There once was a woman named Andrea, O children, whose family kept four chickens in a small coop in their backyard. Andrea's wife Stephanie had convinced the family that keeping chickens was a good idea, and it had been good, by and large. The eggs were delicious, and the children loved watching the birds peck and scratch.
The family took turns feeding and watering the chickens, spreading diatomaceous earth to keep the smell down, and replacing the straw. Andrea hated taking her turn with the chickens, O children: their beady eyes, so vacant and yet so expectant; their sharp claws, ever scratching at the dirt; the pungent tang of their droppings. She always tried to trade chores with the other members of the family. Most of the time she was able to avoid chicken duty, but not always, and so it was that one morning her alarm clock went off before the sun came up and she had to rise for chicken-tending.
Andrea sighed and went out into the dewy dark backyard to feed and water the chickens and gather eggs. She put the eggs (only two this morning) into her little basket and squatted down to fill the chickens' water. As she was bent down, Doris-- a beautiful black-and-white Barred Plymouth Rock hen-- hopped up onto the shoulder of her purple robe.
"Bok buk bugok," said Doris.
"Agh shit," said Andrea, and quickly stood up. Doris came up with her, and shifted her head to look Andrea right in the eye.
"Bok," said the chicken.
"Uh, hello, Doris," said Andrea. She regarded the chicken on her shoulder, and Doris regarded her right back.
Slowly, Andrea reached into her robe pocket and pulled out her phone. She opened the camera and lifted it up, taking a few selfies in quick succession, while thinking about potential captions for the internet. Tough-guy face for the first one, maybe with the caption "Who you callin' chicken?" For the second, Doris looked kind of sad, so Andrea grinned big; "The Egg-ony and the Egg-stasy." For the third, Andrea licked her lips and stared wide-eyed at Doris. Caption: "My Dinner With Andrea." She could look at the selfies again inside, and post the best one. As she slipped the phone back into her robe pocket, Doris darted forward and buried her entire head in Andrea's ear.
Andrea screamed and fell backwards into the straw. Doris scrabbled for purchase and maintained a grip on the robe, but let out a startled "BUK BOK BUGOK!" The clucking echoed, unbearably loud, inside Andrea's head. Immediately, a horrible burning and itching started; Doris pecked around inside Andrea's cranium, and little neck feathers brushed maddeningly against Andrea's inner ear. Doris, in all the thrashing, yanked down the collar of the robe and buried a set of talons into Andrea's bare shoulder. Andrea screamed again and reached up and around, wrapping her hands around the bird's neck and midsection, lifting it away.
The head stayed put, and Doris' body stopped short. "BUK BUGOK," Doris hollered into Andrea's head, and shat all over the robe. Andrea closed her eyes and tried not to panic. If she freaked out and yanked too hard, she could kill the chicken, and then she'd have a dead hen wedged headfirst in her ear. Worst of all, if she pulled hard enough, the chicken head might actually detach, tick-like, and remain buried, dripping its own thick blood down Andrea's neck.
The other three birds watched calmly from the yard.
Andrea reached up with the arm closest to Doris and held the bird's body down tight against her shoulder, preventing further clawing and scrabbling. With the other hand, she reached up and followed the chicken's neck as far as she could, until she hit her own ear. The entire skull was inside her head. The clucking continued unabated. Andrea carefully folded her fingers over the top of the chicken's neck and pressed the meat of her thumb against her temple, applying gentle but steady pressure out and away.
After thirty seconds of itching and crowing, there was a loud popping sound, almost exactly like squeezed bubblewrap, and Doris' head came loose. Andrea threw the chicken onto the ground, where it looked at her with an expression as close to surprise as a chicken's face can muster. Doris' head was caked with viscous yellow earwax.
Immediately, Andrea decided that she could tell no one. She wiped Doris' head off with a paper towel as best she could and went about her business. She brought in the eggs. She put the robe, bloody and spattered with Doris droppings, into the washer. She showered, spending a lot of extra time with a Q-Tip, and pulled out three large feathers and five small ones. She deleted all of the chicken-selfies. She vomited and got dressed; got the children up, fed, and clothed; dropped them off at school, and went to work.
