Chapter 1: What’s Up, Doc?

“Come closer, child,” said the mouth-missing-its-lower-left-canine, the tooth instead hanging from a cord around her neck.

She had beads in her dreadlocked hair, black hair, and red and green beads, and beads that looked like skulls, and rings on her fingers, some metal, some had gems, some wood, another skull on one, the wooden one, the same went for the many necklaces around her neck, a gold hoop was pierced through one nostril and she wore a plain, brown dress, with a white collar and pointy, black, leather, ankle high boots. Her face was round and her skin dark like a shadow. Her fingers were gnarled and her skin was paper-like. She always wore the necklaces, but she usually tucked them into her dress in public, and only sometimes she wore the rings outside her house. I moved toward her.

“What brings you ‘ere, young-Archibald-Hall?”

She didn’t pronounce the H in Hall. And how did she know my name?

She was seated in the darkest corner of the houses’ parlor, in an old rickety rocking chair. The room was in the back of the house and had a door ajar leading out to a porch. Dust in its physical form was scarce, on the wooden floors, or walls, but its repeated return and abolition, over and over, seemed to have left a sense of impending grim gripping the atmosphere. It was that or the odor of sometimes tantalizing, sometimes dangerous, sometimes disgusting brews and concoctions being boiled in Mother Marie (as she was called)’s cast iron cauldron in the kitchen. The house was in Maryland, in full view of the Mason-Dixon Line, and all that Mother Marie and her family had near escaped to now reside in the relative peace of northern Maryland’s near northerness in the year 1870.

“I-I need your help,” I stuttered, meek and 13.

“Wit’ what?” Mother Marie asked, suspiciously, knowingly.

I was still a good three feet from her chair, distance having been kept out for fear, but then, for bravery’s sake—and for Doc’s sake—I moved even closer and lay my burden down at her feet, on the dusty wood floor.

She smiled. “What’s thisss?”

“That’s my Doc—my dog, Doc,” I said.

Doc was a small dog. Pure breed: rat terrier, according to folks in town. His coat pure white, but for some black and brown patches on his face. I carried his limp body the whole two miles to Mother Marie’s.

“My brother gave him to me, before he left for the city. He found him wandering down by a brook, and, and he was old when I got him, but I didn’t expect that he was that old. And he died yesterday, and it’s only been a year, and, Mother Marie—I don’t have many friends on the farm—“

I almost cried. I felt it welling up.

“Just Mother’s fine, child.”

“And M-M-Mother, I haven’t ever had a dog before, never, and I don’t think I’ll get another one. I was wondering if you could help. You can, right?” I sniveled.

“Help you?” she asked with a smile and a raised eyebrow. “An’ how do you expec’ me to help you?” She tilted her head back, spoke above me; her throat was eye-level.

“Bring him back. You can do that, right? Bring him back? I heard you can do that.”

“Heard from who?”

“Well…from no one in particular. Everyone, really.” I didn’t think I could lie, but I wanted to. And I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t.

I’d told my real mother, given that my father was already in the field, that I was going to go bury Doc’s body in the woods. And then I hightailed it here. I’d heard tales, you know. I rang the doorbell timidly. Mother Marie’s son, Evander, an unusually well-respected—well, rather, unpersecuted—black man, who worked in the back of the butcher shop in town, answered the door. He didn’t even ask me anything; he just said, “She’s in the parlor.” The dog’s head was poking out of the top of my rucksack.

Chapter 2: Ritual

“You want me to invoke da almighty powers of resurrection for da sakes of dis poor dog ‘ere, young-Archie-‘all. Ya really tink’ dats such a good use of mine and da spirit’s time, do ya? Do ya, Archie ‘All?”

She was angry, and wrathful, and playful. I nodded my head, eyes closed, fast and scared.

“Well, okay den: ‘ere we go.”

My eyes opened. Her demeanor had changed, split-second. I was stunned.

“Really?” Still, again, meek and thirteen.

“Why not?” Mother Marie answered immediately, almost brash, but detectably humorous. “You said it was a good idea, didn’t ya, boy? So let’s do it.”  Her smile was huge.

What had I got myself involved in? She started to get up from her chair. The room seemed, felt darker now, plagued by something ominous. It felt like—

“Wait, l-l-‘let’s’ do it?” I stammered.

“Yes, boy, let’s—me an’ you, me bones are weary and old and achin’, and nowadays, I need you to help me. I’da asked ya to help back in da days anyways, so hush up.”

I couldn’t believe it—could not—but at the same time really was and more so now couldn’t deny my being there, where I was, bearing witness, undeniably, and, given my already being there, here, in Mother Marie’s house, besides the twisted reality of what it was to in fact be here, in Mother Marie’s house (my mind was racing), I was too scared to say no, so I said “yes.”

“‘Ders some tings you must go get for me, Archie ‘all.”

