Black Petals Issue #103, Spring, 2023

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Editor's Page
BP Artists and Illustrators
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
All the Sky Is Waiting to Be Told: Fiction by Daniel I. Clark
Fire Sale: Fiction by Christopher Pate
Kregah: Fiction by Ron Capshaw
The Beauty of Machinery: Fiction by Hayden Seay
The Cold Sore: Fiction by Chris McGuinness
The Lake: Fiction by Harper Hargis
The Price: Fiction by Josh Hanson
The Tailbone Is Connected to the Hipbone: Fiction by Michael Fowler
The Thorn Tree: Fiction by Lawrence Buentello
They: Fiction by Tony Ayers
Work Experience: Fiction by Martin Taulbut
Burns: 3 Connected Drabbles by Hillary Lyon
Grandma Medusa: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
I'm So Sorry, Computer: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Invasive: Flash Fiction by Paul Radcliffe
Jumper: Flash Fiction by Kurt Hohmann
Personal Things: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
The Good Doctor: Flash Fiction by Ron Capshaw
Another Tomato Invasion, Again: Poem by I. N. Shimabuku
Curse of the Crazies: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Ghosted: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Meteor Moon: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Halo Around the Sun: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Maker's Image: Poem by Bindi Lavelle
Specimen: Poem by Bindi Lavelle
Blood-stained Jupiter: Poem by Meg Smith
Cat Science: Poem by Meg Smith
Mortician's Powder: Poem by Meg Smith
The Pinups of the Afterlife: Poem by Meg Smith
Dark Gate Park: Poem by Meg Smith
A turntable fabricates hope during the apocalypse in 3 parts: Poem by Dennis Bagwell
Reverend Mother Munchausen: Poem by Sophia Wiseman-Rose
Whispers of Winter: Poem by Ashley N. Goodwin
A Man Is Nothing Without His Wife: Poem by Ashley N. Goodwin

Josh Hanson: The Price

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Art by Darren Blanch 2023

The Price

 

Josh Hanson

 

By the time Cameron Tate finally found the woman he was seeking, the night was already bleeding into early morning. The sky above the buildings wasn’t yet lightening, but it held that blue-gray, broken television buzz that merely promised sunrise. It was out of this false light and into the shadow of a narrow staircase that Tate followed the woman. The stairway led up from a narrow doorway sitting unnoticed between two downtown businesses in one of the old brick buildings that lined the block, with commercial space on the ground floor and lines of windows up above that might be apartments or office space or just storage. The kind of space that no one thought about, even when they noticed the high windows. It was as if the doorway led Tate into a part of the old town that hadn’t previously existed.

At the top of the long flight, the woman turned a switch, lighting up a hallway with fixtures set in the walls behind curved amber glass. The carpet was almost black with filth, the pattern only just visible at the edges: a winding vine that might once have been gold against a red background. The walls were dark wood, and the high ceiling was made of ornately decorated tin panels that had been caked in a century’s worth of white paint, giving it an almost stone-like facade.

The woman moved to the right along the hallway, passing several doors set in dark wood frames with transom windows of green glass set above them. None of them gave any indication of what might lie beyond.

The woman didn’t rush. She walked calmly down the long hallway. Her age was hard to determine, in part because her hair was piled up beneath a black kerchief and in part because her clothing didn’t quite correspond to any particular generation. She wore a full skirt of dull black fabric, a red satin blouse with billowing sleeves, and a tight-fitting vest covered in tiny black-red beadwork. The face that peered out from beneath the kerchief was dark and angular, full-browed, with a mouth that either smiled or sneered, Tate couldn’t quite decide. She said little. Had said little since he’d found her and pushed the coin into her hand. She’d simply looked at it, looked at him, looking a question with her raised eyebrows.

“I want to see,” he’d told her, and she’d closed her long fingers over the gold coin with its alien markings, tightened the knot of her kerchief, and waved him to follow.

Now she was standing before the door at the end of the hall. It looked like all the other doors. Tate looked up at the narrow transom window above, at its dusty green glass, hoping to get some sense of what might lie beyond, but the room on the other side of the door appeared dark.

