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A. M. Stickel

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CONDITIONAL ABSOLUTION

 

by

 

A.M. Stickel

 

Writing in my head every waking second is my main obsession. Second only to writing is my fascination with every aspect of the spiritual. I am convinced that hell is real . . . and, may God forgive me, that life is hell. For, I have become an infidel.

Last week I had finally found enough courage to see my old confessor, the Abbé Bertrand. This modern, face-to-face version of the sacrament has kept me from its frequent use. Yet, he looked at me with such compassion when, sweating and shaking, I admitted my weakness. My mouth tasted like ashes.

“How long has it been, Auguste?” His gaze held mine captive.

“I am sorry, mon pere. I cannot recall. My mind plays tricks on me these days.”

He smiled sadly, nodding his graying head. “As do all our minds, considering the circumstances of these troubled times, the hard compromises.”

“I’m unsure how to begin,” I said, crossing myself as best I could.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. . . .” He led me through the old formula. I had once again become one of the children he prepared for their first penitential encounter.

“I don’t know the difference between what is and is not sin anymore, Abbé.” The wax candles on his desk flickered, making the thick shadows in his tiny, musty study dance. I felt as if the very walls—surely lined with powerful spirits—listened.

“When questionable acts are brought to light, their true nature may be discerned, Auguste,” he offered. “Then, if sorrow for sin is voiced, penance may be performed and sin absolved.”   

“Some acts ought not to be brought to light, lest they cause others to fall,” I retorted. At this, I could have sworn I heard the rustling of wings from behind me. The hair stood up on the back of my exposed neck. “I have done the forbidden, paid the price for doing it, and yet my torment never ceases.”

“How so, my son?” He touched his incense-scented stole.

“I can’t stop writing.” I blushed in mortal shame.

“Impossible!” he cried, before quieting his dismay and adding, “I remember how we dealt with your penance last time, according to both the letter and the spirit of the law. You received absolution and swore to change your life.”

“It’s in my head: the way the world was yesterday, the way it has become today, the way it will go in future. . . . This time the price of my repentance is too high.”

“My son, I offer you conditional absolution, and pray it is enough. But you know what is required for complete pardon.”

My face upon the stubs of my handless arms, I sobbed into my sleeves. From the tower above came the Call to Prayer, and, from behind me, the first slithering steps of the Angel Moloch. The light from the flaming sword meant to sever my sinful head and save my soul struck me.

Alas, I rejected heaven and fled into the night.

 

 

 

 

ellajunes.jpg
Art by Gin E L Fenton

Ella June’s Alien

 

by A.M. Stickel

 

     Halloween in Napper’s Holler was just like any other day, thanks to Father Joe Murphy. The Holler’s children did not dress up or play pranks. Even though few of them were Catholic, they went about their chores and minded their manners out of respect for the priest.

     Ella June Ames, the good father’s twenty-eight-year-old housekeeper, had been the first child baptized in the tiny parish. Pappy Ames, who preferred his “likker” hard and his sermons soft, had appreciated a good yarn, which none of the itinerant preachers had been able to deliver. He’d not wanted to hear about hellfire and brimstone, but paradise and real-life parables. Having the child he’d found abandoned in the piney woods one day baptized, he’d figured, guaranteed him a front row seat for sermons, if not an “in” with St. Peter himself.

     St. Elmo’s was a clapboard chapel supported by its proximity to the sturdy brick cottage serving as Father Joe’s residence. Ella June’s job was to keep both scrubbed and orderly. She’d spent her days doing so since she’d turned thirteen—the year her caretaker pappy (God rest his soul), who’d left her their humble cabin next to the cottage, went to meet his Maker. She’d decided to devote her life to the Lord’s service. Many miles from any nunnery, she’d done the best she could, given the Holler’s isolation.      

    

     Knock, knock!

     Ella June sat bolt upright, her bedsprings squeaking, sure she’d imagined the raps on her cabin door. A greenish radiance, unlike familiar lantern light, crept around the door’s edges.

     “Who is it?” Ella June asked, her quavery voice startling her in the pre-midnight stillness. Fumbling for her lantern, she lit it, pulled on her threadbare robe, and padded barefoot to the door. Slowly, she put her ear to the wood, but quickly pulled it away from the abnormally cold surface.

     “Open up…or else!” The gargled warning made her skin crawl.

     Ella June gasped and crossed herself. Her hands trembled as she draped her rosary beads around her neck and grabbed the Lives of the Saints Father Joe had given her after her Confirmation. For insurance, she found and lit her white baptismal candle, dripped a pool of wax near her closed door, and stuck the candle where it could safely burn down.

    Then Ella June sighed in resignation, thinking, It must be a disrespectful prank. Well, I’ll just show the little scamps a thing or two. Running lightly to her bed, the lanky woman stripped the top sheet off and tucked it around her, then pushed up the window beside her bed and climbed out, dropping to the mud below. I’m going to scare the stuffing out of those younguns.

     Suddenly, the reassuring candle light poofed out, and Ella June heard, Slide…plop! Slide…plop!

     Tempted to peep over the windowsill, she obeyed her instincts not to do so. The moonlit clearing showed the area around her cabin littered with dead skunks, possums, deer, boar, and even a bear cub.

     “Sweet Savior! This ain’t no prank.” said Ella June before she could stop herself, all the while slipping in the mud and tripping over the pitiful, bloodless bodies of God’s critters.

     Having left her window ajar in her haste, she now regretted the oversight. A glowing, pulsating, amorphous mass dripped over her cabin sill, its slimy, sea-stinking tendrils seeking the ground.

     The terrified housekeeper, trailing the flapping sheet, fled to holy ground: St. Elmo’s chapel. She dared not scream again, lest her pursuer hear. With no trick-or-treaters or their folks about, and Father Joe away seeing a sick granny deeper in the woods, Ella June knew she was on her own.

     Praying silently, the woman pulled her mop from the back corner of the dim chapel, where only the red eye of the sanctuary candle burned in its glass holder. Moonlight filtered through one stained-glass window. She stomped on the mop to clean her muddy feet, not sure the creature could see her tracks, but not about to chance it. Lingering smells of incense and beeswax soothed her heart enough to stop its racing. She mounted the pulpit. There, she rested her hands on the old, worn Bible.

    Tick…tick…tick. Father Joe’s clock at the back of the church counted off the seconds as Ella June listened for, and finally heard, Slide…plop!

     A shimmering green film enveloped the windows, and the roof creaked under an unnatural weight, as if the chapel were underwater. The housekeeper exhaled, relieved the sturdy old beams and secure door held. Her ears rang, however, and an uneasy weariness settled upon her.

     “Just git!” What Ella June meant to holler bravely came out a harsh whisper. She gripped the Bible harder.

     “I’ve come to save you from All-devouring Darkness.” The terrible watery-voiced thing had heard her!

     “I’m already saved, thank you,” Ella June snapped in a normal voice, adding, “and I don’t trust no ‘missionary’ what goes about killing helpless critters.”

     “Yet your kind kills them for meat; I needed their primitive essence to form my own here. I’ve come to bring you an important message...and to request a special favor of you.”

     “Pappy always said, ‘If it ain’t good news, it ain’t worth hearin’.’”

     “I’ve traversed vastnesses of the Deeps at great risk to my own salvation, with this news: You and your world have been judged and found wanting…unless one of you is willing to give birth to the Truth. I have come to tell you that you, my virgin daughter, have been selected.”

     “You ain’t my kin. If you was, you’d know Napper’s Holler ain’t like the rest of the world. We already have and follow the Truth, born of a virgin ages ago. It teaches us not to judge folk the way everyone else does. Those who do can just go back to where they came from.”

     “This is the very reason I’ve come to you. Napper’s Holler being a reality apart means you can all belong to a future reality where you could evolve to a state of perfection like mine.”

     Before Ella June Ames could say how not evolving was fine with her, the clock struck twelve. Bowed beneath the overwhelming weight of Otherness, she stepped from the pulpit and sank, exhausted, to her knees before the altar, the Bible cradled in her arms. Then, for the first time since encountering the Alien, she felt warm, even hot. Soon, brilliant green light bloomed outward from her to fill the chapel. Ella June began to write—ever faster—of her encounter, using a finger dipped in her own metamorphosed blood.

     The next morning, on the feast of All Saints, Father Joe found his housekeeper’s withered, bloodless husk, wrapped in the sheet, at the foot of the altar. Her soul had departed the Holler, her essence supplying the fuel for the ‘missionary’s’ exodus.

     Of the Alien, there remained not a trace, save for Ella June’s crude drawing, and her testimony, in luminous green script, on the brittle first page of the old Bible.    
 

