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deadmansdance.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees 2010

Dead Man’s Dance

Lonni Lees

 

Land’s End, Cornwall 1649

 

          High upon the cliff, overlooking the wild Cornish sea, the event unfolded in a mood as vacillating as the gray morning sky.  The small crowd gathered like the overhead clouds, giggling, muttering, then silent, as shards of sunlight strangled in the thickening fog.  The fingers of mist clung to the cliffside as if they feared the churning sea below, then moved like tendrils around the half-obscured gnarl of twisted oak.

 

          There was laughter, as if they’d gathered for a Sunday picnic, their voices muffled by the roar of waves crashing against solid rock.  The sea spewed vengeance upward toward the restless, hostile sky, its spray sifting downward to baptize the assemblage.  They stood in a circle, and in the center of the circle stood he, tall and ominous, cloaked in black, stoic and still.

 

          Waves of agitation rippled through the crowd as two men secured a rope on a high, sturdy branch of the old oak.  One of them spoke to the other as he tightened the knot:

 

          “Would’a be fittin’ if the witch finder Matthew Hopkins were here for to find the rest of ‘em heathens.”

 

          “Twenty shillings saved, for he’m be dead as salted mackerel, my dear Michael.  An’ besides, we don’t be needing a furriner in our midst—bein’ privy to business better handled by our own.”

 

          Michael fashioned a noose, then said, “We shoulda killed his wicked father before he spawned the divil by that disease-ridden wench—and better yet to have killed his father before him! But what of the others?”

 

          “Eff the divil finally be dead, they’m be getting back to the business o’ healin’ instead o’ cursin’, I should think.”

 

          “O’ course, o’ course,” said Michael, but his voice held no conviction.  His eyes glanced at the man in black as he lowered himself to the damp ground.

 

          The wind gusted as the men reentered the crowd.  The man was turned over to them, his hands tied behind his back.  They held firmly to his arms, as if unsure the bindings could confine him, and pushed him beneath the oak.  The man held his head high as he ascended the makeshift ladder, smiling at the gathering storm clouds.  The wind caught the hem of his cloak, lifting it.  It rose, billowing in a sensual dance around his tall, gaunt form.  His face was chiseled, handsome; his eyes cold and gray as the slate cliffs, scanned the crowd.

 

          To the back, a green-eyed woman watched in silence. Her eyes met his, her secret lover, the man about to die. She looked down, expressionless, as Michael slid the noose around his neck.  The wind whipped her auburn hair across her face.  A muscle twitched, distorting her features.  She raised her head, muttered silently to the heavens, smiled.  Her smile was radiant; the glaze in her eyes spoke of vile, obscene secrets.

 

          The man in black tossed back his head and laughed.

 

          Michael kicked the stool out from under him.

 

          “The last generation of evil begone!” someone screamed.

                                                                                                        

          Then all was silent but for the moan of the wind and the steady creak, creak, creak of the oak’s burdened branch.

 

          Again the wind caught his cloak, whipped it around him as he spun madly, kicking and twitching, then fighting no more.  As if hypnotized, they watched the dead man . . . dancing, dancing, dancing in a macabre circle.

 

          “So be it,” said Michael.

 

          “We be doin’ it like in other lands!” bellowed the second man with authority, met with applause by the crowd.  “A hangin’ followed by a burnin’ an’ then that be the end of it!”

 

          One by one the people broke their trance, gathered twigs and piled them beneath the dead man’s swaying form.

 

          “This be for corrupting my sweet Mary” said a woman as she placed a branch on the heap.

 

          “And for killing the wee newborn,” whispered a young lad.  “The poor little cheel.”

 

          “Let not a witch live!” yelled Michael, stirring the crowd to frenzy.

 

          As the other man knelt to light the funeral pyre, there was a discernible depression in the atmosphere.  The sky grew dark.  The rain, which had been soft and teasing, pelted down at an angry slant, extinguishing the flames. 

 

He relit it, fanned it with his large hands as the crowd chanted.

 

Again, the rain smothered it.  The dense fog that blanketed the cliffside was torn free by a violent gust of wind that howled as eerily as the hounds of hell.  People clung to each other to maintain their balance against the gale-force blast as the storm became a violent, unyielding flagh.

