another?”

“Nah, I’m tapped out.”

“Don’t sweat it, sweet cheeks.” He slid a drink across the bar. “On the house.”

Mary gulped the drink and looked him over. He’s fat, bald and sweaty, but what the hell. Even if he does make a lousy Russian Stinger. She grimaced at the bitter aftertaste.

As she fluffed her hair and spritzed, Mary realized he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. Isn’t he the eager beaver? She raised her hand to wave, but the room lurched sideways instead. Son of a bitch! She clutched the edge of the bar. I didn’t drink that much, goddamnit! I can’t afford to. Darkness fell as the floor swept up. Mary was next aware of being dragged down a long hallway by her arms. “Sonofabitch!” she slurred as her heels bumped on concrete. The light faded again.

Cloying darkness pressed on her when awareness returned. She jerked and could feel straps restraining her arms and legs. A rotten meat smell made her stomach roil as she felt needle-pricks of panic whisper up her back. She’d lived enough years at the edge of society to know what kind of bad craziness existed out beyond. Light flared and Mary was confronted by a skinny, dark-haired woman standing by the door across the gray concrete cubical.

The woman stared vaguely in Mary’s direction as she chewed her thumb. Her eyes settled on Mary. “I’m glad to see you’re awake,” she whispered. “I was worried we’d start without you. I hope you’re afraid. You really should be.” The woman giggled like she’d made a joke.

Great, a nut case. A quick glance told Mary she was in deep shit. She sat in a solid wooden chair with heavy canvas straps binding her arms and legs. Her breath felt trapped in her chest as her mind spun. She’d heard tales of lock-box sex shops where the women were just kidnap victims, never to be seen again. Am I going to come out of this alive? Mary turned to look around and the room whirled. Too much booze, speed, and whatever they slipped you. You’re riding too damn many drugs.

Mary squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to focus. “Okay, honey,” Mary said in a flat tone. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not playing. Turn me loose and I’ll be on my way.”

The woman giggled. “No, you don’t understand. You need to understand.” She walked behind Mary and pushed. The chair rolled through the door. In the next room, Mary was confronted with a heavy steel frame bolted between concrete pillars. Strapped to it was a naked, heavyset woman. Shit! What kind of creep-show is this? Mary stared as hot and cold waves washed over her. Then she burst out laughing. She’s me, bound and gagged!

“You jerk. This is a stunt! You think you can scare me with dummies and holograms?”

Mary’s last job had been at The Roman Coliseum. Using live actors, fake blood and cattle parts, they staged an act where “the victim” got hacked up on stage, three times a night. The show was a huge success, but low pay for the actors.

“You’re wasting your time, honey. I’ve seen it done by pros.” The woman’s gaze fluttered about as a gaunt man wearing shorts and a mask wheeled in a cart. Gleaming blades lay in precise rows on green cloth.

“Hey ass wipe!” Mary shouted. “Cut me loose NOW! I’m not some whore you hire for your jollies.” Consciousness faded before she heard his response.

When she returned, Mary found the woman and the man slicing off the woman’s ears, nose, and tongue. The thing on the rack shrieked and blood spurted with great effect. Grinning, Mary tried to catch a slip in the act, but consciousness faded again. When she next awoke, they were peeling off the last of the victim’s skin as it hooted. The flayed hide made a moist sucking noise as it pulled away from the meat underneath. Damn, it looks real! Mary’s stomach knotted in sympathy. Blackness descended. When consciousness returned, the man and woman were rolling naked on the floor atop blood and tissue, their limbs twined.

“You bastards! Turn me loose! You snatched me for this? You’ll pay, I swear.”

The man turned in mid-thrust and glared as Mary ranted. Finally he stood among the blood-spattered detritus and walked over. “You stupid cow!” he lisped. “This isn’t a game!”

Mary sneered. “Take the hint, jerk! I’m not buying it.” She slammed her weight to one side so the heavy chair reared up on two legs. The man grasped Mary’s arm and pushed the chair down. Mary realized at once he must have grabbed something wrong because the strap on her arm slackened. She yanked her arm free, whipped her fist into his face and he fell over backwards. Across the room, the woman jumped up and slipped in the slick blood. Mary scrabbled at the straps until she was standing free with the man couched before her. Mary drop-kicked him in the chin. He flipped over and his head bounced on the floor. Glancing at the woman, Mary grinned. That one owes me pain. She stalked around the edge of the blood as the woman squirmed toward the door. Mary jerked her around by a handful of hair and snapped three quick punches into the woman’s face. She cried and huddled against the wall until Mary turned away disgusted.