 

green750ginelf.jpg
Art by Gin E L Fenton

Green
 
A. M. Stickel 
 
Maiden spring had awakened Napper’s Holler from its winter sleep, enrobing the hills in shades of green. The misty season of rebirth put Father Joe Murphy in mind of his island homeland far across the untamed sea. To his dismay, this early morning’s reverie was interrupted by the thud of a heavy item upon the stoop before his cottage door.  

     Saint Elmo’s parishioners were always gifting him the game and wares they were sure he needed, whether or not he actually needed them. He hoped it wasn’t a deer now that his housekeeper, who’d been an excellent cook, had gone to her reward… God rest her soul, he prayed, blessing himself with the sign of the cross and opening his door.

     The limp body wrapped in the smelly blanket was a shock to the priest, whose gorge rose as he carefully unrolled it. Still warm!

     “Ugh!” groaned the disheveled young man, who shivered and thrashed uncontrollably. With a mighty spasm, the stranger heaved himself up and grabbed the crucifix around the priest’s neck, crying, “Save me!”

     “Son, I’ll do what I can.” Father Joe gingerly turned the man over, only to discover that his woolen breeches were full of blood, excrement, and holes from buckshot. “I’d better get Doc Starr. Don’t go anywhere, young man. Try not to move.” The only response was a weaker groan…and stronger thrashing.

 

The Previous Day

 

     Agent Will Throckmyer approached the shanty. The decrepit fence with a broken gate proved no hindrance. A crude, hand-lettered sign hanging from the gatepost read:

 

“Smiley Stead. Keep Out!”

 

     Will whistled to himself as he kicked the gate aside, and probed his pocket for the tax papers. One J.J. Smiley and his family probably owed more than the stead was worth. The agent made sure his badge was centered, his chin up and his mouth down, to show he meant business. He could not let them know this was his first collection. “Hello the stead! Anyone to home?”

     “Pa ain’t here, Mister. He’s ahuntin’ and I’m not to open the door while he’s away.” came a child’s hushed, tremulous voice.

     “C’mon out, honey, where I can see you,” encouraged Will. “I brought candy. Is your mama home?”

     “Ain’t got no mama.” It was more a growl than a whisper this time.

     A tiny white hand, then an arm, crept from around the edge of the shanty. Will dangled the brown-paper-wrapped sweet. He had to admire the childish logic that let the little one keep her door closed, but did not prevent her climbing out a window for the right bribe. He set the candy on the porch for her and backed away to give her space.

     As more of the child emerged, Will let out an involuntary gasp. Not only was her skin so pale he could see her veins, her wispy hair was like spider silk. Most startling of all were her pink eyes. She put him in mind of a white rabbit his family had kept for a pet. Her only clothing was a flour sack with holes for head and arms, its once-white cloth now mottled with green…mildewed. In spite of these drawbacks, the girl showed a promise of eerie beauty.

     “May I sit a spell?” asked Will politely, wanting to hold his suffering nose, but instead unwrapping a candy of his own with long, bony fingers and hunkering down on the wormy wood. “I’m Agent Will Throckmyer, here on official government business.”

     “I’m Angel Skye Smiley…and you’re nothin’ but an ol’ revenuer. I’m not simple, you know.”

     Will pushed up his rimless glasses on his narrow nose, and cleared his throat. “I do thank you for your name, little miss…and I sure could use a thirst quencher. I always carry my own cup.”

     Angel, who hadn’t touched the candy, suddenly vanished, lickety split on silent feet, back around the edge of the shanty. “Come on down to the spring, then, Mister,” she invited from a distance.

     Will rose slowly, stretching his lanky limbs and scratching where his wool suit chafed. He walked around the shanty toward the sound of a creek, and noticed a still and a sty in passing, although there was no outhouse. He breathed deep of the clean woodsy scent and caught a whiff of fresh-turned loam, but couldn’t see any garden.

     When Will returned to the porch, he found a scrawny sow munching the candy he’d offered Angel, paper and all.

     “Sarah Jane likes your treat!” Will jumped at the sound of Angel’s delighted voice. She was sitting high in a tree overhanging the shanty, looking down on him from a leafy perch.

     “I’ve got more candy, Miss Angel. You must be hungry, and your situation is like to give you splinters.”

     “I ain’t hungry, and splinters don’t matter to me either, Mister…not anymore. You’d best be on your way before Pa comes home.”

     “Well, yes, I guess I can leave these papers I brought right by the door, and take the tax he owes with me.” Will quickly pulled some rope from his deep, handy pockets, and put it around Sarah Jane’s neck, holding another candy in front of her snout to speed her departure.

     “You can’t take her, Mister. I’m gonna call my pa home. And he’ll teach you a lesson. He ain’t simple either.” Will saw Angel Skye open her mouth impossibly wide until it was a huge, dark hole. No sound came out. Soon, however, he heard a hound baying.

     Sarah Jane gave a loud squeal and nearly trampled him underfoot on her way through the gate, as BLAM! BLAM! split the air and the seat of Will’s britches at the same time. The two ran, hell-bent-for-leather, Sarah Jane’s momentum sending them both headlong down the trail…

     The blanket fell on Will from out of thin air, making him trip and land on his stomach and lie gasping, his legs turned to rubber. He let go of the rope and saw red…but not before he saw what had dropped the blanket (a burial shroud). His rotten pursuer couldn’t be human, and yet it had shot him, outrun him, and trapped him… Sure he was about to die, Will shat and peed his pants, tried to scream, and gagged instead.

    Dad-blasted revenuer!” cursed the deeply guttural, dirt-clogged voice of J.J. Smiley, Angel Skye’s pa. Securing his fainting captive in the shroud, the loathsome creature could not resist adding “Greenhorn!” right before Will blacked out.

 

The Third Day

    

     When Will Throckmyer came to in Father Joe’s cozy parlor, he was safe, but in a world of hurt. Doc Starr had extracted as many pellets as he could, and applied antiseptic to Will’s wounds. He and Will were blessedly alone, the priest absent, attending to his daily duties.

     Much more than the agent’s body was wounded; he realized his mind might never recover, let alone his self esteem. No one at the agency would believe the true reason for his failure. At the very least, he’d be dismissed; he might even be black-listed, and forced to toil as a lowly day laborer. His family would never live down his disgrace.

     Will was sure he was destined for the poor house or the loony bin. And Doc Starr was no help as he admonished, “Were it not for Father Joe, the old type of justice would have prevailed—exceeding that dealt you by the Smiley clan—and executed in the customary Napper’s Holler tradition…”

     “Do you mean the local hoosegow, doctor?” Fear nearly paralyzed Will’s vocal cords. His balls shriveled and his guts churned.

     “Hanging…or worse, followed by burial in unhallowed ground—at the haunted stead where you trespassed. It was how we dealt with revenuers in days gone by, whether the clan they robbed was alive in the ordinary sense or not. Christianity has mellowed us somewhat; our new justice is tempered by mercy.”

     “‘Forgive us our trespasses’…and ‘Blessed are the merciful,’ or so the Good Book says,” added Will, sighing. “I can’t return to where I came from, can I?”

     “No one ever leaves the Holler, at least not robed in the flesh,” replied Doc Starr, his face solemn. I grant you, the Smileys were…er, are…a bit extraordinary. Angel Skye, an albino, was the result of incest between James-Abner Jr. and Janelle Amelia, the Smiley twins; she died in infancy two years ago, yet you encountered her as a little girl...hmmm.” Although these matters nauseated the more civilized Will, the doctor spoke as lightly as if discussing the day’s menu. 

     “Who delivered me…from evil…to Father Joe’s?” said Will, eager to change the subject to one slightly more palatable.

     “I’m not exactly sure, Son.” Doc Starr rubbed his chin in puzzlement. “Let’s see. If Angel’s pa is a ghoul, her ma is a ghost, and Angel is some kind of cross between the two, that leaves either Nellie Belle the hound or Sarah Jane the sow for transport.”

     Remembering Sarah Jane’s love of candy, Will was sure she’d helped him. In fact, he would have kissed the sow’s snout if she were present.

     “With his housekeeper gone to her heavenly reward, I’m sure Father Joe can use a hardy lad like yourself to attend to his cottage and Saint Elmo’s chapel. Can you cook too?” Noting Will’s embarrassed silence, the doctor added more gently, “Well, there’s lots of fine young ladies hereabouts who can teach you—most of them alive in the ordinary sense—and a convenient shortage of eligible bachelors. Since you’re no doubt a decent mathematician, Teacher Edwin Thomas could use your help running the school too; he was a sailor, and maybe even a pirate…”

     As Doc Starr droned on, Will drowsily pondered his future prospects, distracted by the more unlikely possibilities. What if Angel Skye grows up and comes looking for me in the next spring or three? But, being green to the true nature of Napper’s Holler, he put aside such unholy thoughts. The former agent was, after all, a Christian man…and saved.

