Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

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The Blessing of Vasillisa – A Retelling of a Russian Folktale

December 22, 2016

vaillisa

The Blessing of Vasillisa
(A Retelling of a Russian Folktale)

for my mother, for whom I sad everyday

Mother yet lies in her deathbed when she calls her only child to her side. “Daughter,” she said to the middling red-haired Vasillisa, “You will go with your uncle, Motya, when he arrives.”

“No, mother,” Vasillisa cried. “He is too thin. There is never anything sweet to eat.”

It was true, Motya was very skinny. The man was poor and he had no wife nor children of his own. And Vasillisa had no other relatives. All her one uncle owned was a house that he and his brother, Vasillisa’s father, had inherited years ago from their dead mother. There Vasillisa would go and live.

The now dying mother tries to console her daughter, “He will feed you, Vasillisa. Motya can hunt if that is all he is able to do. He killed the boar that tore open your father.”

“The meat was sour and too hard to chew,” complained the red-haired girl.

“I know,” her exhausted mother replied.

The tragic young woman still had some strength and she uncovers a wooden doll from beneath her tattered woolen shroud. A beautiful pale face, yellow hair and a swirling blue dress decorates the figure. Vasillisa herself had no dress, but she could not be jealous. This was one was only paint.

Nevertheless, the painterly craftsmanship appeared as made by a royal artisan. On the contrary, the blocky shape of the totem was nothing more than ordinary. Motya may have carved it. Mother dispels the suspicion.

“My mother gave this to me and her mother gave it to her. She is special. Vasillisa, this is my blessing to you. Until you were born then after your father was killed, she was all I had, beside you. She is enough.”

Vasillisa carefully lifts the painted figure from her mother’s shaking hand. The girl is respectful because she knows this was the only gift she would receive from her mother. It was the last thing she would receive and the last of the woman’s love. “What is her name?”

“She has no name,” mother told her daughter. “It is important you do not give a name to her. I do not know why, but there are things you should never know. Never ask for her name. Keep her secret.”

Vasillisa nods. The girl smiles despite the silver tear in her eye.

Mother then tells her daughter before sleeping forever, “Give her a little to eat and a little to drink, then she will help you. She will save you when you need her most.”

Motya did then come and Vasillisa stuffs all she owns into a burlap sack. There too goes her mother’s blessing, but the red-haired girl carries her tears and grief openly. These were the only things she did not hide from her uncle. Motya claims, “I understand.”

The thin man in loose overalls asks her only, “Keep watch for the lord of the land. I will bury your mother here, next to your father. The one earthly thing the dead are forever entitled to is the ground that covers them. Who would argue that away?”

Once Motya had finished the burial unattended, he walks back miles to his home with Vasillisa by his side. His niece carries her belongings on her back. Even when Motya tells her, “I can help you with this burden,” Vasillisa refuses her uncle.

Having himself carried nothing with him, Motya tells his niece, “My cupboard is bare, but there may yet be berries in the bushes. We might catch a bird. The bark on the trees is still green.”

Not hungry, Vasillisa refuses the invitation to forage food. She says nothing and only shakes her head while the pair continue a quiet journey unfed through moonlight. Late in the evening, she hears her uncle’s stomach growl. Not a single animal answers.

The wooden house to which Motya brings his niece is no bigger than the sod home with a single room from which Vasillisa had come. The shadows this night could not make it more tiny. Even the yard surrounding Motya’s house is smaller than the garden Vasillisa and her mother had tended for their lord. And her uncle’s less-acre was yet studded with the stumps of long-felled trees.

“Go inside,” Motya tells her, “I’ll find for us some food.”

“At night?” Vasillisa asked.

“I have traps,” claimed her uncle. “But take care, a witch may come.”

“A witch?” Vasillisa chittered between her teeth.

“You’ll see,” promised her uncle. “It will be fine, in the morning. Maybe we’ll eat.”

“You’re fine, Vasillisa, you’ll be safe. I will see to that,” Motya shouted before disappearing into dark woods. “I promised so much to your mother. She knows. She watches.”

“Watches?” mumbled the red-haired girl and she goes alone into her uncle’s house. She pictures the unblinking doll hidden in the sack slung over her shoulder. That sack comes twirling down before Vasillisa with its chocked neck yet in her tight first.

The girl scoffs, “Witch.” Vasillisa refuses to believe witches exist. She had been scared by stories about giants and trolls, ghosts and even Ded Moroz, but that was when she was a littler girl. Since those short years ago, she has only become more alone. The summers have gotten shorter and the winters have become more cold. And she has still seen no proof of anything not natural. Today, her heart turned to stone.

Vasillisa thinks once more about the nameless blessing again with her own eyes wide in the dim glow of fireplace embers inside her uncle’s home. She contemplates digging the doll from the crypt of her bundled clothes then casting it into the hearth where it may blaze and illuminate the room.

“No,” said the red-haired girl to no one but herself. “The doll was given to me in the spirit of love. She is all I have to remember my sweet mother. I will respect her wishes.”

The totem remains untouched in the sack and Vasillisa finds kindling and a log. These, instead of her pretty heirloom, ignite upon the embers and warm and lighten the room. As she expected of her uncle Motya, there is nothing special here to see. There are two rooms, yet not so unlike the one in her old home, and also a bare pantry. Although, the walls of this house are paneled with wooden slabs and not mud.

She cannot know, but her uncle seems absent for hours. Motya is gone so long that Vasillisa grows weary of waiting. Having nothing to eat nor any care for food, the red-haired girl finds a path to her uncle’s bed of straw. The fire in the hearth heats the whole small house. And her burlap sack is a comfortable enough pillow that she falls asleep. Her dreams are quiet until dawn.

The following morning, Vasillisa is awakened by her uncle Motya. The front door is knocked open and shakes the wall it bangs against. “Don’t be afraid,” Motya pants. “Come outside. See this but don’t run away.”

The warning does worry the red-haired girl but she is yet drowsy and confused. Vasillisa slips from her uncle’s bed. She steps outside leaving the door wide open. The fire had died long ago in the night, but the sun was shining. The day was warm and the eastern horizon was rich with yellow and pink. A shadow moved through the forest, one that rose solidly above the trees.

A house walked upon the treetops, a wooden house much like Motya’s, but neat and proud. Vasillisa could now plainly see her uncle’s house in the daylight. Outside, too, his home was not proud. The walking house boasted itself. Iron-red shutters ornamented the house and red trim run about its concealed windows. Uncle Motya’s house lacked the features. The only opening into his home was its door. And unlike Motya’s, the roof of the enchanted house was made of thatch and not tiles of wood.

The walking house on stilts came closer then stepped into the deforested clearing where stood Vasillisa and her uncle. The ghastly sight of its supports prompted Motya to say, “You see? Do you remember? Your mother told you the stories.”

Vasillisa stuttered, “Fairy tales.” As her uncle instructed, the red-haired girl did not yet run away.

The house standing above Vasillisa and her uncle, impossibly upon two crooked legs of a gargantuan chicken, this impossible house belonged in a fevered dream. This was the dwelling a witch, an infamous witch, the Baba Yaga.

Vasillisa recalled the legend. These legs were stolen from a living rooster, a black cock that crows only at sunset. Even then the bird makes no sound. No one can say if the witch had also taken it’s voice. Some have said to the red-haired girl herself that they have watched it fly in clumsy spirals at night, for spinsters in villages claim it yet lives. They have said the bird struggles to go the moon.

Once the horrible house takes another step toward them, Vasillisa truly speaks to her uncle Motya the first time since he had come for her. Her voice shudders when she says, “Baba Yaga.”

“Uncle, should we go back inside your house?”

The red-haired girl was not thinking. The witch might kill them both anytime she wished. The enormous talons of her home could easily tear apart and crush Motya’s small house.

“Yes, Vasillisa,” Her uncle instructed. “Gather your belongings. You have all your things, yes?”

Vasillisa did not answer. Instead, she wonders aloud what had been said to frighten her, “Does the witch eat children?”

Motya replies as his niece rushes into his house, “No, not children, not you today. Don’t be afraid, Vasillisa.”

No sooner than a moment after Vasillisa snatched up her sack of clothing, Motya enters his house behind her. The aroma of roasted potatoes comes with him, and though she is still frightened, the red-haired girl feels her belly rumble. Melted cheese also teases her nose. Then the odor of smoke and ash makes her nostrils itch. Vasillisa turns around and she spies the witch.

Uncle Motya stands besides the crooked old woman. Motya holds a steaming pot of potatoes and he grins, albeit uneasily. The witch smiles, too, and bares sharp yellow teeth. She declares herself to the red-haired girl. “I am Baba Yaga.”

“I know,” Vasillisa answered. She gropes for the wooden doll her mother had given her and she feels it snug there in the sack.

Baba Yaga cackles. “All the children know me!” Both Vasillisa and Motya agree and merely nod their heads. These two scrutinize their visitor without questions.

The long and unkempt hair of the crone is the color of coal. Its matted strands smudge patterns on her wrinkled face like those painted on the dress of Vasillisa’s blessing. Although, the vision of the old woman was the opposite of beautiful. The slovenly hag looked to have dragged her head through the char of a stove. Clamped locks also blacken the collar and shoulders of the woman’s coarse tawny gown.

“She has brought us breakfast,” Motya eventually stated. He gestures deliberately when he sniffs from the uncovered pot.

Baba Yaga leers at Vasillisa. “It’s safe to eat. If you can’t trust that, well, you will now prepare our suppers.”

“Uncle, what does she mean?” Vasillisa immediately asked Motya.

“You didn’t tell her?’ titters the witch.

“No,” Motya confessed. He then pleads to his only niece. “I’m sorry, Vasillisa. I have a house, but there is no food for us. This year has not been kind. I’m unable to feed myself.”

“Eat,” cackled the witch. “Eat now and worry about yourself tomorrow. Vasillisa will live with me.”

The bent Baba Yaga does not need to stoop when she speaks to the little red-haired girl.

“You will wash my plates and sharpen my knives. You will sweep my house and stoke the fire. You, Vasillisa, you will churn my butter and knead the dough for my meat pies.”

Reciting the list makes the woman to giggle then gag. Baba Yaga appears about to spit then instead she swallows hard. “You will come with me, girl. And we will leave your uncle a bag of potatoes and a crumble of cheese.”

Her blood runs cold when Vasillisa asks, “Uncle.”

Motya tells her, “It’s true. Don’t be afraid. Yaga will care for you.”

“It is true,” echoed the witch. “I have no children of my own and no grandchildren. That is who you shall be to me. Call me ‘Grandmother.’ I will enjoy that if you did.”

“Uncle Motya?” Vasillisa begged again.

He tells his niece, “Yaga is your now your grandmother. Go with her and be fed. Grow up healthy and strong and know all those things I have never known.”

“For potatoes, uncle,” stammered the red-haired girl. The revelation causes the witch to bellow. After a moment, Motya laughs aloud, too.

“Now, bring your things,” Baba Yaga commands the red-haired girl. “If you will not eat.”

The witch attempts to lure the girl. “There are boiled eggs in my house.”

Though she is wary, Vasillisa does go with Baba Yaga where she is promised a home. As she leaves his house, her uncle Motya tells the red-haired girl and through a mouth full of potatoes and cheese, “Your mother watches you. Remember her love for you.”

Vasillisa does not know if his words were meant to comfort her. She does not even know if she is truly safe. Unconcerned with the girl’s doubt, Baba Yaga takes her hand and leads her outside and into her squatting house. The witch chants as they go.

“You will wash the plates and sharpen my knives. You will sweep this house and stoke the fire.”

“You will milk my goat and feed her hay. This you must do everyday.”

“On Tuesday, you will shake the rugs. And on Thursday, you will hunt bed bugs.”

“Shake the linens twice at night. Shake them until there are no more lice.”

The darkness inside the witch’s house first blinds the red-haired girl. As Vasillisa lets her eyes adjust to the light of glowing coals in a hearth, she listens as a chicken constantly clucks like the heavy tick of a grandfather clock. Baba Yaga adds to the girl’s chores.

“Empty the chamber pot each and every morn. Even if you are tired and worn.”

“Do this for me and you will have a place to stay. Do these chores and more and you will live happy that day.”

Once her vision is restored, Vasillisa scans her surroundings and hunts for the noisy bird. She does not find the chicken, but as she looks she sees a goat. The bloated animal stands in a mound of hay with its face in a corner of stucco walls. Beneath, its utter is swollen and red.

Having watched the red-haired girl, Baba Yaga says to Vasillisa, “Yes, there she is. She is Alyonushka. Rub your hands with butter before you begin your chore so you are gentle with her teats. I used to have a pig and a cow, but I ate them both.”

“Where is the chicken?” Vasillisa accidentally felt brave and asked.

“There is no chicken,” Baba Yaga answered. “But you to eat an egg, I know it. You must be hungry. They are there in the cupboard.”

The witch points a long and thin finger toward an ornate and antique cabinet. “Call me grandmother and I’ll give you two.”

Knowing this was expected of her, Vasillisa answers with a soft voice. “Grandmother.”

The title makes the witch hoot. She praises her new granddaughter. “Good, the eggs are in that cupboard. You can get them yourself.”

Vasillisa puts down her sack and she does what Baba Yaga has told her to do. She fetches two hard boiled eggs. They are as any other boiled egg with the color of tanned leather. Yet suspicious, Vasillisa cracks one open against the cupboard and peels away its shell. Nothing appears out of ordinary. The rubbery white shines and feels slick.

“Eat,” demanded the witch.

Vasillisa does take bite and finds the chalky yoke is ordinary, too. She pockets the second egg in her blouse and finishes eating the first. She swallows not because of hunger but rather at the pleasure of the hag.

In those moments she chewed, Vasillisa examined the dark room in which she stood. The high ceiling rafters could not possibly be contained in this house no bigger than Motya’s own. And three blackened doorways opened into rooms that could not exist. There was more to this enchanted hut than the red-haired girl might believe.

“Good,” Baba Yaga stated. “No we will find a creek and you will scrub my pans.”

The witch laughs while she repeats herself. “You will wash the plates and sharpen my knives.”

“There is water beneath the basin, there, and lye and a brush,” Baba Yaga tells the girl. The witch then utters something Vasillisa does not understand and she clicks her tongue twice. The whole house sways and does not stop. It rocks left and right as if it were a boat on water. Only when the red-haired girl has finished her task does the house come to rest. The clucking she heard earlier had never ceased and the noise persists.

Baba Yaga tells Vasillisa what to do next. “Empty the wash water and rinse the basin in the creek outside. Rinse the pots and fill the buckets. Let me hear you speak. Do you understand?”

“Yes, grandmother,” Vasillisa replied without hesitation.

“Good, don’t run away. I have all your belongings in the world. Don’t fret, just like you, they will stay safe with me here. But don’t dally, you have other things to do.”

“Yes, grandmother.”

Iron pots, forks, knives and wooden spoons come with the enameled white basin when Vasillisa hefts it from a shelf and carries it outside. The weather is colder here in the wooded foothills the red-haired girl finds the walking house has taken them. Outdoors, the noise of the invisible chicken is replaced by that of a slow wind and chuckling brook.