Mary considered the thing on the rack. It was bloody meat. Skating across the muck, Mary approached from behind, looking for the dummy under the meat. Nothing. Sliding to the front, she moved closer until she was inches away. Still nothing. She poked the leg and the raw, red muscles jerked.

“Ohmygod,” Mary whispered as she stared into the dry eyeballs. Her stomach clenched and she vomited. It isn’t a dummy, it’s warm and bleeding. But I saw her, it was me.

Retching, she turned away and fell in the bloody muck. A sudden foot’s-asleep numbness swept over her as the floor tilted and rolled. Come on, girl. You’ve got to get out of here. You lose it now and you’re dead. She staggered across the room and out the door. After stumbling through a series of corridors she crashed through a heavy steel door onto a narrow street. Spotting the familiar glow of a transmat, Mary stumbled in and punched a number. The world flashed and she was at her favorite place, downtown. She walked stiff-legged to the steps of a townhouse and sat.

Dawn’s light found her still sitting there. Her mouth was dry as dust as her heart thumped in her chest. The butchered woman hanging from steel was vivid in her mind.

She considered calling the cops. But what could she say? “I saw myself murdered last night?” Right! They’ll lock me up and let the shrinks worry about the story. But I saw myself on the frame, touched myself. It was me, right down to the tattoos and purple nail polish.

She rubbed the tiredness from her eyes and grunted. She’d heard lewd jokes forever about transmats duplicating people. Hell, there’d even been stories in the news about scientists trying to do just that. So, what if it’s true?

The pain and terror in that woman’s eyes washed over her, threatening to drown her. She was alive. I left her hanging on a butcher’s rack. How long will she last?

She stared at the red smear on the back of her hand and another thought came. Whose blood? Mine or… mine?

She shivered as she stared. Whose blood? Whose body? If it was real, did those freaks put the copy on the frame or me? Should that make a difference?

She felt a blazing knot of fury bloom and settle cold in her gut. Goddamn right it makes a difference! It’s my life they messed with.

The ball of rage shimmered incandescent for an instant and her jaw tightened until her teeth hurt. “I want answers. And I won’t rest ’til I get ’em.”

So how do I get to them? The fat, bald bartender at the Easy Come, he knows something. And I bet I can get him to tell. Grunting, she pushed herself up and turned to the transmat booth, images of the copied body on the slab racing through her head.

“Damn it! I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar!”

Mary clenched her fist until her knuckles popped.

Yeah, like a little bird, he’ll sing.

 

Letters

by Liz Milner

 

Look out for the big guy with the Hebrew letters tattooed on his forehead. Mr. G.—I’d rather not call him by his real name, that could be trouble—came here from Prague a long, long time ago. Big, hulkin’ sonofabitch. You gotta wonder what Rabbi Loew was thinking.

What do ya mean, “Who was Rabbi Loew?” Rabbi Loew of Prague was the holiest rabbi of the 16th century and perhaps of all time. Anyway, he got tired of all those Czech goys spitting on his gabardine, trashing his schul and defenestrating his congregation. So he goes down to the Vltava and out of river mud he builds a giant clay doll. It’s huge, with muscles the size of beer barrels. Okay, so he’s there on the riverbank with his live action super hero doll, but the one thing he hasn’t got is action. So he takes a stick and inscribes Hebrew letters into the clay doll’s forehead. The letters form a word: the secret name of God. A person who knows the true name of God can command the primal energies of the universe.

Sure enough, the doll gets up, stretches, and immediately sets about his work of defending the synagogue. Not only does he defend it with zeal, but he also fetches wood to heat the building and does chores. He doesn’t even mind when the local housewives use him as a convenient place to hang their laundry and gossip.

Rabbi Loew, however, found the creature’s zeal a problem. The golem (for that is what he is) didn’t just deter Czech ruffians, he destroyed them.

So, Rabbi Loew sat the golem down—the vibration of the golem’s bottom hitting the floor shook the building and caused some damage to the masonry—and read him the text from the Talmud, which tells Jews to be twice as merciful to goyim as they would be to each other.