While listening to a PowerPoint presentation that morning, Andrea heard a single muted cluck. She yelped and shoved her chair back from the table, scuffling backwards and drawing glances. After coming to her senses, she played it off as an insect crawling up her ankle. She tried to resume learning about the benefits of a particular bookkeeping software, but her mind was elsewhere.
The clucks kept coming, each one slightly different; there were long pauses between them at first, but the intervals grew shorter and shorter until they rang through her head every few seconds. Andrea left work at noon. The closer she got to her home, the louder they became, until she found herself in the backyard staring at Doris.
"What did you do to me, Doris?"
The chicken looked at her, then pecked at the ground.
"How do I stop this, Doris?" asked Andrea.
"Bugok," said Doris, and the sound echoed like a fart in a cathedral, resonating and filling Andrea's entire awareness. She fell to her knees.
Something needed to be done. As soon as she could stand, Andrea got a hatchet out of the shed. She carried Doris, seemingly-unconcerned, over to a stump, and braced her with one hand. With the other, she quickly brought down the blade. Doris' head flopped onto the grass, and her thin little legs kicked and flailed in the air. The clucking in Andrea's head stopped immediately.
"Oh, thank goodness," said Andrea. She couldn't bring herself to pluck Doris-- just the thought of eating her caused an awful bout of heartburn-- so she gently placed the corpse in the garbage on the curb, and went inside for a bubble bath and two bottles of wine. She was pretty well recovered by the time Stephanie and the kids came home. No one had yet noticed Doris' absence.
Andrea couldn't even look at the beef in the fridge, and so she and Stephanie made vegetarian dinner: quinoa and lentils in spicy red sauce, with broccoli on the side. The family watched an animated movie, by the end of which Andrea felt almost normal (despite finding a feather in her hair). The kids went to bed. Shortly thereafter, Andrea and Stephanie did too.
Andrea half-woke in a sweat at two-thirty in the morning. The bottoms of her feet itched and burned red-hot, as though she'd walked through poison ivy barefoot. Under the covers, she reached down and scratched, her long nails digging at her soles, trying to find some relief but not wanting to enter full wakefulness. God, it felt good. She scratched and scratched, the relief intensely satisfying, until her fingers slid under the calloused flesh of her soles and touched the dozens of scaly chicken feet beneath.
Illustrations by the lovely and talented Bill Latham. Special thanks to Grace C. R. and DW Fitzgerald, and their bizarre dreams.
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.
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.
This fable is a continuation, of sorts, of this one. Read that one first, if you haven't.
Many years ago, O children, there was a man who was arrested with less than a quarter-ounce of substandard marijuana. Although he was a nonviolent drug offender, it was his third conviction, and so he was sentenced to prison for a very long time. He calmly and good-naturedly tried to serve his term in a low-security prison. While he was unhappy to be incarcerated, and very much looked forward to his eventual release, he tried to make the best of his time; he used the library, and the weight room, and did little meditations, and wrote little songs.
One evening more than halfway through his sentence, the jailors came to his cell door and unlocked it. "Got a new cellie for you, pal," said a guard, and ushered in an old man.
The old man was unlike any cellmate the prisoner ever had. He was very old, with skin like papyrus. His skin was all white, whiter even than the skin of prisoners coming out of solitary confinement. His eyes were pink and very bright. He wasn't wearing a standard orange jumpsuit, but instead a finely bespoke suit and hat made of pure white unmarred fabric. He carried a large white rabbit in his hands, and he walked into the cell and sat down on the bottom bunk, making eye contact with the prisoner the entire time, and stroking the wide-eyed rabbit in his lap with one gnarled hand.
"Hey," said the prisoner.
The cellmate did not respond, and continued staring at the prisoner and petting the rabbit.
"What's your story, man? What you in for? How come you get to wear a suit?"
The cellmate scratched the rabbit behind the ears with his long white fingernails.
The prisoner went to the bars of his cell and called out to the guard. "Hey, who the hell is this guy? Why's he get to wear his own clothes? Why's he get to bring a pet?"
