There once was a woman, O children, named Laquinda.
Laquinda lived in a small cabin, deep in the woods, with her three dogs. She meditated, and read, and enjoyed walks in the dappled sunlight shining through the forest canopy. She worked as an accountant at Brickenden National Bank, performing financial services for people and businesses; she was very good at her job, and found satisfaction in it every day.
In this way, she lived and worked and was happy.
At the end of every workday, Laquinda left the bank and began the long walk home through the woods. The woods were deep and deserted, and home to all manner of beasties: demons, ghosts, vértékties, vampires, and other creatures besides. Laquinda always made sure to go home while the sun still shone down and drove the dark things into the shadows.
One springtime, tax season enveloped Brickenden National like a dark cloud, and Laquinda found that she could not keep up with all the work that needed to be done. On the day of the deadline, the bank manager requested that Laquinda stay and work until all the tax documents had been filed. Laquinda worked hard, doing calculation upon calculation, but still found that the moon was full and heavy above the trees when she was finished. Laquinda quickly said a prayer and jogged down the path.
Laquinda was in the forest no further than ten yards before she found her path blocked by a vértéktie.
A vértéktie, if you have never seen one (and I hope for your sake that you have not), is a small creature the size and shape of a cat, with the head of a possum and the tail of an otter, and two sharp horns spiraling from its forehead. Vértéktie stand on their hind legs, and they are dressed all over in soft shaggy fur; their large velvety bat ears swivel to and fro so they can hear their prey from a great distance. Their tongues are half the length of their bodies, and they have two small hands, like the hands of a child.
Vértéktie smile constantly, showing all of their tiny sharp teeth.
"Clear my path, beastie, or I shall make you move," said Laquinda, pretending to be brave even though she was very scared.
"Oh, I think not," said the vértéktie, slowly padding toward Laquinda and licking its thin pink lips. "You look plump and nourishing. I think I shall take my fill of you."
Laquinda let out a bellowing shriek and ran at the vértéktie, which startled and froze; she raised her foot as she ran, and attempted to boot the creature into the trees, but the vértéktie was too fast for her. It clung fast to her leg with its small hands and scampered up her body. Then it perched on her back, where she could not reach it, and began whispering an eerie incantation.
Laquinda knew that it was too late, but the damage could be managed; she broke off the branch of a nearby rowan tree and began to flail away behind her, whipping the vértéktie, so that it could not continue its disgusting spell.
Vértéktie, you see, do not feed the way monsters normally do. Most fearsome critters want to eat the flesh or drink the blood of their victims. A vértéktie, forgoing this physical sustenance, grabs hold of a person and slowly consumes their ability to experience joy. Once they have encountered a vértéktie in the light of the silvery moon, even a person who smiles easily and has found inner peace can find themselves staring into the carpet as if into a wishing well, unable to find even the smallest measure of happiness.
Laquinda ran as fast as her feet would take her, flogging the vértéktie with the rowan branch. She could hear the whisper of dark words, and could feel herself begin to despair. She began to shout over the vértéktie, singing prayers, calling out Our Fathers and Hail Marys at the top of her voice. She took her silver necklace and pressed it into the monster's leg, making the fur singe and burn; she did every thing she could think of to make the critter pause or start over or halt.
Before too long, she saw her house through the trees, and called her dogs.
The dogs came running up the path and circled Laquinda and the vértéktie, barking and growling. It is well-known that vértéktie are terrified of dogs, and the beast clambered its way up to the very top of Laquinda's head, where it turned round and round, spitting and squealing. Spying her chance, Laquinda grabbed its bony thorax and wrestled it to the ground, where she wrapped the necklace around its neck like a choker, and clutched the devil close to her.
She ran the rest of the way to the cabin, shooing the dogs inside before her as she went. Once they were all inside, she slammed and locked the door behind her and threw the vértéktie to the floor.
Now that the physical connection had been broken and the panic had begun to subside, Laquinda could tell that the vértéktie had badly diminished her capacity for merriment. Before the encounter, she could laugh at any joke, no matter how badly constructed or poorly told. Now she found that when she tried to smile, the corners of her mouth twitched halfheartedly and lay still. She knew that unless something was done, she would be unable to enjoy her walks, or her books, or her dogs, or her work, and she would soon begin to wither away.
"Vile beast," she hissed at the vértéktie. "Undo this damage! Restore me, or I shall kill you, and throw you in the fire, and let my dogs chew your bones!"