Vasillisa follows the sound to the running water and relieves herself of the weight of her burden. Already, she grows weary of her work but she does as she has been told. Her fingers feel they freeze in the running water until they ache. While alone and finishing her work, a man calls from behind her back.

“Little girl, are you a captive of the Baba Yaga?”

Vasillisa stands and turns around. A shivering, pale-faced man with bony white hands stands in the forest like an apparition. The red-haired girl can only say, “Are you real?”

“Aye,” the ghostly man replied. “What you are doing with the witch?”

“I did not think she could exist.”

“I can take you away,” promised the stranger. The witch then summons her serving girl.

“Vasillisa, come back home. You’ve been gone too long.”

The sound of the witch makes the cold man start. “I’ll come back for you. I’ll rescue you tonight,” he said and jumps into brush. Vasillisa could not see where he hid. Baba Yaga had come, and for his fortune, or that of the red-haired girl, the witch did not see her rescuer either.

“Come inside, Vasillisa,” Baba Yaga commands. “You will sleep with me in my bed tonight. You will keep this old woman warm.”

The witch snickers while she wraps a dark shawl more tightly around her shoulders. “Living children have such warm bodies.”

Vasillisa gathers the dripping cookware and lugs all in the basin back to the walking hut. Not yet finished with her tasks, she returns worn to the creek and fills two buckets with fresh water. All the while, Baba Yaga urges her to rush. As she and the witch go back inside, the hag asks the red-haired girl, “Did you talk to anyone while you out?”

Hoping the hidden pale man did not lie to her, Vasillisa answers, “No.” The witch cannot discover she may be rescued this evening.

“Lucky for you,” Baba Yaga tells the girl. “This is a haunted wood. Did you see any spirits?”

Vasillisa shakes her head. Inside the house, she first sees her burlap sack is on the floor where she had dropped it. After placing the basin back where she had taken it, she goes and lifts up all she owns. While she gropes for the blessing her mother had given her, the red-haired girl could swear she feels the doll twitch inside the baggage.

“There you are,” said the witch. “Your things are untouched. Now, put the dishes on the shelves next to the basin and the utensils into their drawer. We have another place to go. Do you like the color indigo? There is a dyer I know who sells dresses for little girls. Would you like a new blue dress, Vasillisa? My granddaughter should look pretty. That’s what I think.”

“You do like dresses, right? All little girls like dresses. Never lie to me, Vasillisa. I will find you out.”

Baba Yaga pauses and stares into the girl’s wide hazel eyes. With another two clicks of her tongue, Baba Yaga starts her house moving again.

“Stoke the fire, grandchild. Make it blaze. I’ll be back in a moment.”

The witch goes into the center doorway on the back wall. After a moment passed and Vasillisa tossed a log into the hearth and brought the fire to life, she grew curious why Baba Yaga made no sound. She also wanted to inspect her blessing and see why it mayhap moved under her touch. The red-haired girl creeps toward the center doorway and peeks inside. There is no witch, only a long pantry stocked with pickling and preserves.

“How?” she wondered aloud and contemplated if her guardian was merely as unseen as the noisy chicken.

“Grandmother?” Vasillisa calls but she hears no answer. No footfalls sound above the volume of the clucking. Convinced she is alone, Vasillisa quickly retrieves her blessing and at once decides she will eat her second egg.

The unnamed totem is in no different condition than when Vasillisa had stowed it away. She holds it in her lap and cracks open the egg with a knuckle. She eats most and recalls what her mother had told her before she died.

“Give her a little to eat and a little to drink, then she will save you when you need her most.”

So, Vasillisa presses crumbs of yoke to the doll’s painted lips. It does not move and was probably not hungry. Herself thirsty, the red-haired girl cups her palm and carries water from the bucket she had filled from the cold brook back to the planked floor where she sat with her figure. She sips most but also dribbles water over the dolls smooth cheeks.

“Vasillisa, you called for your grandmother?” the witch shouts before entering the glowing front room. The red-haired girl had seconds to stash the doll and, holding her breath, she does so before Baba Yaga returns.

“Grandmother,” she gasps when the witch is in sight. “Where did you go?”

“This house as many rooms,” Baba Yaga said when she began a long soliloquy. “Rooms you cannot see. And stairwells taller than trees.”

“There are flights to heaven and pits into hell. If you see them, you will scrub them as well.”

“You will scrub each step, with your lovely red hair. Until your crown turns black and you are older than care.”

“You will be an old woman, like me, before you are done.”

“All your years will pass without hope or sun. Oh, but the things you will learn. When you are ready, granddaughter, when you are old enough.”

The house stops moving with a lurch that nearly sends Baba Yaga and the red-haired girl tumbling. The witch scolds her home. “Damn you, you stupid rooster. Do that again and we will eat one of your legs!”

“Are you hungry, Vasillisa? I hope you will be if that ever happens again.”

“I ate my other egg,” the girl softly demurs. Her response sets the witch to hoarse giggles.

“Next time,” said the hag gathering her composure. “We are here, at the home of the dyer. Come with me, girl, and pick your dress.”

Baba Yaga grabs Vasillisa’s hand and yanks her up and outside. The girl’s burlap sack stays behind. Outdoors, the sun already sets but the weather is much warmer than in the foothills where the red-haired girl encountered the ghost of a man. She has decided, what Vasillisa did see was some specter. He may have died this last winter in the cold of night. He was best forgotten so that his soul is left in peace. Her hope for rescue seemed buried with him.

“Baba Yaga,” interjected a dark man. His hands and arms are a brilliant blue up to his elbows. And so were, too, stained the the long sleeves of his shirt rolled in tight bundles around his biceps. They all meet on the sand of a shore on a great sea. This dyer’s home and trade are housed in tall violet tents.

“Who have you brought with you to the west? A little girl, is she for trade?”

“No, craftsman,” answered Baba Yaga. “This is my new granddaughter.”

“A new one, hey,” the man commented in a disheartening manner. “I suppose she is special.”

The witch tells him, “Special to me, certainly.”

The dark dyer adds, “That red hair, oh, she is lovely. I suppose you waste her beauty washing dishes and shaking rugs.”

“She is not wasted on depravity,” Yaga sharply replied. “Now stop your coveting and show us dresses you have dyed. Do you have one for a small girl?”

The dyer rubs his chin and his tone changes toward frigid. “Careful, witch. We meet only to haggle.”

Yaga says, “Already, your prices are too steep. Let us stick to the business of your wares.”

“Eh,” he snorts and glances sidelong at Vasillisa.

“I’m watching you,” Baba Yaga said to the dyer.

“And God watches you,” he suddenly exclaims. Vasillisa spots an indigo blur thrust into the dyer’s waist pouch then come back out. He produces a blue gem embedded in white. The whole resembles an off-color yoke set off-center in a fist-sized egg. The dyer flashes the artifact into the face of the witch.

“A ward?” scoffed the hag. She mocks the holy craftsman in a harsh guffaw. “I will burn all your work to the ground. Flee while you can.”

Flame comes expelled from her nostrils and mouth. The tents ignite under her breath. Fire still licks her lips and the tip of her nose when the witch commands, “Vasillisa, grab all you can before it burns.”

The dark dyer runs from the inferno and takes with him his relic. Vasillisa and Baba Yaga seize all they are able and any clothe not already ablaze. And the witch threatens deeper vengeance upon the escaped man.

“He will pay,” she promises. “His livelihood is done. But I’ll keep him alive so he regrets his feeble affront.”

“Let us go back into my house,” suggested the witch. Her voice is labored.

The hag drags her feet and her back bends further forward than Vasillisa has yet seen, and despite the few blue clothes Baba Yaga looted. The red-haired girl is terrified. Her heart beats fast and her breath and legs are quick. But it is not the fire or the dark man that had frightened her, rather the terrible wrath of the witch.

“Oh, granddaughter, the wretched dyer found me unaware,” moaned the hag. “I was unprepared and I am exhausted.”

The pair go into the walking house. Both Baba Yaga and Vasillisa drop all the the dyed garments onto the floor. “Pick them up,” ordered the witch as she stumbles to the darkened doorway at her left. “Sort and fold them and place them on a shelf.”

Vasillisa instead first rushes toward her sack of belongings. The girl overturns the bag and shakes out all her clothes, looking for her blessing, the last comfort her mother provided.

“What are you doing?” asked the hag lingering at the threshold. “You have a new dress. If you can’t appreciate my gifts to you, what am I to do, burn all your rags? Put on the dress. Let me see.”

Her heart sinks and her stomach rises in her throat when the red-haired girl does not find her doll. Confused where it might have gone, she utters, “Grandmother?”

“Put it on,” the hag repeated.

“Yes, grandmother.”

Vasillisa relents yet scans her pile of old clothing, looking for the totem. Though she doubts herself, the doll may yet be hidden beneath the scattered pile. Vasillisa turns around and finds the dress for which she and Baba Yaga had come to the sea. The garment is only slightly charred. She pulls it on and over the drab blouse and pants she already wears.

The hag praises her. “Good, pretty girl, now I will lie down.”

As the witch vanishes into darkness, Vasillisa inspects her new garment. Unlike the painted dress of her blessing, this one is real and the clothe genuinely flows when twirled in a breeze. It hangs loosely but her clothes underneath yet create lumps. She at least pulls off her slacks. restoring her flat stomach and straight hips.

“Feed Alyonushka,” Baba Yaga shouted from the other room. “Change her hay and throw the waste outside. There are bales in the room next to where she is chained.”

“Milk her and don’t forget to butter your hands, there is a butter churn and a bucket there in that other room near the hay.”

She adds another chore after taking a breath. “And bring to me some cheese you find there. You, too, granddaughter must be famished. We will eat it together in bed.”

“Tomorrow we will go north where she can eat thistles.”

Vasillisa leaves her clothing and the blue garments lying on the floor and first tends to the goat she has been assigned. Her thoughts dance between the lost doll, the horrible power of the witch and the work she has yet to do. While gathering together her list of chores, Baba Yaga issues more commands.

“Oh, sweep the floor before you are ready for bed. And shake the rugs. Do all this tonight and you are done. There is a broom there. Do you see it?”

“Yes, grandmother,” Vasillisa dutifully answered.

“Good. Don’t forget the cheese.”

Vasillisa finds a bucket in the other room, which actually becomes a long stable once she’s stepped inside. Empty bays occupy the whole length. Farm tools – hoes, forks and picks – metal pails and wooden buckets are gathered near her entrance. There is no other exit. The butter churn is also handy. Rolls and wedges of cheeses lie atop a shelf above them all.

After greasing each of her hands pressing them into the churn, she fetches a clean pail and returns to her task with the goat. The pail goes placed underneath. Vasillisa kneels then stands on her knees before grasping the sore teats of the animal. When she does take hold, the goat flinches. So, the red-haired girl tries once more and gently.

Upon the ring of the first squirt of milk against the bottom of the pail, Baba Yaga is reminded to say, “Don’t let Alyonushka nip you. She has iron teeth.”

The revelation is second in Vasillisa’s horror once she sees the milk from the utter comes out as black oil. The substance smells like rot. She holds her nose and screeches. “Grandmother, the milk is foul. It smells foul!”

“No,” countered the witch. “Look in the pail.”

Vasillisa glances into the container and sees the liquid has become bone white. The red-haired girl is still awed when Baba Yaga tells her, “You should have first changed out the soiled hay. That helps. Remember to do all these things daughter, or your work only becomes worse.”

Once the pail is filled, Vasillisa places it back in the stable where she found it. The cheese she breaks from a wedge crumbles in her fingers, but she does her best to bring the portion to the witch in one piece. Both hands are required for the feat. Having forgot her pending tasks, Vasillisa remembers to kick her clothes on the floor and search for her blessing. She does not see the doll. The witch hastens her.

“Have you finished, Vasillisa? Your grandmother is chilly. And she is hungry.”

“Coming,” the girl answered.

Vasillisa brings the cheese into the room in which the witch slept. “Crawl into bed with me,” stated the hag. “Good, you remembered our supper.”

The witch takes more than her share from the girl’s hands before Vasillisa jumps up and lies next to the hag. The red-haired girl remains fully clothed as she customarily slept. And to her surprise, she discovers the fat mattress is stuffed with feathers and numerous pillows are filled with down. Her enthusiasm dies when she finds the witch’s body is cold even through the old hag’s nightgown.

Baba Yaga lies curled against the girl’s back. She rests her frigid chin upon Vasillisa’s cheek. Even her breath is chilly. And her exhalation reeks. The red-haired girl cannot stop commenting. “Grandmother, do you ever chew mint?”

Baba Yaga laughs. Catching her breath and settling herself, she asks her grandchild, “You have a new dress. What do you have to say?”

Vasillisa holds her nose and says, “Thank you, grandmother?”

“You are welcome grandchild. Thank you for bringing us cheese.”

Tomorrow is narrated while the witch begins to doze.“Tomorrow, we go north, further north than your home where you mother is buried, further than you have ever known. Then we go east.”

“Remember, shake the linens twice at night. Shake them until there are no more lice.”

“Empty the chamber pot each and every morn, even if you are tired and worn.”

The witch then clicks her tongue twice and the house begins to sway. Baba Yaga also starts to snore. Vasillisa falls asleep shivering and covering her nose with one hand and eating cheese with her other. All the work that day had tired her and did quell her grief. And any tears she had yet to shed because her lost were overcome by sleep.

The walking house surrounds Vasillisa in the dream she has while embraced by Baba Yaga. She dreams she is alone in the enchanted hut. There is no witch and even the foul iron goat is gone. The shutters have been thrust open and heavy velvet drapes the red-haired girl did not see when she was awake, they are withdrawn from glass windows. Daylight brightens the interior. The extinguished hearth is cold and Vasillisa feels chilled.

A pair of blue hands suddenly appear pressed against the pane before her. The dark face of the dyer plainly presents itself behind his colored arms. Vasillisa remembers the tools in the adjacent stable and she wants to defend herself, but she does not budge. Looking about, she notes the floor is uncluttered as she recalled leaving it yesterday. Her clothes are missing and so is the doll. The dyer is then gone.

The door is also now open and Vasillisa sees a snowy forest outside. She spots the ghostly man from yesterday. He runs and ducks from sight behind a thick fir tree. She is then conscious in the dark.

Remembering her neglected chores, Vasillisa slips from bed. She notices the house that had rocked her to sleep has stopped moving. Maybe its lurch to a stand still had awakened her, although she could not know. The witch still slept.

Eager not to displease Baba Yaga, Vasillisa stoops and gropes for a chamberpot beneath the bed. She nudges the vessel and it feels it is empty, it did not slosh when it tipped and made no sound. The pot thus stays where it was found. Upon moving into the front room, the red-haired girl sees the fire has been stoked. Light flickers blurred shadows into the room.

All her belongings have been packed back into the sack there in the center of the room. The pilfered indigo linens and garments are folded and placed onto shelves and the floor is swept. Even the hay the swollen goat now lies upon is fresh and neat. More importantly than all, her doll has returned. It sits upright upon the burlap bag she brought with her.

“You helped me,” exclaimed the red-haired girl to her blessing, although she wasn’t so loud as to wake the witch. The time they spend alone together is short. A whispered, “Thank you,” is all Vasillisa could wish upon the totem.