But because the golem was created by a man, not by God, he was fundamentally flawed. He had no mercy in him. In the midst of the rabbi’s reading he sensed that a goy was pissing against the wall of the synagogue. He leaped up, raced outside and literally liquidated the poor goy before the rabbi’s eyes.

The rabbi pondered what to do. He could not let the golem continue defending the schul, but he didn’t know how to stop him. He couldn’t kill him, for murder is an abomination in the eyes of God, and since he created the golem, he was in a sense, the creature’s father. What kind of father kills his son? Also, the rabbi had used the holy name of God to travel through time and he knew of the horrors that awaited his people in the future. Perhaps a rabbi holier than he could teach the golem to defend the Jews without unnecessary bloodshed.

Finally the rabbi went back to the Vltava and gathered more mud. He returned to the schul and he and the golem went to the attic store room. The rabbi had the golem lie down and then he took the mud and smeared it over the golem’s forehead until the name of God was totally obliterated. The golem froze. Its eyes glazed over. Its breathing ceased. It became nothing more than a large clay doll.

The rabbi covered the golem with blankets. He’d visit regularly because he worried about its comfort. The secret of the golem was passed from chief rabbi to chief rabbi for generations.

Secrets, however, have a way of getting out. It was during the Holocaust that the chief rabbi of Prague got an offer he couldn’t refuse. A boatload of Jewish refugees would be guaranteed passage to New York City if the golem was included in the ship’s cargo.

“A Mafia don who likes to play with dolls,” the rabbi thought. “Many lives can be saved and what harm can it do? The holy name of God was lost to mankind in the fires of Auschwitz, so it can never be reanimated.”

And that is how the golem came to America. From New York it was trucked to Chicago where it was the centerpiece at many secret Mafia meetings.

The golem would have remained as an over-the-top decorative accent had it not been for a story by science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke. In “The Nine Billion Names of God,” scientists used computers to list every possible combination of the alphabet so as to discover the secret name of God.

An imaginative don saw the potential in Clarke’s story and made a deal with the U.S. government. After an impressive payoff, the golem became the property of the U.S. Army. First on mainframes and then on PCs and then in the cloud, every letter in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages was combined and recombined in every possible permutation. This project was folded into a super secret cyber program.

The prototype came off the assembly line a couple months ago. This sucker is made of steel not clay, and the name of God is etched onto the solid metal of his forehead. You’d need a blowtorch to stop him. And he’s not being run by a sweet old rabbi who just wants to be left in peace. He’s in the army now.

So, as I said before, look out for the big guy with the Hebrew letters tattooed on his forehead.

 

The Megalith

by J. Patrick Carr

 

I first encountered the megalith as a young man, lost and wandering deep in the Greenwood. I found it standing tall in the center of an open glade. Its black granite was smoothed by countless years of weathering and it had no markings upon it save for a perfect circle on one side, carved into the hard stone about three-quarters of the way up its towering body. It was regal and majestic then, rising high above the trees with its tiny crystals reflecting the summer sun. My hand grew warm when I touched it. It felt safe and welcoming.

I was a newcomer in the woods then. I was looking for a land to call home, a place to settle down and begin my life; maybe even start a family. Somehow, I felt invited by the megalith. It must have been raised there sometime in the unknowable past by a forgotten people. Maybe they were my wandering ancestors, hoping that their children would visit here in the ages to come. That night, I camped in its warm shadow. I did not need to light a fire; the megalith warmed me from within. It shielded me from the night winds and I found berries growing at its feet. The high, lonely howl of a pack of forest wolves startled me, but never did they enter the clearing to threaten me. I could see their gray-brown coats through the trees and their glinting, hungry eyes reflecting the silver light of the moon. They watched me for some time and stalked about the edges of the clearing, but they never approached out of some primal reverence for that place. I managed to drift into a dreamless sleep.

“Stay.”

I awoke the next morning invigorated and content, choosing to stay in that land. I scanned the woods for a place to build my homestead. I did not wander from the megalith’s clearing, always keeping it in range of my eyes. It was the spring of the year, and the thin trees had only the barest of bright green sprouts on them, searching the earth for warmth and sustenance. The thickest grass and the highest trees grew near the megalith, including a copse of massive oaks that ringed it on all sides. Often I looked back at the stone to keep my bearings, searching its lone marking for some advice. I eventually found a nice spot close to a spring that issued clear, cool water. I drank from the spring often, and the fish in the stream it birthed were always plentiful.