The woman produced a key from somewhere and fit it into the door, turned it, and Tate heard the lock shift open. It sounded heavy, reverberant in the empty hallway, like the shifting of a heavy stone. The woman stepped back.

“I’ll return in an hour,” she said, and Tate thought he heard the faint hint of an accent in the last word, an extension of the word into at least two syllables, still undefinable. She walked away, back down the hall at her regular, unhurried pace.

Tate looked at the door, studied the unremarkable door handle. Three months to reach this doorway. Three months of travel, of investigation, of awkward conversations across dirty barroom tables. Three months and great expense. He took a moment to gather himself, silently speaking a reminder that the woman could have cheated him, led him to this doorway and vanished with the strange coin he’d bartered for in the back room of a truck stop bar off Interstate 80. But he didn’t believe that. He could sense something on the other side of the door. It was waiting for him, perhaps awakened by the hollow sound of the lock turning, but alert now, listening.

He turned the door handle and pushed it open.

The room was dark, but he could sense its size. A line of six windows were just visible maybe twenty feet away, but they were either papered over or maybe soaped, the light from the street below barely seeping through. And shadowy shapes hulked between the doorway and those windows.

Tate reached his hand in, feeling along the wall for the light switch.

“Leave it,” a voice said. A woman’s voice, but deep, husky. “There’s a candle just ahead. Light that and shut the door.”

Tate stepped in, his hands before him, feeling in the dark. The light from the hall illuminated nothing beyond the first foot or so inside the room. His foot bumped something, and there was a low note of furniture sliding on the wood floor. He reached down, felt the small wooden table, the candle in its holder, the box of matches.

He struck the match, and that was the first glimpse. She stood near the center of the room, tall, imperious, haloed by the weak window light. In the match flame he only caught the shape, the impression, and the reflection of the flame in the two eyes, beneath the tangle of black hair. He lit the candle and shook out the match, setting it on the table. He lifted the candle, eager, but then the voice came again.

“The door.”

He turned, looking over his shoulder. The dim hallway stretched seemingly forever, back toward the street, toward the past, toward the life that had been his before this moment, when he was another man, a lesser man. He smiled, and swung the door shut. It swung smoothly, latching easily, sealing off the room.

Tate raised the candle up to shoulder height, stepping around the little table, and entered the room.

The candlelight didn’t offer much more than the match, but it was enough. She was magnificent. Her head of black hair hung down, shadowing her face and curling down over her shoulders. She was naked, her long torso pale white in the candle’s glow, her breasts heavy. Her arms were long-boned, elegant, moving in slow undulations like kelp waving beneath the surface of the sea. The hands were wide, long-fingered, slightly webbed, ending in what appeared to be less nails than slightly curving claws, greenish black and shining.

This would have been enough, this glimpse of the dark and beautiful creature, the acknowledgment that those months of searching were not in vain, but what lay beneath her waist made him stop, catch his breath, hold the candle slightly before him.

From the waist down, she was a twisting mass of limbs. Arms, legs, writhing tentacles, hooked claws and segmented feelers. All of it made up a roiling mass that stood some six feet above the floor, her torso and head resting above it all, her dark hair nearly brushing the high ceiling. She was monstrous and beautiful, a nightmare crawled up from the very bottom of the sea, set before him here, in this upstairs room, swaying gently and casting wild shadows on the ceiling.

“Give your name, traveler.” That voice. So human. So resonant. He could feel it in the space just beneath his sternum.

“A name is a powerful talisman,” he said. “One not revealed so lightly.”

She chuckled, and the mass of limbs seemed to shift, a sense of opening, of relaxation.

“Do you think I wish to imprison you here, traveler?”

“I wouldn’t begin to guess your intentions toward me, madam. I should think myself mostly beneath your notice, but I have searched you out over many thousand miles. One might say, I’ve been searching for you all of my life. I’d not want to make a casual error now. You understand, I’m sure.”

The chuckle again, and her arms raised slightly at her side, the wrists loose, the clawed fingers trailing lightly behind. He didn’t know if the movements were for his benefit or hers, but he was mesmerized.

