Black Petals Issue #96, Summer, 2021

Ort's Last Undertaking
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Ort's Last Undertaking-Fiction by Taylor Hood
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Ain't Alien Spores-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Giant Goldfish-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Igopogo-Poem by Richard Stevenson
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Art by Michael D. Davis © 2021

Ort’s Last Undertaking

 

by Taylor Hood

 

 

“They’re staring.”

“Isaac, will you be quiet?”

“Ort—they’re staring. You said they wouldn’t stare.”

Ort kept his head buried in the map, tried to trace their route along the oddly planned rectangular streets through the eyeholes of his mask. He couldn’t concentrate with the boy whimpering at his knees. Yes, they were staring, what did he expect? Asking them not to would be like asking Mrs. Gloam to stop sighing at the moon or Floris Fragul to stay whole whenever someone dropped a plate or slammed a door. Abruptly, he realised what he was thinking—understood what was wrong. “Fool boy! Where’s your mask?”

“You can’t make me wear it!” Isaac cried.

Ort flung out an arm to silence the boy, fingers spidering over the little mouth. He wrenched him into a hedge and hoarsely said, “Now you listen. This is my last day. I was in no mind to go, but the mayor begged and begged. Said I was the only one for the job, best of the best. You should be honoured.  Anyway, it’s not as if you’ve been gone long.”

The boy’s bottom lip trembled. Ort knew he’d let his temper get the better of him, but he’d spoken the truth: young Isaac still had the look. His skin was still a shade too peachy and the eyes were dull with a certain listlessness. The ‘unlight of unfulfillment,’ as he liked to say. Yes, this half-boy’s only saving graces were the two extra fingers on his right hand and the birthmark in the shape of a beetle beneath the dark fringe.

“Why do I have to wear it?” More sobbing.  

“Isaac.” Ort’s throat rattled. “You remember when you were found? How do you think we got there in the first place? Could your deliverers have just waltzed into that playground without masks, do you think? So just put it on and things will go a lot smoother.” Under his breath he added, “And I can get back to my books.”

The boy finally put on his mask and Ort breathed a sigh of relief. It was a shield-shape painted sunny yellow and tied at the back with black string. The eye and mouth slits were crescents or sickles, the former downturned, the latter upturned. It was much like his own—that was the point. They would’ve looked like Muse masks except not one that had ever been produced looked sad. The mask hid Isaac’s beetle birthmark well, but there was still the matter of the fingers. He’d forgotten gloves but decided it wouldn’t matter so long as the child kept his hands in his pockets.

“If I’m still like them,” Isaac said, voice slightly muffled now, “why do I need to wear a mask at all?”

“Clever, aren’t you? Let’s go.”

Ort’s neck telescoped out from the corner of the hedge, trousers riding up his hairy stilt-like legs. The street was vacant, but they’d have to move quick. Making their way back on to the pavement, he unfolded the map. Ten minutes later he’d got no further; it was either outdated or someone had got something seriously wrong. Where they stood didn’t seem to correspond at all with where they needed to go. The obscuring mask didn’t help, nor did the sweat running down his back in the summer sun. They walked for some time, following the street signs, backtracking, retaking this route and that, until they were utterly dumfounded. The fact it all looked the same, had the same curious orderliness, made their failure even more acute.

“I guarantee you, kid, I would’ve found this house in an instant if that damned mayor had only sent me to Brightview or Merry Grove. You don’t know it?”

The boy looked around, scratched his head, tugged at his mask. “No, sir.”

“Well, we can’t leave until we find her. And stop pulling at that!”

At that moment, something visible around his eyeholes caught Ort’s attention. Curtains shifted in the upper story of a detached house. He groaned and led the boy by the arm until they were well out of sight, coming to a stop under a lamppost. They sat down and he tried to refigure their location on the map. Meanwhile, Isaac, squatting over the pavement, picked up a stick and tried to play it like a flute. “Will you pay attention?” Ort breathed. “Sometimes I don’t know why we bother. Do you have to make my last day as annoying as possible, boy?”

“Yes.” Isaac giggled and blew a little weoo-whoo on his flute. When he saw the look on Ort’s face, he quickly added, “Sorry. I won’t do it again.”

#

Hwo-weee.

“Four down, three across… 14 Plain Drive.”

Weeoo. Whrooo.

Ort crushed the map in his bony fingers. “I’ve a mind to send you back if you don’t knock that off!”

Can we go back?” asked Isaac. “We’ve been here for hours.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to Othertown.” Ort wished the boy could see his grin. “No, we can’t, not yet. And that’s final!”