 

          All eyes turned upward, following the groans and creaks from above their heads.  The oak’s branch cracked, then snapped, hurling its gnarled arm and the hanged man over the cliff.

 

          Michael held his breath, watched as the body bounced against the granite rocks, then into the sea below.  He watched as the waves swallowed the man, hungrily gulping at the floating black cloak until nothing remained but the fear in Michael’s heart.

 

          “The divil’s work,” he gasped as he stared down at the cold, wet grave.

 

          “No, no, it be fittin’, don’t you see?” the other man said in a strained, shrill voice.  “‘Tis an omen surely.  He’m were put to cliff by the hand of God, like the bastard dog he were!”

 

          “ ‘Tis true,” someone muttered as the crowd huddled at cliff’s edge.

 

          “So be it.”

 

          “Amen.”

 

          The crowd dispersed, heading downhill to the village of Petherick, back to the safety of their cottages. 

 

At the head of the procession, the green-eyed woman swayed as she danced and babbled a lunatic song.  Her hand stroked her belly, just starting to swell with child.  Sheets of cold rain lashed at her face, gusts of wind tore at her ragged shawl as she twirled about, singing, laughing—muttering words that held the key to dark and ancient knowledge.

badchoices2.jpg
Artwork by Lonni Lees

Bad Choices

 

By

 

Lonni Lees

 

 

          “You’ve used me as your punching bag for the last time.” Marlie spat the words at him. “You hear me, Glenn?”

 

          He just lay there on the lumpy mattress, refusing to respond.

 

          “What’s the matter, tough guy, cat got your tongue?” In the bedroom, she paced, floundering wall-to-wall like a gasping fish. She continued to rail on him. Bad choices. Bad choices. Well, she didn’t have much choice when dear old dad would come at her with his belt. He owned her, he’d told her that a hundred times.  She was his property and her momma’s mistake and he could do whatever the hell he wanted to her. 

 

          And he did.

 

          Momma didn’t much care as long as it deflected his anger from her. And his drunken advances that reeked of whiskey and rape and silent submission. Marlie was the chump bait. She used to pray for a little sister. Not because she was lonely and wanted a playmate, but because she wanted someone to divert the attention from herself. She guessed that God didn’t answer prayers like that because nobody ever came.

 

          When she was old enough to pack her stuff, she ran away. But what good did it do? She found Glenn and it wasn’t long before he was beating her just like Daddy used to do. Why do girls do that? Seek someone like dear old Dad, no matter how much of a monster he may have been? Why do they see pain as a comfort zone?

 

Well, Marlie figured it was time somebody broke the cycle and took control. And she’d taken the first step. It had proven far easier than she’d imagined. All you had to do was catch them off guard. Like when they’re sleeping.

 

          “I’ve had enough of it, Glenn, and I’m not gonna take no more of it, ya’ hear?” She walked over to the bed and tightened the ropes that held his wrists.  “That lump on your head ain’t looking so good. How does it feel to be helpless, huh? It ain’t no fun is it? It’s hard to bully me when you can’t use those big, hairy fists of yours. You’re nothin’ but a fucking gorilla, Glenn. Should I untie you so you can go swing from a tree somewhere?  Would that make you happy, darlin’?”

 

          He said nothing.

 

          “Answer me, you sonofabitch!” Silence. She leaned over and whispered in his ear. “What’s the matter, sweetie pie, is it hard to talk with that sweaty gym sock rammed into your mouth? Are you finding it hard to breathe?”

 

          Marlie laughed out loud as she left the bedroom and skipped into the kitchen. She poured herself some cold coffee, sat down at the kitchen table and smiled. She was feeling damn proud of herself. She rose and opened the refrigerator. Plenty of beer and not much else. She’d never been allowed to grocery shop alone. And Glenn made the choices that filled the shopping cart. She couldn’t be trusted to decide anything. She was too stupid. He’d reminded her of that so frequently that she’d come to believe it. She knew she was only good at one thing.  Bad choices.

 

          “You don’t think I’m so stupid now!” she yelled into the other room. She walked back to the bedroom, slipped out of her bathrobe, and opened the closet door.