“What do you want, traveler?”

“A story,” he said.

The smooth swaying of her body ceased, and he felt her eyes peering down at him from high atop her monstrous body.

“The price you paid got you inside my door, traveler. Surely you don’t think it also entitles you to a story?”

“Of course not,” he said, bowing his head before her, holding the candle up. “Name your price. I am prepared to pay it.”

“Mmmmmmm.” She seemed to consider. “You ought not offer to pay before you hear the price.”

“I say again that I am willing to pay. A lifetime has brought me to this place.”

“Are you a seeker of knowledge or a seeker of power, traveler?”

“They are one and the same, madam. I have built an empire on forbidden knowledge. My empire offers me nearly limitless power. But I have marshaled all of that power only to bring me to you, seeking a story from your lips.”

“Very well. One story.” The writhing mass of her body seemed to relax and settle, her arms resting at her sides, no longer waving. “Set down the candle, traveler, and hear.”

Tate set the candle on the floor at his feet, and then he sat down cross-legged. The floor was rough wood plank. Looking up, she towered above him, a hulking silhouette at the top and a mass of feeling limbs that undulated in the light of the candle. He waited, knowing that the deal had been struck. She would begin soon.

“Once, some century ago now, there lived a wicked priest. He lived here, on the very edges of civilization, far from the watchful eye of his mother church, so he saw little reason to dissemble. He wore his wickedness openly, masked and protected only by his vestments, which was enough for the simple people of his congregation. He reveled in almost every kind of wickedness: the sins of the flesh, sins of avarice, sins against his very God. Very quickly he learned how wickedness begets wickedness, and the desire for sin only breeds deeper desires. It didn’t take long before he became much as you are, traveler, a seeker of forbidden knowledge. It was his way of striking back against God. His public face was that of a priest, but his true face was that of a sorcerer, a High Magus, wielder of great powers, and master of a small army of lesser creatures.”

“One day, his parishioners brought a young woman to him. They claimed that they had witnessed a miracle. The woman was pale, her gaze distant, focusing on nothing seen, her hair a tangle around her narrow face. She was wrapped in quilts, her bare feet white against the darkly polished floor of the church. A fisherman told him the tale.”

“A group of them were out fishing, just outside the mouth of the bay, when one saw something bobbing in the water. At first he thought it was a dolphin, though the waters were usually too cold for such. Then the shape sank below the water. Then it bobbed back up. The men all brought their boats around, and soon they could see that it was plainly a human shape. A woman, face down, hair wild around her. They pulled her up into a boat, lay her at the bottom. She was cold and still: quite obviously dead. But she was beautiful, her naked body unmarked by her time in the sea. She looked as if she might be simply sleeping. Finally, they covered her with a tarp and came back to shore.”

“But when they went to lift her out of the boat, she grasped a man by the hand, sat up, breathed a raspy breath. She appeared to be fine, though she would not respond, and it wasn’t clear if she was aware of her surroundings. All of the men swore that she had been dead. They had checked her pulse and breathing, had felt the cold skin. Was it not a miracle? The priest agreed that it sounded very much like a miracle, but said that he must question the girl before any pronouncement could be made. She was handed over to the sisters, who washed and dressed her and tried to feed her, though she would take no food.”

“She showed all the signs of life, but no awareness. No consciousness. One of the sisters, a wicked woman herself, and one who had often accompanied the priest on his exploits, believed that the cold water had kept her alive, but that her brain had suffered from lack of oxygen for too long. She was just a puppet now. A shell.”

“But the priest was less sure. He sensed something else about the girl. He had heard the men whisper about silkies and merfolk, and while their talk was mostly wives’ tales, he knew enough of the occult lore surrounding the sea, and surrounding that very bay, to know that there were strange things beneath the surface. He questioned the girl. He offered her food and wine. He stripped her bare, thinking to shame her into some response. But she only stared into the middle distance, as if studying something no one else could see.”