In the beginning, my life was hard. Every day I toiled in the elements to build my new life. However, I never felt alone out in the wild by myself. There was always the megalith. I tended to visit it in the evenings, even to talk to it to offset my loneliness. I felt always as if it approved of my presence. During my long days, I hunted in the forest for wild deer and labored to cut wood for my home. From the highest tree I could see a village on a far green hill, many miles away. I did not wish to go there at first, fearing that the people might not welcome a stranger in their land. I had left my own home after a feud with my overbearing father. We had foolishly fought over the land, him wanting to give the largest and most fertile share to my older brother. I hated him for the greater love he bore Jakon and for his constant desire for control over my life. I was hard-headed and young then. I did not wish for any new trouble with my distant neighbors.

After I had been in the woods for many moons, a party of trappers happened upon my camp. They were simple folk, farmers and hunters. I felt as though they knew their land well, and lived a life close to nature, in harmony with the earth. Their clothes were simple leathers and most wore basic linen shirts of brown or white. The sleeves were long and rolled back away from their hands, quite unlike the vest I wore. A few had boiled leather bracers clasped about their wrists and a quiver of yellow-fletched arrows over their shoulders. Almost all of them had a deep green tunic over their garments, an attempt to better hide in the colors of the forest. The men shaved their faces neatly, and the varied colors of their hair stood dramatically apart from their tanned skin. All were kind to me, unsuspicious of my presence there. Their leader, a tall man with graying hair and patient eyes, spoke to me. His words were heavy with a strange dialect, but I understood him well enough. He reminded me of my grandfather.

“What is your name? Why do you stay here alone?” he asked.

“I am called Joren. I am new to your land, and I stay here to build my new home.”

“You should visit our village. We don’t get visitors often. Autumn is coming soon and we will have our harvest festival.”

“I think I would enjoy that,” I said smiling at him, sensing his genuine hospitality.

The man’s daughter was with the group. She was a few years younger than me and beautiful to my eyes. She said nothing to me then, but I did notice her watching me, taking my measure. I was struck by her green eyes and perfect skin. Her auburn hair was a flowing mimicry of the deepening colors of the fall forest. She never left my mind after that first meeting.

“Go to her.”

The next month, I walked those short miles to the village and stayed for the festival. I took along cured venison and many deer horns which I knew were valued almost like gold by the people. I had more than enough to trade for the supplies I needed for the coming winter and some left over still to negotiate for an ox to plow my fields in the coming spring. I lingered in town that day awaiting the start of the festivities. All of the rugged faces I met that day were warm and kind.

The village square was decorated for the harvest festival. Vegetables of all sorts were stacked high in various places, a towering mix of orange pumpkins, green squash, and yellow corn. Several wooden tables were set out and adorned by red and brown linens. The square itself had been swept clean, and a small stage was erected there for use by the players. A great bonfire was piled neatly in the exact center of the village and fair-haired children raced around it, anticipating the excitement to come. The place had a rustic charm about it and I was reminded of the home I had left.

At sunset that evening, the festival began. I saw the trapper’s daughter again and watched her from afar. I hid my eyes tactfully by raising my cup to my lips and quietly cursed the men, and a few boys, who had the audacity to ask her for a dance. But, the girl refused them all. She was wearing a beautiful dress in the colors of the season. Brown, green, and gold mingled with her auburn hair to weaken my knees and steal away my confidence. For some reason, I stood after a few nervous minutes and looked back to the Greenwood, to where I knew the megalith was standing and watching me, supporting me. It might have been the tangy spiced cider or the spirit of the festival in me, but I waited until the musicians began another song and then I asked her to dance. She said her name was Tana, their word for a summer flower that grew in that land. I gently took her white hand and we turned to the dance floor.

“Are you enjoying the festival?” she asked, smiling.

“I am, but I fear I am not much of a dancer,” I confessed.

“You’re doing fine. You are quick on your feet.”

“Thank you, hunting and working keeps me strong.” My words sounded stupid to my ears, but she smiled through the awkwardness. I hoped that the red on my face was disguised by the bright bonfire.

“Why do you stay there, alone in the woods? Have you no family?”

