Category Archives: Climatic fiction

Scout’s Honor

Monday, March 21

Monday morning Sully woke with a migraine. His mouth tasted like bilge water. His sight was clouded by blood in his eyes. He made a note to avoid returning to the Strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha, then forgot where he put the note.

He walked to the pay phone at the Eagle Café to call his boss at Port Angeles Parks and Recreation. He felt like a Sherpa humping a pack up the Himalayas, gasping for air. He listened to a five-minute lecture before learning he still had a job. Apparently, guarding a centuries-old graveyard where the dead were piled like cordwood didn’t appeal to many people even in the depressed economy of Port Angeles.

Hattie Malept served him his usual breakfast of poached eggs and dry toast.

“You look rough today,” she said.

“I feel like roadkill.”

“Too much fun on the weekend?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t describe it as fun,” Sully said. “More like perdition.” He opened the newspaper he had bought from the vending machine on the wharf.

Harry Wry sat down opposite Sully.

“Coffee?” Hattie asked.

Harry nodded and rubbed the gray stubble on his chin with his knuckles. “Looking for a job?” he asked Sully.

Sully nodded, swallowing.

“Don’t,” Harry said. He waited until Hattie was beyond earshot. “I got a job hauling cargo from Canada, no customs and no questions asked. I need a place to land it. Someplace quiet with no one looking late at night. Someplace like Tse-whit-zen,” he said, pronouncing each syllable like a separate word, drumming the Formica tabletop with a scarred forefinger. Tse. Whit. Zen.

Harry owned an aging schooner at anchor in the bay. He spent most of his time trying to keep her afloat. He was also Sully’s only friend.

Harry stole a piece of toast from Sully’s plate, took a bite, grimaced, and returned it to the plate. “I don’t know how you can eat burnt bread without butter. Tastes like a roof shingle.”

Sully took his fork and pushed the piece of toast off his plate and onto the table. He leaned forward and spoke in a hushed voice. “I’ve seen things. Things that couldn’t possibly be. At Tse-whit-zen. And something like a black hole. It knew my name, Harry.” He shook his head. “I’ve got to find another gig.”

He didn’t mention his ayahuasca vision. It would only mislead Harry into suspecting his experience at Tse-whit-zen was drug induced. Harry went there anyway.

“I’ve seen plenty of things like that, kid,” Harry said. “You just need to dry out for a while.”

“I wasn’t drinking. Not until after I saw it. I don’t think I can keep working there. Damn place is haunted.”

“Well, yeah, it’s a graveyard,” Harry said. “Every graveyard is haunted. Comes with the territory. Makes no difference. Ghosts can’t hurt you. Rattle a few chains, moan in the night. Child’s play.”

Harry had no appreciation for the more arcane aspects of existence.

“I didn’t think your boat would float, much less haul cargo,” Sully said. “What kind of cargo needs to be landed in the middle of the night?”

“The kind that pays well with no questions asked,” Harry said.

“How well?”

Harry wrote something on a paper napkin, turned it over, and slid it across the table to Sully.

“A bit dramatic,” Sully said before he read the napkin. “Holy shit!”

“Keep your voice down. We don’t want to draw attention.”

They had already drawn Hattie’s attention. She came with a coffee pot. “You sound excited,” she said to Sully. “Find a job?”

“What do I have to do?” Sully asked Harry when Hattie returned to her other customers.

“Something you’re very good at,” Harry said. “Nothing. Just look the other way. You can do it in your sleep. Mostly what you do anyway.”

Sully looked again at the underside of the napkin. “If you’re paying this much, it can’t be legal. What happens if we get caught?”

“What do you think? We go to jail. Look, we make a few runs, make a boatload of money, then sail away before anyone’s the wiser. We refit the old girl and sail someplace where we can live like kings the rest of our lives. I know places that aren’t even on the charts.”

“Hard time,” Sully said, frowning. “The big house. Plastic sporks. Institutional rape. It’s a big risk.”

“What do you have to lose?” Harry said, eyeing Sully’s eggs. “You live in a chicken coop floating in a cesspool. You spend your nights guarding a bunch of bones. And you’ve got the social life of a leper.”

“My freedom?” Sully said.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

“Don’t you dare break into song,” Sully threatened the back of Harry’s hand with his fork. “I swear, I’ll gig you like a toad.”

“Take a breath, man. Like I said, we do a few jobs, then get out. What could go wrong?”

“This is the part in cheap horror movies where the ditzy blond opens the door to the basement and the soundtrack turns ominous and everyone in the audience thinks ‘Don’t do it,’” Sully said.

“The blond always goes into the basement,” Harry said.

“Yeah. It’s in the script.”

“So you’re in?” Harry said.

“Sure,” Sully said.

“A few jobs and we’re gone,” Harry said. “Scout’s honor.”

Sully doubted Harry Wry was ever a Boy Scout.

On the way home, Sully saw Sprout ushering people into Riddlepit. It seemed an unlikely amount of activity for Shantytown before noon. He investigated.

“You having a wake?” he asked Sprout.

“A war council,” Sprout said. “The city council is making a move.”

“They’ve made moves before and nothing ever comes of it,” Sully said.

“It’s different this time,” Sprout said.

“Different? How?” Sully said.

“Rezoning,” Sprout said.

“Rezoning? What the hell does that have to do with anything? I thought we were outside the city’s jurisdiction. Harbor of refuge and all that.”

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Sprout said. “Something to do with our connection to the shore. From what I’ve heard, they claim anything that floats but can’t move on its own power is landfill, and landfill is under the city council’s jurisdiction.”

“Floating landfill?” Sully said. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

“They don’t elect city council members for their language skills,” Sprout said. “Or their reasoning.”

Sully changed the subject. “What happened with Dr. Rathskill?”

Sprout shook his head. “The usual. HP read his cards, then rolled her eyes. I didn’t understand a word of it. I drove him home and a bunch of dead birds fell on my car.”

“Birds?”

“Purple Martins. That’s what Rathskill said. I don’t know birds from tree toads.”

“They just fell out of the sky? Dead?”

“Dead as doornails,” Sprout said. “Bounced when they hit the ground. And they crunched when I drove over them.”

There was a rumbling sound in the distance. The sound registered subconsciously on Sully. He cocked his head without knowing he was trying to triangulate a sound he wasn’t even aware of. The sound grew in volume as the distance diminished. It rose above his horizon of consciousness.

A truck. It sounded like a truck. It took several more microseconds to recognize the incongruity of a truck in Shantytown.

Qwackers rumbled into view, a boatload of tourists with duck bodies. Sandy Crab was broadcasting on the PA system. “…a lumbermill.” His voice drifted away and returned. “…lucky you came in time…all be gone soon. Oh, look. It’s the dwarf I told you about.”

Sprout raised a single finger salute.

“Randy little bugger,” Sandy broadcast.

“I’ll show you randy,” Sprout muttered. He turned his back on the tourists, dropped his trousers, and bent over.

There were several audible gasps from the tourists and a few expletives. Sully saw one mother cover the eyes of her child.

Sandy Crab’s voice boomed across the water. “Howdy Doody, folks. You don’t see that every day.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Whistlepig: Contents

In mythology, the hero descends into the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends?

Whistlepig, a serialized fiction.

Preface
Blood dappling the dust, old bones dancing in the dark.

Chapter 1: Whakapohne
A hallucination audits an introductory class in Cultural Anthropology.

Chapter 2: The Skeleton Forest
Necromancy in the forest of the Makah.

Chapter 3: Schrödinger’s Rat
Quantum rat hunting is inherently paradoxical. 

Chapter 4: Darkness Rising
Shamans don’t advertise in the Peninsula Daily News.

Chapter 5: The Vine of Souls
Ayahuasca is also called the vine of the dead but that sounds unnecessarily ominous.

Chapter 6: Resurrection
A door answered by a dwarf in a kimono.

Chapter 7: The Hanged Man
Purple Martins rain from the sky.

Chapter 8: Nevermore
Rathskill had no compunction about lying to authority.

Chapter 9: Signs and Portents
Behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is

Chapter 10: Scout’s Honor
The blond always goes into the basement. It’s in the script.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Signs & Portents

Sunday, March 20

Sully returned home, stinging from Blavatsky’s cavalier dismissal. “Dr. Rathskill, I’m such a fan,” he mimicked. Sent packing like he was some delivery boy. Who was she, queen of Shantytown? It wasn’t his fault someone stuck a crow on her roof. Heknew exactly where he’d like to stick that crow.

He pulled a cracked coffee cup from the dirty dishes in the sink and filled it with cheap rum. He wasn’t a happy drunk. With each cupful, he dove deeper into resentment until there was no more rum and nothing left todo but go to church.

Sully had a complicated relationship with religion. He was fluid in his faith. His belief was genuine while it lasted but it didn’t last very long. He had attended services at almost every church in Port Angeles and devoutly believed in each congregation’s cockamamie theology for the length of the service, then gutted their beliefs on the church steps.

Sully’s father had been pastor at the Church of God with Signs Following, Tellico Plains, Tennessee. He died when a big timber rattler bit his hand during Sunday service. His older brother, Jerimiah, followed their father into the snake-handling ministry. Like their father, he was bitten several times before a copperhead killed him. Like their father, he refused medical treatment. Both believed the proof of their salvation was their ability to handle poisonous snakes without harm.

Sully never had the opportunity to ask his father whether death proved his lack of faith. His brother explained their father wasn’t fully possessed by the spirit when he picked up his last snake. It wasn’t the fault of his salvation, just his timing. Presumably, the same sort of circuitous logic applied to Jeremiah’s death. Their reasoning was as twisted as a snake devouring its own tail.

Attending church made him feel less lonely, less alone, at least for the length of the service, but he had to be careful which service he attended. He was banned from several Pentecostal churches. They had pinned photocopied pictures of him on bulletin boards for quick identification.

He settled on the strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha. It was on Highway 101, far enough out of town he probably hadn’t been there before. Since he usually attended church drunk, he couldn’t be sure.

The Strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha was an austere, whitewashed building as angular as a pitchfork. A few dozen rusted pickups and aging sedans were parked in the dirt lot beside the church. Sully parked facing the highway for a quick exit if needed. 

The service had already begun. Sully slipped unobtrusively into a back pew beside a dour woman with a young boy whose face was still flush from scrubbing.

“Brothers and sisters,” the preacher intoned from behind the pulpit, “we live in periloustimes, ungodly times. Mark my words, there is evil afoot.”

The preacher was a small, round man. He was sweating heavily as if he felt the fires of hell already near.

“We are the chosen of God, his elect, and the last. Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, the end times are upon us.” There was a rumbling assent among the 30 congregants. 

He read from an open Bible carried in one hand. “The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.”

He looked accusingly at the congregation over the top of his reading glasses. “Names written in the book of life from the foundation of the world. You can’t earn your salvation with good works. You can’t beg for forgiveness. You can’t cajole a righteous God. Weeping and gnashing of teeth won’t avail you. From the beginning of the world, your salvation or damnation was already determined. Nothing you can do about it.”

There were scattered amen and a hallelujah. The members of the Strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha were pretty sure their names were written in the book.

“We chosen few, we band of brothers, stand at the end of the world and face the rising beast,” the preacher said.

Sully was pretty sure the quotation was wrong.

“Make no mistake,” the preacher’s voice was rising, “we stand alone. And the darkness is coming.”

“Yes, Lord,” the woman beside him sang, her arms raised. “Sweet Jesus,” someone else cried.

Sully felt himself caught up in the rising emotion of the crowd. He felt himself swaying, his arms wrapped around himself like an autistic child. His head was spinning from the rum. He didn’t dare close his eyes.

“Signs and portents,” the preacher thundered. “Signs and portents. You’ve seen them, each of you. Things in the forest. Things that shouldn’t be there. Impossiblethings. Devilish things.”

The believers muttered assent and nodded their heads.

 “You,” the preacher pointed toward the other side of the church, “Jake Spinner. Tell us what you saw.”

Jake Spinner was thin and rough as a split-rail fence. “I don’t know,” he hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

“Tell us, Jake,” the preacher demanded.

“Go on, Jake. Tell us,” the congregation encouraged.

“I thought it was a man. Then I got a closer look and thought it was a horse. I saw it and then I didn’t. It was there and then it wasn’t. And then it was. Just like the bible verse.”

“The beast that was, and is not, and yet is,” the preacher confirmed. “Mary Ellen, tell us what you saw in your corn crib.”

Mary Ellen was less hesitant than Jake Spinner. She stood defiantly, arms akimbo. “One of my chickens laid an egg in the crib. It was all misshapen and piebald. I figured it was dead and was going to throw it out but when I went to pick it up, it started shaking and shivering. And then it cracked. And this thing crawled out. It looked like a snake but it had a face, like an old man’s face or a newborn,all wrinkled. It looked at me.”

The crowd gasped.

“I swear on the good book,” Mary Ellen continued, “it was…”

“Signs and portents,” the preacher thundered, wrenching back the congregation’s attention.“Mary Thatcher, tell us about your sister.”

The woman sitting beside Sully stood up tentatively. “She was a good woman but misled,” Mary began. People turned in their pews to look. “She died in Colorado.” She seemed to gain confidence and speed. “Her boyfriend drove her body halfway across the country in a cardboard box in the bed of a pickup truck. We buried her in the family plot by the south pasture. That was three years ago. I saw her yesterday dancing in the pasture, naked as the day she was born.”

There was a sharp breath drawn by the congregation. One old lady crossed herself, apparently confused.

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,” the preacher said, quoting from memory, “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” He held his bible over his heart like a shield. “There are devils dancing in our fields,” he thundered.

The congregation responded on cue, swaying on their feet, arms raised. “Jesus, protect us. Come to us, Lord. Hallelujah!”

“My sister wasn’t a devil,” Mary Thatcher said but only Sully and her child could hear her.

The preacher was now dancing across the stage, carrying his Bible aloft, lifting his knees high, sweating like a stoker. “Brothers and sisters, the day of judgement is upon us, the day of everlasting life or everlasting contempt, the day that was written in the book of life from the foundation of the world. The horsemen are loosed,” he shouted.

The crowd looked to Sully like a meadow of swaying salt grass. It was hard to focus. He found himself on his feet, hands aloft.

“Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears,” the preacher harangued. “The day of the Lord is at hand.”

“Sweet Fucking Jesus,” Sully shouted, gagged, then projectile vomited on the three rows in front of him.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Nevermore

Sunday-Monday, March 20-21

Sprout left him at the college. Rathskill was too tired to go home. He cleared the books from a space on his office floor large enough to sleep and rested his head on a copy of Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande by E.E. Evans-Pritchard.

In the morning he woke with a crick in his neck and a fading dream of a cypress swamp. The knees of cypress trees rose from the water like claws. Rafts of water lilies and duckweed floated on the surface. Spanish moss draped from tree limbs and hung in the air like mist. He could taste the humidity and the rot. The air clung to his skin like sweat.

He saw an arm rising from the murky water. Slowly, gracefully, it sank beneath the surface. Compelled, Rathskill stepped closer. His feet sunk in the wet muck. Each step made a sucking sound. At the water’s edge he looked down.

There was a boy beneath the surface. His face, framed by water plants, blanched by death, was still flecked with freckles. It was the boy buried above the Sail River. His expression looked restful, as if asleep.Then his eyes opened and Rathskill woke, gasping.

He showered in the school gym and cleaned his clothes best he could but the stains and the stink remained. In his office he sat staring at the computer. Email had accumulated since Thursday. There was an administrative notice that Parking Lot B would be repaved next month, questions from students, a book review requested by a publisher, newsletters from professional organizations, correspondence from colleagues, and six email from Dean Haskell, each more strident than the last.

Rathskill’s office at Peninsula Community College had once been a broom closet. It had been a generous space for a broom closet, less so for an office. Books were piled on the floor. There was only one other chair in the room, one he bought at a flea market and cut one leg shorter than the others. The chair tottered alarmingly. Students attending his office hours didn’t remain long.

The skeleton of a glaucous gull hung from the ceiling. He named it Nevermore. The bones were artfully strung together. It looked like the skeleton was in flight. The bird’s wings spanned the width of the office wall to wall. He claimed it was his memento mori, a reminder of life’s transience, but he secretly enjoyed the fact that Dean Haskell had to stoop when he entered the office. As a result, Dean Haskell rarely entered.

His office door opened without a knock. Dean Haskell entered and smacked his forehead against the gull’s beak. “Doctor Rathskill, I have asked you before to get rid of that dreadful thing. It is a safety hazard. It could put someone’s eye out.”

Dean Haskell was a precise man. He spoke precisely, dressed precisely, and avoided contractions. He expected events to follow a precise Newtonian trajectory—a predictable effect for every cause.

“Of course, Dean.I’ll see to it.” Rathskill had no compunction about lying to authority.

Dean Haskell removed the books and sat in the only other chair beside Rathskill’s. He leaned back. The chair wobbled precipitously. He gripped the arms of the chair with both hands. “And this chair…” he began but left the sentence incomplete.

“I came to talk about your cavalier attitude to your class schedule. We have a responsibility to our students, a sacred responsibility, to provide them with the best education possible. We can hardly educate them if we do not show up for class. Your continued absence…” He paused and wrinkled his nose. “What is that awful smell?”

“That would be me.” Rathskill looked down at his stained pants. “I haven’t been home yet to change.” He didn’t say how long he hadn’t been home.

Dean Haskell removed a pocket handkerchief and held it to his nose. “Yes. I received your voicemail. About the matter of your consult with the police. Your extra-curricular activities cannot interfere with the orderly conduct of your classes. It is intolerable. You are expected to teach class on time and, frankly, not smelling like a vagrant. You are skating on thin ice, Dr. Rathskill. Another such grievous violation of our academic code of conduct and you will be dismissed despite your reputation. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

 It was obvious the Dean didn’t expect an answer. Any answer would only superfluous, an additional irritant. “I get your drift,” Rathskill said.

The Dean stood and edged toward the door, his body stooped to avoid the gull’s beak, his voice muffled by the handkerchief. “One last thing. We have an alumni event in two weeks. Your attendance is mandatory. It is being billed as a hootenanny. Dress appropriately. And Doctor Rathskill, I expect your best behavior.”

He wondered how good his best behavior might be in two weeks.

The meds helped make his behavior more socially acceptable. They also made him less himself. He had stopped taking them sometime earlier. He couldn’t remember when exactly.

Dean Haskell slammed the door behind him. The glaucous gull swayed with the remembrance of flight. Rathskill picked up the phone.

His experience with Blavatsky had been interesting but unhelpful. He still didn’t know what had happened to him those three days. His only other option was as distasteful as card reading. He called the number on Detective Vanoy’s business card.

There was no answer. He was shunted to voicemail. “This is Rathskill. Call me. It’s urgent.”

A few minutes later his phone rang. Vanoy didn’t wait for Rathskill to speak. “What the hell happened to you?” It sounded like he was covering the phone with his hand to avoid being overheard. “I waited for you Friday morning. I even had the owner unlock your room. You were nowhere. Pissed me off. I waited two hours before coming home. If you got lucky with some chick you could’ve let me know. Common courtesy.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Rathskill said. “I don’t really know what it was like. The last thing I remember was laying on the bed still wearing my clothes. The next thing I was wandering down a dirt road on the reservation three days later.”

“You go on a bender, Doc?”

“How is that even possible? Like Chief Johnson said, the reservation is dry.”

“What’s left? A psychotic break?”

Rathskill said nothing. Vanoy couldn’t see him shrug. It had happened before.

 “What do you want me to do about it?” Vanoy said.

“Maybe you could ask a few discreet questions. See if anyoneon the reservation saw me this weekend.”