The moment the red-haired girl picks up her doll, Baba Yaga is heard rolling from bed. “Granddaughter?” called the hag. Vasillisa hides the totem behind her back.

“Oh, look at all you’ve done already,” the witch said as she entered the room. “But you didn’t shake the linens.”

“We were asleep, grandmother,” Vasillisa pleads. “And I didn’t want to wake you.”

The reply makes the witch grin. “Good girl. You make me glad I keep you, but it’s okay. It is better to wake early once or twice than be eaten alive at night. But we survive, and that’s all right.”

“You are a wonderful maid,” Baba Yaga said before turning around and getting dressed. “And so pretty in your dress. What would you like for breakfast?”

Vasillisa hides the doll again, this time, under her blouse beneath the dress. She looks only slightly more lumpy than without the totem and it holds itself in place upon loose stitches and a small rip. Safely concealed against her skin, the doll makes Vasillisa herself feel more secure.

The red-haired girl eventually ventures a reply to the hag. “Porridge?”

“Porridge?” Baba Yaga answered.

Vasillisa adds, “And peach preserve. I saw a jar in the pantry.”

“Snooping, eh?” jested the witch. “You may yet discover the stairwells yourself.”

“Maybe, grandmother.”

The red-haired girl does pause to think about her suggestion. “Is the milk safe to eat?”

Baba Yaga tells her, “You never complained about the cheese. They both come from Alyonushka. Your uncle seemed pleased.”

The witch also tells her, “Oats are in the pantry, fetch two cups. And take down those peaches. I’ll get the milk and make certain it is safe.”

Vasillisa is glad to make breakfast with Baba Yaga. This morning is the first in which the witch behaves as a grandmother, and the little red-haired girl had never known her own. While Baba Yaga stirs the porridge over the hearth, Vasillisa is told, “Take Alyonushka outside, let her roam free for a little while, we will not hunt thistles for her.”

A leather collar latches a metal chain to the animal. Vasillisa is careful as she releases the buckle and watches that she is not bit. The goat has behaved itself when the red-haired girl is near, but the late warning the witch had given her yesterday stays foremost in her thoughts. Once the animal is free, Vasillisa opens the front door and lets it dash out of the house. Snow wherever they had come had not yet melted in this forest. And the scenery was uninteresting. Baba Yaga and the girl sit and eat their own meal.

“There is a blacksmith near,” the witch mentioned. “Look for him when you go and bring Alyonushka back home. If you see him, don’t let him take you. I will speak to the man. You will know him by his red hands.”

“Yes, grandmother.”

Given her porridge and mission, Baba Yaga says to the girl, “Wash the bowls and the pot. You know where the lye is and where the water belongs. Already, you are learning of each nook in this house.”

The washing is finished in haste, Vasillisa did not need her doll to help her with this task. She tosses the dishwater outside then tells her grandmother, “We need fresh water.”

“Take the buckets with you, fill them with snow,” the witch suggested. “We will let it melt near the hearth. Go and fetch Alyonushka.”

“Yes, grandmother,” Vasillisa said. She lifts the buckets and feels her wooden doll bump against her ribs. Her blessing goes with the red-haired girl and she has no fear of the blacksmith she expects to see. She does loathe he may be like the dyer. Baba Yaga seems to know only men with no good in their hearts. Uncle Motya was not an exception, although she hated him less today after eating peaches at breakfast.

“Alyonushka?” cried the red-haired girl two steps straight out of the house. Where she stood offered plenty of pure snow. She overfills the wooden buckets and puts them inside near the fire.

“Alyonushka,” she shouted again outside once more. Baba Yaga follows.

The witch tells her, “You go left and I’ll go right. Keep the house in sight so you, too, are not lost.”

The witch finds the blacksmith the same time Vasillisa spots the swollen goat behind a shrinking snow drift.

“Baba Yaga, is this your true face?” Vasillisa hears the man say in a loud voice. “You take a different shape each time we meet. I would not know you, but for your house.”

“Alyonushka, let’s go back home,” the red-haired girl encouraged the animal.

The animal leads their way. All the while, Vasillisa listens to the conversation between the stranger and the witch.

“You would not recognize me at all if you didn’t know my name,” Baba Yaga told him.

“I doubt so,” he replied. “Who can mistake your walking hut? They would so at their own peril.”

The blacksmith is even larger than Vasillisa expected, and more red. She sees him after coming around the witch’s enchanted hut. He is bald yet his face and scalp appear scalded. His big hands are burned and blistered.

“Bah, today I am a grandmother. How is a grandmother to look?” Baba Yaga asked him.

He tells her, “Prettier.”

The hag laughs at his reply. “Ha!”

The big blacksmith spots Vasillisa at that same time. “Is this your grandchild?” he asked the witch. “She looks delicious.”

“She is not for eating, I am happy with this one. And she is too curious. I need hinges for doors.”

The doll Vasillisa carries beneath her arm then twitches. The girl’s movement alone did not make the totem shake. She pins it against her flesh so it stops moving. The goat then flees. She had no grip on the animal.

“Alyonushka!” shouted Baba Yaga. She also scolds the blacksmith. “You wretched man, you frightened my goat.”

“Go after her, granddaughter. Don’t let her run away spooked. We may not get her back.”

Vasillisa chases after the goat. The witch follows but she is not as quick as the red-haired girl. The pair lose sight of each other after passing the drift where the animal was first found. Vasillisa does not see the goat and it is not long before the girl becomes lost.

The big red blacksmith finds her. “Where is your grandmother?” he asked Vasillisa before anything else.

She answers honestly, “I don’t know.”

“Mmmh,” he hums triumphantly then lunges for her arm. Vasillisa barely escapes. And it is the doll that screeches and not her. The ear-splitting noise that comes from beneath her arm is unearthly, like that from a banshee if the red-haired girl could say if she had ever heard the cry.

“You, there,” shouted the witch. Baba Yaga is yet far away. She accuses the man from a distance. “What are you doing with my grandchild?” The blacksmith flees in the opposite direction Vasillisa yet runs away.

The red-haired girl sprints until the red man and the witch have vanished. She runs till near nightfall when her bare legs have become cold and numb. Once she has spent all her energy and stops, the witch finally catches her.

“You have been running in circles,” Baba Yaga said. See, too, barely has breath. “Let us go back and rescue Alyonushka. She is not far.”

Their pace is slow moving through slush and wet snow, and the sun sets by a degree with each step. Still, Vasillisa and her new grandmother come to the goat. They pull her hoof from a rabbit hole in which she had been stuck. Baba Yaga questions the red-haired girl as they lead the limping animal back to the walking house.

“Tell me, granddaughter, did you make that sound? I have heard the same from souls tortured in hell.”

Vasillisa cannot stop her teeth from chattering. She stutters without comprehension while she grows only more cold. Relieved she had been saved twice tonight, the girl tries only to thank her grandmother. Baba Yaga tells her, “Don’t worry. No one will touch you ever again.”

“You only need hot milk.”

Within sight of home, the pair come across the corpse of the burned blacksmith. Vasillisa tries to ask if the witch had killed the man, but all she says is, “Did you, did you, d-did you…”

Baba Yaga only chortles and pulls a toothed knife from a sheath beneath her shawl and at her waist. She tells Vasillisa, “See who is coming to supper tonight.” With that, the witch cuts out the dead man’s heart. The red-haired girl nearly wretches, but the cold yet holds her frozen throat.

“Go back to the house,” the witch tells the shaking Vasillisa. “And you, Alyonushka, you go, too. Put another log in the hearth. We all want the fire well and hot.”

Baba Yaga hustles the two ahead while she finishes her wicked work. Although, in their separate conditions, neither of them move any faster than the old hag. Baba Yaga catches up to them before they arrive at the door of her squatted home.

Vasillisa tries her hardest to stoke the fire inside while the witch instead buckles the collar back onto her goat. The hag then returns to the red-haired girl with a blanket off her own bed. Vasillisa is wrapped first then Baba Yaga herself stirs up a blaze in the hearth and adds more wood. She soon warms fresh milk from Alyonushka over the fire and in a ceramic mug. This goes to Vasillisa once it is hot.

The witch then pulls an iron skillet off a shelf and lets it heat in the hearth. Meanwhile, snug underneath a blanket and with her fingers tingling, Vasillisa pulls her mother’s blessing from under her clothes. It stays concealed beneath her covering and the red-haired girl cannot see the totem, but neither does Baba Yaga.

The girl fondles each of her doll’s limbs. She brushes its smooth face with her palm and presses against the wooden shape of its hair. All the while, the totem never moves. It remains stiff in hands, inert, unlike when they were together outside in the snow.

“No creeping around in the house,” Baba Yaga warns the girl while she fries the blacksmith’s heart in a pan. The witch seasons the bloody meat with salt, black pepper and what smells to Vasillisa is dill. The aroma of the meat is sweet and pleasant yet knowing its origin makes it distasteful. Yaga merrily rambles will she cooks.

“I have no hinges I can put on doors I may lock and keep you out of where you don’t belong. You will just have to respect my wishes, I expect it. You, granddaughter, you thought you lost yourself in the woods. What happens if get lost in my house? What will happen to you if you are not found?”

Vasillisa shrugs but Baba Yaga is not watching, The witch does not look at the red-haired girl the whole time she spends frying an unsavory dinner. In a minute, she groans. “Oh, I forgot to grease the pan, but I don’t have any oil.”

The red-haired girl tries to be helpful and she suggests, “You could use butter, grandmother.”

“Bah,” dismissed the witch. “Save it for Alyonushka. We will go to market tomorrow and buy corn. We’ll make oil ourselves. I’ll show you how. But, this time, you will need to scrub the skillet extra well. The meat has burned itself against the metal.”

Vasillisa smells the grease and char. That alone makes her feel ill. The thought of scraping human flesh, especially fried, turns her stomach. She wretches again unproductively when the witch asks, “Would you like to try a little of the blacksmith?”

The sounds the red-haired girl makes and the green in her face amuses the old hag. “Okay, it’s all for me. We’ll soak the pan in the basin tonight and you can add it your chores tomorrow.”

“What will you eat?”

“I’m not hungry anymore, grandmother,” Vasillisa told Baba Yaga.

“You will be. What would you like?

“Peach preserve? Only a little.”

“That’s all?” the witch replied bemused. “That’s all right. You know where it is in the pantry and it’s safe to go there. Whenever you like.”

Finished with her grisly meal, Baba Yaga invites Vasillisa to bed. The red-haired girl, too. has eaten a small portion of preserve and she has no excuse to stay awake. The witch also tells her, “Bring my blanket. Though, the hearth has made the whole house hot, it is night and morning will be cold.”

In that luxurious bed, Baba Yaga holds her adopted grandchild close to her cold body. In return, Vasillisa cradles her doll as does the witch cradle the red-haired girl. Vasillisa keeps them both warm even when neither truly needs her heat. Soon, the witch sleeps and snorts and grunts as does a sow.

Vasillisa covers her ears and face with the blanket she had worn all evening. The dark is nothing to her, but when she closes her eyes, the red-haired girl has a vision of the blacksmith. He stand over them in bed. His chest is an open cavity and his hands are missing as well as his heart. The bloody stumps are not a dream.

The girl cannot sleep, and the witch feels too cold for any comfort. Vasillisa had enough of being chilled already that day. She wakes Baba Yaga with urgency. “Grandmother, we must shake the linens.”

The witch stirs and sounds groggy when she agrees. “Yes, you’re a good girl to remember. It’s better not to be eaten alive.”

Baba Yaga returns to sleep after the sheets are shaken and the bed is made again. She had forgotten her granddaughter and snores more while Vasillisa is let free to roam. The red-haired girl takes her doll with her into the front room.

With nothing else to do, she decides she will rinse the pot and bowl left washed in the basin that morning. The crusted skillet remains there and soaks. The snow in buckets near the fire melted long ago. The overfill of water it had become had spilled over and not yet evaporated off the wooden floor. Even so, more than enough remains that Vasillisa can finish her task.

She then eats more peach preserve with her fingers. The red-haired girl attempts to feed a little to her painted blond doll, but the figure will not eat. She whispers so Baba Yaga does not hear. “Did you cry out today?” she asked her totem. Vasillisa already knows it was so. “Did you summon our grandmother?”

The doll remains still. Nevertheless, Vasillisa tells it, “Thank you. I feared what might have become of us – like the blacksmith to the witch’s supper.”

The red-haired girl places the doll atop her sack of belongings yet laying on the floor. The totem goes propped upright so it might watch where Vasillisa strays. The girl tiptoes into the pantry once more and returns with two handfuls of oats. This goes onto a ceramic platter and presented to the goat.

“This is Alyonushka,” she quietly tells her unnamed doll. “We shouldn’t feed her from the palms of our hands because of her teeth.”

She then tells the animal. “This is my blessing, don’t tell Baba Yaga. She doesn’t have a name. There are things we should never know.”

The goat seems happy for its treat, so Vasillisa slips into the stable to butter her hands and bring back a pail. She talks softly to her totem beneath the sound of milk splashed against tin. “We must be gentle, her teats are sorely red. I don’t know why, but maybe we can help. If we can do that, maybe Alyonushka will not bite.”

Finished with that chore, the red-haired girl stokes the fire in the hearth one more time. And with nothing left to do, she remembers the linens again. “Stay there,” Vasillisa whispered to her doll.

In the bedroom, she wakes Baba Yaga again. “Grandmother, we must shake the linens a second time.”

“Yes,” grumbles the witch after she’s been disturbed. This time, she decides to change her plan. “Let this old woman rest. Maybe our work is too ambitious. I’ll let you know if we must shake off bugs.”

“All right, grandmother,” Vasillisa replies when it was obvious Baba Yaga did not see she had nodded her head.

“Come back to bed already,” begged the witch. “We both need our sleep.”

“I’m not sleepy, grandmother.”

Baba Yaga will not be refused. “I insist.”

So, Vasillisa crawls next to the witch. She allows herself to shiver all night in the cold woman’s grasp. She dares not argue. Her beautiful doll stays alone in the other room, alert atop the sack and watching with eyes that never close. Vasillisa, too, keeps her eyes open.

Try as she had, the red-haired girl did fall asleep. At daybreak, the witch awakes her with a fright. “Granddaughter, look at what you have done!”

The enchanted house is already moving, swaying one way to the other. The motion before was relaxing, but having been awakened with a start, Vasillisa is disorientated. She first fears Baba Yaga had discovered her doll. The witch instead reveals her own surprise. “You scoured the skillet. You could have waited. Look how clean it is, it’s never been scrubbed so throughly.”

The revelation is a small balm. The red-haired girl’s heart only settles a bit with the explanation, but it jumps again when she discovers her totem lies in bed next to her. It is there beneath her dress and against her bare chest. She knows so before lifting the blanket.

“How?” she whispered to her doll.

Baba Yaga comes into the bedroom before any answer. “Get up, sleepy. We will have breakfast then go to market. You may shake the linens now.”

The house stops moving before Vasillisa is done with her work. When the red-haired girl is finished, Baba Yaga summons her into the front room and they eat porridge again. Vasillisa tries a boysenberry jam this morning in place of peaches. Her totem stays hidden in her shirt and under her arm the whole while.