 

 

felicity.jpg
Art by Gin E L Fenton

Felicity

A.M. Stickel

 

     “Off . . . offa me, Felicity!” Keeper Will removed Father Joe’s fat brindle cat from his chest. “Ah-choo, ah . . . ah . . . AH-CHOO!” For a second Napper’s Holler’s newest citizen almost regretted trading in his scratchy wool revenuer’s suit—now lining Felicity’s basket—for homespun. He didn’t miss his old lowlander handle of ‘Agent Will Throckmyer,’ though. Will sat up in bed and groped for a kerchief.

     Edwin Thomas leaned over in his hammock, wiped the sleep from his own eyes, and admonished his housemate, “Felicity knows her place and her place knows her. By Holler standards she has a fine pedigree. Her great-grandsire was Felix, our ship’s cat. He mated with Felicia, whose feral ancestors welcomed the Holler’s first humans.”

     “Why does the impious little minx so favor St. Elmo’s stone holy water font? Instead of crossing themselves when they come into church, worshippers are forced to pet her—she hisses and growls at anyone who forgets!” responded Will, mopping his dripping nose.

     “My friend,” said Edwin, “she claimed her special spot as a kitten. Overcome by a summer’s day thirst, she lapped up every drop of blessed water and laid herself down for a well-deserved nap. Ever since, she’s made regular church attendance a habit. The children assume her one sacramental quaff bestowed upon Felicity unusual powers. She always knows which of them hides a slingshot or a snowball, and can evade the miscreant by vanishing instantly.”

    “Those same children keep the myth of your piracy alive, Edwin. This pest’s only power is annoying me in any way she can, purring away while she does her mischief,” retorted Will, shaking his finger at the cat, who blissfully wadded his tangled, paw-muddied sheets.

     “I’d watch what you say about his cat to Joe. He claims all of his sermons have to pass the Felicity Test. He discards any that put her to sleep, or even make her yawn. In her he finds the ideal critic, most especially because of her fascination with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit hovering over or behind or next to him, he’s sure, always receives her undivided attention. No mouse or fly can distract her when thus enraptured.”

     “Oh, pish and tosh, Edwin! If Felicity were reverently inclined, she’d stop eating the holy wafers I put out to cool. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to put in another batch on account of her.” Will dumped the cat off his cot, and rose, purposely splashing water on her as he washed his face at the basin. Thus rebuffed, she fluffed her colorful coat and exited the window with an indignant swish of her tail.

     Edwin Thomas laughed and proceeded with his own ablutions. “Mark my words, Will. One of these days, she’ll gain your favor. Felicity is one talented, persistent puss.”

 

     With Father Joe away on another of his home visits to a distant stead, Will was hard at work honing his skills over a hot stove. His cooking had improved since coming to Napper’s Holler, and he was unashamed to reap the benefits. Eggs and bacon sizzling in the skillet, and a bowl of hot biscuits fresh out of the oven made up for the previous hour spent mopping the chapel floor. He didn’t notice Father Joe’s cat pad into the rectory kitchen with her latest plaything, until . . .

     Plop!

     Felicity released an eyeball from between her teeth, watching it roll across the pine floor, and stop between Will’s bare feet. When he continued to ignore her, she darted between his legs to paw the bloodshot thing back and forth between her paws. Then her gleaming gaze took in his panic as he caught sight of her toy . . . and recognized to whom it belonged.

     Once Will stopped dancing, he collected himself enough to remove the food safely to the counter and cover it with a towel. This done, he bent down and carefully lifted the eye with a spatula to drop it into his second fresh kerchief of the day, and then his pocket. “Well, Felicity . . . ?” he began.

     Satisfied, Felicity rose and ran toward Saint Elmo’s chapel with Will in pursuit. Paws covered in gold dust left a shiny trail across both the rectory kitchen and the chapel floor he’d sweated so hard to clean. Grabbing his broom and sweeping as he went, Will followed cat tracks outside to the late Ella June’s cabin near the rectory, where he found the eye’s owner . . . and another cat perched on the man’s unmoving chest.

     “Ferocious, down!”

     Felicity’s lean, orange-eyed brother, coal-black and as tall as his sister was wide, crouched lower and glared at the territorial interloper, a growl rising from his throat. The yowl waiting behind the growl, however, was stifled by the eye Ferocious mouthed.

     “Mooney?” asked a stunned Will, already sure the old miner—who’d claimed the cabin by simply moving in—was dead. The body sprawled in the center of the room’s gold-dust-coated floor. Several lumpy bags, one clawed open, lay in the corner beside Ella June’s old cot. A chair was overturned, and the miner’s gear was missing. Will walked to the window and noticed Nudge, Mooney’s scrawny mule, was not out back as usual.

     Ferocious growled again, distracted by Felicity, who’d clambered onto the open gold-dust bag and rolled in it, purring. Will cautiously backed up, clutching his broom and thinking, One bash over the head, and this Satan’s spawn’ll spit out the eye.

     Will wasn’t sure what to do with the second eye once he recovered it, but common decency urged him on. He waved the broom at Ferocious, urging him off of his perch atop the prone miner. The animal spat out the eye, his pupils dilating in a demonic glance from Will to Felicity. While the tom decided whom to bite first, he paused long enough for Will to take a closer look at the body.  

     From the gaping chest protruded an assortment of springs and wires resembling clockworks, not human innards. A huge ruby sat in the position where the heart would normally be. Will ignored both cats, who’d definitely decided to fight each other; the siblings circled and cursed, their yowls and hisses rising and falling enough for an entire herd of cats at war.

     Will, however, turned his attention to the eye, a close inspection of which revealed it to be artificial. When his trembling fingers removed the companion eye from his pocket, he discovered it matched. Time to let Sheriff Lightfoot, Doc Starr, and Edwin in on this mystery, thought Will, fearlessly swinging his broom at both cats. “You two, out . . . out . . . . out! I can’t have you destroying evidence. GIT!” Will picked up the wash basin from the stand beside the cot to put an end to Felicity’s dispute with her brother. As the liquid flew, he noticed it was not water, but oil the color of Ferocious’ fur. When the stuff hit their coats, the two cats lit out as if their tails were afire.

     Will, conscience and stomach complaining, headed for Doc Starr’s.

 

     “Keeper, what brings you along so early in the day?” asked Chet Lightfoot. He and his very pregnant wife sat sipping tea in Doc’s parlor. April Talloaks Lightfoot was quiet, her tan cheeks gone pale. The puddle of ‘birth waters’ at her feet and her stoic expression evidenced she wouldn’t enjoy what came next. Chet, who had no idea either, simply patted her hand and poured her tea.

     “I need you and Doc and Edwin to check out a situation Felicity led me into—one I don’t like the look of, Chet,” said Will, knowing it had come out all wrong, but hoping the sheriff understood anyway.

    “What’s more important than our first baby, Keep?” Chet said mildly.

    “These,” said Will, pulling the wrapped eyeballs from his pocket, and failing to notice April’s swoon. Chet, who did notice, merely adjusted April on the couch cushions and studied the objects nestled in the cloth, which seemed to look right back at him.

     Will quickly refolded the cloth when Doc Starr stepped out of his exam room grinning, Chet’s bloodhound, Lulu, cradled in his arms. The droopy-eared dog’s front paws and jowls were bandaged, and her face was more melancholy than ever. “I warrant Lulu will avoid porky-pines from now on,” offered Doc, taking in his visitors, especially April’s state. “We’d better see to your missus next, Chet. . . .And your complaint, Keeper—another cat scratch?”

     “Go on ahead with Mrs. Lightfoot, Doc. I can wait. Felicity’s been up to no good again, and I can’t make any sense of something weird she’s found.” Will gulped and flushed. Everyone knew how crazy Father Joe’s cat made him, Doc included. The doctor smiled, shook his head, and motioned Chet to carry his wife into the exam room. He handed the whimpering hound to Will, giving her one last pat on the head.

     Will sat back on the sofa with a lapful of Lulu. She rolled soulful eyes up at him, and, even though he thought about showing her the eyeballs to see what she’d do, he resisted. When he pictured the poor thing limping along the track of an insoluble mystery, he realized Chet might not take kindly to this abuse of his Lulu.

 

     By the time Will returned to the rectory, the ruins of his breakfast, except for the biscuits, lay on the floor where Felicity and Ferocious—allies long enough to steal food—had left them. With him were Chet’s fifteen-year-old brother, ‘Deputy’ Jim Bob Lightfoot, and the sheriff’s second-best hound, Lily. While Lily, still a pup and always hungry, cleaned the floor, Will and Jim Bob polished off the biscuits with some mint tea and home brew to wash them down.