I nodded.

“Da hoof of a deer, ‘da skeleton of a fish, ‘da tail of a lizard, a small amount a silver, an’ youk now what the last ting is, don’t you, Archie?”

“N-n-no. No. I don’t,” I gulped.

“Blood.” A gigantic, cruel smile this time: demons flitting across her face.

I was panicking internally. I couldn’t see an easy way to do this, that.

“How much blood? What kind of blood?”

I wasn’t thinking anymore. Taken aback. She was so tall and skinny and crooked in the half-light streaming in from beyond the porch, like a broken scarecrow in winter, alone on barren soil.

“I’m glad you asked, Archie. Smart boy. That jus’ saved us a lot a time you know. Come boy, let me show you.”

Up the fragile, creaking stairs. Mind the cobweb between two of the steps; the resident attached arachnid’s larger than life. Mother Marie slow marches, her steps are all on purpose; they always have been, one can tell. To the top floor, a rounded turret room in the corner of the house, a floor above where she was in the rocking chair, an almost opaque window looks out over the dirt path running out 100 yards away. There was a dog, chained to the wall of the room, beneath the window. A starving-looking mutt—poor him—but then he growled at me, and my conscience quieted. The chain’s attached to an iron collar from a rung on the back wall. The dog seemed mean to me, not timid, not mistreated, but cruel. There was white, foamed drool circling his mouth. I wondered if it was fear what was convincing me, rationalizing its condition. What could I do? I couldn’t tell anyone, I wouldn’t tell anyone. I could’ve left. She’d—Mother Marie’d—had a hatchet behind the door. Quicker than I thought she could, she darted to the side of the dog and—and hacked at the back of its neck a few times, two or three times. I didn’t hear it whimper when its head came off.

Blood poured out, seeped onto the floor. I was rooted in place. She dropped the hatchet and grabbed my ragdoll arms and dragged me over to the dog. I stepped in the blood puddle, and she had a hand on one of my arms and pushed my back down with the other and forced my palms into the blood. So I screamed! But she held on, tighter, and the dog kept on bleeding. And I squirmed and thrashed and escaped and I ran, hands wet, down the stairs, halfway down the dirt path, away from the house. I tripped, a loose stone; I wasn’t paying attention, I was fleeing. In the dirt, on my belly, I heard, “Dog’s bloods for dogs. Dog’s blood for dogs,” in her accent. I thought I heard it in my head. It didn’t sound like she was yelling.

Chapter 3: Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

Down by the brook, washing my bloodstained hands, I began to breathe again. I’d prioritized this over anything, thought of nothing beyond getting my hands clean. I’d combated flashbacks by running and gasping, but now I was here, submerging my hands in the cold of the creek, rubbing them together furiously, and then doing it again, and again. The splash of the water was the loudest thing around. I thought about how I’m lucky I didn’t know the dog, I didn’t really like the dog, and I thought about how calm “Mother” seemed. I had near-trusted her, going up the stairs. I figured that for what I was seeking, I should’ve expected and be willing to cope with consequences. Besides that, I had brought her a dead dog, so in a twisted sort of way, she really did just the same. I’d left Doc there. I’d found a way to justify it. My hands were now clean.

“Dog’s blood” in her accent. The woods are so pleasant when it’s about to be fall; the forest felt cavernous and safe, like a good place to be alone, like an empty church.

Pragmatism. I needed what she’d asked for. I’d already seen, been a part of, it was my fault that that dog had died. Why would I stop now? I focused on Doc’s body still being at her house, that made me feel afraid, and I also felt determined; I wanted it back, him back, and she gave me a way. The rest wasn’t hard. The hoof of a deer—where weren’t they; the skeleton of a fish—easy for me, I fish for fun, I eyed a scrumptious-to-a-fish patch of algae a few feet away, considered it done; but a lizard, where would I start, they were around, in the marshes, sometimes, would-not-be-as-easy; and silver, I’m poor, I figured at the time I’d have to steal it, sin to sin.

Chapter 4: Dog Blood

The deer’s hoof; thank my father for the impromptu hunting trip, he was a good shot, I was getting better, and the venison was delicious—when I cut it off, I remembered the dog, and then Doc, at least my butchery was cleaner; the skeleton of a fish—she didn’t tell me what kind of fish, so I got three for good luck (bass, carp, catfish), I was better at fishing than hunting, its easier to be quiet when you’re still, I figured she would’ve wanted the catfish, it was the biggest, but I hadn’t caught it ‘til last, a real cat, a black cat helped me pick the bones clean, I was gracious for the help; the lizard—the lizard I felt the worst about, but not so bad that it stopped me, I caught wind a boy a few farms down kept one for a pet, well not anymore he didn’t, he thought I’d bring it back, I thought he was an idiot, him and his father, who still owed mine after the years of loans, the man couldn’t ‘til soil to save his own literal life, and he drank all winter; silver—Mother Marie said only a little, so I was lucky I’d been given a coin after my first confession, my communion, I’d forgotten it ‘til now; now there’s only blood—dog blood.