“And have Chief Johnson learn the expert I recommended is batshit crazy? I don’t think that would improve our credibility, Doc.”

“About Chief Johnson. You really think he’ll investigate the boy’s murder?”

“What are you talking about? Of course he will.”

“And possibly expose the tribe to the charge of necromancy? The press will crucify them. The public won’t forgive them. Maybe only one man’s guilty but the whole tribe will stand accused.”

“I’ve known Chief Johnson for years. He’s a good man. He’ll do what’s right.”

“Right for whom? The boy? The Makah?”

“Let it go, Doc. We’re no longer part of the investigation. It’s out of our hands now.”

“I can’t let it go. I still see that boy’s face when I close my eyes. I dreamed about him. Who was he, Detective? Where did he come from? What was his name?”

“His name was Tad Marc. He was abducted from Forks a week ago. Chief Johnson expects your full report by Wednesday. I suggest you focus on that.”

“Something happened to me on the reservation, Detective, something I can’t remember, but I know it was connected with the boy’s murder.” Rathskill hesitated, for the first time giving a name to the dead boy’s face. “Tad Marc’s murder. I can’t let it go.”

“You need professional help, Doc,” Vanoy said. “Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

It was probably too late already.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

The Hanged Man

Sunday, March 20

Blavatsky sat in a chair on the opposite side of a glass table. She shuffled a deck of brightly colored Tarot cards and laid four abreast on the table, the second face down and the third covering it.

Rathskill sat on a couch made of curved wood withoutcushions. It was an uncomfortable piece of art. Sprout scowled in the corner ofthe room, crouched on a three-legged stool that looked like a tractor seat.Sprout seemed to have developed an immediate antipathy for him. He couldn’t think of anything he’d done to offend the dwarf. Maybe his unwashed smell.

“I’m really not a believer in astrology or card reading,” Rathskill said.

“Neither am I, Doctor,” Blavatsky said. “Faith is irrelevant. I find the action of shuffling cards calms my mind and allows me to be more attentive to details. I suppose I could cast bones in the dirt or the read tea leaves but I like the symbolism of the Tarot, the nuance. And the colors,” she paused. “I like the colors.

“I believe, Doctor Rathskill, that every moment in time is an entirety.” Her hands caressed the pack of cards. “Cut it into a thousand pieces and each piece still reflects the whole. There’s no way to whittle it into smaller pieces. The cards don’t really predict the future, Doctor. They mirror the evolving moment.”

“Call me Simon, please.”

Sprout snickered. He was perched on a three-legged stool in the corner of the room.

“Simon. The cards in this simple spread represent past, present, and possible future. The buried card represents hidden forces influencing the present.”

The first card was a burning tower struck by lightning. A man and woman were falling to their deaths.

“Upheaval and catastrophe, misfortune, pride and judgment. It was traditionally associated with the Tower of Babel built to challenge heaven. It reflects failed social norms and conventions, maybe a disloyalty to yourself. Allegorically, the tower must be torn down before it can be rebuilt.”

The middle card was the Hanged Man suspended by one foot from a gallows made of living wood. There was a nimbus around the head of the man like the iconography of saints.

“Suspended between heaven and earth,” Blavatsky said, “like Odin, a sacrifice to himself. Inherent contradictions and opposites unresolved. The Hanged Man can’t free himself by his own efforts. He must surrender, sacrifice himself for something of greater value.”

She turned the card hidden beneath the Hanged Man. A dog and a wolf howled on the shore beneath a full moon. Something crawled from the dark water onto a trail that led between two towers toward the horizon.

“The Moon rules the world of shadows, intuition, and unborn souls. It is a place of dreams and imagination, strange passions, visons, and illusions. It is both the mother of life and the destroyer. It calls to our most ancient self still pulled by the rhythm of the tides.”

The last card pictured a skeleton in black armor riding a white charger with blood red eyes. Death carried a banner, a white rose on a field of black. A king’s body lay sprawled on the ground. A priest wearing a bishop’s mitre begged for mercy. A mother and child kneeled almost beneath the charger’s hooves.

“The final card reflects the evolution of past and present, the forces resolving toward a possible future. Death is a form of transformation, a liberation from the past. It represents the end of former things and the beginning of something new.”

“That’s all very poetic, Ms. Blavatsky,” Rathskill said, “but what happened to me? Why can’t I remember? What can’t I remember?”

“Give me your hand, please.”

She took his hand, turned it, palm upwards, and rested it in her own. He thought she was going to read his palm. What next, a séance?

She remained still, her head bowed, for so long he suspected she had fallen asleep. When she spoke, it was softly, in a voice utterly unlike her own. It seemed to come from the other side of the room.

Rathskill had spent time with aboriginal healers and brujos and shaman. He knew the bag of tricks used by the profession—ventriloquism, voice casting, extracting foreign objects from living bodies with sleight-of-hand. He had never seen it done so expertly.

“A room. An unfamiliar room. Dishes clattering. Smell of smoke.”

The Apocalypto Hotel was a few rooms for hire above Linda’s Woodfired Kitchen. When he and Vanoy had finished with Chief Johnson, it was too late to return to Port Angeles. They spent the night on the reservation.

“Darkness. The smell of earth…thick, damp, decay. Tinkling glass, like pebbles thrown against a window pane. A mist rising from the earth. A darkness made visible. It flows from the forest. Drawn to you. Drawn by you.”

He remembered going to sleep that night after eating pizza with Vanoy; nothing more.

“The cry of a night bird cut off abruptly. The ticking of a clock. A whispered name. Simon Magus.”

Rathskill caught his breath. Simon Magus was the pet name his mother had called him. Simon the Magician. Simon the Sorcerer. Simon the Apostate. No one else knew; no one living.

He tried to pull his hand back. Blavatsky held it in her grip. He suspected no matter how hard he pulled, her grip would be unrelenting.

“Bare feet on wooden stairs. The cold of night on your skin. The breeze whispering your name. Mist lapping your ankles, your thighs. Like a woman’s touch. Like your mother’s touch. Calling you. Enveloping you. Such longing! Such desperate need!”

He was unclear whether Blavatsky was describing his need or the mist personified.

“Empty streets. Dark houses. The ground rising toward the forest and a full moon.”

Hadn’t there been a partial moon the last few days? A gibbous moon, he was sure.

“A gathering darkness among the trees. Carried on the mist like an ebbing tide. Carried forward. Held in place at the edge of the woods. Staked to the ground like a goat. Struggling to escape.”

Blavatsky’s hand began to tremble.

“Resisting. Unbearable pain. Unable to scream. Blood and bone and cells interrogated. Memories flayed like skin, layer after layer. Stripped naked to the bone.”

Blavatsky rocked as if struck, her head thrown back. Her eyes were open but entirely white, the pupils rolled back in her head. She pulled her hand away reflexively. Immediately, Sprout was beside her, cradling her head in his arms.

“What the hell,” Rathskill said.

“Enough,” Sprout said. “She won’t be able to tell you anything more.”

“Is she alright? She looks comatose.”

“She will be. She’ll sleep for a few hours.”

“I don’t understand,” Rathskill said. “What does it mean? I still don’t remember.”

“Don’t ask me. I’m not the psychic. I just clean up afterward.”

Sprout carried Blavatsky upstairs to bed. He was surprisingly strong for a dwarf, Rathskill thought, and then reminded himself he had little data for comparison. Afterward, Sprout offered to drive him back to the college. Probably to get rid of him, Rathskill thought.

Sprout drove a Ford Pinto that was a Frankenstein mismatch of body parts, paint, and primer. It was only a few miles to the campus. (Nothing in Port Angeles was very far from anything else.) Sprout didn’t say much and Rathskill wasn’t interested in casual conversation. He was exhausted. As much emotional as physical, he suspected. And worried. Was the three-day lapse in consciousness indicative of a new episode of psychosis?

They sat silently waiting for the traffic light to change at the corner of Race Street and Lauridsen. Something crashed onto the hood of the Pinto. They both jumped in their seats, constrained by their safety belts.

“Jesus Jumping Christ,” Sprout said. “What was that?”

Rathskill looked closely. “A purple martin, I think.”

“A bird? A dead bird fell on my car?”

Something pounded on the roof of the car. Sprout unbuckled his safety belt and reached for the door handle.

“I wouldn’t,” Rathskill said. “Not just yet.”

Sprout gave him an acid look. “And why wouldn’t you?” He shook his head. “Never mind.”

As Sprout opened the door, dead birds pummeled the car. They bounced off the hood and windshield and hammered against the roof. It was raining dead birds. They fell thick as hail for less than a minute. Then there was silence. Dead martins littered the street but only the pavement immediately surrounding the car. They lay where they fell, without a twitch, stone dead.

Sprout sat behind the wheel. One of the dead martins lay in his lap. He had the look of a person who had just spanned the negative and positive poles of a battery.

“Light’s green,” Rathskill said.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Resurrection

Sunday, March 20

He stood in the middle of a dirt road surrounded by magnificent trees. He had no memory of how long he stood there or how he arrived. His clothes felt crusty, his pants stained, and there was mud dried on his shoes.

He was staring at his hands. They seemed like a stranger’s hands, like an old man’s hands. When had he become so wrinkled? His skin looked like parchment from the Qumran Caves.

An old van rounded a bend in the road and skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust and blue smoke. A Dodge Tradesman. The bumper was only a few feet away. He didn’t feel startled. He didn’t feel anything.

The driver leaned across the cab androlled down the passenger window manually. His mustache drooped and his lankhair was tied in a ponytail. He waved the dust away from his face. “Need aride?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Where you going?”

It was like reaching for something familiar—a coffee cup he had casually set aside the moment before—but his hand closed on emptiness. “I’m not sure.”

His memories felt like ghosts fleering at the edge of recognition, fading when he turned to look. It was a vaguely familiar feeling. Where had he come from? How had he gotten there? What had happened to him?