The guard calmly walked over to the cell. "Temporary arrangement. For his safety. He ain't like you, he'll be gone after tomorrow. You were just the only one who had a vacancy. Don't do anything stupid."
"Okay," said the prisoner. "This is fucked up, though."
"You're tellin' me, pal," said the guard.
The prisoner leaned against the bars for a minute, then turned around. The old man was still staring at him.
"Well, that's my bunk," said the prisoner. When the old man didn't respond, he said, "But hey, that's cool. One night, you take that bunk. I'll sleep up top."
Eventually, the prisoner lowered himself and sat cross-legged on the floor across from his new cellmate. He stared back, and counted his breaths, and kept quiet. He fought down his deep sense of unease, and rubbed down the hairs on his arms, which had all risen of their own accord.
The sun eventually went down, and the cell darkened. Neither man spoke, and after a time, the lights in the cell went out, leaving only moonlight streaming through the bars of the cell's only window.
The old man raised his free hand and held up three fingers (pinky, ring, and middle). "Have you ever been on a deserted island, with no way back and no place to sleep, and watched the sun set over the mainland?"
The man paused and remembered an incident from his past, when he was young, and made many mistakes. "Once, yeah."
The old man dropped his middle finger and nodded. "Have you ever been alone in a house at night and seen a herd of cows gathered at the windows to look at you?"
"How the fuck you know this shit, man? I never told anybody about that."
The old man nodded again, and dropped his ring finger, leaving only his pinky raised. "Have you ever seen a pack of wolves bring down a stag?"
"What? No. What the fuck are you even talking about, man?"
The old man smiled, not unkindly, and lowered the remaining finger, making a fist. "It's quite a thing to behold. A single wolf could never do it alone, not a big stag, full-antlered. But a pack could, if they work together. If they're hungry enough. They start by tearing at the legs." He scratched the top of the rabbit's head. The rabbit chewed something unseen. "Go to sleep," said the old man.
Hesitantly, and not unafraid, the prisoner climbed up into the top bunk and rested his head on his pillow. He had every intention of staying awake all night in order to protect himself, but found himself almost immediately asleep.
His dream was dark, and full of shadows and swirling black mist. The prisoner tried to move through his murky blindness, but found that he could only move slowly. He heard a rhythmic thrum, the persistent desperate knocking of an unwanted and dreadful but ultimately ecstatic revelation. The prisoner turned around to run from it, but he could not tell one direction from another, and the pounding got louder and closer no matter which way he moved.
The prisoner awoke as the sun was rising and the first rays of the day peeked through the bars of the window. Although he'd slept all night, he felt more exhausted than ever. He groaned, and lowered himself slowly to the floor, and made his way to the steel privy in the corner, where he relieved himself.
The old man still sat on the lower bunk, one hand folded over the other. "Good morning," he said, and smiled wide, revealing a set of small red-stained teeth.
"Morning," said the prisoner softly. The lights in the cell slowly flickered to life. The guards unlocked the door and led the old man away, leaving the prisoner alone once again.
Art by the incredible Dragan Bibin. Used with permission.
There once was a traditional herbalist, O children, with a shop in the tiny back room of a strip-mall spa and nail salon in a small Arkansas town. She had painted a small sign that hung in the window of the nail salon, offering her services: traditional herbal health treatments, aromatherapy, prayer candles, country incense, homeopathy. She had a steady trickle of customers, to whom she sold a lot of prayer candles and incense, and in this way she was able to keep the lights on in her small house and keep her refrigerator stocked with food.
She was disappointed by the infrequency with which she was asked to perform her traditional herbalist medicine. She had been taught in the ways of country remedies by her mother, who had been taught by her mother, and so on up the family tree as far as her heirloom Bible went.
In her backyard, she maintained the family garden: sumac, whole cloves, cubeb, prickly ash, a patch of ginger; an orange tree; angelica, peppermint, caraway; coneflower, foxglove, black-eyed susan. She used these infrequently in her shop, but often for personal use, and it was important to her to continue the family tradition.