 

Once dressed, she walked over to the bed and tightened the ropes that held his ankles. “I’m going shopping,” she said. “Without you. I’ve decided I’m smart enough to make a few decisions of my own. So you just stay there and keep your mouth shut ‘til I get back. If I decide to come back.” She took his car keys from the dresser, emptied the cash from his wallet and slammed the door behind her as she left the room.

 

          Marlie pulled the car into the driveway and carried two large bags of groceries into the house that had been her prison. She unpacked cookies and soda pop and steak. She was in charge and she’d eat what she damn well pleased. She ripped open the package of cookies and shoved four of them into her mouth. But there was an aftertaste that wasn’t right. It was a bad smell coming from somewhere and it made the cookies taste bad.

 

          She walked into the bedroom and looked at Glenn as he lay on the bed, sheets rumpled around him. “I should have known it was you.”  She lifted herself onto the bed and straddled him, looking down at his face. Why did he look so surprised? She reached down and grasped the knife embedded deep within his chest and pulled it out.

 

          “You’re starting to smell like three-day-old fish, Glenn,” she said with disgust.  “You really need to learn some manners.”

 

 

 

 


wishingwell.jpg
Art by Author 2013

The Wishing Well

 

by Lonni Lees

 

 

          Nobody ever loved me as much as Eddie Walsh back in 9th grade. Eddie was the only person who saw straight into my heart. He’d have handed me the world with more love than I could ever hold.

 

          I asked for something only once.

 

          My family lived in a migrant shack down by the fields, so I was born with a strike against me and it went downhill from there. I’d scrub myself raw with Dollar Store soap, but never could wash the poor off me. I don’t know why that bitch Barbie set out to torment me. It wasn’t like I was competition. She was the cheerleader; I was the mouse. She was popular. I was nobody. She was the leader, I the loner. Yet, she found pleasure in humiliating me. It was her favorite game. Barbie was wrapped in mean but apparently she was packaged right. The teasing got so bad that I started eating my lunch hiding in the library.

 

          That was where I first met Eddie. It was magic. We’d read the same books, then talk about them. We’d play board games. I was smart enough to sometimes beat him. Most guys would’ve hated a girl beating them at anything but Eddie was proud of me. As soon as I’d start feeling proud about myself, Barbie’d come and knock me down with her vile words.

 

          “I want her dead,” I said and Eddie knew I meant it.

 

          We waylaid her and dragged her deep into the woods to an overgrown, deserted shack. We threw her on the dirt floor and I straddled her while Eddie got out his scout knife. He hesitated, but he was doing it for love. For me. I held her down and he started stabbing. Then I took the knife, using it to paint red blood across her throat and letting it stain her perfect blonde hair until she wasn’t pretty anymore.

 

          We didn’t say a word, but something had changed as we looked into her milky eyes.

 

We dragged her dead weight outside and heaved her down the old wishing well.

 

          We never spoke of that night.

 

          The town searched for weeks but eventually gave up. A drifter must’ve passed through and abducted her. Or worse. After awhile, she was just yesterday’s news and life went on.

 

          Inch by inch, Eddie and I slowly drifted apart. Eventually we just lowered our heads as we passed each other in the hall, unable to make eye contact or speak.

 

          Something big changed on that long ago night. How often does one say they want somebody dead? How often do they really mean it? I knew I didn’t mean it the first time I looked at her lifeless body. Even she didn’t deserve that. Something else died that night, too. Our love slowly rotted from the roots up and it was my fault.

 

          Nobody ever loved me like Eddie Walsh did in the 9th grade.

 

          And nobody ever will.

         

           

         

         

          Lonni Lees is a multi-award winning writer in both fiction and non-fiction.  Her stories appear in Hardboiled magazine and in Yellow Mama, A Shot of Ink, Shotgun Honey, Black Petals, Einstein’s Pocket Watch and in the anthologies Deadly Dames, More Whodunits, and Battling Boxer Stories.  Her short story collection, Crawlspace, and her first novel, Deranged (which won the PSWA 2012 award for best published novel) are available from Amazon.com as is her second novel, The Mosaic Murder. The Corpse in Cactus is her third novel and the second in the Maggie Reardon Mystery series. Lonni was twice selected as Writer in Residence at Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island. After living in four states and visiting many countries, she’s settled in Tucson.  An award-winning artist, she fills her spare time showing her art in a local gallery, illustrating stories for on-line magazines and dreaming up new stories.

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