“Man, you seem lost. What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Never mind. Get in.” He pushed the passenger door open. Rusted hinges screeched. “I’ll drop you off in town. Name’s Sully, Sully Marlybone.”

He climbed into the passenger seat and pulled the door shut. It sounded like tortured cats. Was that a repressed memory? Had he ever heard cats tortured? Had he ever tortured them himself?

“You look like you’ve been gardening in a business suit,” Sully said.

He looked at his hands, at the dirt under his fingernails. He was wearing a tweed sports coat with elbow patches, gray slacks and dress shoes. He fumbled to attach the seat belt until he realized there was no attachment.

“Been meaning to get that fixed. Keeps slipping my mind. What’s your name?”

It was there, just beyond reach, familiar and well-worn like the handle of an old tool, but he couldn’t lay his hand on it. “I don’t know.”

“Man, that’s messed up. Must have been a righteous drunk. Getting drunk on an Indian reservation requires some talent. You still got your wallet? Maybe some ID?”

He reached into his breast pocket. He read from the Washington state driver’s license. “Simon Rathskill.” Of course. He was Simon Rathskill. How could he be otherwise?

“What’s your address?” Sully said.

Rathskill read from his license. “3129 Crescent Beach Road. It’s near Salt Creek.” It was like an early morning fog dissipating. The landscape of his life was there again, emerging into the light, surrounding him with familiar landmarks.

“I know Salt Creek,” Sully said. “It’s on the way. I’m headed for Port Angeles. I’ll drop you off.”

“I teach at Peninsula College,” Rathskill said proudly as if he’d just found an Indian head nickel on the sidewalk. “I have a doctorate. Several.”

“What’s a college professor from Port Angeles doing on a dirt road in Neah Bay in his work clothes? Same clothes you’ve been wearing for some time by the smell. No insult intended.” Sully rolled down the driver’s window.

“I was consulting for the Makah Tribal Police on an anthropological site.” He paused. “I’m an anthropologist.”

“Do the tribal police normally study anthropology? You’d think they would be more interested in crimes.”

“They dig things up, I guess.”

“What kind of things did they dig up that needed an anthropologist?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. I signed a confidentiality agreement,” Rathskill said.

“A gag order? So, if I understand this, you’re an academic hired by the tribal police to consult on a secret dig who finds himself wandering on a forest road with no idea how he got there or why? That sound right?”

“It sounds accurate but maybe not right,” Rathskill said. He looked out the window at the passing trees. The shadows beneath the trees seemed to race beside the van. “What day is it?”

“Sunday.”

“The month. What day of the month?”

“Seriously? March 20.”

“I’m missing three days.” The fog had lifted but there was still a hole in his memories, in his life. It was darkness made visible, impenetrable however hard he tried to see into its depth.

“And I thought I was fucked up with visions of a dead kid,” Sully said. “At least I remember what happened to me even if that wily old bastard didn’t tell me what was in his tea.”

“A dead child?”

“I was stoned on ayahuasca. I saw a lot of strange shit—a city of dead angels, a snake canoe, a woman made of shadows…,”

“But the child?”

“Yeah, that was weird. I guess weird is relative. A little boy on a stone alter. I don’t know what he had to do with anything. And he was wearing a Sea Hawks Super Bowl t-shirt.”

“Sea Hawks? You’re sure?”

“There’s not a lot of ambiguity about a Sea Hawks Super Bowl t-shirt. I’m sure. What’s the matter? If you’re going to be sick, stick your head out the window. I don’t want you puking in my van.”

“I’m not sick. Just confused,” Rathskill said.

“You’re preaching to the choir now, brother. Confusion has become my bible, chapter and verse. Has this sort of thing happened to you before?”

“Similar things, not the same. I’ve always known when they were coming. I’ve always remembered afterwards. This was different, like a curtain fall. One moment I was live onstage,” he said, rubbing his eyes, “the next, I wasn’t.”

“You sure you weren’t stoned? Maybe someone slipped it in your tea? You know an old guy named Winsome Clapanhoo?”

“The last thing I remember was going to sleep at the Apocalyto Motel,” Rathskill said. “Then, standing in the road.”

“The Apocalypto Motel? That’s a real place?”

“You think I’m making this up? Google it.”

“Don’t get defensive, dude. I’m not accusing you of anything. Just seems this day couldn’t get any weirder, and then it does. I know someone who might be able to help with your memory. She’s a neighbor. You want me to ask her?”

“Sure. Anything. The next people who want to help are probably going to lock me up for observation.”

“Alright, then. We’re off to see the wizard,” Sully said, wearing a crooked smile.

They drove to Port Angeles and parked near the base of Ediz Hook, near the old Nippon Papermill. As they walked across the foreshore, Rathskill recognized the yellow tape surrounding holes in the ground. “I know this place,” he said. “It’s Tse-whit-zen.”

“You’re not telling me anything new,” Sully said. “That’s were this all started. I’m the night watchman.”

Rathskill almost asked what started but was distracted by a man in a leotard and a jester’s cap with bells. He could manage only one thought at a time.

Sully led him down the gangplank to a side dock that wobbled underfoot. He stopped at a houseboat made largely of glass. A dwarf in a kimono answered the door.

“What are you doing here?” the dwarf said. “I told you, she’s still pissed about the crow.”

“And I told you, I didn’t have anything to do with that,” Sully said.

“And it told you, it doesn’t matter.”

“I come bearing gifts,” Sully said. He stepped aside. “Dr. Simon Rathskill. He’s an anthropologist.”

“I don’t care if he’s the Dali Lama. You’ll catch hell if she finds you on her doorstep.”

“He needs her help, Sprout. I found him wandering in the woods at Cape Flattery. He can’t remember anything since Thursday night.”

Sprout. Rathskill thought it a ridiculous name for a dwarf. Like the Green Giant’s sidekick.

“I’m sorry about your condition, Mr. Rathskill,” Sprout said, “but you need to go before she finds out.”

“Doctor,” Sully said.

“What?”

“It’s Doctor Rathskill.”

“Are you trying my patience intentionally?”

“Sprout, who’s at the door?” A woman’s voice floated down from the second floor.

“No one. A Kirby salesman,” Sprout said over his shoulder.

Rathskill could hear footsteps on the circular stairway.

“Did someone say Simon Rathskill?”

A woman in a simple shift descended the stairway. Rathskill saw her long legs first and then her stunning face framed by tightly curled hair. She looked like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

“Doctor Simon Rathskill?” she said.

“Shit,” Sprout said, sotto voce. “Yeah, it’s Sully…and guest.”

She brushed past Sprout and Sully with her hand extended. “Doctor Rathskill. I’m a fan of your work. You look exactly like the photo on your book covers. Forgive me. I’m Henrietta Blavatsky. Everyone calls me HP.”

“HP, he needs your help,” Sully said. “He’s lost three days. Can’t remember a thing.”

She looked at Sully briefly, as if someone had left a paper bag burning on her doorstep. When she spoke, it was to Rathskill. “This happened on the Makah reservation if I heard correctly? Were you doing field work?”

Sully answered. “He was consulting for the tribal police.”

Blavatsky turned to Sully. “Did he lose his voice as well as his memory?”

“I can still speak,” Rathskill said. “I was asked by the tribal police to look at some…artifacts. We spent Thursday night on the reservation. That was the last I remember until Sully found me on the road today. I don’t remember how I got there. I don’t remember anything in between.”

“You said we. Who was with you?” she asked.

“Peter Vanoy. He’s a detective with the Port Angeles Police Department.”

“Have you asked the detective what happened to you?”

“No, not yet. I want to understand why my memories are missing before I approach him.”

She looked at him for a moment silently, speculatively, Rathskill thought. It made him uncomfortable, as if she could see things about himself he couldn’t. That was the point, he reminded himself.

“You want me to remember what you can’t?” she said.

“Yes, I suppose so. Is that possible?”

“Maybe. Please, come inside, Doctor.” She looked back over her shoulder at Sully. “Thank you for bringing him to me.”

Behind him, he heard Sprout say to Sully, “You just played your ‘get out of jail free’ card. Don’t push your luck.”

The door closed.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Vine of Souls

Friday, March 18

“I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else,” Sully said.

The old man—Sully assumed it was Winsome Clapanhoo—stood, put away his pocket knife, and folded his camp stool. “Who might I have mistaken you for?”

Winsome leaned his stool against the concrete and pissed against the wall. He turned his head and spoke over his shoulder to Sully. “Discourages the tourists.”

Sully realized it wasn’t a pedestrian underpass but a massive concrete casement, an artillery battery. He knew the Strait of Juan de Fuca was fortified with artillery batteries built during World War II to defend Puget Sound from a Japanese attack that never came. He had never actually seen one.

The steel doors were removed. Only the hinges set in concrete remained.

“I don’t know, someone you were expecting?” Sully said.

“I was expecting whoever showed up.” Winsome zipped his fly, recovered his camp stool, and, without further explanation, walked through the black hole in the concrete and vanished.

Sully hurried after him. It was black as a cave. He was blind. Bats lived in caves. That’s what comes from chasing strange men into dark places, Sully scolded himself. Bats in your hair.

Winsome turned on a flashlight. Sully’s fear of bats was replaced by anxious wonder. It seemed his vision of the night before captured on concreate walls smelling of urine.

The walls were painted in Paleolithic art—wolves and bears, cougar and elk, eagles and ravens and breaching whales. With a few spare lines, the artists had captured the spirit of the animal in motion. It would have sold handsomely in any art gallery on Occidental Street in Pioneer Square, Seattle. It seemed more powerful here in the darkness, animated by shadows.

Sully hurried to keep pace. There was a crack in the far wall twice the height of a man and half the width. Winsome slipped through it sideways. Sully rushed to follow the vanishing light.

Winsome was already several steps down a stairway made of stone. The steps were worn smooth by generations of feet. Sully could touch both walls with his arms extended. They were rough and dry.