     Jim Bob offered Will a chaw, which he politely declined. “We’d best go to Mooney’s cabin, and I’ll show you the rest of Felicity’s discovery,” said Will.

     The youngster had tried to act cool when shown Mooney’s eyeballs. But, on sight of the body, his eyes went wide and he took a swig from his pocket flask. His hound pup skittered and sniffed, more excited by the cat spray and the bits of black and brindle fur than the body. “This can’t be Mooney, Keeper. It’s some kind of machine. Whoever took the mule left this here, I’ll warrant, but why’d they leave the gold?”

     “Felicity knows, but she can’t tell us, Jimmy. I wish she could,” said Will. “I want Edwin’s help to solve this. He interprets strange matters like no one else, and can usually make sense out of them.”

    “Teacher Thomas is a sharp one. He always knew what I was up to before I did,” said Jim Bob. “Father Joe ought to be here too; yonder contraption might be the devil’s work.”

     “Maybe we can talk Edwin into letting school out early,” said Will, reinserting Mooney’s eyes into their sockets.

     “I’m already here,” came a familiar voice from outside the cabin window, “thanks to Felicity. She joined my class with Ferocious not far behind, both of them covered in scratches and oil, and minus some fur. I thought you might’ve finally tried to tar and feather those two like you’re always threatening to do, Will.”

     The cat sat on a corner of the window sill, preening, and Edwin Thomas’ scarred face appeared behind her. Espying the body, he boosted his lanky frame through the window. “My, my, what have we here?”

    “Dunno,” said Will and Jim Bob together.

    Felicity gave the leashed hound pup a warning hiss—convincing Lily to remove her tender nose and wriggling body from under the window. Once the dog was out of her way, the cat jumped to the floor, regally padded to the open bag of gold dust, and began to roll in it and purr.

 

     “Come to think of it, Ol’ Mooney never was much of a talker,” mused Edwin.

     “Nor an eater . . . in fact, I never saw him eat,” added Jim Bob, counting off the miner’s oddities on his fingers. “He ignored wimmin and likker.” (The lad’s voice resounded with the sincere disbelief of one who had only recently been initiated into the latter two, yet considered himself an expert on both.) “He never went to church, n’ he hated cats!”

     Will decided to steer the conversation away from his favorite pitfalls—women and cats. “Right! I never knew a man to keep so close to his own company, even to the point of ignoring his mule. Poor Nudge had to feed and water himself. What kind of miner would neglect his most valuable ally?”

     “An inhuman one,” said Edwin, “although it wouldn’t surprise me if there was an actual person involved. The situation doesn’t bode well for the Holler. There could be other machines resembling people . . . or even animals . . . undiscovered as yet . . . among us.”

     Felicity hissed. “All right, Felicity, I take back the part about animals.” Edwin stooped to give the cat a few comforting strokes. His efforts seemed to have the opposite effect, for her hackles rose, and she turned her amber gaze toward the ceiling. Everyone else did likewise. The air crackled with static and an almost subsonic hum, then stank with the ammonia stench of bladders emptying, only one of them feline.

     “Think she’s seein’ what’s invisible to us,” whispered Jim Bob, “like, maybe this here machine’s spirit?”

     Felicity glared at the lad, edged over to the pup and batted her tail with sheathed claws. Lily turned, and found herself eye-to-eye and nose-to-nose with Felicity. A flash of understanding passed between them, and the cat sniffed, launching herself through the open cabin door, Lily hard on her heels. The three men were forced to follow the cat’s lead, spooked by her actions and the cabin’s vibrations.

     WHOOSH! Ella June’s old haunts went up in glorious chartreuse-and-indigo flames. The group, luckily already several yards away, turned as one and stared. A huge silvery object, larger than both the nearby chapel and rectory put together, hovered silently over the charred remains, out of which molten gold trickled.

     A tin bucket lying in the yard popped and pinged as it caught and held most of the golden stream. When they looked back up from this distraction, the strange flying machine was gone, and, with it, all evidence (including the eyeballs) of Mooney’s true nature.

     Surprised to be alive, the animals and their humans paused to breathe summer’s sweetness. Ferocious, purring raggedly, padded from the underbrush and startled Jim Bob by rubbing against his legs in male-to-male recognition.

     “Well, Felicity, you’ve outdone yourself this time,” said Edwin, helping the cat down from the tree branch where she’d managed to levitate herself while the men were gaping at the sky and the gold.

     Lily, from a lower branch of Felicity’s tree, gave a deeply heartfelt bay of agreement.    

     Will put the mystery aside for later pondering and walked over to the bucket. “Looks like Father Joe’s going to get his new bell after all. I don’t suppose you can mop those floors for me too, Felicity?”

     “Purr-row?” said Felicity, safe in Edwin’s arms. And then the cat who knew her place winked at him.

 

 

 

captives.jpg
Art by Gin E L Fenton

Captives

 

(a NAPPER’S HOLLER Tale)

 

A.M. Stickel

 

     Mon Dieu! 

     Feeling his hair melt, trapper Jacques Napier sagged against the wood of his stake, wept salt, and prayed to his God in coughing gasps. While he had expected to expire from the heat and smoke, his prolonged suffering told him this inferno came from hell itself.

     Napier realized he’d been singled out for a unique vengeance. The flames grew slowly enough for the agonized victim to watch ‘les sauvages’ circle his pyre again and again.

     “You and your kind stole and defiled our daughters and our sacred land. Now we will repay the violation,” they sang.

     The people he had loved, certain of his perfidy, made sure he understood every gesture and insult. Black-and-red-painted warriors glared and grimaced, their mouths distorted by curses. What few women remained to them laughed, pointed, and prodded his shriveling manhood with sticks. On display before the tents squatted pregnant settlers, captured to increase the tribe. They were luckier than those who had resisted their captors and become food during the harsh winter.

     Behind the naked dancers and drummers, Mighty Oak, Napier’s father-in-law, stood with grim countenance and arms crossed. The elder’s stony eyes held those of his former friend, whom folk called “Napper.” He and the trapper had already been forced to watch his daughter, staked across the ceremonial grounds, deliver Napper’s child into fire.

    Time paused long enough for Napper to remember his first meeting with Moonshadow and the events that followed . . .

 

###

 

     Napper crossed the clearing and was just bending over to check one of his heaviest traps, hidden near the cliff edge, when he was tackled from behind. Claws raked his back, and he fell forward. The trap snapped shut on his arm, and the fury of the attacker sent him over the cliff. Flailing his limbs, Napper wished he was an eagle and not a man. With a loud splash, his body hit the river’s icy water and the trap dragged him to the bottom.

     Before the drowning man could lose consciousness, he felt sturdy arms around him and soft lips pressed to his. Napper opened his mouth to the breath of life, but kept his eyes closed as he was pulled ashore.

     Flopped from the water to lie gasping and shivering on the shore, Napper opened his eyes, shocked to find his rescuer was a woman—tall and copper-skinned, with long, lustrous black hair. He winced as she removed the trap from his arm. Then, before he could thank her, he blacked out.

     Na-per, wake up. The moon is high. It is our time to run.

     Napper sat up to see a silhouette with the moon behind it. A furry lupine face bent over his, hot breath touched him, and a tongue licked his cheek. He flinched, and remembered his arm and gouged back. There’s no pain anywhere. Is my arm gone? No! I feel strong, better than I ever have.  

     Napper stood and stretched fur-covered limbs . . . until his spine began to curve, leaving him on all fours. Mon Dieu! I am a beast, le bête noir . . . and so is she!

     She sprang to the hunt, he followed, and in the morning they awoke in human form, entwined and smiling into each other’s eyes.

     “Do not tell my father, or we will lose each other, Na-per,” she whispered. Then she took him home to her village and day after day of happiness.

    

###

 

     “Na-per, come . . . look.” Moonshadow pointed to the smoky sky in the direction of her husband’s abandoned cabin.

     His father’s heritage French, while Napper’s mother was the offspring of an escaped slave and a native woman, the dark, handsome man felt welcome at his wife’s village, and in keeping their secret. Alone since the age of sixteen, he had gone native at twenty-four, and hung up his cruel traps to let them rust in the rain.

     Smoke showed others had claimed his old stead. He had no intention of paying them a visit. But Moonshadow’s curiosity left him no choice. Before he could stop her, she was off down the trail on swift feet.