“I left my father’s home to make my own place in the world. I hope to have my own family one day. I will need a wife and children to manage my farm.”

She blushed then and turned her eyes to the ground. My words were too bold, even though I was not directly thinking of her when I spoke them. We finished the dance in silence and then I returned to my table to drink some honey wine. It helped to lighten my mood. The players kicked up a quicker tune, a reel I knew from my own childhood. The lead was played by a tall, lanky man with long, thin brown hair. His skinny fingers flew across his fiddle and his bow moved like a blur. The bassist thumped right along with him and the six-string and the flute popped in and out to play quick, vibrant solos. They had the look of travelling professionals, smiling and winking at the locals and enjoying the click of the coins that landed in their open instrument cases. Their playing had everyone clapping and stamping their feet to the rhythm. Some folks called out in a yelp in answer to the wild music, and one spry old woman stood on her table to dance a simple step. Across the village square, I saw the trapper raise his cup to me and I returned his salute. He then raised his eyebrows and smiled in the direction of his lovely daughter. She was approaching me again.

“I bet the next tune is an easy one to dance to, if you are up for it. Nice and slow.” Her kindness was refreshing, and I hastily accepted. She smiled again, her face warmed by the firelight. The flames reveled in her eyes and danced across her glistening lips. I kissed her.

“She will be yours.”

The following summer we were hand-fasted in a ceremony in the glade under the approving gaze of the megalith. I wore my finest, and Tana wore a simple gown of pure white. A motley array of the summer flowers adorned her long hair. The base of the megalith was piled high with the gifts of the sweet summer: honey, fruit, and bottled red wine. Our home was expanded and improved with the aid of some of the village men, and I had broken the soil early that spring to plant my first promising field. The life I had wanted was coming to be. I almost felt guilty for the treasures that I had received. Unbeknownst to her father, she was already pregnant with our first son.

He was born that autumn, almost one year after my first festival with the villagers and the timing seemed so fitting. He was healthy and hale at birth, but we struggled for some time to name him. It was their custom to name the firstborn after the father’s father, but I did not want that. He was my son and I would be the one to choose. I alone.

“Nathen, after your father.”

“Let’s name him Joren,” I said to my wife.

“Yes, let’s. It’s a fine name, it’s your name. My father might not approve, though. It’s not our custom.”

“He’s my son. I’ll name him as I see fit.”

The winter that year was hard. A bitter cold lasted for many months and the ground often shook beneath our feet. The plentiful stream was frozen over too solidly to easily find water, and the beasts of the wood were absent, save for the hunger-maddened wolves who circled much too near my home. My son was anxious and distracted, refusing my attentions. He would lie in his bed, tiny head turned to face the glade with a distant stare in his eyes. The villagers grumbled nonsense about the gods being angry, but my small farm had produced well and we had more than enough food stocked away to last until the sun’s return.

We planted the fields together that spring. I turned over the soil with much difficulty, the ground still cold and frozen from the harsh winter. My ox bellowed in complaint, but I urged her onward with the whip. The men said I was starting too early, but I ignored their advice and toiled hard. Tana and I both seeded the ground, her eager to help after putting Jorenson to bed. I noticed that she was placing only two kernels in each hole, unlike my method of placing three.

“Tana!” I called out across the field. “Place three seeds in each hole.”

“Sorry, I just thought that two would be plenty.”

“Three is best, in case the crows get at them. Why did you only drop two?”

“I’m not sure; it was just a thought in my head.” She looked back over her shoulder toward the glade, where that black rock stood. My heart filled with anger, and I retraced Tana’s steps to place an extra seed in each and every hole. The soil was dead that spring, dry and gray, nothing like the moist, dark peat that I had planted in the previous year. My corn grew slowly that season, and stood only as high as my chest by harvest time.

My farm was not the only one so afflicted. All of the villagers’ farms produced much less than the year before, seemingly healthy livestock died, and the harvest celebration was a somber affair. The women pretended to be merry, and the men sat about whispering about what had gone wrong. Even the travelling players hadn’t returned this year. Their jovial music was much needed and much missed. I went to the festival with my family; it was in many ways also my son’s first birthday party, but we sat alone. Few of the villagers acknowledged us, and none had a kind word. Even Tana’s father remained a stranger to us, stealing sly glances but never coming over to join our party. I could see the hurt in her eyes.