The steps descended steeply. The old man was spry. Sully had to focus on his footwork to keep up. He counted the steps to estimate how far they descended from the surface but lost count after 47 when he tripped and almost pitched headfirst down the stairs.

“Mind the gap,” Winsome called from below.

The ambient light became brighter than Winsome’s flashlight. The last step ended on the floor of a cave.

Sully caught his breath. A hundred feet further the cave opened to blue sky and white gulls soaring on the updraft. Surf thundered against sea cliffs. The mouth of the cave framed sea stacks with crests of wind-knotted cedar.

Winsome set the camp stool beside a pile of gear, pumped pressure into a Coleman stove, and put a kettle on the flame. By the time Sully pulled himself away from the view, Winsome was cutting slices of cheese on a wooden board. He offered the board to Sully. “Gruyere?”

“I’m sorry. I’m not sure I know what’s happening here.”

“Of course, you’re not. The cheese really is good. Have some.”

“I don’t know who you think I am. I’m Sully Marlybone.”

“Of course, you are.”

“Have we met?”

Winsome shrugged. “To the best of my knowledge, no, but I might not have been myself or you might not have been who you are now.” It was an artfully ambiguous answer.

“Why were you waiting for me?” Sully asked.

“I was waiting for whomever the universe placed in my path.”

“The universe.” It was a lot to assimilate. “How did you know it was me?”

“I didn’t. Until you arrived. And then I did.”

“So what does the universe expect of me?”

Winsome looked at him with green eyes that seemed unnaturally bright in the subterranean light. “What do you expect of yourself?”

Sully took a deep breath and a piece of cheese. The conversation was a bit too Zen-like. He started to explain what he saw—what he thought he saw—at Tse-whit-zen and ended explaining far more. It was like pulling a single thread that unraveled his entire life.

Winsome listened without interruption. He busied himself mashing something with a pestle in a stone mortar. By the time Sully finished explaining himself the water was boiling in the kettle. Winsome removed two wooden bowels from a plastic bin, added the ingredients he had ground to a powder, and poured boiling water into the bowels. “Tea?”

Sully accepted the bowl. Perhaps the Makah didn’t use cups, he thought. A cultural thing. There was a thin scum floating on the surface and what looked like a twig. Sully was an avid tea drinker but didn’t recognize the heady scent, the smell of freshly turned earth and cut grass.

Winsome smiled and drank from his bowl. Sully, wanting to be polite, mimicked him. The tea tasted of dirt and chocolate and cardamom.

“I guess it comes down to this,” Sully said. “I want to know what’s real.”

“The vine of souls will tell you.”

“The vine of souls?”

“It’s also called the vine of the dead,” Winsome said, “but that sounds unnecessarily ominous. You probably know it as ayahuasca.”

“I’ve heard of it but I don’t know that I’m in the right frame of mind for psychedelics.”

“You’d best change your frame, then. You have about 15 minutes.”

“What? The tea? It’s ayahuasca?”

“Did you think it was Earl Gray?”

“I didn’t ask for this. I’m not ready.”

“Get ready. The universe won’t wait.”

Sully had taken enough drugs in his life to ask the right questions. “What kind of a trip is it? Head, heart or gut?”

Winsome looked at Sully as if he were a misbehaving child. “It’s not a recreational drug. It’s a journey of the soul.”

Sully changed tack but continued steering into the wind. “What should I expect? How will I know when it’s begun?”

“You’ll know.”

Sully knew when he saw a snake emerge from the dirt floor of the cave and coil around his left ankle. It sinuously encircled his leg, advancing toward his crotch. Another wrapped around his right leg. Suddenly he was frightened they might devour his cock. Instead they coiled around his body and themselves, rising toward his head. He felt his body dissolving as the snakes advanced. His feet and legs were the first to vanish. When the snake’s tongues licked his cheeks, his body was nothing more than rising mist.

He felt carried by a sea wind across a vast expanse of ocean. Below he saw alternating storms and sunlight as massive pressure waves swept eastward across the planet. Eventually he came to the far shore where a city as white as bone rose above the headlands. There were spires and towers delicate as filigree connected by a lace of bridges and elevated walkways. It seemed like a city that defied gravity built by a people with no fear of heights.

From a distance, he saw large birds soaring among the towers. As he drew closer he saw they were vultures. There were hundreds of them riding the scent of death down from the sky to the streets and towers of the city where corpses lay in awkward postures, cramped by pain and fear as they died. There were as many vultures feeding on the ground as circling in the air.

Sully descended to the city streets. The vultures looked up and then immediately returned to tearing strips of flesh from the bodies to get at the meat beneath. One bird had its entire head buried in a man’s ribcage likely broken by convulsions at the time of his death.

There were puddles of dried vomit near many of the bodies. These people died hard, he thought, and all together. Like Tse-whit-zen, death overtook them suddenly. There was no one to care for the dying and no one to bury them. They lay where they died, unattended and unmourned.

“Why am I here?” he asked aloud.

“To learn.” It was Winsome’s disembodied voice.

An animal’s scream echoed down the streets of the city. It sounded like a big cat. “Run,” Winsome said. “Now.”

He ran without questioning why he now had legs and feet. He ran, always choosing the downhill path. He ran, his heart pounding and lungs gasping. The cat sounded closer. He glimpsed the reflection of a huge black jaguar in a plate glass window. He ran deep into the city until the daylight faded to twilight. He ran, expecting any moment to feel the weight of the cat knock him from his feet and its teeth grip his neck, severing his spinal cord. Then he realized it had happened already.

He was laying with his face pressed to the pavement. He could smell dust and feel the hot breath of the jaguar on the back of his neck. He couldn’t move his body or even feel the weight of the cat pinning him. Blood trickled down his neck and pooled in the dust. He was dying. And then he was dead.

He stood up and looked at his body. The black cat sat on its haunches staring at him, not his broken body but his disembodied self. There was a deep rasping in the cat’s throat. Sully began walking again, always downslope. The jaguar walked beside him.

Eventually, they came to a broad river that flowed through the roots of the city. They stood on the bank of the river, unable to cross. He thought he heard wisps of a song from downriver. It resolved into the chanting of a dozen paddlers in a snake canoe. The canoe was the body of a giant boa constrictor. It raised its head and turned toward Sully. Its eyes were the green of uncut emeralds, the same color as Winsome’s eyes.

“They’ve come to take us to the headwaters,” the jaguar said. Its voice sounded deep and vibrant.

“Winsome, am I dying?” he asked. There was no reply.

“There’s nothing to fear,” the Jaguar said. “You’re dead already.”

The snake lowered its head onto the bank. Sully and the Jaguar walked across and took their places in the stern of the canoe. The crew back paddled and then resumed their chant, pulling upriver. Sully tried to speak to the nearest paddler. He touched the man’s shoulder to get his attention. When he turned, Sully realized the man was a corpse. The skin was sloughing from the bones of his face.

They paddled close to the left bank. The river was so broad he couldn’t see the other side. The water was chocolate brown and turgid. Tree trunks and bloated bodies drifted downstream, the bodies of water buffalo and capybaras and people, the gas produced by decomposition swelling their bellies like a bladder. The river narrowed and both banks grew close together, thick with jungle. Huge butterflies floated on the humid air and lay on the river like lily pads. The canoe cut through them like a scar that healed in its wake.

Troops of howler monkeys followed them on either bank. They sounded outraged. They threw fruit and broken branches which the crew ignored. The monkeys suddenly fell silent as the snake turned toward the shore. The crew rested on their paddles. The canoe grounded on the bank. When Sully and the Jaguar walked ashore, the canoe and crew faded like fog in morning sunlight.

They stood in a circular glade surrounded by shadowed jungle. A stone slab occupied the center. The body of a young boy was laid on the stone. He was dressed in a Sea Hawks t-shirt, blue jeans worn white at the knees, and scuffed tennis shoes. It was odd, Sully thought; Sea Hawk branding had reached the underworld.

A shadow flowed out of the jungle and enveloped the boy’s body. It rose up and formed a human shape, a woman’s shape but oddly distorted as if the parts didn’t fit as intended. The shape extended her arm toward Sully. He felt compelled to approach her despite his desperate resistance. Her arms encompassed him. He felt himself being consumed, digested, as if in the shadow’s belly. He screamed but couldn’t hear himself. He heard the jaguar roar. The sound shook the earth.

He woke on a cot in Winsome’s cave. He tried to speak but only croaked. Winsome dipped a cup into a pool fed by a spring that dripped down the cave wall. The cold water felt like fire in his throat. “What happened?”

“You tell me,” Winsome said. “It was your vision.”

“I saw an impossibly beautiful city full of dead people. And a boat made from a water snake. I saw a dead boy on an altar. And a shadow that might have been a woman. It felt like she devoured me. And why am I so damned hungry?”

Winsome offered him the gruyere on the cutting board. It had a hard, dry rind. “You’ve been gone for a while.”

“What day is it?”

“Sunday.”

“Holy shit. I’ve missed work. They’ll fire my ass.”

“A job is the least of your worries,” Winsome said. “Something has marked you as its own.”

“What do you mean, something? What?”

“I don’t know. Something powerful.”

“You’re not reassuring me.”

“It was not my intention to reassure you.”

“I need to get home,” Sully said.

“You need be careful where you go now, what you do, who you see. You are vulnerable, more than when you were completely ignorant. The abyss has also into you. You must learn how to survive. Come back as soon as you’re able. I’ll be waiting for you.”

Sully was so distracted he didn’t remark on the oddity of an old Makah Indian quoting Nietzsche to him.

It was mid-morning when Sully returned to the van. There was only a pathetic clicking when he turned the key in the ignition. He had to climb under the engine and bang the solenoid with a tire iron before the starter would engage. He drove through the forest both irritated and afraid and excited. His world had abruptly pivoted. He had flown across oceans and ridden in a spirit canoe! Then there was that bit being consumed by a shadow. And Winsome’s cryptic warning was worrisome.