     Napper and Moonshadow hunkered down at the edge of the clearing, well out of sight of the cabin’s new occupants. A gaunt, ragged, auburn-bearded man sat on the sagging porch watching a raw-boned woman in a patched dress stir a batch of soap, her hands red from the lye. Stinking animal skins hung from a line strung between cabin and woods. Napper’s stomach turned when he recognized a wolf pelt among them.

     Four filthy, emaciated children played in the bare dirt among a few chickens and a pair of tethered hogs. A forlorn tan and white cow nudged a slender teen, whose threadbare dress kept slipping as she worked a butter churn. Two ugly toddlers, their eyes vacant, drooled and pulled themselves along on deformed limbs. Part of the ground beyond them was given over to a tiny grave marked only by a pile of rocks.

     The man, whose rifle leaned against the cabin wall, took occasional swigs from a brown jug, belched, scratched himself, spat, and swatted at flies. He eyed the butter churn, his face becoming flushed from more than alcohol.

     Buzzards circled overhead . . . until one of the deformed tots gave a strangled cry and quit moving. The man didn’t react when two of the carrion birds swooped upon the dead child’s body. The woman sidled around to put the scene behind her, the teen sniffed back tears, and her siblings watched the buzzards in fascination.

     Napper and Moonshadow, hand in hand, remained frozen in place. He glanced briefly at her, the disgust on her face making him hang his head.

     “Yew! C’mere.” The man pointed at the teen, loosened the twine holding his britches closed, and motioned her to follow him into the cabin.

     “Clew, Sis don’t know nothin’ ‘bout pleasin’ a man.”

     “Shut yer yawp, woman. It’s high time she larned. How d’ya ‘spect ‘er ta satisfy her brothers, and help ‘em provide for our old age. I wish our boys’d git theirselves home. They oughta be here protectin’ the stead and savin’ me all this hard work.”

     “They’re too busy layin’ with heathens,” snapped Ma Studdart. Why else they been gone so long, an’ not doin’ right by us like they ought? I heerd it’s boys with boys at that there fort. It’ll be them soldiers’ fault if we steaders all die out.”

     “Well, it sure as hell won’t be mine!” Laughing and clearly enjoying himself, Pa ignored both Sis’s frightened whimpers and the bed thumping the cabin wall, “Yew better larn fast, girlie, or it’ll be more lessons till ya do,” he promised.

     Although Moonshadow gripped his arm and tried to hold him back, Napper stepped from the shadows into the clearing, screaming, “Merde! Clew Studdart, free that child.”

     “Mind . . . grunt . . . yer . . . grunt . . . own—gaaah!” Clew gasped in satisfaction. “—damn bizniss, Frenchy. I can do as I please to my git, ya heathen-lover. Haul yer ass offa my stead afore I fill yer mangy hide fulla buckshot!”

     “What you’re doing cries to heaven for justice. God will strike you—”

     Ma Studdart cut Napper off, eyes blazing in indignation. “Pa ain’t doin’ nuthin’ what isn’t already in the Good Book. Who d’ya think Adam’s sons and daughters begat with? An’ then there’s Lot an’ his girls. My body plumb wore out from birthin’, the first three big uns—all boys—the last three not worth feedin’. It’s Sis’s turn. I ain’t handin’ her over to the likes o’ those poxy settler and soldier boys, nosirree.”

     “Kate, git over here. Looks like big-mouth, half-breed, heathen-lover there put a shock on our girl.”

     Sis had staggered out of the doorway and collapsed while Pa stood on the porch retying his britches, his limp member dripping bloody fluids. The girl lay crumpled on the splintery stoop, only the whites of her eyes showing, her breathing shallow, and a sticky pool of blood discoloring her dress.

     Pa slapped the girl’s pale cheeks to rouse her, but her head rolled limply to one side and stayed there. Ma threw cold water on her, fanned her with her apron, and made small whimpering noises. The other children gawked, wide-eyed, except for the surviving misshapen toddler who began to bawl loudly.

     Watching the alert buzzards spiral lower, Napper backed away from the chaos into the gloomy forest cover and let his eyes adjust. Too late! Moonshadow had vanished.

 

###

 

     Ashamed to face Mighty Oak and the rest of the tribe, Napper wandered for two days. Returning to Wolf Meadow where he had been changed forever by Moonshadow, he prayed to find her—whether as human or wolf, it didn’t matter. But, before he could decide what to do, he felt a painful blow to the back of his head. Dropping and rolling to face upwards, he focused blurry eyes on the grinning faces of Studdart’s three oldest sons, large sacks slung over their shoulders. Consciousness fading, he heard muffled screams coming from those sacks—female, and in the language of his adopted people.

 

###

 

     Napper swam through black depths and crossed to a different world. His heart lifted when he thought he spied a figure under a huge oak. In the half-light, he drew nearer, hoping it was Moonshadow.

     “Sis Studdart!” It can’t be.

     “I ain’t really Sis. I’m Catherine Studdart, same as Ma, but you can call me Kate.” The pale figure of a fifteen-year-old girl stood before him in a pretty blue dress. Smiling shyly up at him, she laid a cool, white hand on his tan arm, and breathed, “Jacques.”

     “But . . . but you—” Napper’s arm tingled where her hand touched it.

     “Yes, I died. In this place, death don’t matter. Time don’t count here. Living and dead—past, present, and to come—we’re side by side. Take a gander yonder.”

     Instead of the prey animals Napper had encountered in his first night with Moonshadow, he saw a meadow full of children laughing and playing together.

     “One is mine . . . by Pa . . . and these others are my little sister and brother,” said Kate quietly, beckoning them to her.

     Napper barely recognized the brown-haired boy—whole, instead of deformed, and appearing to be about five. Two smaller, tow-headed girls held the boy’s hand. The three circled Kate, gazing up at her with shining eyes.

     “I know what you’re a-thinkin’, Jacques Napier. Jimmy-John is like he was meant to be. Janey Faith isn’t under a rock pile anymore. Josie Hope was nuthin but a spark inside me the day I died. After passin’ out, I lingered two more days afore passin’ on. She’d-a come out wrong like Ma’s last three . . . ”

     Napper was distracted by a hug around his knees. His hand touched the top of a child’s curly head, and he stared down into a face that reminded him of his own, save for darker eyes, fuller lips, and button nose. He lifted the chubby girl-cherub, whose arms immediately encircled his neck.

     “My name is Flaming Star. I was born in fire.” At her ticklish whisper in Napper’s ear, tears swelled in his eyes and spilled from his lashes.

     “Winter’s a-comin’ and it’ll be a bad un,” warned Kate. “Ya can only save one side,  Jacques. Either head fer the hills or the settlement. Come along, younguns.”

    

###

         

     Napper awoke in Big Lulu’s bed with the first storm of the season on its way. At sixteen he’d fathered the cook’s only child on just such a night of wind and hail. Lulu, born to freed slaves, took after her very large pa. No one messed with Lulu and her ever-present cleaver. Ashamed at her weakness and waving the cleaver for emphasis, she’d encouraged Napper to leave the settlement and keep his mouth shut.  

     Watching eight-year-old Jasper take charge of the pot-bellied stove and his ma’s cookware, Napper felt a pang of affection for him. When the tall, wooly-haired boy tiptoed over to the bed and fed his guest a bowl of delicious stew, Napper realized the lad had inherited Lulu’s cooking skills and tidiness . . . plus his heart and good looks.

     “Jasper, where’s your ma tonight?” Napper appraised the snug cabin.

     “Mama took sick last month from tending soldiers she cooked for at the fort. I can’t be mad at them, though, ‘cause they stopped the Studdart Boys from stompin’ you after clobberin’ you. The settlers didn’t let me see her, only her grave. She left me a letter says you’re my pa, even though you look too small for Ma. Is it true, Mister Napper?”        

     Taking the boy’s slender, callused hand in his, Napper tried to smile. His voice wouldn’t get past the lump in his throat, so he just nodded ‘yes.’ He vaguely remembered young Kate Studdart, but not Moonshadow. The blow to his head had erased most of the details of his journey from Wolf Meadow into the world beyond life. Lulu had left him her silver cross; wearing it in her memory kept him human.

 

###

 

     Thanks to Jasper, Napper began to heal. Meat and other necessities being in short supply for the settlers, sickness and Indian raids took their toll. When he felt well enough, Napper returned to trapping and fishing, and got to know his son. Jasper, who stayed miraculously healthy, tried to take his ma’s place as cook at the fort.

     “Soldiers say things are worse for Mighty Oak’s tribe than us, Pa. Can’t we help?” said Jasper one night.

     “I don’t think Mighty Oak’d be too happy to see me, Son. Those Studdarts the soldiers caught stealing and spreading the sickness to his women started his braves stealing ours.”