I was up late every night for a month; whenever I heard a hound howl, I rushed out, loaded musket in tow, big glass jar ready. The rest was in a box under my bed; I’d come this far. Once, twice it happened, and I ran from the house to the edge of the field, crushing the dry husks of corn stalks in my wake to find nothing. The third time, a baying bitch was there, and I couldn’t pull the trigger. She didn’t attack me, she didn’t run from me, she waited out my approach, and she looked me in the eyes. A retriever; I couldn’t do it, but Mother Marie could. The scars I’d felt from her hatchet were healing. I held onto the back of the dog’s neck and steered it toward her house. I breathed quiet, I mumbled my rationale, all I heard was leaves being crushed underfoot and a dog’s panting. By now, I figured I was more driven by informed curiosity than blind determination. I’d thought about if she could really do it from the beginning. Not just for Doc’s sake, but for my own. It isn’t many that get to see black magic done; I felt proud. I wasn’t sure how, but I did. I was becoming a part of something greater. I realized I could just take this dog; she seemed healthy, obedient, but so was Doc, and I knew Doc. Her golden coat was long and matted, and her face looked like it understood. I thought about how she was my hostage whilst I lead her to Mother Marie’s, musket pointed in her direction, unnecessarily; every now and again I even let go of her neck, and she kept by my side, loyal ‘til the end.

I didn’t care that it was late, nor pay it much thought, nor it seemed did Mother Marie’s family; a lantern on her porch was lit. Relief. I lead the dog through there; I didn’t knock, I lead the dog in. Mother Marie was in her rocking chair.

“Ar-chie ‘chile,’ do ya’ know what time it is?” Her eyes were closed, and as far as I could tell hadn’t opened since my entry.

“I have a dog, I need to leave it here. I—damn, I’ve forgotten everything else.” Blurted.

In the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten to be afraid. Mother Marie noticed. Her eyelids flew open. She spoke in a spell cadence.

“Archie boy, I will turn you into a toad. I will bring upon ya’ da wrath of the underworld. I will curse you, your family, and everyone you will ever meet if ya’ ever dare come into my ‘ouse like dis again.”

The retriever was barking; in the distance, another dog howling.

“I—“

“Look at me, chil’. I am not playing a game wit’ you. This be serious.”

When I met her eye, she quick affixed her gaze on the barking dog and it fell silent.

“Now go. Come back in da mornin’ wit’ everything. And I will keep this beast ‘ere. Wit’ da remains of your other one.”

Her eyes were like daggers from hell; they were soulless. I left without protest, how I had to. Homeward bound, confused, guilty, bitter, tired. At least tomorrow, it would be over. I heard the dog whimpering whilst I walked out.

Chapter 5: 28 Days Later (Since the Beginning)

The rooster screamed sunrise to wake up his harem. I was already up. I hadn’t slept, even though I needed it, bad. I’d meant to wait a while, but I couldn’t. I’d changed my mind. After last night, it made me realize I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I rehearsed and considered these words and their extensions on the way to Mother Marie’s, box of voodoo-bound curios in hand. She could keep it and the silver—that was worth something—everything else she could probably use, right? All I wanted was that retriever back. It had definitely belonged to someone; it was too nice a dog not to. Not that I wouldn’t try to keep it, not at least until her owner came looking. But I would tell her it belonged to someone, and they were gonna come looking. I’d just take Doc’s body and give him the burial he deserved. I felt endangered after being cast out of Mother Marie’s house like that. And I scolded myself for insensitivity, I realized that this whole thing wasn’t about Doc at all, but my curiosity over Mother Marie’s damned magic, I shouldn’t mess around with such things. Doc’s death I could come to terms with. Hell is forever.

I trundled up the dirt path to the old wooden house. I knocked and then nothing. So I waited and waited and…eventually, I saw Evander from where I was sat, in the dirt, cross-legged, holding my box in my lap—he closed the front door on his way out to work. I stopped him.

“Is Mother Marie in there?”

“She ain’t. She lef’ to go gather some medicinal plants. You may wait on the porch ‘til she gets back.”

And so I did. I waited, and waited, and…the sun was setting up high, it was unseasonably hot and not cloudy enough, not in the sky at least; ground level was balmy, humid, wet. My palms, my neck sweating, and I sat, back to the wall of the house, on the porch, knees up, still clutching the box. When would she get back I wondered, and when you wait long enough, it gets to a point when you consider futility, and that maybe she’s never coming back at all. Fears abated when I heard that dog bark inside. I started to tap my feet. It barked again, whined, squealed. I could not take it anymore. My hands were on my ears, and forehead my knees, but I just couldn’t take it, so I got up and yanked on the porch door. I hammered it back and forth, and when the lock wouldn’t break, I looked toward the window. I pulled my whole weight into it, yanked up, and wood splintered and it sprung free; open enough for me to crawl through. I got inside.