A braying, barking sound smothered Ort’s last word. He unravelled, spun to his feet, tugged the boy close and held him. An old man in a tweed flat cap was coming down the pavement with a terrier by his side. “Don’t make any sudden movements,” he whispered. “Do not take off your—”

Wroo-wroof, Isaac played, and the elder was upon them, the dog pulling its master along by the leash toward the flute music. The old man’s wrinkled face peered down at the boy who wavered, dropped the stick, thrust his hands into his pockets in the nick of time.

“Know any of the old tunes, lad?” The old man wheezed. He smiled gummily. “Nutcracker?”

“No, sir.”

“What’s that? You’ll have to speak up.”

The terrier grabbed at the stick, caught it between its jaws. Ort cursed inwardly as the boy went down to wrestle for it and his mask was knocked. It came a little loose and the elder’s wrinkles slackened momentarily, something giving him pause. A light of recognition in the eyes but faint.

 “Months ‘till Halloween!” the old man said, finally reigning in his dog.

“No, sir. It’s for the birthday party, sir.”

“Party, eh?” He whacked the dog on its side with his cane. “You must mean little Caroline’s.”

“That’s her.” Isaac glanced Ort’s way. “You—you wouldn’t happen to know, um, 14 Plain Drive?”

“Why, of course!”

The senior gave directions, pointing away south with his cane, and Ort quickly realised his mistake. He thanked the man, not a little begrudgingly, though he was relieved now that he knew where he’d gone wrong. It was strange, however, when the senior addressed Isaac instead of the adult next to him. Every time he opened his mouth, the stranger nodded as if the boy had spoken instead. Then they were saying farewell, watching after the man and his dog. When at last they disappeared round a bend, Ort deflated his lungs. The boy kicked dust over his broken flute.

“Not so useless after all.” Ort admitted.

“But what about my instrument?” Isaac muttered.

“Forget about it. I’ll have Creake carve you up one of his special flutes. It’ll make the sound of beetle’s wings. What do you think of that?”

#

Five, six doors down, a perfectly formed line of gift-bearers backed up from No. 14 to the pavement, party balloons and bow-tied boxes in their hands. Affixed to the house itself, a banner which read: Eleven today! Ort groaned as he drew nearer, forced himself to confront the babbling of guests and the bright chinking of glasses and plates arising from the back garden. One last job, he told himself, one lost job, then I can retire.

“This is it now, Isaac,” he said through his teeth. “The last thing we want is to give ourselves away.” He gave a momentary shudder. “When we’re trapped in a box.”

The boy didn’t respond. He looked positively dour as they approached, kept murmuring about his flute. But he could see something more vital was on Isaac’s mind, something closer to home, as it were. When Ort realised this might be easier than expected, he quickened his steps. If the boy were to follow what Ort said, what Ort did, Master Ort of the Thousand Liberations, give neither a peep nor a hoot—if he could do that, then all might go according to plan. He reached into his pocket to make sure the black box wrapped with red velvet was still there.  Then he adjusted his mask to make sure it fit squarely, spat in his palm, slicked back hyphal strands of hair.

He got in the queue and instantly shrank a few centimetres. He’d always been freakishly tall, but the ancient couple in front made him feel like a giant, so he bent his knees awkwardly, painfully. With any luck, they’d not have to wait long. Sure enough, they were sixth in line, third in a couple minutes, second a moment later. He gave the boy a once-over, saw that his mask was slightly askew, fixed it for him. It still looked off: with his head tilted, Isaac looked sad no matter how wide the smile. “Stand up straight. Don’t sulk. Isaac, I said don’t—”

“Afternoon, neighbours!” the man with rosy cheeks and cream sweater said. “Nice to see some new faces. You must be the, uh, Johnsons? Moved in just a few days back? Glad you got our card. No, no, please, go right on ahead.”

As Ort was ushered in, he twisted just in time to glimpse a family of three beaming at their host. Isaac stood with them, a little apart from him. Amid the loudening chatter he heard Caroline’s father joke about the sherry and the lack of it for the kids. It wasn’t clear whether he addressed Isaac, the fair-haired boy beside him, or both. An instant later he was ducking the lintel into the hall.

“The sooner we find her,” he whispered to Isaac as he separated, trying not to think about what just happened, “the sooner we can leave.”

What had they said, the Council? This time descriptions had been scant, for folks were scant that winter too, and they couldn’t afford to send reconnaissance. This time everything had had to come from the call itself. She’d sent a rook; it had been seen cawing over the pines. Black hair then, he supposed. And she was young, but how young? He remembered the banner. Eleven. Old enough to put up a fight if it came to it. He hoped and prayed she would not change her mind. Things never went well when they did that.