He wrestled with the steering as the worn springs of the Dodge bottomed out on ruts in the road. He almost ran over the man before he saw him. Gray hair and a bushy mustache, sports coat and muddy slacks, standing in the middle of the dirt road. The Dodge came to a stop in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes a few feet short of bowling the man over.

Winsome had said the universe placed Sully in his path. This guy couldn’t be more in Sully’s path without driving over him. He leaned across the cab and rolled down the passenger window manually. He waved the dust away from his face. “Need a ride?”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Darkness Rising

Friday, March 18

It was too early to knock on Blavatsky’s door. She could be irritable early in the morning. Her irritation was formidable. Sully went to the Eagle Café. 

The Eagle opened early to feed fishermen and dock workers. The food was simple but sturdy, like the building itself. Since 1905, the year of the Chicago Teamsters strike, it had accumulated a think rind of white paint, layer after layer, one shade or another, but always white.

He sat in his favorite booth, the red Naugahyde patched with duct tape and molded to the shape of his buttocks, the classified section of the Peninsula Daily News spread on the table.

Hattie Malept arrived to take his order. She was attractive in an uncomplicated way, fair hair and sun browned skin and a ready smile. Sully was enamored.

“Looking for work?” Hattie said.

“Thinking about it. Not a lot of growth potential in my job.”

Hattie laughed. Her laughter sounded like wind chimes to Sully. She brushed aside a strand of hair that had strayed. “Did you read about the boy kidnapped from Forks? Stolen from his bedroom in the middle of the night. Someone jimmied the back door. Parents didn’t know he was gone until the morning. I’d die if someone took Aurora.”

Aurora was Hattie’s daughter. Sully was generally uncomfortable around kids but Aurora specifically. She spooked him. He had the feeling she knew a lot but wasn’t telling, at least not to him.

He ordered his usual breakfast of poached eggs and dry wheat toast. He couldn’t concentrate on the classified ads. He couldn’t taste his meal. He couldn’t even manage to flirt with Hattie. He kept seeing motion flitting at the edge of his vision and remembering the inkwell darkness clutching his heart. When he had finished he paid the check and left a tip he couldn’t afford, then went to call on Blavatsky.

There were no street names or house numbers in Shantytown. Like English cottages, each residence was named individually. Blavatsky lived in Riddlepit, a place designed in Swedish modern—stainless steel, mahogany, and glass. Blavatsky had chosen the design but Sprout Lebowski named it Riddlepit out of spite.

Sprout was H.P. Blavatsky’s roommate. He stood 4’ tall in stockinged feet. Sully found him hiding behind a dock box with a slingshot and a cache of water balloons.

“Something happened to me last night,” Sully said. “Something I can’t explain. I need to talk to Blavatsky.”

“Go away,” Sprout said.

“Why?”

“Can’t you see I’m waiting in ambush?”

“Who are you ambushing?”

“That damned tour truck.”

Qwackers?”

Qwackers was a war surplus amphibious truck Sandy Crab used to haul tourists around the bay. A headless duck was painted on the side of the truck followed by a string of headless ducklings. Through an error in perspective, the tourists’ heads looked grafted on the ducks’ bodies.

“Yes. Now, will you go away? You’re blowing my cover.”

“Sandy Crab won’t be here for another 45 minutes. I saw the truck driving up Hill Street to gawk at the rich folk. He always follows the same route. Predictable little pissant. Why do you want to water bomb Qwackers? Never mind. That’s obvious.”

Life was lived visibly at Riddlepit. Sandy Crab liked to point out to tourists the dwarf behind the glass in various stages of undress. Sprout took offense being pointed at by rubes from Idaho in an amphibious truck.

“I need to talk to H.P.,” Sully said again.

Sprout relaxed and hoisted himself onto the dock box. “Why?”

Sully described his night.

“Were you high?” Sprout asked.

“Stone cold sober.”

“Stoned, I believe.”

“Maybe H.P. can make sense of it. It’s driving me crazy.”

“Not going to happen,” Sprout said. “She’s still pissed. The dead crow.”

The dead crow remained a mystery in Shantytown. One morning it appeared perched on the wind vane atop Riddlepit, stiffened by death, its claws welded to the metal vane by rigor mortis. Some claimed it was a fluke, a natural death, but death rarely imitated art as a sculpture rigidly poised, pivoting to face the wind. Strangers thought it part of the design until the corpse began shedding feathers and white patches of bone became visible beneath black feathers.

Blavatsky blamed Sully. Sully protested his innocence. Blavatsky was psychic. That settled the matter for most of Shantytown.

“That wasn’t me,” Sully protested again.

“She thinks it was,” Sprout said. “That’s all that matters. I wouldn’t ask her any favors for a while. Anyway, it sounds like you need a shaman.”

“Why a shaman?”

“The animals, the Indian graveyard? That shit’s mythic.”

“You know any?”

“Myths?”

“Shaman.”

“What am I, a job board? Ask Umber Schist. It’s her sort of shtick. She’s been banging on about the dead rising from Tse-whit-zen and spectral emanations. Why can’t she just call them ghosts?”

“Pompous dike,” Sully said.

“See, it’s that sort of comment gets you kicked out of the sandbox. You need to learn to play well with others.”

Sully didn’t need life coaching from a former midget wrestler in the Lucha Libre. “What ghosts?”

“I don’t know. Ask Umber.”

“I don’t suppose shamans advertise in the Peninsula Daily News,” Sully said.

“None worth a damn, I should think. Why do you care anyway? People see stuff that’s not there all the time.”

“This is different. Acid, peyote, mescaline…I always knew I’d wake up and it would be the same shit, different day. This wasn’t like that. This was real. I need to know what it means.”

“The game is fixed. That’s all you need to know. The rules don’t matter.”

“You’re a dour little man,” Sully said.

Sprout shrugged. “I’m a dwarf. We have a history. Now go away. I have an ambush to execute.”

It took Sully several hours to scrounge the courage to approach Witchfold Cottage and only after he had exhausted every other source. No one knew of a local shaman. People were happy to refer shamans in the Amazon rainforest or Himalayan foothills but none in Port Angeles.

Witchfold was a calculated effort to accurately reproduce something that likely never existed, something plucked from the imagination of the Brothers Grimm and floated on salt water, a low roof of artificial thatch and a chimney that belched foul smelling smoke and small creatures that scurried in the rafters. Umber called them her familiars. Most people called them pests.

A wicker pentacle hung on the front door. The door opened before Sully could knock. His fist hung suspended inches from Umber’s nose. She was broad and dense and dark and filled the doorway.

“Umber,” Sully said. She didn’t reply, just stared at him. He swallowed. “I’ve come to ask your advice. Something happened last night, something I can’t explain. At Tse-whit-zen.”

Umber’s expression softened. “Spectral emanations?”

“I suppose so. Animals, mostly. Cougar, coyote, wolves. But they were ghostly.”

Umber snorted. It sounded like a buffalo in a dust wallow. “Everyone else sees the ghosts of dead Klallam. You see the ghosts of dead dogs.”

“I need the name of a good shaman.”

“Why a shaman? We have plenty of talented psychics locally. Why do you always choose the more difficult path?”

“It’s my nature.”

“I’ve heard of a shaman among the Makah. A man named Winsome Clapanhoo. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly so he probably won’t speak to you.”

“How do I find him?”

“Take Highway 22 and drive to the end of the world, then ask anyone on the side of the road. They can give you directions if they’re inclined. I’m told he lives in a cave.” She closed the door in his face.

Sully left immediately for Neah Bay.

His old Dodge van, a 1978 Tradesman, trailed a cloud of smoke and burnt a quart of oil in the 60 miles between Port Angeles and the Makah Reservation at Neah Bay. There was a line of cars stacked at the entrance to the reservation and a crowd of protesters with signs. They were passing out leaflets to drivers in the queue. The exhaust fumes dissuaded them from approaching the Dodge.

At the checkpoint a tribal policeman asked his business on the reservation. The cop looked more closely when Sully said he was visiting Winsome Clapanhoo but waved him past.

He pulled alongside the first pedestrian he saw walking on Bayview Avenue and stuck his head out the passenger window. A cloud of unburnt hydrocarbons enveloped them.

“Where can I find Winsome Clapanhoo?”

She was a young woman with braided black hair. She looked at Sully, at the Dodge, and turned away without a word. The next two attempts were less successful. An old woman flipped him the finger and a burly man with work boots kicked the door panel. “Hey,” Sully shouted. “That’s going to leave a mark.”

He tried a fourth time, a kid with dirty hair and a Thrasher Magazine t-shirt. He offered a joint in exchange. The kid gave explicit instructions. “Take the Cape Loop Road, then left on Ginger Bill. If you get to the Cape trailhead you’ve gone too far. Park at the bend in the road beside the big cedar. There’s a path that leads uphill from the tree. He lives at the top of the hill. It doesn’t sound like he’s expecting you. I’d be damned careful. He’s not someone you want to mess with.”

Ginger Bill was a dirt road passing through an old growth forest of yellow cedar and Douglas-fir. The Dodge groaned and bucked across the ruts. There was barely enough room to park beside the big cedar tree without blocking the road. At the top of the hill he found an old man sitting in a camp chair whittling a stick. There was a pile of wood shavings at his feet and what looked like a pedestrian underpass covered with graffiti at his back.

The old man looked up from his whittling and smiled. His white teeth were brilliant. “Good. You’re here. We can begin.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Schrödinger’s Rat

Thursday, March 17

Sully Marlybone sighted down the barrel of his air rifle and held his breath in the failing light. His view commanded the length of the dock. Like a Russian sniper in the ruins of Stalingrad, he waited for movement, chewing his limp mustache.

There was the flick of a whisker beside a pile of garbage, a movement so insubstantial it could only be perceived subconsciously. He aimed slightly into the future, leading his invisible target. Like Schrödinger’s cat the rat existed, alive or dead, only after he fired. The wave function collapsed and left behind a dead rat, or not. Quantum rat hunting was inherently paradoxical.