One night during a full moon, when the plants were at their most potent, she harvested ribwort, and hazel and lavender, and other things. As she did so, she heard a muffled high-pitched whine, like a small child screaming into a pillow. She stopped picking and listened, and followed the sound to its origin beneath a bough of her rowan tree. Carefully and slowly, she reached into the soil with her fingertips, and pulled out a screaming mandrake root. "How curious," she thought, as the mandrake shrieked into her face. "I have never planted mandrake." She placed her thumb over its wee little mouth, so as not to bother the neighbors, and took her harvest indoors, where she began preparing the plants.
Some went into an infusion, some were ground in a mortar and pestle, and some were laid out to dry. As she worked, the mandrake root sometimes coughed. As she broke up rowan bark, it started to loudly clear its throat, and as she zested oranges into a small jar, the mandrake spoke to her. "Tomorrow, a woman will come in to the shop. She will have rheumatoid arthritis." Then it rattled off a list of instructions and ingredients. The woman quickly gathered the materials, and put the mixture into a jar to soak overnight.
The next day, a woman came in for arthritis. "I knew you were coming," said the herbalist, and handed her the jar with a small label stating what it was for. "Tonight, heat up a cast-iron skillet on your stove. Put a towel over your head, and pour this into the cast-iron skillet. Put your head over the skillet, and breathe the smoke and vapor for thirty, forty-five seconds, or until it starts to really burn. Then stop. That'll be forty dollars."
That night, the mandrake root said, "Tomorrow, a man will come in with a broken heart. Here is what he will need." The mandrake listed ingredients and instructions, and asked the woman to cut off a chunk of its own mandrake root body, to include in the mixture. The woman did as she was told, and the next day she sold it to the man and gave him instructions for inhalation with his cast-iron skillet. The man came in the next day and bought some prayer candles and incense, and he thanked her, telling her that he'd never felt better.
This went on for weeks. The mandrake told the herbalist about customers who would come in with specific needs, and told her what to give them. These were always mixtures to be burned, steamed, and inhaled. For certain customers, the mandrake demanded that she cut off parts of it to be included and breathed in by her customers. The woman became much more successful, and had to order many more prayer candles and much more incense. Also, the herbalist started getting repeat customers.
The broken-hearted man came back in, for an inflamed liver. "I can feel it pulsating inside me," he said, "like a great black prune, a hungry prune." She gave him more mandrake infusion.
An insomniac woman came back because she now had terrible dreams. "A combine chases me through a field of wheat under bright moonlight," she said, "and I can feel that my feet are broken, but I must keep running, as the machine chases me and chases me." She gave the woman more mandrake infusion.
A man haunted by his father came back because he missed the presence of the ghost. "It was bad, hearing him moan and drip blood onto the floor while I lay in the dark, but it is much worse to not hear him moan and drip blood onto the floor, while I lay alone, in the dark, in the middle of this universe." She gave him more mandrake infusion.
The business kept coming. The woman's savings account grew plump. The body of the mandrake root dwindled until all that was left was its head.
One night, the mandrake root said, "This is the end. Two days from now, an old man will come into the shop. He will not speak, but his breath will smell of honey, and shit, and saffron. You must muddle an herbal concoction to exact specifications." The mandrake root gave her a very specific list of ingredients, with multiple steps for muddling, infusing, powdering. "Now, you must place what's left of me in your mortar, and use your pestle to grind me into mush. I will go into the jar last. Bury the jar beneath your rowan tree and leave it there overnight."
The herbalist did as she was told.
She thought she was prepared, but when the man arrived, she was shocked. His skin was all white, and his beard and hair too. He wore a suit made from the brightest white cloth she had ever seen, including a white leather tie and hat. His eyes were bright pink and rapidly moved back and forth as he looked at her. When he opened his mouth, all she could see was a deep ruby red, and the shop filled with the deep sweet permeating stench of honey and saffron and shit. Silently, with shaking hands, she handed him the soil-caked jar. The man reached into his inside vest pocket and brought out six small grains of gold, the size and shape of rice, and dropped them, tinkling, onto her counter.
Then he left.
The woman closed early, and went home, and looked at the grains of gold in her hand. That night, under the waning moon, she buried them beneath the rowan tree.