“Finish your chores here, then we will go shopping together,” Baba Yaga commands then makes certain the chamber pot must be emptied.

Soon, when another round of work is done, Vasillisa dumps the pot and waste water in the basin outside. While out of the house, she sees they have come to the walls of a city. Opposite the forest yesterday, this place is warm and overcast. Tiled minarets peek over the stone construction. Dull covered booths and tables stand in rows on both sides of a cobbled path all the distance toward an open gate.

“What city is this?” the red-haired girl asked Baba Yaga when the witch joins her outdoors.

“Mysore in the East,” replied the hag.

Wary of the witch’s acquaintances, Vasillisa asks her, “Do you know someone here?”

“No one, but I know there is corn at this market. Toss the basin and pot inside and let’s go.”

Vasillisa does as she has been told then walks with the witch toward the street vendors. The separate booths each carry a variety of wares, but they individually specialize offering one main foodstuff – grains, vegetables, fruits – everything grown and fresh. Corn displays itself in bushels on a table ten steps away.

A man with yellow hands, from mustard plants also there in bundles amidst the bushels of corn, he greets the shoppers from the northwest. Whereas his skin is not as dark as the dyer on the sea, he is dressed in flowing bright clothing like the craftsman. It is the same attire as all the merchants present here. All wear as different colors as the variety of their wares.

Baba Yaga asks the merchant, “Do you make mustard sauce?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do,” the man with yellow hands replied.

“And do you sell eggs?” she queried.

“My brother offers those and the mustard condiment, behind you, across the road.”

Baba Yaga produces copper coins and trades them for a bushel of corn. She tells Vasillisa, “Pick it up and carry it home. I will go purchase mustard and eggs.”

The weight of the bushel is too great for the red-haired girl. She struggles lifting the corn and fails to take it anywhere. “Grandmother,” she begged for help.

Her voice does not carry further than her grunts and Baba Yaga does not hear. The witch is too noisy while she haggles with the corn merchant’s brother, He, too, has yellow hands. The corn merchant notices and gallantly steps around his table. “I’ll help you, little girl. Where are you taking this?”

As he lifts the burden from Vasillisa’s strained limbs, the red-haired girl feels movement in the pit of her arm. Her doll spins right and left. Vasillisa can feel it turns itself deliberately and not in accident because of her own action. “Grandmother,” she shouted. Vasillisa called again louder on purpose.

Baba Yaga turns around and shouts. “What are you doing with my grandchild?”

The helpful merchant drops the basket and cobs of corn come tumbling out. He pleads, “I am only giving my assistance. Please, I meant no offense.”

Baba Yaga accuses him, “My granddaughter thinks you’re a wicked man.”

“No, grandmother,” Vasillisa objected.

“She only needed help,” he testified, “The bushel is too heavy for her. She is still small.”

“We’ll see about small. Get out of the way,” hissed the witch. Baba Yaga gathers the stray cobs with her hands and feet. The corn goes kicked and swatted into the spilled bushel. Though she is bent and not much taller than Vasillisa herself, Baba Yaga hoists the full burden upon her shoulder. She required no help.

“Come, grandchild. We are done shopping.”

Vasillisa is so impressed by the strength of the old hag that speech is stolen from her throat. She follows Baba Yaga back to the enchanted house, all the while awed and her mouth agape. Neither of them remember the mustard nor the eggs and they return home with only corn. Vasillisa opens the door for her strong grandmother.

“They are all strangers here, stay in the house,” grumbled the witch. “I will not have any of them harm my granddaughter. I swear, each man we meet…”

“But. Grandmother,” Vasillisa started to explain. Baba Yaga will not listen because she is full of rage.

“I’ll teach that one a lesson,” the witch threatened.

Baba Yaga is back out of the house before the red-haired girl can say, “It may have been a mistake.” But she does and is not heard.

Having no one else to help, Vasillisa, cries to her doll. “What did I do? What were you trying to tell me?”

Her blessing reveals nothing. Baba Yaga instead is heard to shout, “Shuck my corn.”

Vasillisa again does as she has been told. The husks are left to lie on the floor and the bare cobs are piled together in a wide cauldron she had spotted. The red-haired girl assumed they will be boiled, she has never produced oil from corn. The witch returns as she pours water atop the golden pyramid.

“We need more water, grandmother,” Vasillisa dutifully reported.

“Bah, we will reuse what we’ve got. We don’t need any water for this,” answered the witch.

“Sweep up these husks and put them in a sack, I will find a use for them.”

Vasillisa takes up the straw broom and an empty burlap sack that is handy. Watching the witch while they both work, the red-haired girl hopes she is not too late to explain what may have happened in the market. “Grandmother…”

Her effort ends when she sees the witch produce from a pouch two jars of mustard and ten yellow fingers. Vasillisa cannot speak. She does not even know if she wants to ask what Baba Yaga will do with the amputations. The witch volunteers the explanation.

“I’ll keep these, too.” Baba Yaga rolls the fingers as if they were dice onto the shelf she had placed the mustard jars.

“Now we have everything we need,” she told Vasillisa. The hag sounds merry again. She tells her granddaughter, “Bring a pot.”

While the red-haired girl does as she’s been told, Baba Yaga chants in a tongue Vasillisa has never heard. She could not understand them even if she was familiar. The words sound slurred. And there are really no words, but one long string of consonants and howls. The invocation throbs in the girl’s chest and makes her uneasy. She grasps her blessing hidden under her arm.

Disembodied hands come summoned over the cauldron of shucked corn. Each materialize before Vasillisa’s open eyes – a pair of red hands, another two that are yellow, then a pair of blue and the last two of white. The witch laughs as if the old woman has lost her mind.

The colored limbs pick up the cobs one at a time and they squeeze each until they drip. The oil they produce is caught in the pot Vasillisa had brought for her grandmother. Baba Yaga teases the red-haired girl. “You see them, there, yes?”

Vasillisa thinks she nods her head. Instead she rotates her chin around in the air. The witch offers more. “Do you want to know who they belong to?”

The doll beneath Vasillisa’s dress kicks wildly against her ribs.

“I can name them each for you,” Baba Yaga added and cackles.

The doll now spins and jumps. Vasillisa covers her ears and shouts, “No!”

The witch sees the doll shake under her granddaughter’s clothes. “What is that? What do you have there?”

“Nothing,” Vasillisa lied. Baba Yaga demands to know.

“Show me, child. Don’t hide anything from me.”

“No, grandmother. She is a secret.”

“You keep no secrets from me. I have fed you, you stay in my home.”

Vasillisa feels desperate for hope. She hates she will disappoint the wish of her mother. At the same time, the blessing does not help her. All she has left are tears. “Grandmother, please.”

“Show me your secret,” Baba Yaga insisted. “You cannot lie to me.”

All the red-haired girl can do is pull the beautiful wooden doll from her dress. When she does so, the spectrum of phantom hands vanish. Because the totem appeared is no proof they have been dispelled. All the corn cobs have been squeezed and it looks like their work had been finished.

“Where did that came from?” scowled the hag. “Do you know what that is?”

Vasillisa sniffles, “She is my dead mother’s blessing.”

The news alarms the witch. “What?”

The girl does not think Baba Yaga wished a reply. The witch tells her, “That is a bane. Your mother has cursed you against me. Those hands… all those dead men are not because of me. I didn’t count all those fingers.”

“Begone, out of this house away from me. You are not my granddaughter. Take all your belongings and that doll. I’ll have nothing to do with you!”

And this is where the witch, Baba Yaga, abandons Vasillisa and her blessed doll, on a road to the city of Mysore in the East. There is nothing she can do in protest, nor is she certain she wanted to stay with the wicked woman any longer. There is only one regret she was sure about. Instead of her bag of clothes, the red-haired girl discovers all she had snatched was the sack filled with corn husks.

– END

Matthew Sawyer

If you enjoyed reading this story I have others at Smashwords

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Man of Vowels

July 17, 2016

He lost his hand
There in the sand
Lost because a game he plays
That man with one hand.

Does he raise hell?
Does he raise the dead?
Does he take bad dreams
And put them to bed?

Soneone must follow him
Leave for us a hint
Trinkets that might reflect light
A trail of needles and pins.

He sleeps alone
So who would know
If he stays in his room
Or where does he go.

Listen for a grunt
Hear the furniture he bumps
We will know what is true
We will discover his stunts.

 -Matthew Sawyer

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Once Gramps Had Come – A Christmas Story

December 19, 2015

An essential piece of Christmas has been missing forever, almost as if it has hidden itself. In the story Once Gramps Had Come by Matthew Sawyer, that hidden piece comes out to perhaps breathe clean air, eat or maybe stretch its legs. Whatever is done, this short tale starts in a Nursing Home. A homely man who calls himself “Gramps” offers immortality and the holidays are coming up.

Once Gramps Had Come by Matthew Sawyer

Once Gramps Had Come
Matthew Sawyer

Thursday, November 21, an ugly, old man comes to the Nursing Home. He is not the slightest seemly; not handsome like the weathering of a familiar leather jacket, nor noble like the bark of a gnarled oak. The man is ugly. Frightening, yet he looks a lot like that knotted tree and ragged hide coat. Presumably present for the terminal long-duration care and rehabilitation available here at Nueva Buena Vista, the terrible creature introduces himself to other residents. He calls himself, “Gramps.”

Mr. Breckell, who regularly assesses his own hearing, believes he has misheard the name. He shouts from his seat of padded linoleum. “What did you call yourself? Cramps?”

Mr. Breckell assumes and also asks, “Is that what’s wrong with you?”

The ugly old man lumbers near the only fellow whose spoken to him. This Gramps or cramps sits down on the stiff, yellow cushion next to Mr. Breckell. The new old man creaks and his joints crack when he bends his legs then he adjusts his seat. The racket is disquieting to everyone in the day-room. Mr. Breckell tells the creepy, wooden man next to him, “You sound like you’re going to break.”

“I do fear it,” Gramps answers.

Before he forgets, Mr. Breckell asks him again, “What did you call yourself?”

“Cramps,” Mr. Breckell swears he’s heard again.

He suggests to the badly weatherworn stranger, “Cramps, I would change that nickname. You could then go talk to someone else.”

“I think you are mispronouncing it,” Gramps tells him.

“Me? How about you?”

Gramps, or still possibly cramps, immediately interrupts the fresh argument. “Are you afraid of dying, Mister…”

“Breckell,” Mr. Breckell automatically replies.

“Sure,” he then insists. “Yeah-”

“I can help you live forever.”

Mr. Breckell finishes his thought. “But I get less fidgety the older I get.”

He then pauses, gazes into impossibly seeing and dense cataracts then tells cramps, “I don’t think you can help yourself. By the look of you…”

Mr. Breckell shakes his balding head.

“I know the worst of it,” Gramps promises his indignant comrade. “You can help me.”

The idea makes Mr. Breckell chuckle. “I will see what I can do.”

With yet no response, he asks the ugly stranger directly, “Who are you?”

“Everyone has forgotten me.”

Mr. Breckell tells him, “Welcome to Anonymous-Anonymous. The ladies across the room cry about the fact at weekly meetings.”

Gramps adds, “And any who do remember me, and if they still believe, they think I have gotten lazy over centuries.”

Mr. Breckell assures him. “That’s just how it feels.”

Pink light glows behind the opaque eyes of the stranger. “I’m telling you, Mr. Breckell, there is another way. You can live forever.”

Mr. Breckell laughs and the sound grows. He stops his guffaw when Gramps admits, “But there is a horrible exaction. There are crimes you must commit.”

“Go figure,” Mr. Breckell says entertained and newly curious. A meager rush of adrenaline reminds him of the shadow of being a young man and alive. Enthused that little bit, he grins and banters. “What evil things must I do. How many children do I need to eat?”

“The children are never eaten,” Gramps declares.

Mr. Breckell tells him, “Then that explains why you’re so scrawny. Tell me, mister, who are you?”

“I told you.”

“Oh, no you don’t. I am not about to wake up tomorrow and remember my name is Al Z’heimers. Who are you?”

The ugly stranger next to Mr. Breckell tells him, “The Krampus. The, the Krampus.”

“Huh?” Mr. Breckell grunts without purpose. His recollection is vague. He goes on and says, “Remind me who that is. Are we talking about Christmas? The elves and the magical Saint Nick, right? Not the Jesus and Christian Santa Claus, correct?”

“And not the American who drinks Coca Cola,” specifies the Krampus.

The name, or its shaded memory, fits the horrid personification here in the ugly stranger. The monster tells Mr. Breckell, “I am his nemesis, his companion and cohort. The folklore all across the world will tell you the same.”

The Krampus rants. “But I refuse to do his work. I won’t do it and I only want to pass away – and join our brothers. Somebody else can be remembered to be the Krampus. And he or she can be that until the end of time.”

“End of time, you say?” Mr. Breckell repeats. “That’s the part that includes living forever you were talking about?”

“If you do those things you must do.”

“And what does that mean? What do I got to do?”

The Krampus scowls when he says, “Make toys.”

Jokingly, Mr. Breckell answers, “Well, how do we get this operation done? I can live forever and do that.”

“Hell, what are all the toys for?”

The Krampus reveals in earnest, “They are the years of your life. Each toy is a day, you live one day for every toy you make. And you must keep them secret.”

Carried by high spirits, Mr. Breckell continues to play with the ugly man. “That can’t be bad. I suppose I can make seven toys in a day, or make fourteen or even seventy.”

“Saint Nicholas takes them away,” replies the Krampus. “And you will die if you do not have even one made and hidden away. Then, at least, you will live that single day. You can use that time and make a new toy that you can stash away.”

Having never truly stopped, Mr. Breckell laughs aloud once again. “Are you telling me Santa Claus steals your toys.”

The Krampus alludes, “A thief by any name… what would he do if he was ever successful and he murdered me?”

“You are telling me, you can die if Santa takes away all your toys.”

“You will die, Mr. Breckell,” declares the Krampus. “When you become me.”

“Hold on,” Mr. Breckell says and stunts the conversation. “You told me you wanted to retire. What did you say? Pass away. You can do that if you let Santa have all your toys.”

“There is something else you must do,” states the Krampus solemn and cold. “Someone must take your place. Someone else must always be the Krampus or we will never be at peace.”

Unswayed by any prospect this whole week has presented him, Mr. Breckell remains engaged in his lively discussion. “I don’t know about your offer, mister. I heard that Saint Nick character was one tough hombre. You know, burglary is his thing – creeping down chimneys and eating cookies and all.”

An idea occurs to Mr. Breckell. “Hey, I have never seen the jolly old man. I know for a fact my parents put all my presents under the tree. I never heard from you, either. Or were you part of all those pagan parties before the twentieth century? Before my time?”

“I was hidden,” answers the Krampus. “Me and my toys and my workshop have been hidden all your life and longer. Saint Nicholas had no toys to give to good girls and boys.”

Mr. Breckell rambles, “So Santa Claus canceled giving away presents because he couldn’t rip you off…”

“What about his little helpers? Where are his elves?”

The Krampus shakes his head, gasps then sighs. “I am so tired and I cannot bear the things I do. I can no longer bear my guilt.”