Sully released his breath and set the gun aside. It was time for work. He would leave the rat in a state of superposition, both dead and alive, to hunt another day.

There was a flourishing population of rats scampering across the docks of Shantytown—Batavian rice rats, Norwegian wharf rats, roof rats—rats big enough to best a cat in a fair fight. The fights were rarely fair. The rats were organized. It wasn’t safe for an honest alley cat to be out alone at night.

He packed his evening meal—peanut butter and jelly, Cheetos, a flask of rum—in a Roy Rogers lunch pail he found at a garage sale. The homeowner hadn’t realized there was a sale. It was late at night, everyone was asleep, and Sully didn’t want to bother them. He left a dollar on the garage workbench.

He found a good deal of useful stuff at garage sales when he didn’t have to wait for a posting on Craigslist or a cardboard sign on a street corner or compete with professional rag pickers and neighborhood hoarders. The best deals were between 2 and 4 AM. He haggled with himself like a gypsy. Sometimes he got a great deal, sometimes he paid full price, but he was always scrupulous about paying for his purchases. Sully was no thief.

He carried his lunch pail and an anchor light down the docks, careful to stay near the center. Shantytown’s docks, precariously balanced on too few Styrofoam floats, wobbled at the edges. Residents regularly plucked drunken neighbors out of the cold water. This far north the water never warmed. Canada was visible across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The docks were mostly empty, people busy with their evening meal or getting stoned. The smell of garlic and Thai Stick mingled with the music of Ravi Shankar and Frank Zappa.

Shantytown, officially named Slee’s Bay Marina, didn’t officially exist. It had no postal address, no electricity, no fresh water, no sewage. It also had no rent. It was a loose aggregation of houseboats and aging wooden boats settling deeper in the water, slowly becoming an artificial reef. Its survival was largely a matter of convenience. It was less aggravation for the City of Port Angeles to ignore than police.

Sully worked as night watchman for the dead. It was a temporary gig until the next big thing. The work wasn’t demanding and didn’t require a background check.

Tse-whit-zen was a short walk from Shantytown but it was already getting dark. Sully set the anchor light on a picnic table. The parks department donated the picnic table for use by archaeologists and volunteers triaging artifacts dug from the sandy soil. The anchor light he found at a late-night garage sale. The glass, shaped in ridges like a Fresnel lens, amplified the light. The kerosene wick was supposed to stay lit in a hurricane.

Because of Tse-whit-zen’s reputation, there was rarely anything to watch at night. Vagrants and young lovers and even gothic types who favored graveyards avoided the place. Sometimes a drunk returning to Shantytown wandered from the path. For the most part, he sat alone and listened to the bullfrogs croak in the lagoon by the abandoned paper mill or sang old songs or walked in the darkness or dozed on the picnic table, earning minimum wage in his sleep.

He wasn’t especially troubled by the trove of bones buried beneath him. Sully wasn’t sensitive in any sense. The world was whatever he expected. On the rare occasions when it surprised him, he adapted his expectations.

He spent several hours singing every song he could remember by the Beach Boys, starting alphabetically from “Add Some Music to Your Day.” He never finished “Honky Tonk.” His head was nodding. He lay down to make it easier to remember the lyrics and promptly fell asleep.

Something woke him with a start. He had the reflexes of a feral cat or a homeless person sleeping rough. He went from a dream of someone seeding corpses in cities across the country to alert consciousness with nothing between. He sat crouched on the table, listening.

Ripples broke against the shore, frogs croaked on the lagoon, somewhere a door slammed. Normal night sounds. He let himself breathe again.

There was a dry rustling like a breeze stirring last year’s leaves but the night was dead calm. The frogs stopped croaking abruptly. Shadows seemed to crowd the darkness at the edge of the lantern light. Motion flitted at the edge of his vision, then vanished when he looked directly.

They moved like creatures painted on a Paleolithic cave wall, animated by flickering firelight—the shapes of wolves and coyotes, lumbering bears, elk and otter and the silky motion of cougars, and winged shapes, raven and eagle and something impossibly large with wings that spanned the sky. There were howls and barks and grunts and roars and the skirling cries of raptors. An impossible bestiary encircled him, creatures made of shadow and sound.

His heart raced. His breath whistled through clenched teeth. A dream. He was dreaming that he was awake. He could feel the salt air on his skin, see the rotating light on Ediz Hook, hear the blood beat in his ears. Asleep? Awake? What difference?

“Sully.” Something whispered his name. It sounded like a voice made of dust and cobwebs. “Sully.”

A deeper darkness seeped into the night like spilled ink. It blotted the shadow creatures and spread across the sand. It drained the light from whatever it touched. Sully suspected the stars themselves would drown in that darkness.

It was reaching for him. It knew his name.

There was a faint rhythm, almost inaudible, the rhythm of an irregular heartbeat staggering like a drunk between lamp posts. He felt an intense pain grip his chest. It gripped so tightly he couldn’t expand his lungs to breathe. The pain was crushing him.

The darkness lapped the edge of the light cast by the lantern. The flame in the lantern guttered. It couldn’t fail. It was supposed to stay lit in a hurricane. There wasn’t a breath of wind.

The flame couldn’t breathe in so much darkness.

He felt his consciousness flicker like the lantern’s flame and grow cold. He felt his memories unravel and dissipate in the spreading darkness.

He steadied himself against the picnic table, certain he was dying. He looked at his hand. The skin collapsed between the bones, brittle as old paper. Veins mapped the back of his hand like the braided strands of a river delta. His fingers were thin and hooked like talons. It was the body of a 70-year-old man, not his 35-year-old flesh and bone, but it burned. It burned with such brilliance he had to squint.

He held his hands outstretched. His body was radiant. He could probably be seen by ships at sea. He burned so brightly there were no shadows cast even beneath the picnic table, as if the light were liquid and flooding the surrounding space.

In the next moment air filled his lungs, the anchor light burned as before, the balance of shadow and light was restored, and the bull frogs croaked without concern. His hands looked like his own hands again. Nothing moved on the edge of his vision.

“What the hell?”

A flashback? He had never experienced something so vivid on any hallucinogenic. His heart was still racing and sweat pooled at the base of his spine.

First light was already beginning to color the sky above the Cascade Mountains to the east. His watch was almost over. For 30 minutes he sat on the picnic table with his head between his knees, breathing deeply, trying to steady himself and stop shaking.

He needed help understanding what he had seen, what he had felt. If anyone was likely to know, it was Blavatsky.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.


The Skeleton Forest

They drove silently through Port Angeles and onto Highway 101, then west on the Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway. Vanoy said little on the drive and nothing about the reason Rathskill was hired. “I don’t want to prejudice your results.”

Rathskill watched the scenery. The forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock and red cedar was a continual presence, a shadow on the land that fell steeply from the peaks of the Olympic Mountains to the coastal plain and into the abyss of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Across the Strait he could see Canada and the mountain tops of Vancouver Island lost in clouds.

It was almost two hours before they reached the reservation. Near the fishing camp at Snow Creek, cars parked on the verge reduced the road to a single lane—a school bus painted with a whale mural, a VW micro bus advertising Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop, and an armored RV that seemed capable of surviving the zombie apocalypse. A KIRO TV van was hoisting its satellite dish.

People were crowding the side of the road. They were a motley crowd, tie-dye and overalls, dreadlocks and crew cuts. Some were carrying signs protesting renewed Makah whaling. One white-haired woman who might have been a retired librarian held a placard that read: Save a whale, kill a Makah.

“Damn,” Rathskill said.

“People are pretty worked up already,” Vanoy said. “If this gets out they’ll go ballistic.”

“If what gets out, Detective?”

“We’re almost there. You can draw your own conclusions.”

The crowd piled up against a roadblock manned by Makah tribal police. Vanoy handed his identification to a young man with a name tag that read McCarty. “We’re going to the Sail River site,” he said.

McCarty looked at Vanoy more closely, then again at Vanoy’s ID. His face seemed shadowed by doubt.

“The Chief asked us to meet him there,” Vanoy said.

“Let me make a call.” McCarty used the radio in his patrol car. When he returned he handed Vanoy a map drawn on a page torn from a notebook. There was a phone number on the page. “It’s the Chief’s cell number. In case you get lost. I wouldn’t recommend getting lost up there.”

They turned off the main road at Agency Creek and followed the 200 Line Road into the interior of the reservation, quickly leaving behind houses and mobile homes as they passed through a patchwork of woodlots and clear cut, then turned onto a dirt road. Vanoy negotiated the potholes and washboard. Makah tribal police vehicles were parked on the ridge. Vanoy parked behind them.

When they got out of the car Vanoy handed him a flashlight. It was long and black and heavy enough to use as a weapon. “It will be dark soon,” he said, and headed downhill.

Rathskill followed Vanoy across a clear cut. The land had been stripped of trees with mechanical efficiency. The waste from logging had been bulldozed into huge slash piles. The slick soles of his street shoes couldn’t gain traction on the damp ground. He slipped and fell several times. His slacks were stained with mud and moss.

“Tell me again why this couldn’t wait for a more reasonable hour and a proper pair of shoes,” Rathskill shouted to Vanoy, already well ahead.

Rathskill tripped and fell, again. On his knees he noticed a raven perched on a nearby tree stump. It examined him intently.

“What? Nothing to see here,” Rathskill said. “Move along.” He waved his flashlight like a traffic cop.

The bird cocked its head but remained. It irritated Rathskill and frightened him a little. It seemed preternaturally focused. He was reaching for a stick or a stone to throw when the raven took flight with a harsh, scolding cry.

Remaining on the stump was a stick figure made from twigs bent and broken into a human shape. It was made skillfully but with childish simplicity. A prickly feeling ran down his spine. He pocketed it furtively as if someone watching might disapprove.

There was no one watching. There was no one at all. Vanoy must have kept walking into the forest and out of sight. The peaks of the Olympic Mountains burned with the last daylight. The moon sailed above the eastern horizon. The forest loomed. No one answered Rathskill’s repeated shouts.