After an uneasy hour, one of the village elders came to us. The man wore the traditional garb of the towns’ elders. Over his pure white shirt he had a short coat of the brightest red, embroidered with a crisp yellow and displaying polished brass buttons. His pants were wool, dyed black; his boots were knee-high and made from fine leather. A graying mustache was twisted to a point at the ends, but otherwise he was clean shaven. His sun-browned, rough skin contrasted with his wizened hair, and his eyes shone out a brilliant blue. He seemed polite and kind at first, but he was clearly uncomfortable. The other villagers could scarcely hide their fascination with our talk.

“Joren, friend, I am glad that you brought your family in for the occasion,” he said.

“Thank you sir, I only wish the mood were higher, but it was a disappointing growing season.”

“Yes, but we’ve been through this before,” he said, raising his troubled eyes to the woods. “So, I never met your son, what did you end up naming him?” He dropped his gaze to look at my boy without lowering his head. It felt contemptuous, and I sensed that this was his true reason for speaking with me, but I could not understand why.

“We decided to call him, Joren, after his father,” answered Tana. I smiled at the child and tousled his yellow hair.

“Is that so? Not much for tradition, I guess.”

“I am not from your land, my traditions are different.” My tone was far more hostile than I intended it to be, and I regretted my words as soon as they were spoken.

“I see. You are your own man. But, some of us here are very old-fashioned. They believe that failure to follow the old ways brings misfortune. Your ways are strange and foreign to us, friend. You don’t honor your own father’s name, you plant your crop in an odd fashion, and, if it weren’t for Tana, you’d just live out there all by yourself. You ought to mind our ways and try to respect what you don’t understand. Many think you have brought this trouble upon us all.”

I lost my head and stood up quickly, forcing the older man to back up suddenly. He stumbled and fell to the ground, landing with an embarrassing thud on the hard earth. It wasn’t my intention to tumble him over, but I was seething from his words to me. And yet I said nothing, but did not offer to help him either. Two younger men, probably his kin, came over scowling at me and helped him to his feet. They skulked away without another word, only shooting hateful glares over their shoulders in response. The villagers’ eyes were all on us now, and some even narrowed their gaze at my young son, as if he were somehow to blame.

“Joren, maybe we should go,” my wife quietly whispered at my side. It felt as if the black of the dying year was pressing in around us; that the spirit in the community was being drawn away.

“Walk back tonight? It’s late already and the distance is several miles.”

“But, I don’t think we are welcome here.”

We rose from our table. Tana carried Jorenson on her back, and I carried our packs and the goods we had purchased earlier that day. It was well after evenfall, but I felt that she was right. Our walk would be long and dark, the child would fuss, but the sentiment there was blacker than the night and colder than the chilled air.

We trod slowly, my torch our only source of light along the road. I looked ahead, toward the glade, searching for the megalith looming above the trees. It was far away yet, and the night was dark, but I caught sight of it. It was there, among the ancient trees, darker than the sky surrounding it. I felt as if it were angry, brooding and drawing in the light around it, consuming the energy from the land and even the sky. I begrudgingly admitted its power to myself, its pull on the land and the simple folk who lived there. I had felt it myself, right from the very beginning, but I did not know to respect it, fear it, then.

We walked in silence, both of us feeling the gloom around us. I listened to the erratic fall wind blowing the trees and scattering the myriad leaves. It was not very cold, but the gentle chill of the harvest season urged us to walk close together. Often I heard sounds just off the road, irregular movements and unexplained rustlings of the bush. My hunter’s eye scanned the dark, but I was blinded by the close light of my fire. The wind kicked up the brown dust of the road and tricked my eye with ghosts of pale dirt and swirling leaves. Tana looked at me with concern, and we hastened our step.

“Submit.”

Turning to look behind us, I could make out dark figures following us on the road. They carried no light, and stayed far enough behind to escape ours. They seemed to be only following, but for how long and why? I stopped and turned to face them in defiance.

“Who are you, and what do you mean by following my family?”

“Joren,” spoke one voice as they closed in, “We need you to give us the child.” He pulled back his hood and I recognized the man from the village. He was at the festival, one of the many unfriendly faces.