Mr. Breckell wonders aloud, “Why? What have you done? You make toys.”

“Listen,” musters the Krampus. He leers into Mr. Breckell’s face. “You can’t just take them – I never did. I gave them warnings. They get two?”

“What are they and who are them?” Mr. Breckell asks. He is not one bit interested in hearing any admonitions.

The Krampus tells him, “The first warning I give is a lump of coal. I put it in their stockings.”

“Are you talking about kids?” indicts Mr. Breckell. “I was just kidding when I mentioned earlier that I was hungry. Certainly no veal.”

The Krampus ignores the man’s comments and he continues speaking. “The second is a bundle of twigs bound together with reed. After that second year, I just come and take them.”

“Where – where to?”

“The North Pole. I hide my workshop there in a cave washed out by ocean waves.”

Certain who they are talking about, Mr. Breckell shouts, “Why?” Not one deaf head in the day-room turns.

The Krampus confesses, “Children can make your toys for you. That’s allowed if you keep them under your control.”

“Slaves?”

“I use a potion brewed from an extract of mistletoe. I mix it into their porridge of ice and snow.”

Mr. Breckell mumbles at a volume hardly overheard. “You brainwash children with poison.”

He then judges aloud the beast by his side. “Inhumane.”

“No, no, the potion makes them happy.”

The Krampus’ speech sounds scrambled.

“Don’t you see? Saint Nicholas has no workshop in the Arctic Circle. He doesn’t have any elves. All of that belongs to me. He takes away my toys and the children who are glad they help the Krampus stay alive.”

“What does Santa do with the kids?”

“I suppose he takes them home. I don’t know, I don’t know… I don’t care.”

Mr. Breckell says proud, “It’s good to know he is still a good man.”

“Is he?” cries the Krampus. “Is he, Mr. Breckell? The Sinter Klass hunts us, sir. He will not let our souls rest and he only wants to keep us desperate. We are forced to desperately make toys to stay alive.”

“Hold on,” Mr. Breckell states and mimes as if he physically pulls in an equine’s reins. “Who are you talking about when you mention ‘we’? Certainly not you and me.”

“There is only now you,” replies the Krampus.

“What do mean?”

The gnarled creature tells the man, “Mr. Breckell, you agreed to take my place.”

“No,” Mr. Breckell objects. He has stopped laughing. “How did that happen?”

“Because you spoke to me.”

****

The nursing home vanishes from all around Mr. Breckell. The Krampus goes, too. Rather, old Mr. Breckell has himself gone. The elderly man discovers he is alone atop snow and an iceberg larger than his poor eyesight might measure. He shivers only a little because the air and ground are both cold. Mr. Breckell does not already know it, him standing outside fully dressed overlain with his nursing home bathrobe, but for some inexplicable reason the man is lucky he is not shaking more. Foremost in his audible mind is, “I have been teleported to the North Pole.”

“The dirty scoundrel,” grumbles Mr. Breckell. “What am I going to do now?”

He recognizes a scraggy voice whispering from out of his own ears. The voice of the original Krampus tells him, “Watch out for Saint Nick. Your brothers are watching you.”

“Hey, get back here,” Mr. Breckell shouts. “Send me back! I didn’t agree to anything.”

As the voice falls further away, Mr. Breckell hears it say, “The souls of your brothers depend on you to keep our peace. Hide. Hide and make toys.”

“Wait a minute,” Mr. Breckell begs the voice before it is gone. After no answer except a frigid gust of wind, one that chills his limbs, he appeals to the overcast sky. “Where am I suppose to go?”

“He said he made a cave,” Mr. Breckell tells himself. As if he knows the direction, he marches toward the ocean side.

Along his solitary journey, he first asks himself, “Who are the brothers?” Further along, Mr. Breckell answers the question.

“I bet it’s you,” he says to himself, meaning the voice he recognized was the Krampus he met tonight in the day room at Nueva Buena Vista.

He chides the Krampus he knew while tramping downhill into deepening snow. “Some wretched fiend looked at you and found a fool to pass a curse onto.”

“That’s what this is, isn’t it?”

The question is rhetorical. The hypothetical answer is, too. “Some eternal life this is, I tell you.”

A gunshot makes his insane reality legitimate. A bullet immediately blows snow and steam from a hole made into a snow drift concealing most of his thin and aged body. Hidden so, he has avoided injury.

“I got you,” declares a hoarse old man with yet a jolly shout. “I found you. Where are your toys?”

Mr. Breckell says without hunting the horizon for the shooter, “Santa Claus, is that you?”

A skinny man wearing a long gray beard and longer, hairy, green coat shouts back. “I’m Ole Nick, to you. Ho.”

Ole Nick pauses and asks the rookie Krampus, “You’re a new Krampus aren’t you? ‘Course, I haven’t seen you for over a hundred years. And I’ve been looking. I promise you that. I guess I’m just lucky everybody hasn’t forgotten about me.”

The stretched elf laughs aloud. “Ho, ho, ho,” then he fires a shot into the air. An AK-47 then swings over his head once more and unleashes a burst that drowns speech.

Dropping the weapon, Ole Nick tells the new Krampus, “I said, Christmas is coming this year. Show me where you’ve hidden all your toys.”

“I don’t know,” pleads Mr. Breckell. Challenging the safety of his snowdrift, he raises his head and looks over his shoulder. Saint Nicholas comes up behind him, following his target’s fathom-deep foot prints.

“I am feeling charitable all of a sudden,” promises Santa Claus, “I’ll give your a break because you’re so brand new. Look at you – your wrinkles haven’t yet turned into bark. Give me all your toys and I’ll let you live this year – well, at least until Spring.”

“You’re going to kill me?” asks the unbelieving remnant of Mr. Breckell.

Ole Nick grows serious. “You, your kind and your undead hive mind are an abomination.” He spits. “Ptah, you all-in-one and everlasting…”

“The Krampus is a dreg of Creation, the root of jealous anxiety. You don’t feel it yet, but you will quick enough. I exist to clean you up.”

The human that yet survives claims, “This is crazy. Please, let me go. Take all my toys. Please, just allow me to make more.”

“Your type of immortality is a mad idea,” judges Santa Claus. “Well, I’m the balance. You must die – after Christmas this year is sorted out”

The Krampus stammers. “Just take my toys, leave me in peace.”

“I will rescue the kids, too,” Ole Saint Nick pledges.

“What kids?”

“The ones you hypnotize and they make all your toys.”

The Mr. Breckell inside the Krampus tells Santa, “Take them. I’ll make my own toys.”

Ole Nick chuckles. “And just like all your brothers, you will be disappointed to find you can’t keep up.”

Mr. Breckell asks even though he sort of knows, “Who are my brothers?”

He is ignored. Instead, Ole Nick waves a rifle into his face and commands him, “Show me your toys.”

“Yes, yes,” replies the Krampus. He then takes Saint Nicholas to his lair.

The entrance to the ice cave is near. Truly, the two eternal spirits have almost always shuffled through snow over the length of saltwater carved caverns. Having arrived at the cave mouth, the Krampus points toward the dark hole. Uncertain of the intention of the man with the gun, he invites Saint Nicholas inside using only a nod and an arm gesture.

“There is candlelight inside,” promises the Krampus and Mr. Breckell knew.

“You go first,” Santa responds. “I’m right behind you and I’ve got an automatic weapon pointed at the center of your back.”

Before either spirit steps further toward the underground, gaunt and pale children fizz out of the hole as if they were bubbles jumped from a boiling cauldron. All of them smile. They shout in song, “The Krampus!” Apparently impervious to the freezing cold, the skinny kids banter with each other in the snow wearing only pajamas and slippers.

“He doesn’t look like the Krampus,” one boy observes.

A smaller girl tells him, “He smells like the Krampus.”

And the boy replies, “He doesn’t look like him.”

“He will look like one in a hundred years,” another child answers.

Boggled, Saint Nick wonders rhetorically, “What poison?”

Ashamed because of this evidence left by a guilty brother who had come before him, the one who had been Mr. Breckell claims, “I’m sorry – it wasn’t me.”

“You will commit this same crime one day soon. You always do,” Santa retorts. “I’ll be back and shoot you. You can join your brothers… and there will always be another one like you. There has always been.”

Although the children are reluctant, Saint Nicholas gathers them together and puts all the boys and girls the Krampus has kidnapped behind him. He tells the Krampus, “You can make as many toys as you want until then… enough for next Christmas, I expect.”

“You want the toys for Christmas?” reiterates the desperate Krampus. “But they are the days of my life… I’m sure we can work something out.”

The inconceivable notion brings another, “Ho, ho, ho,” from Ole Nick.

“Give me your toys,” Santa Claus orders the Krampus with no condition or exception.

“Please,” the Krampus begs Ole Nick while the children go directed back into the cave to haul out all the unwrapped Christmas presents.

Santa salutes the Krampus, “I loathe your kind – that is just the nature of Creation. Because of you, it has been a hundred years since the world has truly seen what Christmas was meant to be.”

The Krampus presents a feeble defense before the dangerous elf goes away. He says, “Is Christmas all about gifts? Toys that are better made to save the life of a man?”

“You are not a man,” answers Ole Nick.

Near sundown, after a day that seemed to last months, Saint Nicholas tells the Krampus, “I’ll be back before sundown to clear out the rest of your lair. Merry Christmas – you better be gone by then.”

Confused and having nothing sensible to say, the Krampus who had once been Mr. Breckell watches Ole Nick go. The tall, green elf presses the rear of his caravan of gift-bearing slave children. Establishing distance between them and their slaver, Santa Claus calls back to the Krampus from across tundra. “You’re going to die… I’ll kill you myself.”

You can’t hide forever. – you will come out and find another…”

“Even before that, you’ll start collecting slaves…”

“Then I will find you again.”

“You better get those toys made!”

****

After the once been Mr. Breckell finds the recipe for mistletoe poison, and he’s discovered a new lair for his toy workshop, the following news is broadcasted on Christmas day. While half of the United States still awaits dawn, WSIN television newswoman Sue Niam reports in an urgent voice,

“How do I describe it? These worldwide incidents of the opposite of breaking-and-entering are simply pandemic. Homes all over the globe – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and even Israel – everywhere – have seemingly been forcibly entered by persons who resemble the sixteenth century Father Christmas.”

“Father Christmas is the Jenny Craig Santa Claus who wears green instead of red. Viewers are probably most familiar with him as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol.”

Ms. Niam pauses on-air live and she asks an off-camera someone, “Is this a hoax?”

The preened television personality then continues describing, “Images and videos captured all over the world portray a single identical intruder in all these incidents – intruder is not the word for him – because he leaves wrapped presents then disappears”

Her cameraman is told, “Charlie, this is one man. How can one man appear at once in millions of homes?”

The response from the cameraman is loud enough to register on the recording. “I hate wrapping presents.”

“Hold on,” Ms. Niam tells Charlie and her viewing audience. “Reports are coming in saying the intruder carries an automatic military firearm. Our Santa Claus is shooting pets.”

After a moment spent quietly listening to her earphone, Sue Niam tells her audience, “Gunfire has been exchanged… witnesses have reported skirmishes between the intruder and armed homeowners”

Interrupting herself, she states, “We have a caller from Arizona.”

“Hello, Mister Rood? You said you exchanged gunfire with the man dressed as Father Christmas.”

“I sure did.”

Eager to curb the mania in her caller’s voice, Ms. Niam says, “We’re just now learning about the hundreds of incidents. These armed encounters seem focused in the Western half of the world.”

“America!” rallies Mr. Rood. “Damn, yeah.”

Ms. Niam cautions the man from Arizona. “Please, language, Mr. Rood. And it is Christmas Day.”

Mr. Rood grumbles, “Libtards.”

Refocusing the report, Ms. Niam asks her caller, “Can you tell us what happened to you this morning?”

“Yeah, sure,” Mr. Rood grants with heavy breaths. “I heard that sucker rattling my front door at four AM. I don’t go work at Walmart until six fifteen so I heard what was going on.”

The caller raises his voice.

“He come in my house with the ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and touting his rifle. Well, I brought mine.”

Interested in summarizing the witness, the television reporter asks, “How was the gunfire initiated?”

Yelling because of adrenaline, “I shot first – the man was in my home. He shot at me but I think I got him. All the authorities got to do is follow the blood trail. That’s red enough for Christmas for you all.”

– End –

If you liked my story, the least you can do for me is send me a Christmas card. You can do that by buying this story on Smashwords. Merry Holidays (how does that sound?).

– Matthew Sawyer

h1

The Horror of ISIS by Mr. Binger

March 8, 2015

The Horror of ISIS by Mr. Binger

The Horror of ISIS is a short story set in modern Iraq, wrecked and pillaged by terrorists and made askew by the mythology represented in Matthew Sawyer’s Pazuzu Trilogy. This is another tale by Mr. Binger that brings the alternate reality into real life. Atheistic in tone, the demons in his rash of stories are only possible because God abandoned the world. Others waited to take His place. Pazuzu awoke in the Middle East.

The Horror of the Islamic State
Mr. Binger

Captain Mitchell and his squad of ordinary United States Army Reservists remove themselves to Shingal, Iraq. Radical terrorists had recently held the town. The savages had swallowed some eighty thousands Iraqi Kurds into the belly of an over-gorged nation-monster. But as had the children of Chronos, the people in its guts did not perish. They fought back after time. The Yazdani, Christians in their own right, returned and surged again. They had come much like Constantine, under the banner of Christ.

Disguised, the captain and his team of acculturated soldiers today go to the recaptured Shingal and survey the territory. Their first objective was to assess the conditions; take pictures of carnage. Secondly and equally important, they were to locate Professor Christopher Mithrasen. The entire United States military was looking for the man. ISIS claimed they had captured him seven months ago. Any further information was available upon a “need-to-know” basis. Captain Mitchell himself never needed to know much.

The squad debated without input from their superior officer while they came up from Baghdad. Traveling at night, they come through the county-sized oil fields of northern Iraq. Though bombed into oblivion thrice in as many decades, the oil wells are working again. These likely never stopped pumping crude despite any damages. Oil and smoke and fire has forever choked this land.

While driving the armored Humvee everyone rides, Corporeal Ben Dinholme conjectures about their operation and its surroundings. He says, “That Mithrasen… did he find another gospel in a place like this?”

Private First Class Singer states, “I think they were all written here; the originals, that is.”

“Shut up,” Private Scott Kalkoff warranted on faith alone.

Singer comments, “Just so you know, the stories probably come from the Caucasus. Armenia, probably. That’s not so far north from here.”

“Snub it,” Sergeant Schindick shouts from the front passenger seat. “I’ve had enough argument between you two. We are just eyes-on-the-ground, no mouths.”

“It’s okay, sergeant,” Private Kalkoff tells his superior. “I am curious what the Yazdani say about Christ, even if it is blasphemy.”

“Hey, now,” Corporeal Dinholme jokes. He bounces in his seat behind the steering wheel, acting as would a child waiting for a favorite movie sequel to start playing.

“I said let’s not get them started,” cautions the sergeant.

Scott claims, “No, I’m curious. What do you know about the Yazdani faith, Singer?”

Next to him on the backseat – there with Captain Mitchell furthest right on the passenger side of the vehicle, Private First Class Singer tells Private Kalkoff, “They got a Jesus.”