     “Cap’n Jones at the fort says the Indians eat women who don’t make babies fast enough,” offered Jasper, his voice trembling. “D’you think they’d eat me, Pa?”

     “I’d believe it of Studdarts—damn them for starting the whole mess—not of Mighty Oak’s people. Oh, Jasper, you know they’d never eat a skinny tadpole like you!” Napper reached over and tickled the boy’s ribs.

     “Uncle! Unnn-cull . . . I give, I give!” squealed Jasper, kicking and squirming, until he stopped, his eyes huge, and pointed out the window at a dark shape. “Pa, I think I see a ghost,”  he whispered.

     There came a clawing and bumping at the door.

 

###

 

     “Please, please don’t open it, Pa,” begged Jasper, running to hide under the bed, “’cause it might be the Wendigo.”

     Knife in hand, Napper crept to the door and put his ear to the wood. Weak sobs, followed by another soft thud, came from the other side. Deciding to take a chance and open the door, he lifted the crossbar.

     A pitiful, blanketed heap lay across the stoop. Napper lifted a dead weight, dragging it inside, and returning the crossbar to its place. His hands shaking, Napper unwrapped the blanket and examined the skeletal, swollen-bellied thing inside.

    A hollow-eyed wolf face peered up at him. The nose, ears, lips and paws were raw from frost-bite, and the fur was falling out in patches. The eyes and tears were human. He suddenly knew those eyes. Merde! Moonshadow!

    Jasper crawled out from under the bed, and began to rub the shivering creature’s paws. Together, Napper and Jasper watched wolf transform to woman, great with child, as she lay on Big Lulu’s bed. Then the woman found her tongue and rasped out her plea.

     “Take me back to my people, Na-per. I am the sacrifice. Once I and the child I carry burn under the full moon, the game will return so my people can eat. The sickness will stop. The sun will shine on the land again. Too many have died already!”

     Napper clutched Moonshadow to his chest, feeling their hearts beating together as she spoke. “The Studdart Boys were cursed by my father to run as wolves. They could not return to their father’s stead, so they found and defiled me with their seed. I hid from my tribe in the wilderness, and buried my foul litter at birth. I saved you soon after, we ran together and became one, returned to my tribe . . . only to be lost to each other.”

     “I will die if you die, Beloved.” cried Napper. “How could I have forgotten you?”

     “No, Pa, no . . . please. God can’t take you from me too.” cried Jasper.

     “If this is your son, you already had a wife when you made our child with me. I see why you never came for me when the Studdarts took me again!” Moonshadow reached up before he could stop her, grabbed Napper’s knife, and tried to slit her belly.

     “Help me, Jasper!” Napper stanched the bleeding as Jasper raced to the stove, plucked the hot poker and seared the woman’s wound closed. Moonshadow fainted.

     Man and boy bathed the woman’s bruised body, and wrapped her in clean blankets, then Napper said, “I must return Moonshadow to her father first thing tomorrow. Maybe he will know how to lift the curse. I felt no movement in her belly, so they killed our child. We’ll pack our mule with food for the tribe. They may let me live to return to you.”

     Jasper drew himself up and stared soberly, first at the wolf woman, then at his father. “We’ll meet in heaven anyway, Pa. She’s wrong. You didn’t betray her. The clobberin’ just made you forget. You don’t deserve to die for loving both her and Ma.”

     “Jesus didn’t deserve to die either, Son. You’re the man today—love better than I did.”

 

###

 

     Napper led the loaded pack mule up the trail with Moonshadow secured to a travois. He craned his neck to watch Jasper as long as possible. The boy’s black skin shone so brightly in the dawn light from amid the white fur of his hood, Napper’s heart hurt.

     Don’t run to the fort too soon, Son. I don’t want anyone killed trying to save me.

     By late afternoon Napper, alert for another Studdart ambush, had reached the village. Wails of mourners arose all around. Every family longhouse was marked with the spirit signs to signify death’s visit. Captives had been relegated to tents marked to ward off wicked spirits and invite those associated with fertility. By the look of the captives, the fertility spirits had been winning despite the fierce winter.

     Mighty Oak emerged, and carried his daughter into the chieftain’s longhouse. He made no comment on her state, only barked at Napper, “Prepare to burn.”

     Napper stood in silence until Mighty Oak returned and declared in a ringing voice, pointing to the pack mule: “Tonight we feast. Tomorrow we fight the traitor’s people.”

     Immediately, the surviving tribesmen slunk forth to claim the mule, ignoring Napper. They unloaded and slaughtered the docile beast. The few tribeswomen prodded their captives into helping them cook and prepare paint. Finally, Napper was taken to a tent where Moonshadow lay in soft deerskin, a fierce wolf mask covering her face and head. Captives, their bellies greased for good luck, stripped and painted Napper in black and white from head to toe, and wrapped the silver chain and cross around his manhood.

     While the tribe feasted, Napper and Moonshadow, legs spread, were lashed to stakes across from each other. The dancing and drumming started, and Moonshadow’s pyre was lit. Eager flames entered her open thighs to make her push the child from her womb into the heart of the flames with a cry rising beyond pain to elation.

     Napper’s agony was not as swift. As flames licked at his scrotum, he began to scream, and could not stop. When the silver cross dangling there melted, the echoes of his holler rang through the white corridors of the woods to the den hidden behind Studdart’s stead.

     Then did the answering howls of the Boys and their mates reach all the way to the place that would forever mark the moment of his release—Napper's Holler.

entrywaygin.jpg
Art by Gin E L Fenton

Entryway

 

(A NAPPER’S HOLLER Tale)

 

A.M. Stickel

 

 

     At the crossroads stands a stooped, hooded figure, barely visible in the twilight gloom. Whip cracks urge restless horses on, whereupon the misshapen passenger’s head turns first to watch the creaky wagon depart, and then toward the deeper gloom of a forest known to lonely trappers as Piney Woods.

 

      As the clatter dies away, the traveler shoulders a lumpy sack, leans on a crooked walking stick held in gloved fingers, and sighing, shuffles up the smaller trail, a passage so narrow that overhead interlacing boughs cut off most of the dim light. Underfoot, pungent leaves and needles rustle, fallen branches crackle, and bramble-studded vines threaten each halting step. Owls hoot from the thicket and crickets chirp. With each step the cloaked traveler takes, silence settles and cool mist rises ever higher, until even the twinkling starlight is dulled.

 

     After about an hour, the burbles of a stream interrupt the quiet, and the figure cocks an ear to listen, then turns from the path to slake a growing thirst. The traveler brushes back the cloak’s hood and kneels to drink. Reflected in the water, and cruelly exposed by the waxing moon, a glimpse of a distorted face elicits a howl of despair. From the sack, shaking hands draw forth a rendering lovingly executed in a former existence lived a world away—a miniature self portrait.

 

 

 

     Sent to the New World for a cure, hah! Master Marcus Keri, age fifteen, tossed and turned, abed in the Seaside Inn’s best room, his first night ever beyond the confines of his ancestral estate. In the next room his loyal servant, Albert, snored away, oblivious to the youngster’s disquiet.

 

     Supple artist’s hands, like his mother’s, explored the changes distorting his body. I’d have been tall, my hair the same auburn as mother’s twin, Edward . . . and similarly irresistible to women. Marcus grinned at the thought of Uncle Edward’s infamous exploits. At thirty, he’s more like an older brother . . . a really wicked one, though.

 

     During Marcus’s thirteenth birthday gala, his uncle had taken him aside and gifted him a vial of the elixir he swore was the secret of his own success. The youth kept the vial near. As instructed, he drank a drop of the potion mixed with a dram of water every full moon, after which he felt safe to polish his masculine prowess by charming pretty servant girls.   

 

     Father hopes for the best, yet . . . I know I’ll never see home again, whether I survive or perish from these deformities. Almighty God, why have you cursed me?

 

     All at once, the youth sat up in bed. What if Edward’s formula is, instead, a slow-acting poison? As father’s only cousin and with his sister—my mother—dead at fifteen birthing me, he’d inherit everything!   

 

     Marcus arose and wrote to his father by candlelight, rolled and sealed the note with wax, then rapped on Albert’s door, whereupon Albert, wiping the sleep from his eyes, emerged to his charge’s summons.

 

     “Old friend, you’re the only man I’d trust to take this to my father. If you hurry, you can be back before the ship departs. I’m bound by the obedience a son owes his father to seek a cure in the New World. I should take him these words—and this vial—myself, but I’d only slow you down. Once he reads my note, he must send you back with a reply . . . or even accompany you here. Make haste!”

 

     Albert bowed, grabbed his cloak and satchel, placing therein both items from his young master, and sped off on horseback to complete his errand.