They proceeded stiffly down the hall trying to avoid the loiterers in the doorways, in circles about the tables arrayed with food and drink. Without a doubt this was one of the biggest parties he’d ever attended. Only the Williamson’s compared—the Wormwood’s, he corrected. The most of them were huddled in the open conservatory, beyond which he could just see the fake-green grass of the lawn, a paddling pool, a bouncy castle half inflated.

Isaac pushed on ahead. Ort tried to follow but, to his amazement, the gap which formed in the ranks of the adults closed over again like a healed wound, leaving him stranded, midstride, on the other side. He waited and the summery gaze of Isaac’s mask appeared at the guests’ ankles. Isaac shrugged. Another group sandwiched Ort in so that he was stuck. Eventually he managed to find a way around them, hugging the wall and squeezing through a narrow space only he could’ve squeezed through. “Insolents,” he cursed, catching up with the boy. “Bloody insolents.”

Ort’s mask was stifling as they entered the conservatory, rather a greenhouse, its glass shimmering. They nudged and bumped their way through the prattling lot, the tables laden with party treats, poppers, paper plates. Outside in the garden, they found a secluded spot by the fence where they swiftly readjusted their masks, fanned themselves. Then they just stood, watching, waiting. Two happy faces on suited frames.

“Your old folks ever throw a party like this, kid?” Ort’s voice was terse. He kept himself flat against the wood panels, his head overtopping the fence.

The boy was quiet now, quieter than he’d ever been. “No, sir. What about you, sir?”

“I never knew my parents.”

Isaac shifted uncomfortably.

“We’ll be out of here in no time,” Ort said. “Don’t worry.”

#

Ort gritted his teeth: twenty minutes of good reading time he’d never make up. The girl had not made it easy for him. When he found her peeking out from the foliage at the other end of the garden, revealing her own hiding spot, Ort knew the rook had cawed truly.

He’d waited and waited, the summer sun and the inane gossip, the racket of troublemaking children beating down on him. Isaac had fidgeted, once or twice lifted a hand to scratch under his mask. Then all had gone quiet and the parents, rosy-cheeked and radiant, slid across the artificial green with the birthday cake, candles arranged in two rows stuck in the icing. Caroline stepped furtively out from the protecting leaves with a hand over her brow, under shoulder-length black hair parted in the middle. It looked wet, plastered as it was to her head. She wore glasses on a slightly crooked nose, an oversize grey knit sweater, dark jeans.

Everyone gathered round the cake-cutting table. Photos were taken, hugs given, gifts exchanged. Hip-hip-hooray! Hip-hip-hooray! She whacked a piñata, threw some darts, ate a little cake. All the while, she looked to the shady spot from which she’d come. Something about her, perhaps the shadows patching her eyes, reminded him of Miss Thornweep before she was Miss Thornweep, however long ago that had been. She reminded him of a seed head blown any which way by the wind.

“What do we do now, sir?” a voice said, somewhat plaintive.

Ort jumped. “Ah. Isaac.” He followed Caroline’s movements as he spoke.  “Right, no more time wasting. Here’s what you’re—”

“Me?”

“Yes. Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to approach her, tell her who we are. Then she’ll have a choice to make. If the call was right, she’ll understand. Tell her to wait with you if she can. In the meantime, I’ll try to find a way out, easiest escape route, things to throw to cover our backs. Just like when we took you. Got it?”

“Ort? What if she doesn’t want to go?”

Caroline was a black doll in the sun. She had her head half turned to her retreat.  “She will. Now go and earn your name, Beetlebrow.”

The boy darted out. As he threaded his way across the yard, Ort sucked air, his cheekbones and outthrust jaw edged like knives. This was it. Isaac moved swiftly, deftly through the ranks of adults. It was not them Ort was worried about—it was the kids. Five of them huddled around an older boy who concealed something from them in his palms. With Ort’s other eye he watched Caroline make her way slowly from another group to the far end of the garden. Isaac had only to pass the six, come behind the bouncy castle, a field of strewn toys, and he’d make it. Thankfully the boy had revealed his secret, the children were captivated. The castle was another matter: someone was bound to call to Isaac. No—he’d managed to skirt round it on his hands and knees. He vanished for a moment, reappeared at the opposite end. Things were going well. Now for the last stretch, the—

“What’s wrong with your fingers!”

“What? Tommie. Shut up.”

“No, you idiot—look!”