Cat burglar-like, to steal a dog, on tiptoes, I crept through the parlor, up the stairs to the turret to find the retriever. Marie hadn’t even cleaned up the blood. There she was, red matting half her golden fur. She’d laid down in what was the other dog. She started barking when she saw me, and I ran over to quiet her as fast as I could. She hushed when pet.

Chapter 6: Pentagram

Doc’s body was splayed out in the opposite corner of the room. A chalk circle had been drawn around it and was littered with different sized and colored candles. The dog started barking again when I stopped petting her, so I could hardly let my attention stray. I moved down the length of the chain, to where it was attached to the wall. I couldn’t pick a lock, so the collar was staying, but maybe I could free the rest. I examined where the iron rung was bolted to the wall; the metal panel was loose from struggle, and my hopes were high. I gave the retriever a “be quiet” look and started to dig at the corners of the metal with the small knife I carried. Fraction by fraction, the chain began to tear free from the wall. My hacking had born way for my fingertips to start tearing and the bolts put up less and less resistance. The dog lurched forward without warning, the chain was ripped loose from the wall, I wheeled around: Mother Marie. I hadn’t heard a door shut, I hadn’t heard her approach, and I’d been listening, intently, pausing my work every few moments to check. No time to consider my surprise, I was too scared, time froze; she looked livid. She was holding my box of voodoo at first, but dropped it and made for the axe as the dog sprung free. I jumped in her way, in defense of the canine; it almost knocked me over as it bolted away, down the stairs, out the porch door, my periphery caught her out the window, galloping down the dirt path, chain dragging up dust behind it.

I had succeeded. I was vindicated. I wasn’t sorry. Mother Marie: she still had the axe; she hit me. Backhanded me and I fell, still facing her, hands cast behind. She raised the hatchet. “Bloody murder,” I’d scream but for paralysis. The axe came down and it didn’t care that my hand had risen, palm toward it, reflexively to block my face. It didn’t mind the extra effort, or the lack of precision when it came to each strike. It was sharp enough; I could’ve suffered worse for longer, until now.

She dragged my rapidly bleeding body over to Doc’s slowly shriveling husk. She unhinged the box, she squeezed the life out of the lizard, she chose her fish bones, and she withdrew the deer’s hoof, they all went in the circle beside Doc. The silver, the communion coin, she dipped in blood, the mix of blood, mine and the last dog’s, and she began to chant. The incantation took uninterrupted, unholy hours. The candles lit themselves and went out, lit themselves and went out.

I woke up. Raised myself on four legs; one at the back wobbled. A dead body on the floor, an old woman unconscious from strain. The air was tinged foul. I made my escape.

***

For all installments from 30 Birds, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. “Velvet” by the Bloody Eyes
  2. “Subtle” by Yukio Mishima
  3. “Geronimo Sunset!” by Jun. 27
  4. “My Hero” by Annie Wonoffate Million
  5. “Gender” by Jun. 27, Part 1
  6. “Gender” by Jun. 27, Part 2
  7. “Eel Dogs ‘Til Stupid” by Jun. 27
  8. “Pleasant Town” by Jun. 27
  9. “Daffy” by Herman Barker
  10. “Classic, Ecstatic, and Shocked (My First Kiss)” by John Robert Barnes
  11. I Would/Would I?/Wouldn’t You?
  12. “Fabled” by Jun. 27
  13. “Simpatico Starring Matthew McConaughey” by Harrison Ford
  14. “Tarantella” by Jun. 27
  15. “That Time a Toucan Was in Our Backyard/The Very First Thing I Can Remember” by John Robert Barnes
  16. “Gutwrenching (Sadism in Palindrome)” by the Bloody Eyes
  17. “Maraschino” by John Robert Barnes
  18. “Church and God” by John Robert Barnes
  19. “And a Phanta?smagoria” by John Robert Barnes
  20. “Velvet (Cont’d)” by the Bloody Eyes
  21. “Magnanimous Magpies” by the Bloody Eyes
  22. “Amusical” by Jun. 27
  23. “A Decorated Soldier” by John Robert Barnes
  24. “A Love Poem” by John Robert Barnes
  25. “Parable #2 (A Picture’s Worth 1,000 Words) — Red Herrings” by Jun. 27
  26. “XYZ Affair (Rawhide)” by the Bloody Eyes
  27. “Le Faites de la Fête” by Jun. 27
  28. “Twinning” by the Bloody Eyes
  29. “Pussy” by Jun. 27
  30. “Parable #1 — Heming’s Way” by Jun. 27