 

 

 

     Pulled from his bed by his cousin’s angry retainers, a disheveled Edward faced Marcus’s father, Lord Keri, who stood before him waving a note, Albert at his side.

 

     “In my sister’s name, Cousin, I demand to know why you’ve thus ill-used me . . .” whined Edward.

 

     Marcus’ father, his face livid with rage, responded, “For your dead sister Edwina’s sake I’ve borne your profligacy, you wanton wastrel! You repay me by poisoning the nephew who worshipped you in order to gain his inheritance.”

 

     Edward’s face fell, and he sank into a nearby chair, head in hands, begging in a choked voice, “Kindly send your retainer from the room, Cousin. Your ears alone will hear my defense.”

 

     “The whole truth? None of your obfuscations?” When Edward nodded, Lord Keri’s bluster abated; he motioned Albert toward the hallway with a look that said: Remain just outside, ready to use force if necessary.

 

     “I promise on my dear sister’s memory,” Edward continued, his voice low, “had it not been for my selfishness, she and I would not have been parted.”

 

     “You were never parted. She insisted you come live with us as part of our marriage contract . . ” objected Lord Keri. “What has this to do with Marcus?”

     “I was too fond of my twin, Edwina, and she of me,” confessed Edward, “and the result was our son, Marcus. Your own desire for her worked to spare her from shame when my parents quickly consented to your union. You provided our son a fine inheritance and name. . . .We had not counted on her death in childbirth. This loss turned me to more vile pursuits, which have not given me the expected solace.”

 

     Lord Keri turned with a groan and strode to the fireplace, drawing the ornamental family sword from its scabbard displayed on the mantle. “I’ll have my solace—your head, incestuous fool!”

 

     “I deserve to die, Cousin, but . . . doesn’t Marcus deserve the truth?” Shaking, Edward pointed to the portraits of his sister and her son which overhung the mantle and scabbard on either side of the Keri ancestral coat of arms.

 

     “What is your version of the truth, then?” cried the offended lord, lowering the sword, while waving the vial Marcus had sent with Albert. “The circumstances of Marcus’s begetting are hardly his fault. He has proved to be the most devoted and gifted son a man could want, despite his infirmity. As your father’s sole survivor, your inheritance was always assured, so why would you have poisoned your own flesh and blood? If you truly loved Edwina, do you think she would have approved of you killing her child and yours?”

 

     “You do not understand the nature of Marcus’ heritage, Cousin. The vial is not poison, but an antidote. Should he fail to take it, his physical changes will progress to the point where he is no longer human during the full moon. His unfortunate deterioration is the result of sibling union in which some of the worst characteristics of our forefathers bred true. At fifteen, I discovered one in my desire for Edwina and hers for me, though innocent of their full extent. I’ve since had access to their more terrible aspects in records passed to me upon Father’s death, which both you and Marcus should read.” Edward drew forth an ornate chest from under a brick at the edge of the massive fireplace. It held a book.

 

     After reading, the facts began to sink in, leaving Marcus’s foster father little choice. “You, Edward, must accompany Marcus to the New World. I cannot put faithful Albert in harm’s way. I will write orders for you to deliver to Marcus. Waste no time. Pack what you need, and the vial and book as well . . . and . . . take him my undying love. Follow my instructions, or else! Captain Swift is my man and the Aviva my ship. I’m advising him to watch your every move.”

 

 

 

     The dawn of departure brought Edward to the Seaside Inn. Marcus, handed the proof of his heritage—cautioning note, damning book, and precious vial—offered Edward a bestial glare and snarling growl, his incisors displayed.

 

     Edward recalled an illegal dog fight he’d once attended, where he’d wagered and lost a sizable sum. Losing this wager meant instant death. His instinct was to put up his guard and back away slowly, yet he stood stock still, touched Edwina’s silver cross on its chain around his neck, and said, “Our dear cousin sends you his undying love.”

 

     Marcus, his human side victorious, said in a tight voice, “Here’s your chance, not so much to find me a cure as to save your own soul, by proving yourself the father you ought to have been. From now on, let us address each other, man to man—‘Edward’ and ‘Marcus’—out of respect for the nobleman who affords us both mercy: Lord Keri.”

 

     “Agreed, Marcus.” Edward extended his hand, and, after a moment of hesitation, Marcus took it.

 

     Fascinated by the hubbub of departure, Marcus permitted Edward and the other passengers to precede him up the Aviva’s gangplank. Unlike Edward, he did not bother to inspect the owner’s quarters adjoining Captain Swift’s, where they would be settled for the duration of the voyage, but stood at the rail. Trunks, bags, food, water and rum kegs, live animals, and gear were loaded by sweaty handlers. Tearful goodbyes followed. The sails were hoisted and tie-lines released. Aviva cleared the harbor’s calm waters, and began rising and falling with the ocean’s natural rhythm.

 

     Edward and Marcus were soon united in mutual misery, stomachs queasy and sea-legs wanting. Captain Swift’s cook and crew became their saviors—the former with broth and ginger tea, the latter with tall tales and stoic hard work.

 

     “Edward,” said Marcus on the fifth night, “Charlie One-Eye took me down into the hold today and I heard those creatures the crew talks about; the things were rubbing their bodies along the hull, seeking a weak spot in the wood.”

 

     “Aha! You must mean the fabled fish folk, with their ‘lantern eyes, green scales, and razor teeth,’” teased Edward. “Rum makes sailors prone to exaggeration and superstition. Surely you don’t believe in fish-folk?”

 

     “Y . . . yes, I think they exist and are even uglier than I am, although they’re not evil …merely trying to survive.”

 

     Edward, reaching for his son’s hand in the dark, addressed the problem. “Marcus, do you think you’re evil just because of the way you look? I’m the evil one here . . . and yet there’s hope for my salvation. You are that hope.”

 

     Marcus’ voice became a harsh whisper. “Hope? I’m an abomination. If I can’t be healed, when the time comes I want you to do the right thing, Father. Even with the antidote, during the full moon such a thirst comes over me. . . . I know I’d rend to satisfy my bloodlust, and rape to procreate more of my kind.”

 

     “You’ve already overcome your seasickness. You can resist your baser urges too. I’m learning to control mine, and, in the process, truly become your father. Take heart.”

 

     “I’ll try, Father, I promise.”

 

     So do I, thought Edward, but said only, “Good night and rest safe.”

 

 

 

     “Land Ho!” rang the cry on the grey evening of arrival in the New World. Too late! A storm had battered the Aviva in the night; limping along, sails torn, hull leaking, she listed and wobbled. Hands had been swept overboard, and the passengers were weak from hanging on and heaving up their insides. With a shudder, she breached . . . and ran aground.     

 

     Shipwrecked upon the shore of the New World under a full moon, antidote and most of their goods lost, Edward lay amidst the gnawed bodies of disemboweled men and bleeding women, their hips broken by violent rape. Yet, one of his dearest possessions remained. Facing a matured Marcus, who rose before him fearsomely fanged and furred, he pulled the pistol with one silver bullet from its hiding place in his shirt, and made his choice. Farewell, my son.

 

 

 

     The exquisite portrait before his golden gaze, the howler gripping it cannot quite remember whether this depicts Marcus or Edward. His instincts tell him to cross the stream toward the forbidden burial ground set aside by the local savages. Once there, he clambers up a tree to rest at last next to a naked corpse upon the highest platform, and to feast on the funeral food left at the tree’s foot. Other animals have had their share already. Above all, he craves rest.

 

     His wounded right hand throbs, a gleaming silver crucifix in its clawed grasp. One arm of this sacred object points to heaven, one to hell . . .  and the other two?—east to a home, forever gone, and west to the entryway he will open to a refuge destined to shelter the lost and outcast, someday to be marked by a sign reading simply: “Napper’s Holler.

 

 

Missionary Stew

 (an excerpt from the novella ALAT by A.M. Stickel)

 

         

          At the peak of her climax, Aami noticed two winged creatures circling high overhead. She tapped Ekkan’s shoulder, trying to get him to look where she pointed.

 

          “Ugh…unh…” grunted Ekkan, in mid-thrust, trying to ignore Aami’s struggles as she saw the creatures swoop lower.

 

“Now…is…not…a…good…time,” he groaned, softening. “There, you spoiled it for me! Are you happy? Is this how you thank me for helping hasten your labor?”

 

          “Ekkan, I think we’ve been spotted by two hungry dragons, and they’re just waiting for me to deliver their dessert,” whispered Aami.

 

          “Wha—” Ekkan sprang from his kneeling position, his sagging member shiny and dripping. “I’d better go interrupt Pretty Poison and Prangh. You two females just HAD to come for a traditional birthing on Vroggi Isle. I can’t believe we gave in to you.”