He entered the forest in the direction he had last seen Vanoy. The light failed beneath the immense trees. His flashlight cast a puddle of light in a sea of darkness. Tangles of vine maple draped with moss brushed his face. He tripped over exposed roots and climbed over fallen trees. Water dripped down his neck.

He heard voices muted by the forest and saw lights flickering among the trees ahead. He emerged into a circular clearing a hundred yards across. Vanoy stood talking to a man with a face so stern it seemed chiseled from ironwood.

A handful of tribal police were scattered across the circular clearing in small groups, their conversations hushed. The beams of their flashlights flitted among the trunks of trees that rose like columns in a cathedral. A small animal screeched in the darkness, its cry cut off abruptly

Something bright in the darkness caught Rathskill’s attention. He played the beam of his flashlight on a nearby tree. A human skeleton hung from the branches. And the next. And the next. Everywhere his light reflected from the clean, white excellence of bone. The entire clearing was ringed by hanging bones. It was a graveyard.

“Strange fruit, doctor,” Vanoy said.

“What is this place?” Rathskill asked. It felt like the air had thinned. He couldn’t catch his breath.

The man with the stern face answered. “We were hoping you could tell us.” He had a voice like gravel churning in a stream bed.

“This is Chief Johnson. He’s head of the Makah Tribal Police.”

Rathskill turned to Vanoy. “Why me? I mean, why do you need an anthropologist at a mass murder site?”

“We’re not sure it’s murder,” Chief Johnson said.

 “If not murder, then what?” For the first time Rathskill looked closely at Chief Johnson. “You think these bones were exhumed and used in a ritual? You think this was done by one of your own?”

“We need an expert opinion not affiliated with the tribe, Doctor Rathskill,” Chief Johnson said. “That’s why we need you.”

“To do what?” Rathskill asked.

“To tell us what you see.”

Rathskill began with the nearest of maybe fifteen bodies hung from the trees. It was probably half of a complete skeleton. A length of animal sinew was threaded through a hole drilled in the top of the skull. When he touched the clavicle, the bones began turning independently like a mobile.

There was evidence of a hard life—old wounds, fractures that had healed imperfectly, but nothing that definitively caused death. The heavy, heart-shaped pelvis indicated a man’s bones. Rathskill couldn’t tell what killed him but he was relatively old when he died, at least fifty.

 Rathskill worked his way from one set of bones to the next. Mist draped the overstory like a shroud. It snagged on branches and tore, falling to the ground in a slow drip that always seemed to find his unguarded neck despite shrugged shoulders and upturned collar.

Movement flitted at the edge of his vision. Repeatedly he turned to catch the movement but whenever he turned to look, however abruptly, there was nothing. His spastic movements attracted the attention of several policemen nearby. He calmed himself, breathing consciously, focusing on the bones at hand.

A mournful breeze sighed among the branches and roiled the mist. There were shapes in the mist that formed and dissipated within heartbeats, a suspect bestiary of gryphons and basilisks, dragons and flying monkeys. It seemed all the terrors of a medieval imagination had been loosed overhead, made of nothing more than air and water.

The bones turned gently in the breeze. They looked like cadaverous art hung in the woods, performance art or a Dance Macabre. Flashlight beams skittered across the white bones, animating them with the illusion of motion.

He could hear their voices, the voices of the dead like a breeze among dry leaves, voices whispering in the darkness beneath the trees. They were an insistent whisper, words drawn taut with emotion—longing, regret, rage and retribution, loss, love, fear. There were so many voices. He tried to concentrate on the work at hand, but the voices persisted and pestered like sand in his shoes or the hum of cosmic background radiation.

He pressed the palms of his hands against his temples, trying to quiet the noise.

Someone spoke to him, laid their hand on his shoulder. Rathskill looked for several seconds at the man without a face standing beside him. The concern in the man’s voice was obvious, the syntax seemed right, the rhythm and inflection familiar, but he had no idea who the man was or what his words meant. He could have been speaking in tongues. Rathskill waited for the translation.

“Are you alright, doctor?”

It was as if Rathskill’s perceptions rotated a quarter turn and the disconnected pieces fell into place. The man’s face was no longer a featureless mask. It was Vanoy.

“You look unwell.”

The whispering voices hissed and moaned, wailed and barked, whimpered and cajoled. They tugged at his attention like needy children. He knew Vanoy expected an answer, but Vanoy was only one among many demanding an answer. Rathskill knew he was taking too long.

“In these circumstances, how should I look, Detective? Chipper?”

“Point taken. How’s it coming? The Chief’s getting impatient.”

It was difficult to concentrate with all the chattering voices. They were cajoling and coercing, pleading and threatening, pitiful and belligerent. They filled his head with the noise. It was difficult to connect his thoughts, like wading through a bayou, hip deep in the muck, each step so labored it seemed unrelated to the next.

“You can assure the Chief it will take no longer than necessary but not a second less.” It was a bluff. He had already given up any pretension of academic rigor. He was stalling for time.

The voices abruptly fell silent. It reminded Rathskill of a chorus of bull frogs on a pond ending all together. A defensive silence. A defense against what? The forest was again quiet enough to hear the hushed conversation of policemen and the splat of condensation falling in fat drops from the trees.

There was a woman in the trees behind Vanoy. It was only the wisp of a woman like an imaginary animal seen in the clouds, there and gone in a moment.

Correlation is not causation, he reminded himself. The appearance of the woman and the sudden silence of the voices could be merely coincidental. Hell, it was all in his head anyway. Why worry about causation?

He saw her again, between the trunks of two massive Douglas fir trees, just the briefest moment caught in the moving beam of a flashlight. She seemed fuzzy at the edges and trailing tendrils of mist like the train of a wedding gown. She was looking directly at him.

Vanoy turned to look behind him. “What?” he said.

Rathskill realized he had been fixedly staring at the apparition. “Nothing,” he said, removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m tired. It’s been a long day and a strange night.”

“We’re all tired, doc. Can you wrap this up so we can all get some sleep?”

“It is what it is,” Rathskill said and immediately regretted it. He had always hated the phrase, a meaningless restatement of the obvious, a placeholder for people who couldn’t be bothered to think.

“Until it isn’t,” Vanoy said, then dutifully returned to Chief Johnson.

Rathskill continued to the next tree, the next set of bones. They were much the same but different. The back of the man’s skull had been crushed by a blunt weapon. The blow would certainly have been fatal but it might have been delivered post mortem. Even the dead had enemies.

He saw her a final time while he was examining the last of the bones. He had come full circle to a man whose legs had been broken, perhaps to keep him from walking the earth after death. She was floating at the edge of the forest. Only her face was fully formed. He saw a depth of pain and compassion in her expression that stole his breath away. He wanted to surrender himself and drown in her eyes. Then she was gone. Chief Johnson stood beside him.

“You look sick,” Chief Johnson said. “Would you like some water?”

“I could use something stronger. A lot stronger.” Rathskill kept his hands behind him. They were still trembling.

“Liquor is illegal on the reservation,” Chief Johnson said.

“Of course.”

“So, you never got this from me.”

Johnson passed him a metal flask. Rathskill took a long swig. It was a surprisingly good single malt Scotch. It helped steady his hands. There was still a chance he could escape this place without being recognized a lunatic.

“What’s your opinion, Doctor Rathskill?” the chief asked.

Rathskill took a deep breath. “I can reach some tentative conclusions,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t sound like some small animal screeching in the dark. “The width of the pelvis suggests all the bones belong to men. Whoever they were, they led a hard life. Several may have died violently. Others probably died of old age or disease.

“The oldest bones are probably a hundred and fifty years old, possibly much older, strung together with animal sinew. The more recent bones are mounted with mono-filament, the kind of fishing line you could buy at any sporting goods store.”

“How can you know the age of bones?” Vanoy said.

“The deer sinew that holds the older bones together was beaten by rocks and chewed to make twine. It’s an old technique replaced by factory products early in the 19th Century.

“The condition of the sinew used to thread the bones suggests they haven’t been hanging in the weather long. Probably stored in a dry place for years. Otherwise the deterioration would be more pronounced. This place,” he said, waving his hand in a circle, “was probably resurrected as a ritual site only recently.”

“Why?” Vanoy asked. “Why go to the trouble of saving old bones and then hanging them in the trees?”

“The dead served as messengers,” Rathskill said. “They carried the prayers of the living to the spirits.” He swept his flashlight around the clearing. The bones danced in the light. “My guess these bones belonged to powerful men who could intercede with the spirits to ensure a desired outcome. Successful hunters, heads of families, that sort. There are instances in the anthropological literature of Northwest coast whaling tribes using necromancy to influence the success of the hunt. The Makah haven’t gone whaling in over a hundred years. This could be a revival of the practice.”

Chief Johnson said nothing. Rathskill had the feeling he wasn’t telling the chief anything he didn’t already know. “Chief,” he said, “what am I really doing here? What do want from me?”

“I need you to document the scene as you see it. I want it on record.”

Rathskill suspected he was also there to provide the chief with leverage in whatever political wrangling was going on within the tribe.

“There may be more.” Rathskill hesitated. Was it a genuine risk? “The literature indicates necromancers went further than just stealing bones. They sometimes killed slaves to carry their message to the spirits and return with the reply. Always young boys. The young could most easily pass between worlds.”

Chief Johnson looked intently at Rathskill. “There’s something you should see,” he said and walked to the edge of the woods, distant from any of the bones. Rathskill followed and almost stepped into the hole. The Chief’s arm restrained him, then turned his flashlight on the ground.

A child’s body lay in a shallow grave. He was five, maybe six years old, dressed in a Sea Hawks t-shirt, blue jeans worn white at the knees, and scuffed tennis shoes. One eye was open, staring blindly at the sky. 

Note

This is the beginning of a book-length project. After the first few, additional chapters will be password protected. You can request a password by emailing me at charles.thrasher@gmail,com. There’s no charge for access but comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

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@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.