“The priest ordered the sisters to care for her, and he retreated to his library of unholy books. He read, searching every scrap of parchment, for eight days. During that time the girl did not eat or drink, and she did not sleep. She simply sat in a chair before a window, looking at nothing. On the eighth night, he found the key. The translations were rough, but he was able to discern enough to know what she was, and to know what he must do.”

“He had two of the sisters bring the girl to his rooms, and as they had done many times before, they set about performing their dark rituals. The wicked priest was impatient, bored of the black candles and the tired parading of the nuns’ naked bodies. This wasn’t theater. This was a doorway to true power. They laid the girl out on the floor, and the priest took a long piece of obsidian, half bound in leather straps, and he sliced open the girl’s belly. She still didn't react at all, and her breathing remained steady, regular, her eyes looking up through the ceiling at nothing. Even as he heaved her guts out onto the floor where they steamed and reeked, she breathed on. Using the stone knife, he cut away the organs, hollowing her out, and then finally he pushed his hand up under the ribs, reaching up to where her heart ought to have been, and he felt it. A stone, the size of his fist, warm and smooth. He pulled, and he could feel the tissue pull away from it, hear the snapping of gristle. It came out of her chest like a pulled tooth.”

“Outside of her, the stone was gray-green, glowing yellowish in the candlelight, and the sisters poured clean water over it, washing it clean. The priest stood above the now inert body of the girl, her eyes still staring as blankly as ever, but her breath stilled, and he held the stone in his two hands, lifted it up above his head. There was no doubt that it was an object of great power, and he was its master.”

“The girl was hastily buried in the churchyard, and soon the people ceased talking about the miracle. But the priest was changed. He withdrew from his daily duties, and he was seen at night, wandering along the jetty or creeping around the docks. His expression was strange, distant, and he carried a small bundle: something wrapped in black velvet, which he clutched to his chest. Some of his parishioners expressed concern, but the sisters assured them that the priest was on a spiritual journey. And so he was, though not of the type they claimed. The priest had been unable to find any way to wield the power of the stone, though its power was absolutely obvious. When he held it in his hands, it hummed, a song just below speech. He spent his days and nights listening to that hum, hoping to discern some word, some direction from the voice within the stone. When people met him in the street, they thought he was staring off into the distance, but in fact, his eyes were not focused at all. His full concentration was on the sound resonating between his hands.”

“Then one night in early December, as the priest was walking along the rocky beach, there was a sudden display of the Northern Lights, clearly visible. An unusual but certainly not unheard of event at that latitude, it nevertheless had a profound effect on the priest, who went suddenly still, his vision all but blank. The stone resonated strongly in the presence of the display, the voices clearer, more distinct, directing him. He walked blindly toward the lights, and the voice became images flashing across the insides of his eyes: a whole subterranean world mapped out beneath his feet, with carven passages and towering chambers lit with strange green light. As he stood on the beach, his limbs stiff and shaking, his eyes rolled back in his head, his mouth foaming, he saw other stones like the one he clutched in his hands. They rested on stone altars deep beneath the ground, and they hummed a low note, calling to him.”

“When the fit had ended, the priest returned to the church, and gathering his wicked sisters around him, he performed a new rite. He made an incision just below his sternum, using the obsidian knife. Two inches across, the cut was clean, and when the blood was wiped away, it was almost invisible. He then made another cut, perpendicular to the first, making a cross. The sisters wiped away the blood and washed the wound in fresh water. When the priest probed the wound with his fingers, it seemed unreal, this new passage into his body, this seeping orifice at his middle. He gave directions to the sisters, who unwrapped the stone, washed it, and handed it over to the priest. The opening was almost perfectly sized, but it still took a great deal of pressure to push the stone through, the edges of the cuts pulling painfully as he forced the stone in. When it passed through, it made a wet sucking sound, and then dark blood welled up.”

“The sisters worked quickly to clean and sew up the wound, and then the priest lay there for two days and nights, sweating and shaking, eyes unfocused, the edges of the wound white and puffy turning an angry red in the surrounding tissue. It was put out to his parishioners that the priest was ill.”