“Well, that is mandatory,” Scott blurts.

Singer nods and he continues delivering his objective summary, “And they got seven angels who rule this world. There’s Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel…”

Kalkoff interjects, “And Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen.”

“Not quite,” Singer retorts. “Anyway, they – your seven holy beings – they do all the legwork for God, like all the little gods of the Hindu pantheon do for Krishna.”

“Krishna is not God,” asserts Scott.

Singer tells him, “You’re right about that. He’s closer to Jesus.”

“Shut it,” Sergeant Schindick orders. “I’ve heard this one before.”

“We’re coming up on Shingal, sergeant,” Captain Mitchell informs everyone.

Schindick answers “Yes, sir.” And the other conversation ends.

Silence carries the covert team of solders in their marked military vehicle toward the dark and ancient Arabian city. Today, after the terror wrought by ISIS, and at night, the only artifacts that may conceivably remain here are ash and bone. The civilized world hoped these marked the beginning of the end of sedition. Captain Mitchell and his team of soldiers were drawn to the aftermath.

A quarter-mile out from Shingal’s boundary, a living obscenity to God distracts the Humvee driver. Corporeal Dinholme spots a native man he believes commits a sin in the eyes of these people’s regional deity, Allah. The Iraqi Kurdish man had taken off his checkered head scarf and now waves it in the air. Well within the range of the truck’s headlamps, the Kurd signals as if the American vehicle had finished a race through the desert. This squad of Reservists win automatically, chiefly because they were the only team running.

“Can they do that?” Corporeal Dinholme wonders aloud about the native man. “Can they take off their hats like that? Is it against their religion?”

“Stop,” Captain Mitchell commands. “That’s Bob.”

Sergeant Schindick echos the order before the vehicle is slowed. His voice rings until the transport stands before the man waving a kaffiyeh. Meanwhile, the Kurd wraps the scarf around his balding scalp once more.

“Bob?” Kalkoff wonders to himself while seated next to the captain.

Captain Mitchell tells everyone, “He’s a contact.” The explanation remains brief.

“Bag-pants Bob,” Sergeant Schindick clarifies for the squad. Rumors and recollections betray themselves on the faces of the men.

Corporeal Dinholme comments, “I thought his nickname was Bob Baggins, like the Hobbit.”

Schindick answers, “Well, that’s the guy.”

The native informant rushes to the driver’s side of the vehicle. Although this summer has been hot, the reservists had come to Shingal with the windows rolled up. They came through haze and incendiary vapors protected inside the Humvee and the men still reek like gasoline.

“Kill the lights,” Captain Mitchell tells Dinholme. The corporeal follows the order and he turns off the truck’s headlamps.

“Roll down your window,” the captain then also states from the back seat. Dinholme does so, too. Bag-pants Bob immediately throws his damp head into the vehicle. Sweat had washed his face clean and stained his loose shirt.

Simultaneously, the man exhales. His breath overwhelms the acrid interior aroma with the scent of antiseptic paint thinner. The informer also slurs his broken English sentences. Bob interrogates the badly concealed soldiers.

“Who are you? CIA? Mossad?”

“We’re just regular army,” the captain tells him. “United States of America. No SEALs nor Marines, not even Green Berets.”

“You can take him back to America,” Bob slobbers. “Shingal does not worship the devil. Sunni worship the devil.”

“What is he talking about?” Scott quietly worries from the backseat. No one listens to the faithful army reservist. The squad is transfixed by the rambling of the informant.

“Don’t believe it… don’t believe… anything you see.”

“What are talking about?” insists Captain Mitchell.

“You know,” Bob begs him. “The beheading, the movie studio. It is here.”

“Where they make ISIS videos?” blurts Dinholme.

Sergeant Schindick shouts at him. “Quiet.”

Bob, meantime, nods. The Kurdish man pulls his head from the Humvee and glances about into the dark. “It’s okay, now. They are gone,” he says over his shoulders.

The captain seeks affirmation and he asks their contact specifically, “ISIS is gone?”

Bob nods again and never truly stopped doing so once he first started. Captain Mitchell wants confirmation. “We wouldn’t be here if the radicals were still around. Did they execute the hostages here? Where is the studio?”

“Yes,” Bob said. The affirmation seems too general. The word becomes more vague after each second. He then says, “Doctor Mithrasen.”

“Professor Mithrasen is here?” Singer asks shocked.

Sergeant Schindick glares at the soldier. On the opposite side the backseat, Captain Mitchell raises his hand. The officer invokes silence with his gesture and he is obeyed.

Captain Mitchell tells the front seat, “Sergeant, get directions to the studio’s location.”

Bag-pants Bob speaks over the captain’s instruction. “It is an aircraft bunker – no planes. No airfield. No pilots.”

“Yeah,” Private Kalkoff snickers next to Singer. He teases the informant. Their exchange stays unnoticed.

Singer whispers to him, “It’s the moonshine.”

The intoxicated informant then spears his hand into the vehicle. He waves an open and empty palm up and down below Dinholme’s nose. In response, Captain Mitchell throws loose American dollar bills into the front seat. And coordinated, Sergeant Schindick collects the money and he verbalizes the officer’s wishes.

“Pay him,” he tells the corporeal.

Having exchanged his information for cash, Bag-pants Bob abruptly walks away from the army vehicle. Stumbling the length of the Humvee toward the rear, he says again, “Don’t believe what you see,”

Hearing him, Corporeal Dinholme steps on the brake. Doing so illuminates the truck’s rear red lights. Bob’s back is painted with blood.

“Where are you going Bob?” asks the corporeal. The reservist imagined only the desert while he watches the native informant walk the greased way the Army Reservists had driven.

Bob tells him, “Sinjar.”

Dinholme did not know what Bob could mean. And it was too dark to see. He asks the soldiers inside the Humvee, “Sinjar, that’s this province. Right?”

Scott tells him, “He probably going to the mountain.”

“Captain,” Private Singer addresses the officer. “Sir, what was he talking about? What are we not suppose to believe?”

“ISIS was making movies,” replies Captain Mitchell summarily. “And it’s not important. The man was drunk.”

The captain tells Sergeant Schindick, “Sergeant let’s find that bunker. Professor Mithrasen has become the priority.”

“It doesn’t sound far, sir,” the soldier assures his commanding officer. Sergeant Schindick tells Dinholme, “Go,” and he points. “It’s right there. I can see it.”

Everyone knows the sergeant can’t see squat, but Bob’s map was simple and the landscape is flat. An intelligent man could make a reasonable assumption where an aircraft bunker stood on the nearby cusp of the city of Shingal. Confidant in his own assumption, Corporeal Dinholme takes the squad slightly left of where he had been pointed.

Nearer the city, visible yellow candle light plainly flickers in windows. There are instances of electric bulbs lighting outdoor entrances, but the team of reservist are yet too far away. They cannot define what the glowing blue-tinted orbs might be. Closer toward Shingal, the squad finds lights of all sorts are extinguished in an ominous circumference around their target. The concrete aircraft bunker where Bag-pants Bob had sent them is engulfed by the same flat darkness behind them.

“Singer, Kalkoff,” summons the sergeant. “Scout the bunker.”

All wearing woolen coats and vests over their uniforms, and with their ranks and other insignia concealed, Sergeant Schindick and Corporeal Dinholme get out of the Humvee the same time Singer and Kalkoff respond to their command. Captain Mitchell is left alone in the vehicle adjusting a checkered head scarf when the headlamps go extinguished. He watches while his higher-ranked non-commissioned officers ready their M4 carbine rifles and cover the scouts.

Privates Singer and Kalkoff bring their weapons and helmets with them, visually more wary of traps before each footstep than the building ahead of them. Schindick and Dinholme monitor the bunker. They are the ‘eyes’ in this maneuver. Yet in the dark, Singer, Kalkoff are more practical. And they could be more effective only if their boots were feelers like those of a cockroach.

The Army Reserve had come upon the oblong profile of a solid windowless bunker. There is one steel door that Kalkoff checks then reports, “Locked.” Singer tells the sergeant, “Clear, this side.”

Sergeant Schindick tells Corporeal Dinholme, “Bring the vehicle and the captain. Follow us to the front.”

“I’m behind you,” the sergeant then tells Singer and Kalkoff. “Move to the front of the building.”

The enlisted men do as they have been told and now raise their rifles. They spend equal amounts of time looking ahead of themselves as they do each of their own boots. Meanwhile, the Army vehicle comes swung around on packed ripples of sand and bounces beams of white light against their backs. Sergeant Schindick, too, is caught in the bobbing swaths of illumination.

Once the staggered U.S. team is around the bunker, the sergeant spins and raises a fist. The vehicle stops tens of yards before tall and marginally parted hangar doors. Sergeant Schindick then draws his open palm against his throat and the truck’s headlamps are killed. He tells his two advanced scouts, “I got your backs – get in there and check it out.”

Singer and Kalkoff do as they are told. Kalkoff leads them then he stalls inside the concrete structure. He pulls a flashlight from his shoulder suspender. Singer does the same and together they throw sanguine spotlights into the air of a spacious chamber. The filtered beams paint dashing colored ovals across the scaffolds of an arced ceiling.

Once the pair have scanned wreckage thrown about the interior of the bunker, Singer tells Kalkoff, “There’s no one here… just video tapes, broken electronics…”

“Anything radical or fundamental is full of Luddites and torture porn,” complains the private first class.

“It was a studio,” comments Kalkoff. The private reservist kicks over a broken camera and finds an M16. “They left their weapons, too.”

Singer teases his compatriot and his use of pronouns. “They?” In his godless perspective, someone like Kalkoff and the terrorists were essentially the same. “Essentially” was the most important operative word in that sentence.

“ISIS,” Kalkoff tells him.

Singer abandons the distraction. “Let’s push the doors open, get the truck’s lights in here. I still can’t see shit.”

“Good idea, for once,” answers Private Kalkoff.

Agreed, the two United States reservists each pick a hanging panel and they press open the aircraft bunker. “Clear,” Singer tells Sergeant Schindick.

“All right,” Schindick grumbles. “What do they got in there?”

“Can we get the truck’s lights in here, sergeant?” Private Kalkoff answers.

A brief time passes while Sergeant Schindick goes and consults Captain Mitchell in the back of the Army vehicle. Meantime, Private Kalkoff scans the interior the bunker again. He sweeps a red beam diagonally across the width of the single room. The light touches upon a unique video monitor – special in that it appears undamaged and it still sits elevated upon an upright table.

“They missed a television,” he tells Singer.

“Was that there?” Private Singer responds. His befuddlement is interrupted that moment when the Army Humvee shines its high beams into the unsealed chamber.

Hidden nearby in a ray from the light’s source, Sergeant Schindick speaks to his subordinates. “Professor Christopher Mithrasen,” he reminds the soldiers. “Anything?”

Captain Mitchell appears with Sergeant Schindick when the pair step outside the beam of illumination. “We will need to hunt, sergeant. What is on these video tapes?”

“Rehearsals, sir?” Schindick conjectures.

Private Scott Kalkoff is careless and he interrupts the speculation. “Look, the television is still hooked to a camera. I think there’s a tape in there.”

Before the sergeant demands respect from his direct reports, Private Singer reminds Kalkoff with an emphasized, “Sir.”

“Sir,” Private Kalkoff tells the captain. “I think they were filming something when a raid, or something happened.”

Sergeant Schindick suggests, “The Kurdish insurgence.”

“Play it,” Captain Mitchell commands. “Can we play the tape? Is there power?”

The Humvee driver, Corporeal Ben Dinholme, joins the squad the same time Private Singer reports, “Fortunately, sir, we’re in luck. There is power but everything is busted… everything but this stuff.”

“Convenient,” Corporeal Dinholme personally comments while he makes his own assessment of the scenario.

“Well enough. Play it,” orders the captain.

The sergeant reiterates the command with the phrase, “Let’s see what we got.”

Right away, the television is switched on and a video tape is played from an overturned camera on the floor. Nuclear green overwhelms the first scenes until a close-up shot is pulled and Professor Mithrasen’s bloated face fills the screen.

Both loud and strangled, the infamous scholar and atheist insists his captives, “Say it. Say there is no god.”

He shouts to militants standing off-camera, “Deny his existence.”

“Deny the existence of god or you welcome chaos and evil into the world.”

Young men laugh and a record of their sounds is played on tape. Now in the overturned bunker with stark light against their backs, the squad of American Army reservists stand sharp and silent. They quietly witness what had become of this place.

An unseen terrorist on the tape shouts in Aramaic, which prompts Corporeal Dinholme to wonder aloud, “What did he say?”

Captain Mitchell responds, “They’re going to cut off his head.”

“That’s what I thought,” adds Sergeant Schindick. “Sir.”

“What did they do to his face, sir?” Corporeal Dinholme asks the captain. “Torture?”

“Maybe,” Captain Mitchell replies. “Watch the tape.”

Hypnotized by the concept of post-production propaganda, Sergeant Schindick this time does not repeat the officer. The video continues to play. And a recorded Professor Mithrasen warns his captors, “Say there is no God or you will hold open the door!”

An accented voice says on the video recording, “Tell your president to take your evil home.”

“No,” Mithrasen shouts. “The US brought it back.”

Amidst indecipherable shouts, the professor is also heard begging. “It belongs here. Or space. Don’t wake him.”

Corporeal Dinholme whispers, “What is he talking about?”

Singer speculates. “Is it the gospel he found?”

“Unlikely,” Scott instantly scoffs.

All three enlisted men are hushed once the sergeant glares at them. In the fraction of a second that Schindick wastes turning his head, the playing video tape has progressed straight to decapitation. The scene on the TV portrays callous, tanned hands fondling an Olean, New York KABAR knife. The professor’s throat goes sawed with its blade. Mithrasen still speaks at the beginning of his execution, after the knife had cut his flesh and he had yet not bled.

“Pazuzu comes from here,” he tells his killers.

Tufts of threaded black smoke seep from his nose and his mouth. The opaque vapor oozes from the expanding wound across his neck but there is no blood. The professor’s head is a quarter-ways sawn off and the man does not bleed. Feces comes out of the opened throat instead. Its appearance is unmistakable. There it was and a smell. The terrorists on the video decry the stench the same time the team of United States Reservists detect a comparable odor now inside the bunker.

Corporeal Dinholme says, “What?”

Professor Christopher Mithrasen’s head is severed from his body the same time Private Kalkoff comments, “It suddenly smells like a pig farm in Ohio.”

Overhearing him, Captain Mitchell responds. “Not many farms of any sort left in that state.”

“Yes, sir,” replies the private. “It’s either because of global warming or God’s judgment, sir.”

In place of suppressing laughing at his teammate, Private Singer shouts, “Whew,” and he waves his unencumbered arm over his head. The other soldiers start holding their noses shut.

“Who is Pazuzu?” Dinholme asks anyone while his nostrils are pinched closed.

Also nasally, Captain Mitchell tells him, “Watch and see.” Terrorists on the video screech over the words.

“Nas-nas,” they squeal. “Nas-nas.”

“What are they talking about,” insists Corporeal Dinholme.