"Anything, please," said the vértéktie, "just let me go."
Laquinda grabbed the devil by the scruff of its neck, and attached bells to the silver necklace it wore, so that other people would know if it came near. She squeezed the vértéktie hard between her hands, and felt satisfaction rise within her.
Once this was done, and she was made her old self again, she opened the door to allow the demon to escape. Instead of running into the darkness, however, it looked at her plaintively.
"Please," it said, "with this bell around my neck, I shall never be able to feed. Soon, I will die of starvation."
Now that her gaiety had returned to her, Laquinda felt some small sympathy for this pathetic monster. "I shall place a saucer of milk on the front step every night," she said.
The vértéktie cocked its head and squinted at her. "On the first cold night I will freeze to death without the stolen joy of others to keep me warm."
Laquinda sighed. "All right," she said. "On very cold nights you may visit me indoors, and keep warm by the fire."
The vértéktie nodded once and was gone.
This is how Laquinda came to have a pet vértéktie. If you visit her in the woods on a snowy night, you may see it curled up by the fire, caressing its necklace of bells and smiling sweetly at you with all its tiny sharp teeth. Look at it, but do not touch; for deep down, the vértéktie is always hungry, and will not hesitate.
Artwork by the fabulously talented and wonderful Jes Seamans.
In the wake of gerrymandering and Crosscheck voter invalidation, the United States government has finally become a full-on evangelical theocracy, enacting biblical punishments for all transgressions. They've also adopted the non-evangelical notion of "purgatory" out of a sense of expediency and necessity.
When you're arrested for any non-mortal sin-- or even if you give confession for those sins-- you can be put into suspended animation to serve your "purgatory time" immediately. This helps alleviate overpopulation, and there's a political component, in that those in suspended animation are unable to vote. Those offenders with views opposing the government / church face a much higher rate of purgatorial punishment.
I'm a freedom fighter, looking to illegally resurrect a purgatory-dweller. I drive a small hovercraft / antigravity ship-- it's car-sized, more like a skiff or a convertible. It can fly up, down, sideways, upside down-- the floorboards are always "down," gravitationally. There isn't a top on it, but a top would be unnecessary, as global warming has forced all the cities into massive walled-off domes. I continue my search, deep into the archives full of glass coffins packed with those who are suspended in purgatory. They go on and on and on, for miles.
Also I have the unique ability to travel back in time, exactly one year from whenever I choose to exercise the ability. Once I've done so, I have to live forward in real-time, and cannot skip ahead.
If I fuck things up too much and change or damage the timeline too drastically, the shadows will come for me.
I'm in love with the purgatory-dweller for whom I search. She's a fierce political activist, and can rally dissent magnificently.
I keep searching.
I'm walking through a wooded area, but the trees are all in neat rows. Looking to my left, I see a serpentine, floating beam of light, roiling through two rows of pines. It moves, but not in a straight line like a flashlight beam: It drifts and carries the light with it, like luminescent smoke. Illuminated smoke. Only I can see it. It disappears or dissipates quickly.
I keep walking. There are people walking near me, but we are not together. Periodically, looking left, I can see the luminescent smoke, and I finally understand that it functions like a fiber-optic cable-- if I were to catch the end, I could look through it and see what's on the other end. It never stays long enough for me to catch it.
The group of people grows. We do not speak. We do not interact.
At last, the beam appears and lingers. I can see it. I run to it and stare down it.
A man at the other end slowly turns. He's wearing a shabby green-brown shirt and a faded red baseball cap. His face is darkened by shadows. He is unshaven. He has very bad teeth. Instead of eyes, he has small white suns in his head. They're almost too bright to look at.
Now he knows who I am, and he will come, and he will find me.
I woke up shivering with the most intense goosebumps.
My car has been in the body shop for so long that the insurance company doesn't want to keep paying for a rental, and I'm forced to return the one I have and figure out other arrangements. An acquaintance loans me a beater-- an old white '80s four-door sedan, long and chunkity. It runs okay until I'm driving toward an underpass and all four wheels come off at the same time.
I get out of the car, and hold up my hand to stop the oncoming traffic, which stops impatiently. "Shit," I think, and I sigh. I put one hand under the front bumper and one through the passenger side window, where I can grab the handle, and then hoist up the car with my bare hands and carry it to the side of the road. I gather all the tires and throw them in the trunk.