“On the third night, the priest got up from his bed, shambled out of the church like a sleepwalker, and wandered down to the docks. Several people saw him standing at the end of the pier, hands hanging loosely at his sides, staring out over the water, looking northward. And then he was gone. The fishermen pulled him out of the water the next morning, cold and lifeless. The sisters tended to his body, moving the funeral along quickly, and by the next day, he was buried in the churchyard.”

“Some claim that the sisters removed the stone from the priest’s body, that it was carried away, perhaps to be joined with others like it, but some say that the stone still rests in the priest’s ribcage, deep in the churchyard, humming, waiting for the next person who might hear its call. Whatever the fate of the stone, it was well-noted that the priest who arrived as replacement, a devout and holy man, sickened and died, as did the next, and the next. The following decade, a new church was built, further up into the town, and the old building was left to rot.”

There was a long pause, and the woman shifted, the many limbs of her body bristling and waving. Tate looked up to where the piercing eyes looked down from above.

“Thank you, madam. You honor me with your story.” He climbed to his feet.

“It is your story now, traveler. Use it well.”

“I shall.”

“And are you now ready to pay my price, traveler?”

“I am.”

“Good. Come closer.” The mass of appendages beckoned him in: hands reaching, hooked claws waving him forward.

Tate stepped forward, felt the hands clutching at his sleeves, unseen things hooked into his pants legs, felt himself pulled inexorably in, toward the towering mass of the mother of stories. He closed his eyes and felt himself lifted, drawn closer. A broad hand fell across his eyes, and another across his mouth. He didn’t struggle, but simply gave himself over to it. She was ancient and cruel, but she was fair, he knew. When the claws began to work through his shoulder joint, he screamed into the covering hand, but he didn’t fight.  The sound of popping sinew and snapping tendon seemed far away, muffled. He fell into the darkness, grateful and fulfilled.

 

 

Six months later, Tate received the call. They’d found something. He should come down.

He hurried down to the parking garage and into his car. Backing out of his space still took more concentration than he liked to admit. The prosthetic arm hung uselessly in his lap, and he had to crank the wheel around hard with his one good hand. But it was getting easier all the time. He put the car into gear and drove up to street level.

The site was a full city block, ringed in chain link, bulldozed and cleared, and the crews had been digging from corner to corner, following a strict grid and refilling the portions they’d excavated before moving on. There was a crowd gathered around the backhoe, near the northeastern side of the lot, and Tate hurried across the cleared ground to meet them.

Stugaard, the foreman, met him, led him to the site.

“We thought you’d want to see before we called anyone else.”

Tate stood at the edge of the pit and looked down. The coffin hadn’t so much been opened as it had simply disintegrated. One hundred and seventeen years in the damp ground. But the body was whole and intact, pale white like a grub, but the priest looked like he might be sleeping.

“Who else has been told?” Tate said, kneeling down at the pit’s edge.

“No one. I called you first thing.”

“Good. Good. Help me down?” Tate raised his one arm, and Stugaard took it with both hands, and soon Tate was down in the pit, straddling the pale body. The hands were folded neatly across the priest's chest, and Tate pulled them aside. The joints gave an audible creak, but they moved easily enough.

And there it was. The stitches had long since rotted away, but the wound was clear enough: a perfect cross, no more than two inches in either direction, just beneath the breastbone. The skin was smooth, dark earth settled down in the lines of the cuts.

Tate found that he had been holding his breath. So long he’d searched, and here it was. He reached out his fingers, brushed the wounds, hoping to feel some sign of the stone within, and that was when the priest gasped, seeming to startle, his eyelids clicking open. Tate looked down at the priest’s face. The lips parted slightly, and it appeared as if the man were enraptured, staring out through and beyond Tate, who hunched above him, out at some glorious vision, or perhaps as if he were listening to some far away music that no one else but he could hear.



Josh Hanson is a teacher and a graduate of University of Montana MFA program, and his previous work has appeared in such journals as Stoneboat, Dance Cry Dance Break, 42opus, Diagram, Gin Bender, H_ngm_n, No Tell Motel, and RealPoetik

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