Ort’s blood went cold. Where had these brats come from? How many minutes, how many hours would this cost him? Why couldn’t they just let him go home?

Isaac brushed himself down, thrust his hands behind his back. Nearby, an adult laughed a grating laugh. A party tune started, a repetition of beats safe and bland. The sun came out from behind a cloud. Ort nearly chipped a tooth coarsely urging the boy onward, wishing he’d ditch the interlopers. But they’d not let him go. They tried to catch a glimpse from behind, so he spun round, spun round again. The music loudened. Finally, Isaac managed to distance himself from them. But Caroline—where was Caroline?

An ache throbbed in Ort’s brain, a line of sweat tickled his cheek. His eye twitched as images flashed in series, of interrupted peace, of measured breathing exercises. The ones recommended by his therapist before the change of name and change of place. He tried those techniques now. He must’ve forgotten how to do it because it didn’t work. There was that laugh again. The inane drum and clap. His strained gaze fell on someone who looked a lot like Mr. Addison, a man he’d never forgotten, a man from before, with the same ridiculously smug and carefree grin.

“One last job! Damn it!” He reached for the closest object. The stone whistled and cracked glass.

All heads turned in unison toward Ort; they seemed to look past him rather than at him. Then he understood, realised why they’d all ignored him, why they’d not moved aside. Yes, it had been long since he had been taken, longer than he could remember, and, yes, there had been rumours about those who held greatest tenure in Othertown but had not retired from rescuing. Few had ever got to that stage and mysterious circumstances wrapped round those who did. More than the idiot smiles, the ignorance and obliviousness of Caroline’s inner plight, this was what unhinged him. He threw the pointless mask to the ground and grinned a thin-lipped grin. Could he really be invisible?

Vaguely, he was aware of someone moving near the boy. That Isaac had won over to the girl, that a wondering, mischievous smile now grew on her pale face, was an inconsequential side-effect of his rage. Before he lost his mind, he did think that her being able to see him was sign enough that the old rook’s message was hers indeed. But he cared nothing for all that now. They were black dots in the red. He had havoc to raise, payback for a thousand intrusions.

It started off harmless enough. He upended a table, knocked a few bottles. Everyone froze stiff, even the kids bouncing on the bouncy castle. Murmurs quickly developed into frightened accusations of a ghostly overtaking. Well, he’d make the acts of a poltergeist look like cheap tricks; he’d turn their pampered, untroubled lives upside down, bring the dark magic twists of Othertown upon them. He clambered over fallen chairs to reach a pearl-earringed woman, whispered what the worms said when they lowered the coffins. Into another ear he breathed a line from a certain ebony book and the listener fell away in a faint. Then he grabbed the baseball bat which they’d used for the piñata and beat Addison’s shins with it.

Caroline burst out laughing. Isaac’s face was a smeared picture of astonishment and worry.

“Caroline!” a voice cried. It was her mother, distraught, reproachful.

Something about that screeching made Ort stop dead his onslaught. Coolly, he relinquished the bat. He found a champagne bottle, drained it mockingly, smashed it against a wall. As he advanced toward the unwitting mother with the jagged weapon, held it high to strike, a bearded face replaced the made-up face. Caroline stopped laughing.

“Call an ambulance!” someone shouted. “Call the police!”

Bits of glass lodged in the flesh. Ort kept striking, kept swiping. For his books and for the ones who would never be found. By the time he stopped the man was neither smiling nor grimacing—when he dropped the sharded bottle there was no mouth at all. Exhausted, he sat down and reached into his back pocket. The wailing of sirens came to his addled mind, followed by a cracking sound as someone smashed the back of his head with something. He reeled in white agony at what he absurdly thought had been an impressively lucky blow. There he lay for an interminable space, the taste of blood in his mouth, the sound of fear music to his ears.

“Ort…” Isaac’s tearful voice was small beside him. “Ort, no.”

“I’m sorry, kid.” He coughed. He slid Isaac the black box with the red velvet wrapping. “Take this and run. It’s her contract, her name letter… You’ve earned your name.”

Time passed. The garden dimmed. The sirens silenced after a while, but the partyers still cried. He hoped by now Beetlebrow and the new girl were out of harm’s way. With any luck they’d be at the bridge which led to the forest and beyond that, the iron gates.

Just before he died, he heard a rook caw thrice.





Taylor is a Scottish writer with a background in wildlife ecology. His stories are psychological in nature, dealing with outsiders and the myriad ways humans can be harmful to each other and to the environment. He reviews books on his YouTube channel Oldenword Books and he can be found on Twitter as @Sepulchrave4.




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