It's too late to get four new tires at CostCo, so I pick the car back up and carry it through some wide double doors into a Mexican restaurant and put it up on a tall planter while I use the restroom.
What a pain in the ass!
When I come out of the restroom, there is a small crowd gathered around the car, which is now sitting, tireless, on top of a tall planter. "Oh shit, I'm sorry," I say. "Let me get that out of here. I guess I'll just carry it home." I grab the bumper and the oh-shit handle and pick up the car again.
"Hey, if you need a car for a couple days, I can loan you one," says the woman running the place. "It won't be good, but loaners aren't supposed to be good. It'll get you where you need to go."
"Really?" I say. "That would be a lifesaver."
It isn't until I wake up that I realize that everyone in the dream was flabbergasted that I could just pick up an entire car and carry it around.
Gray clouds swirl in the sky above the land of the dead, but never part. Sunlight never touches the bones strewn across the countryside. Warmth never melts the soft snow that falls to blanket the gentle hills and valleys, copses and dales of Death's freehold. Bitter wind creeps through walls and flesh just the same, sowing ice and salt as it goes. Despite the lack of sunlight, blighted stalks of arctic willow grow from shallow tundra soil, up through ribs and mandibles, up through eye sockets and collarbones, straining above the snow cover by force of will alone. After all, Death's herd must eat.
The kerberoxen move in small groups, shaggy, gray-brown, and asymmetrical. They mar the bleached landscape: hot tears on blotter paper. Their hooves punch down through snow and bone, raking and scraping to reveal willow, or crowberries, or lichen that has managed to take hold on a half-buried cranial plane. When a kerberox finds food, its central head lowers to eat, while the head on each side either rises to keep watch for competition if the patch is small, or begins calling out to neighbors in a low baritone if the food source is large enough for other members of the herd to eat.
Some of the kerberoxen are molting. Every Sunday, Death walks across the estate, inspecting the animals, checking to see which are ready for combing. Because there are no changes to the weather, there is no molting season. Each animal molts regularly, but not en masse. Death combs all the qiviut-- the fine, downy woolen underhair-- by hand, and works it with thin quick phalanges, keeping only the softest and finest fibers.
Each kerberox only molts once a year, but Death is nothing if not patient.
Death lives in an old wooden house in the center of the estate. The house is very warm. It's connected to Death's hothouse mulberry grove, where Death raises silkworms. Death knows the precise moment when each silkworm is ready to hatch, and is prepared. One eyedropper of warm water, squeezed onto the cocoon; nimble slender fingerbones, spinning the silk thread off in one single long strand; spindles, to collect the silk. The cocoon turns quickly in Death's deft hands, until the last of the thread winds off, and the new moths-- heritage Bombyx mandarina-- fly off in little circles, dizzy but unharmed, until Death releases them.
Death is a vegetarian.
The house creaks and groans and squeaks in the constant wind, which Death finds to be a comfort. Sometimes late at night, lying in an old wooden bed, Death relaxes and allows the clouds to dissipate. Moonlight performs a slow dappled waltz across the walls and ceilings of Death's home, diffused by empty trees and reflected by snow, and the sound of a steam train engine calls across the grange, though there is no outbound traffic. Death's angora rabbits shiver in their sleep on the quilted bedspread, and Death knows peace.
Death combines the kerberox qiviut in a particular ratio with the rabbit angora and fine silk to make thread. Death alone spins this thread, and then, in the evenings, Death knits. A single kerberox combing can be used to knit enough thread to make seven square feet of cabled cloth, but Death is nothing if not persistent.
Sometimes at night Death lies covered by the quilt in the moonlight, surrounded by small warm sleeping rabbits. Death remembers what it was like to have been alive. Remembers the fear of abandoning one's body, the dreaded impending revelation of the mystery. If Death had eyebrows, they would raise in sympathy; if Death had lips, they would curl up in a small smile: recognition of shared experience; remembrance of crossing universal thresholds.
For Death knows: we are all ghosts temporarily thrust into living bodies. There is evidence in every coffin, every x-ray, every sugar skull, every Halloween night. When we go, everything that we are-- every intention, every desire, every love, every hate-- is woven into Death's great darkness. Death gathers it all. Death remembers. And Death will knit until all of the knitting is done.
Death is knitting a shroud large enough to encompass the earth.
Art courtesy of the excellent Randy Ortiz.