Private Singer tells him, “Nas-nas are djinn, evil spirits. They drink your blood by licking the soles of your feet.”

“Yummy,” Dinholme wisecracks.

Simultaneously occurring on the video tape, a pig’s nostril comes regurgitated from the murdered man’s severed esophagus. The animal’s snout next appears then out comes its head. The creature squeals and squirms inside Professor Mithrasen’s prone corpse. Its head substitutes for the man’s lost own.

Terrorists shoot the living obscenity but the thing is already dead. Each of the five U.S. Reservists had witnessed what emerged from Mithrasen’s stump. They had seen it never lived. The pig’s wide eyes had gone flat white. There was no sheen across the ivory orbs. The professor’s body then animates. The dead pig inside the corpse squeals and it lifts this part of the late Christopher Mithrasen unto its feet dressed in shit-smeared orange prison garb.

“God,” Scott finally invokes. No one standing around the soldier hears his solicitation.

Corporeal Dinholme says, “I know. The smell, right?”

Reanimated and upright on two legs, the dead pig in possession of the just-as-dead man attacks the terrorists. The evil spirit disappears off-screen followed by screams and wreckage. Bits of electronics fly in and out of the recording as regularly does bloody carnage.

“Holy crap,” Dinholme chants.

Sergeant Schindick corrects him. “You’re half right.”

At the center of an omnipresent stench and watching what snippets of slaughter are available on the recording, Private Kalkoff dares hypothesize. “The pig monster looks like Muhammad. Maybe he’s come back to do some spankings.”

Singer responds, “Because it can’t be Jesus, right?”

Never removing his eyes from the video monitor, Sergeant Schindick tells his pair of privates, “End it. Peace be on his headstone. And that’s the only place he’ll get any. Right, brothers?”

Private Kalkoff answers, “Praise the Lord.”

Private Singer rolls his eyes. And feeling outnumbered, he shuts his mouth.

Finished presumably eating the terrorists, every piece of each, the bipedal corpse of Professor Mithrasen stumbles back into the view of the camera. The bloodied monstrosity collapses and oinks. All of him remains visible on screen, kicking the ground and beating his arms against the shattered electronics. Quills, long, like those of a porcupine, pierce themselves out of the dead professor’s shoulders and his back. These further shred apart his already torn clothes.

The quills come out then the living dead pig wriggles itself free of the human cadaver. It crawls out from the severed neck of the professor. While it does, almost as an anxious newborn might crawl from its dead mother’s womb, the animal grunts.

“What was that?” Corporeal Dinholme wonders. “I heard an animal.”

Sergeant Schindick tells him, “It’s on the recording, soldier.”

There on the television is a mutant. An impossibly big pig with quills on its shoulders and from its back; tusks project out its nostrils. Seventy-two sagging teats (Dinholme counted them), their purple nipples brush against the ground until the undead monster learns to stand and walk on four split hooves. Its dead breasts fall flat against its bristled and warty hide when the pig lifts itself upright. And its horrible birth was caught on tape.

“I think it’s here,” answers the corporeal. The man already doubts he detected anything.

Free from one mortal coil and under flickering set lighting, the demonic pig walks off-screen. More animal sounds come issued from the recording. Hearing these, Corporeal Dinholme knows he hears others and the noise comes from nearby.

“How about if I secure the Humvee, captain?” he implores the officer.

“Do you think something is here?” Captain Mitchell asks him. “I do too.”

The video ends. The television monitor changes to black and Mitchell says, “And it’s not coming back with us.”

“Professor Christopher Mithrasen stays here,” he tells his squad of reservists. “What is inside him, or if he is inside something else, it stays here.”

Private Singer asks him, “Sir, isn’t Professor Mithrasen dead?”

“Apparently,” capitulates the captain.

Uncommonly curious, Private Kalkoff asks, “Captain. What was it exactly, sir?”

Captain Mitchell says only, “We do what we’re told, that’s all I know.”

“Yes, sir,” replies the private.

Despite the recording having reached its end, the team of soldiers still hear a pig. The fetid smell of manure never dissipated. It only becomes worse.

“Let’s get the tape and pull back to the vehicle,” Captain Mitchell suggests.

Sergeant Schindick tells Private Singer, “Get the tape.”

He mentions to Private Kalkoff, “Take some pictures.”

Trailing the strategic withdrawal, Private Scott Kalkoff walks backwards with his rifle slung over his shoulder. He kicks debris behind him as he rummages into his utility belt. The Army reservist produces a compact digital camera and he takes flashing snapshots. All the while, snorts and grunts go around outside the aircraft bunker. A thought comes to Scott. He thinks, “How can I even hear anything through concrete walls? Maybe explosions, maybe.”

The reservist is almost outside the long sliding doors and joined with the rest of his team when the animal noises echo inside the structure. And he escapes without ever having his curiosity ignited. Outside and out from the beams of light the military Humvee throws, the soldiers listen to their commanding officer.

Captain Mitchell’s voice shakes when tells his squad, “The remains of Professor Mithrasen is one American resource we don’t want to fall into enemy hands.”

“What remains, sir?” Sergeant Schindick begs his captain. “Are we going after the pig, sir? Captain, pardon me, sir, but it looks like it ate everything that can’t be plugged into a wall socket.”

“It looked like it killed all the terrorists single-handed – captain,” Private Kalkoff reiterates.

“You didn’t see anything, Private,” commands the captain. “You heard noises and gunfire on a videotape. None of us saw anything. No one will say anything.”

“Yes, sir,” replies the team. The five soldiers then simultaneously climb into the Humvee. The doors shut and the animal sounds go away.

Everyone agrees for a moment and the engine is started then Singer says, “We’ll be asked what happened.”

Dinholme states, “Shit.”

“We saw a pig,” Private Singer specifies. “Wreckage. I have to tell investigators about that. I can’t lie.”

“You saw a pig,” hisses Captain Mitchell. “You men saw a pig and you saw all that ridiculous stuff on the videotape. HQ will watch the tape.”

As the team of reservists drive away upon the path they came to Shingal, Sergeant Schindick raises a responsible detail. “Sir, there were those noises, like an animal,” he says then he snorts like a pig.”

“Captain,” finalizes the sergeant.

The team travels back to Baghdad near dawn. On the way, Captain Mitchell confesses. No one is sure the man means to speak aloud. “I heard rumors Professor Mithrasen was working on a secret weapon for the U.S. government. Maybe he was, maybe he was it. I need to give my report to HQ. They might know something. Let them watch the videotape.”

“Holy Mother of God,” he mutters. “Whatever he found must stay here.”

Private Kalkoff hands the evidence to his superior officer. And he draws the captain’s focus when he asks, “Are you catholic, captain?” The officer does not answer.

Himself suffering post traumatic stress, Sergeant Schindick yells inside the vehicle. His rage goes directed at Private Kalkoff. “Dammit, soldier. Didn’t you hear what Professor Mithrasen said? ‘Don’t believe.’ Bag-pants Bob said, ‘Don’t believe.’ Don’t.”

– END.

Read others..
Lazarus The Pig

Matthew Sawyer’s Pazuzu Trilogy
And visit the author’s store front at Smashwords

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About R’lyeh: Those Things I Will Tell Your Child

December 31, 2014

about cove-smlr

About R’lyeh: Those Things I Will Tell Your Child

Matthew Sawyer

I was telling my second-generation niece, Rilynn there in pink pajamas, that her name sounds like R’lyeh. She is only five. “No,” she tells me back. The child lives with her parents in the country not very far from where I was born.

Rilynn explains to me, “They don’t rhyme.”

I tell her something incomprehensible; something even a smart little girl her age would not yet understand. I say, “The consonants don’t have to rhyme. The words just have to sound the same.”

“Nuh-ahh,” she replies and in that moment, I conclude she must know what I am talking about, or she has a solid idea.

“I’ll tell you a rhyme about the sunken city of R’lyeh.”

“What?” Rilynn peeps and jumps up from the Living Room floor. The little blond thing pops onto her bare feet like she does forty times forty times a day, She joins me opposite a laminated coffee table small enough that the girl might rest her elbows on stacked magazines atop the surface. She does not relax and instead regularly shifts her inconsequential weight between her feet.

Late on my cue, I recite, “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.”

Rilynn’s mother yells at me. “Matt!”

And Rilynn admits, “That rhymes.”

“It’s a poem,” I beg the mother. The woman’s name is Brenda – for the purpose of my narrative. I admit I have de-purposed the names of other relatives for the sake of that same said narrative. So, there is my first confession.

I cite for Brenda, “HP Lovecraft wrote that in his short story Call of Cthulhu.”

“One of those old stories?” she wonders knowingly.

“A great old one,” I say. “It’s like a hundred years old.”

Rilynn interrupts us when she demands from both the only adults in the room, “I want to hear the story.”

Her father is at work, delivering packages, and the girl is an Only-child. Her mother, Brenda again, hovers on the threshold between this room and another. The grown woman frowns at me. She issues a warning. “I have heard about you.”

“Probably from my sister-in-law,” is my answer. “She is a religious nut.”

Brenda admits, “Holly does now wear the Shield of David and a Cross around her neck.”

While I nod she explains, “But she lives there in Wister Town with your brothers and sisters… and your mother… and you can go back to your home in California. Don’t cause trouble.”

“I am an old man.”

Brenda denies my factual report.  “You look twenty-five.”

My automatic response lists, “Exercise, eat right…”

“You look younger than me.”

“It’s what you read,” I then support.

Rilynn stomps her naked soles and whines. “I want to hear a story!”

“Okay,” her mother condones. “Your Uncle Matt can tell you one.”

“About R’lyeh?” I inquire from Brenda while simultaneously her daughter claps.

Brenda states, “Nothing about death or monsters or anything gross.”

I stammer, “Well…”

The woman stops me. “There was an earthquake the last time you were there in Wister Town – an earthquake in south-central Wisconsin. And you said a house walked away – monsters came out of the hole it made.”

“It was a story…”

“It makes no difference, bad things happen when you tell bad stories.”

“Bad?” I do wonder aloud. Despite what critics will say, I withhold judgment on myself for that judgment would end me and my very life. And hypocritical with my skepticism, I tell Brenda, “There is no difference between religion and being superstitious.”

“The earthquake started fires that burned down half of Wister Town!”

“I never talked about that,” I counter.

“Small blessing,” Brenda supposes above her breath.

“I’ll tell you what,” I proposition, “I’ll clean it up. And I’ll try not to be creepy or scary.”

“All right.”

Grinning at Rilynn I paraphrase, “Sunk somewhere in the South Pacific ocean, a corpse-city called R’lyeh…”

“Matt,” screeches her mother.

“It’s in the story, I didn’t write it,” I present for my defense.

“It’s the same difference.” Brenda states once more, “No dead things or death.”

“Okay, that was only an adjective. It was about a city but no more. That’s the last one and I can tell Rilynn about R’lyeh.”

“Yes,” the small girl screams and she claps her hands together again and harder.

I grumble loud enough for Brenda to overhear. “It won’t be exciting.”

“Just make it fun,” she answers me. “Keep her attention for an hour or so.”

Observing Rilynn squirm while she stands on her feet, I tell the girl’s mother, “I’ll last for a couple minutes.”

Brenda nods and vanishes beyond the doorway. Rilynn leans completely over the table, lifting her legs off the floor, and she whispers nearer my ear. “Are you gonna talk about dead things?”

“No,” I chuckle. “I’m going to tell you who lives in R’lyeh – the city beneath the ocean. Cthulhu cannot die.”

“Catsup!” Rilynn announces and leaves me disorientated. I swim with my thoughts atop the ruins of an undersea R’lyeh. Yet the city itself is not ruined and appears as it had newly built eons ago. Erected in my imagination, the immense construction merely threatens to topple.

Finally able to comprehend my niece, I try correcting the young child. “Cthulhu. Ka-thoo-loo.”

“Ka-choo,” answers Rilynn. “Ka-choo-choo.”

“Ka,” I started to say again then decided my effort was futile. I play with the girl. “Ka-choo,” I repeat with an exaggerated exhalation. I wipe an imaginary expulsion from beneath my nose.

Rilynn laughs and she repeats the word until I believe she makes herself truly sneeze. She refuses to acknowledge the genuine rivulet that has run down and clung on her upper lip. “Does he come out?” my niece asks me. “Is R’lyeh like his house?”

The strange question makes me wonder if the girls has already heard the story. “Is R’lyeh like his house? As a matter of fact, it is. Ka-choo-choo is big, he’s huge.”

“Say it right,” Rilynn requests. “I can’t say it, but you can say his name right.”

“Cthulhu.”

“Yeah!”

“He can only come out when the stars are right,” I educate the impressionable mind. “The thing is, the stars will never be right.”

“Why,” Rilynn pouts. She looks sad for real.

“Well,” I say making preparations, “There is a difference between where the stars were when he came to our planet and where they are now.”

“Why?”

“Because space is expanding.”

“Why?”

The distress on Rilynn’s face reflects the frustration I experience as I try to explain impossible concepts to a five-year old brain. “Cthulhu was originally an extra-dimensional being. He was an Outer God until he was trapped on Earth and he became a Great Old One. They don’t really understand how our three dimensions work.”

“Why?”

“Because, where they come from, they can be anywhere at once, be everywhere. Their space doesn’t move.”

“Matt,” Brenda declares. “You’re confusing her. I’m confused.”

“I’m confused trying to explain it.”

“Make it simple,” the mother begs me. “Or else I will get questions I can’t answer.”

“Okay,” I consent. “Cthulhu can’t come out. Besides there are Elder signs everywhere.”

“Older signs?” Rilynn questions.

“Close: Elder signs, like the elderly. They grow in nature, you can see them in the tree branches, the veins in leaves and even the veins under your skin. HP Lovecraft drew a picture of it.”

“Can I see it?”

I hesitate. “It might be hard to find. Let me draw a picture for you. Do you have paper and something to draw with?”

Rilynn runs away laughing. The girl returns in an instance with a single clean sheet of typing paper and a handful of red and blue crayons. A green wax stick had fallen from her grasp whilst she had come but Rilynn never paused and retrieve it. She presents to me my requested tools.

“Draw Ka-too-loo,” she insists.

“Cthulhu?”

“Yeah.”

The request frightens me without explanation, so I stall. “I thought you wanted to see the Elder Sign.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah, but draw Him first.”

“Oh,” I stutter. “You should never summon Cthulhu without an Elder Sign. What happens if he demands a sacrifice?”

“Matt?” Brenda inquires of me.

The woman startles me as if I have been caught speaking the unspeakable. I scuttle my argument against a juvenile and I decide what comes next. “Let me show you the Elder Sign. Then I will draw Cthulhu.”

Before Rilynn objects, I sketch together six broad hashes, making the red image of a branch. Three twigs project from its top, two from below. Rightward on the picture, two opposite twigs reflect each other as would a mirror. The second bottom twig appears sprout from the branch in the space between the two remaining leftward twigs on top.

“Humph,”Brenda says looking over my stooped and sketching upper half. She tells me, “It looks like something you would find in nature.”

“Who put it there?” Rilynn asks.

Dissuaded against trying to explain the Outer Gods again, I reply to the girl and her mother, “We’ll make your one aunt happy and say God put it there. And he looks just like Santa Claus.”