 

          The bushes rustled, and Prangh emerged, without Pretty Poison. He pointed skyward. “I see we have visitors. Perhaps they have heard about my mission, and wish to become the Watcher’s followers.”

 

          “I wouldn’t count on that. Moreover, I don’t know why Pretty Poison is hiding. Dragons don’t eat vegetables or anything resembling one,” groused Ekkan.

 

          “Are you calling my wife green? And Pretty Poison isn’t hiding. She’s in labor, thanks to my efforts.” Prangh stood taller and flapped his wings, his tail atwitch.

 

          “My daughter is green, Prangh, so why argue the point…because…well…it suits her,” stuttered Ekkan. “Oh, no…no…no! I can’t believe I’m going to be a grandsire.”

 

          “Excuse me, you two, but the dragons have landed,” said Aami, pointing behind the two arguing males. And, by the way, my water has broken, Ekkan, in case that matters to you.”

 

          Prangh and Ekkan spun around to confront the dragon couple, who had folded their wings and sauntered toward them, taking their time. Their iridescent scales gleamed, and they grinned, displaying impressive, brilliantly white fangs.

 

          “Shouldn’t the food be running away at this point, dear Werrud?” suggested the female dragon to her mate with a haughty snort. “Prey that freezes in position has no respect for a dragon’s need of pre-prandial exercise. What is the world coming to?”

 

          “Were it up to me, Wrodd-my-love, I’d make sure all prey obeyed the natural laws, but, after all, these missionaries belong to the lowest order of food. One cannot expect un-evolved food to be capable of an evolved predator’s wisdom.” Werrud winked a huge amethyst eye at his female companion.

 

She winked back, and said, “Give me a good Werebeast chase every time. They are evolved enough to provide plenty of exercise, and a nice feast to follow the fun.”

 

          “If you’re looking for missionaries, Prangh here is the demon to see. I am as yet unresolved as to my religious affiliation,” interrupted Ekkan with great conviction.

 

          “Didn’t we just see you praying as we flew overhead?” responded Werrud. “If that doesn’t have Great Watcher butter spread all over it, what does?”

 

          Ekkan blushed and replied, “Well, my wife’s due, so we were hoping to induce labor. I wasn’t praying, just having ordinary intercourse with her.”

 

          “What do you mean ordinary intercourse, Ekkan?” said Aami, eyes narrowing. “I was doing my part, and…since we are sister and half-brother, doing it out in the open with great risk to my reputation.”

 

          “I didn’t know food worried about reputation, did you, Wrodd?” said Werrud, wide-eyed.

 

          “No, Werrud, I did not,” replied Wrodd, her smile dimming, “but if a bad reputation spoils a food’s taste, perhaps this couple isn’t worth eating…which leaves us with this leathery-looking, winged one here…dibs on the food’s juicy privates.” Wrodd’s tongue shot out for a post-coital appetizer.

 

          “Wait a minute, I want those,” growled Werrud, stopping Wrodd’s tongue in mid-air with his own.

 

          The dragoness drew in her tongue, batted her long blue eyelashes, and said, “Oh, so you want to play. We have plenty of time. The food isn’t going anywhere until this female delivers our dessert.”

 

          The two dragons rolled on the ground and into the bushes, wrestling and roaring.

 

          Prangh, who had taken wing as soon as his privates were mentioned, stood behind Aami and Ekkan, folding his wings about them, and leaning down to whisper furiously, “What do you mean about your religious affiliation being unresolved, Ekkan? I am sure I can redirect your mind toward the Way after we get Aami to safety.”

 

          “Hurry,” said Ekkan, “for those dragons are going to stop playing eventually…”

 

          By the time Aami lay beside her, Pretty Poison’s litter had already spurted greenly from between her well-lubricated thighs. Prangh, under the mother’s eagle eye, paused to lick off the slime covering each Vroggi-demon-elfling—four males and four females. As she put her offspring to her swollen teats, the Vroggi Queen graciously said, “Aami, why not let Prangh’s long tongue assist your delivery?”

 

          “That’s the best offer I’ve had all day,” groaned Aami, squatting as she had when she had Ekkan’s Vroggi tongue help deliver Rose and Lily in Batrachia. “I’m going to call my newborn Jonquil in honor of Johnny, the pirate babe I wet-nursed on Skull Island… Uh-oh, I think the dragons have stopped playing and will be after Prangh, with Jonquil for dessert; the quality of their roars has changed.”

 

          “Excuse me a minute, while I go check on the dragons and Ekkan,” said Prangh, relieved that the newborn elfling’s head and shoulders had already emerged, thanks to their joint efforts.

 

          Pretty Poison laughed, and offered, “I’ll bet the dragons have discovered how much stranglevine hates to be rolled about on. Then there’s the stingweed, ticklewort, and others that can clog a dragon’s tender orifices. Stupid dragons! They simply can’t handle vegetables or Deep End’s vegetation.”

 

          “In that case, they’re probably begging for Ekkan’s help by now,” said Aami.

 

          “Mothers, I’m going to need your nipple rings,” said Prangh, “for legend has it that putting a gold ring through a dragon’s nose will tame him…or her. I’m going to make two large nose rings for them.”

 

          “It’s a great sacrifice,” said Aami, “but I’ll do it if Pretty Poison will.”

 

          “If nose rings can guarantee us a ride home on dragon-back, I’m willing,” said Pretty Poison.

 

 

          Once Prangh and Ekkan had installed the nose rings, the dragons calmed down enough to let Ekkan’s and Aami’s vorla free them. While a vor sword had little effect on dragon hide, it sliced through vegetation with ease.

 

          “You may have tamed us, but we’re still hungry,” groused Werrud, eyeing the nine newborn nurslings their mothers carried. Ekkan’s son, Jonquil, was as large as Pretty Poison’s four sons combined.

 

          “Then I have just the thing for you before we return to Batrachia,” said Prangh. “It’s called Missionary Stew.”

 

          Wrodd went all dreamy-eyed and panted, “You mean, just for us, you’re going to milk these mothers into a big pot and jump into it when the milk is nice and hot, swimming about in it until your leathery hide is juicy and tender, and—”

 

          “NOT EXACTLY,” Prangh cut Wrodd off with a sharp tug on her nose ring.

 

          “You mean we’re going to have to jump into the pot of hot milk, so you can—” continued Wrodd.

 

          “Ekkan and I are going fishing,” explained Prangh. “The big ceremonial pot in the center of Vroggi Isle is used for celebrating royal births. We will make enough fish stew for everyone before we leave the island. The recipe I will use is from the missionaries who raised me. And you’d better thank the Great Watcher I’m leaving out the ingredient called for in the Desert Demon version.”

 

          “Which is?” said Werrud in a small voice, worried about onions, which he both hated and feared.

 

          “DRAGON’S BLOOD,” roared Prangh, falling on the ground and laughing. When he sobered, he added, “But should you dragons dare to call us ‘food’ again, I’ll happily reconsider…”

 

 

Anne M. Stickel, who writes the NAPPER’S HOLLER short story series, edits Black Petals, and is a former Managing Copyeditor for Ray Gun Revival, with many prose, poetry and art publications. She has had several pieces in Santa Cruz County papers and winning poems in California Chaparral Poets contests. Black Petals work includes illos, stories, and reviews. Her poems have been in THE 2004 MONTEREY BAY POETRY ANTHOLOGY and received Santa Cruz County Fair prizes/championships. ORU Anthology #3 (fall 2008) features her short SF story, “Blind Stitches.” Works in The Pedestal literary e-zine include: art, issue #16-2003, 10.04 political issue SF, review 8.06. Ray Gun Revival publications include: 8.1.06 (issue #3) & 5.1.07 (issue #21) SF stories. Works also appeared in: Showcase 1 & 2 (Colin Harvey). Surreal Magazine writings include: 6 reviews, an interview, and an article online. Writers Post Journal (12.2004) published a story. Yellow Mama has published a review and  NAPPER’S HOLLER tales. Editing/proofing was done for authors Brian Royer (2 books), B.T. Robertson (2 books), Jeremiah Edwards (1 book), Jeff Wheeler (2 books), editor Jeremy Whitted of Deep Magic, Linda Williams (2 ORU books), Nathalie Mallet (1 book), Steve Davidson (1 nonfiction book), and in assisting Ken Crist with Black Petals. Her SF short story, “Honeymoon in Hayel,” appeared in print in David Lee Summers’ Tales of the Talisman fall 2007 issue. ORU is Anne’s favorite ‘place to play’ and be inspired by Linda Williams’ awesome SF talent.

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