“Tana, run,” I spoke quietly to my wife. I could see the panic in her eyes, but she turned to go, following my word. “You’ll have to take him from me,” I called out in challenge to the men. I had no weapon except for my strong body and my hard, workman’s hands. Rage filled my mind then, and I recklessly charged at the men. They broke apart, scattering around me, and moved to my vulnerable flanks. I managed to lash out and grab one of them. I smashed his nose into his face with a bloody splatter. However, there was a hard crack on the back of my head and a quick flash of white light. The road rushed up to meet me. In the distance, I heard my wife screaming and my baby wailing.

When I opened my eyes again, I was in the clearing, on the ground before the hateful stone. I was bound by coarse, thick ropes about my chest, hands, knees, and feet. It stood there, triumphant above me, the light of dozens of torches licking its black body. A sanguine harvest moon languished in the gray sky. My head was thick with pain, my vision red with the blood in my eyes. My mouth tasted of iron. Time crept. Tana was there too, but she was a madwoman, writhing on the grass and howling for them to stop in an unnatural, visceral voice. She often called out for her father’s help, but I saw him nowhere in the crowd of people from the village.

On the ground before the megalith a pile of wood had been collected, and the elders stood around it, speaking in a lost tongue. They had my son. I tried to speak, but my mouth was swollen shut, my throat crushed. I tried to stand, but my bindings were too taut. One of the men noticed me then, and shoved me back down each time I tried to rise. I caught his eyes with mine and pleaded, wordlessly, for his aid. But his face was cold; dead to me and my plight.

“Sacrifice.”

I was forced to watch as they placed my only child on the pyre. He lay there naked against the cruel wood, but did not cry. He never cried out, neither in fear nor pain. The elder who had spoken to me just hours before now took a torch from his attendant and set it to the wood. Fire crackled to life as he said a few more arcane words, face gazing upward to the eye of the megalith. All around the megalith, the chant was repeated in low tones until it rose up in a great crescendo, louder than Tana’s wailing and the thundering of my own heart. I could not remove my eyes from the macabre scene. As the flames stretched up to consume my son, the ground beneath us trembled and the villagers gathered there cheered in relief. Tears ran down my dumb face. The wolves sang deep in the dark forest around us.

They enjoyed a very mild winter that year.

Tana and I had been allowed to leave, and she assured me, over and over, that she had no idea what her people were capable of. There had never been a failed crop in her lifetime, and most thought that the old ways were lost. She had fleeting memories from her childhood of her father and others leaving the village to visit the woods, but she was always told that they were hunting, or simply “walking.” I believed her and we left that place together. We traveled back to my home country, and meekly lived in my father’s house for a time. We never spoke again of our ordeal in her country, not even to one another. It was hard to return to my father’s house and admit my failures. I only gave him vague, ambiguous details. I was afraid of the megalith’s power, even here. I did not want it to find a way to hurt the rest of my family. I remember our first words after those quiet years well.

“Father, I am sorry and ashamed of my actions when I left. It wasn’t my place to question your decisions with your own land. I should have been thankful for anything that I received.” The words were easier to say than it was to look into his hard, gray eyes. But in them I saw love and immediate forgiveness.

“Son, those days and those words are gone like a cloudburst of cold rain. I am happy to see you and your beautiful wife. You are welcome here, and I and Jakon will help you in whatever way you need. I know of an abandoned old farm not far from here. Maybe you can make a new start there.”

“My brother and his family are well?”

“Yes, but you have been missed. You look so much like your mother, and when you left, I felt like I had lost a great part of her again. Welcome home, son.” At that, he embraced me and I felt the hasty deeds of the past being erased.

I did start up a farm not far from my father’s, and he helped me with some land and the use of some tools. With his guidance, my land prospered and Tana and I found some measure of happiness together again, but we were never able to have another child. Jakon encouraged us to visit and to care for his two little ones often, but it wasn’t the same; perhaps it made things worse. It broke Tana’s heart. She died some years later and all of the hope was gone again from my life. I buried her next to my mother, and visit their namestones every nineday.

I still feel the megalith sometimes. I’ve seen it in my dark dreams at night. It’s still standing there, watching me from afar, somewhere over those blue hills and through the wide green valley on the other side. Mile upon mile separates us now, but I am still cursed by its ugly power. If I were a better man, I’d return in secret and beat upon it with my bare fists until I reduced it to rubble, but I have nothing left but my hate and the bitter memory of my failure.

“Despair.”