Unafraid now that I have constructed a ward for my protection, I intercept any awkward confusion and I say, “Here is what Cthulhu looks like.”

I have been to Art School and I have always been naturally drawn to doodling, so much I am more talented with a blunt pencil than any other drawing implement. Knowing so, my sketch immediately takes form. The representation of Cthulhu is a simple image of an octopus – one octopus with eight radial tentacles in place of the head of a primate. Although I do not provide any scale, this abomination is larger than King Kong.

I say primate because I have often seen paintings of the Great Old One in which He has a spine and four limbs besides a pair of colossal membranous wings. Those four jointed appendages always terminate with five clawed digits, these usually webbed. Rilynn reacts to my visual interpretation.

“Icky.”

“Matt?” Brenda cautions me. “I don’t want her awake tonight.”

“It’s okay, the Elder sign…”

“Stupid,” Rilynn states in verdict. Her mother shakes her head.

“It’s okay,” I presage again. “There is another Elder Sign. August Derleth made it – he was a cheese-eater, just like us. He was from Wisconsin – Sauk City.” Having revealed an alternative, I start drawing a second archaic symbol on the same one sheet of typing paper.

“You know,  August Derleth was the first guy who published HP Lovecraft. He wrote stories, too. He also wrote about a lot more than horror.”

“There,” I tell Rilynn and her mother. The second Elder Sign comes presented to them as a blue, five-pointed star. A red eye engulfed in red flames flickers at its center. “The star is actually supposed to be green, but Rilynn dropped that color on the floor.”

“Get it later, sweetie,” Brenda absently tells the girl.

I boast in tangent. “Now that would scare Klingons.”

“What are Klingings?” Rilynn asks me.

My outrage is a showy mockery. “Brenda, your daughter is eight years old and still no Star Trek?”

“She’s five.”

“But still…”

The mother ends the silence that follows my lacking an excuse. Brenda asks me a serious question. “How did you learn about this?”

“I don’t know,” I answer honestly at first. “Read?”

“You should write about it when you go home. Did you and why not?”

“It wasn’t in my stars,” I tell her in accordance to the mythos we discuss. Brenda does not understand. She probably won’t until I do write down something. I let the woman know, “There are tons of other authors who could tell you the stories. I’ve got something parallel, but it’s about what happens in Wister Town.”

“I know,” Brenda moans. Before the woman runs out of that same breath, she tells her daughter, “Put on warm clothes, we’re going to that toenail of a town… like Uncle Matt calls it. Let’s visit your great grandma.”

Once Rilynn is busy upstairs getting dressed, and Brenda and I are alone, I make a cordial appeal to the woman. “Brenda, my nephew would never allow it, your husband would forbid that you ever speak to me…”

The woman steps back from me but she does not flee. Snared by curiosity strengthened by her agnosticism – her disbelief in a Creator that she confessed against long before – Brenda listens to my corrupt words.

“You are right, I will be young until I die. I will die young at the age of one hundred and twenty-five. Rilynn can remain young, too, but she must know. The earlier, the better.”

“My daughter is not going to visit you in California,” she tells me. Knowing who I am and being closer to my family than I physically am or ever was, my in-law, Brenda, has heard all my other relatives have rejected my similar notions.

“What is in California?” she nibbles still. I expected she would ask before I had come two thousand miles to visit her family.

“The sun,” I say generically. “That’s where it stays, and its home was made for the Divine.  There is power in California – power for those who know how to tap it. There is more power there than in that hole in Wister Town.”

“The Jews sense it, and the Mormons. That’s why they are there. There are big cults and Moonies and Scientologists and Jehovah Witnesses – you name it. They crawl down from the palm trees. They all feel the secret power so few people can actually ever know.”

The woman I speak with gnaws her bottom lip. When she soon starts shaking her head, I promise, “Rilynn will know more than me. She will see the future. Maybe she will see R’lyeh.”

When my words cease to make impact, I escalate the strength available to the female child. “She will foresee every consequence of every action she takes. And she will know there is only one course through life. The sun is the root of all religion. Praise Hastur.”

Once I am shut out of the house, I warn Brenda, “Hastur has corrupted in the American Midwest – the power of the sun does not manifest in cows. All of that is Egyptian perversion. The providence here is made base and unhealthy! Defiled and there is no protection. There is no God. We still live blind in the Age of Babylon.”

– END –

Impressed by my writing? I hope so. Read more from me, as Matthew Sawyer or Mr. Binger, at Smashwords.

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He’s Not The Same Monster Anymore

September 23, 2014

Do you remember those very old horror films Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944)? You may recall the same gimmick in The Monster Squad (1987). All these films star Universal Studio monsters. These creatures were transformed from their sources in literature and removed further from their mythological inspirations. Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker first altered their archetypes when these authors brought those same monsters into the Modern Ages.

Authors such as Stephen King and Anne Rice have been diligent and maintained the evolved fiction of these cryptids, but then there’s been Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Whereas the story was hugely popular, the images of vampires and werewolves were gravely injured. Granted, comic books and television had already shook the genre ragged.

Yet I reawaken Frankenstein’s monster in my story The Abhorred. I’m taking vampires and werewolves back to their roots. I’m reassembling the fabled golem – no, Frankenstein’s monster is not a zombie. And with guidance from the dead author HP Lovecraft, I pitch all these creatures against each other. This fight is not a Battle Royale nor a game. This story is the paranoid life of a professor of nuclear engineering. Professor Hebert Stock is on sabbatical here in Northern Wisconsin. It’s Thanksgiving and the man is alone. At night, he scavenges graveyards.

– Mr. Binger

The Abhorred by Mr. Binger

The Abhorred
Genre Horror
Word Count Approx. 91,758
Page Count 611

Synopsis…

Professor Hebert Stock is a good man. This professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay truly believes he is a force for good. All alone, he considers himself a mortal god. His accomplishments support his delusions – Strock here has harnessed cold fusion. He has shrunken this miraculous engine under the size of a clay pot. Not only that, he has brought the dead back to life.

Professor Strock has revived whole specimens and their amputated constituent pieces. Raw energy revives and intoxicates each of the monstrosities the man has packed with batteries and sewn back together. Each nameless creation is a step toward immortality. Yet Strock’s discoveries are not primarily for himself. He helps mankind combat a scourge of vampires.

As much as Strock’s genius, vampires and werewolves are real. Unchanged by time, these monsters now flourish in the Mack State Wildlife Area – ever since a Hellmouth had opened the earth south of Madison. The Hellmouth itself rent the earth then walked away.

The vampires in The Abhorred are immaterial, blood-sucking ghosts. They become solid when they consume blood. The master of the horde in the Mack State Wildlife Area is a pudgy, Midwestern-looking fellow. His name is Vlad Blaski. This vampire has discovered semi-permeability. All vampires need do is boil the blood they drink.

Having decimated the prey inside the Wildlife Area, the hungry ghosts eat werewolves – hairy Wild Men of Eastern European folklore. They look closer to Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man than actually wolves or upright demons. And they do not transform under a full moon. The werewolves in the Abhorred are emaciated, wildly hirsute naked men cursed at puberty. How this curse is transmitted is an unimportant mystery.

Hunger drives werewolves unto Strock’s private property – a hobby farm between Appleton, WI and Greenville, WI. These trespassers discover the professor’s secret experiments. They meet his reanimated monster – a discolored, walking corpse that calls itself Angst. The reassembled boy bleeds motor oil. And a union is made. Professor Strock, his assistant Gloria, and Angst join forces with werewolves and they fight Blaski and his vampire horde.

Printed Pocket Books of The Abhorred is available from LULU.

The Abhorred Ebooks are sold online at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etd… but I prefer readers purchase them from Smashwords.

I hope everyone finally likes this one…

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The Corpus Cat Chapter Three of Thirteen

September 9, 2014

The Corpus Cat

Mr. Binger

Chapter Three of Thirteen

This cloudy Sunday morning, the Corpus couple come back together in his SUV from a Protestant church service at Saint Luke’s. They go once every month. Neither Dana nor Barry are religious people. They are not, as Barry always imagines the comic book icon, Stan Lee, would say, “True believers.”

And when Barry inks the sketches of the merry fatherly figure in his mind, he always imagines an animated Mr. Lee brandishes a silver cross and simultaneously expels bloodsuckers.

Suddenly guilty that he allows a childhood Satanic temptation to distract him so soon after sitting an hour on an uncomfortable wooden bench under the presence of God, Barry attends his original thought. He thinks as if seized in prayer.

Spiritually, he and Dana pledged to each other their own negotiated understanding of the popular and maligned Pascal Wager. Neither of them ever speak about God, they are not evangelical, not in the least. And if they were ever asked – and they never have been and they do not fear they ever will be – they would not deny His existence.

If He exists, Barry is certain he will know after being dead. And he will gladly shake the Lord’s hand and ask Him when his wife will be arriving. He is confidant they both deserve heaven. Nothing about this daydream is morbid, and merely a curiosity until he and wife arrive at home.

An unusual lightning snap whitens the sky the same second Barry raises the automatic garage door. A nearby boom rocks the stalled vehicle. Inside the SUV, Dana goes, “Whoa, that was bizarre.”

“It’s a winter lightning storm,” Barry tells her with no emotion. He takes the vehicle inside. The garage door closes as the couple open their own. He comments with a drawl, “It’s rare but not uncommon.”

“What?” Dana laughs.

Her husband continues his indistinct impression. “It’s a backwards expression from the rurals of these parts.”

“A backward education, it sounds like,” she judges.

They go into the house while Barry explains, “It means something happens sometimes.”

Dana submits her criticism to her husband when they are in the kitchen. “Who can call this winter, there hasn’t been snow all year. It’s just been cold.”

“It’s because the dry air.”

The Corpus exchange their thick jackets for thicker sweaters and automatically gather leftover meals from the days before the end of the week. Joining the couple in the living room, and appearing as fluffy as the two human beings, Dodgie comes in sniffing the air.

Outdoors, the wind suddenly sounds faster and more fierce. This force of nature presses the house the opposite direction and makes its walls creak. The windows rattle, too, but because the wind is constant, most of the glass panes clack against their sills once and stay pinned against their braces. Dodgie stops in his immaculate tracks and stares out the window.

“Ooo,” Dana expresses for everyone. Dodgie stays absolutely quiet and does not recognize the people in the room – two things the cat does best.

Blown debris flies past the undrawn window and Dana asks the animal, “Dodgie, did you see that?”

He obviously had and the cat trots into the center of the room then jumps onto the shelf below the opening. Barry broadcasts the event action. “There he goes.”

Clearly visible over the cat’s hunched shoulders, Dana and Barry watch in high clarity as late and forgotten holiday decorations are torn off houses, lifted into the sky and scattered throughout the neighborhood. Given the rage outside, the paper trash will likely go blown all over the city. And given the strength of its wind, the ornaments probably come all the way from Des Moines, Iowa. Dodgie lies rapt and scrutinizes the transformed landscape.

Indeed, the cat transforms himself into furry brick. And when a bolt of lightning hits so close to the house, and when all the windows tick as if pelted with gravel, and when the whole interior of the house is injected with white light, Dodgie remains at the glass unbothered.

“Holy!” Barry shouts after the thunder settles and he, all himself, tries to make a louder crack. Dodgie doesn’t bother with even that.

“Did you see?” Barry asks his wife. “Dodgie didn’t budge. He is either blind and deaf or he’s got balls of steel.”

Blinking her eyes, Dana inquires, “Isn’t he neutered?”

“I didn’t have the faith to take him to Bris.”

She scolds him. “Barry…”

Dodgie apparently hears her say a name and he turns his head almost completely around. The cat looks at Dana. His green eyes tell her he expects she will show him something interesting. And neither the cat nor Dana know what that something might be.

Barry makes a projection. “I think he wants to grow up in one piece.”

His wife slaps him on his shoulder and Barry argues, “We did, and keeping all of our parts was good enough for us.”

Without warning, Dana suddenly feels she will drop the smile from her face. The woman’s flush cheeks pale and droop and the corners of her lips quiver. Her husband instantly sees the depressed affect and he changes the subject. Barry points her attention to something odd and obvious. Distractions like these more often seem to help swing her mood.

“Dodgie has been scratching in his litter box a long time.”

The Corpus couple had not noticed when their pet cat jumped from in front of the window. And accustomed to his sneaking around, they weren’t particular concerned where he had gone. Outside, the wind dies and the storm has already passed. They missed its last gasp.

“I know,” Dana says dazed and more chipper. “What is he doing? You look, Barry. Whatever he covered up, he’s probably uncovered it.”

“Gee, thanks!”

And in spite of being assigned the foul chore, Barry is aware he now investigates anything unusual in the bathrooms now and ever after. His wife calls from the living room while he passes through the kitchen. “I love you.”

“Yeah. I love you, too, sweetie,” he replies then goes into the downstairs half-bath alone.

A sulfurous odor identical to that one last night makes the air in this potty-cupboard humid and acidic. Barry thinks aloud, and maybe for Dodgie’s understanding, “Damned if it is the tofu tuna, it’s probably those treats for your teeth.”

Barry switches on the overheard fan with the same motion he uses when he flips on a light. The man is shocked. Certainly, there are cat turds in the litter box and there is more. Dodgie’s silhouette dashes away in a radiant blur. Barely catching the image, Barry assumes it’s all part of one cat. He then resumes acting aghast.

When he gazes into the litter once more, he sees the feces is stale and embedded with saturated silica crystals. The fossilized feline pellets don’t truly smell but they should have been flushed when they were fresh two days ago.

Cat scatology aside, Barry sees the name of his deceased son. “Again?”

Dana overhears him ask himself in a loud voice. She already knows the answer but she repeats the question and asks her husband, “Again?”

“Yes,” he says beneath his breath. He meant not to say anything even if this reply went unheard.

The name today is written in cursive, drawn across the ragged lumps of litter. The writing confuses him and appears written by someone other than the artist who printed the bloody letters upstairs. The script has been etched much better than indicated by the crosshatch scratches the Corpus had heard from the other room.

Acting on instinct as much as the damned admission slipped out of his mouth because alarm, Barry drags the sole of his dress shoe through the glass beads, digging up stiff logs of poop and setting them on their ends. He chides himself, “Hey, you, remember to dump this one, too, when you do the box upstairs.”

Eager for an answer, Dana asks her husband again, “Really?”

His answer is stalled so long, she joins him in the kitchen. Dana stands directly behind the man and pokes her nose against the back of his neck. Unexpected of her, she insists, “Don’t erase it.”

“You want to see it?” Barry had not wished it for himself, and he is surprised his wife wants to view the evidence.

“Too late,” he says before she discovers he’s wiped the writing away.

“Why?” Dana asks him before she sees what he’s done. Her question is the same but she does not repeat herself. When she sees, she says, “Oh, Barry.”

He tells her, “I’m sorry. I was thinking of you…”

“I know,” she says when she interrupts him. Dana rolls her head and grasps her husband’s arm. He wraps his other around her back and hugs the woman.

“Are you sure it was there?” she asks him. Barry starts wondering about himself.

Dana points at the overfilled litter box. “Dump that, please.”

… continued tomorrow…

 

 

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