Clara Clover needs time off. But a visit to the relatives could be more dangerous than being in the employee of the dilettante of the occult arts, Dominic Thule. And why is ‘couenne de porc’ such a delectable snack?
The mice were having a lively dance in the hallway. Four couples, with ears raised high and tails proudly coiled, spun about beneath the flickering toad candles of the chandelier. Clara came to a halt at the unexpected sight, clutching tight the assortment of papers and groceries she held.
“Good evening Ms. Sunday,” squeaked Hop dipping his rodent partner so deeply her whiskers brushed the floor. “What can we do for you?”
“I need next weekend off,” said Clara and almost let drop a plastic bag of pork rinds on the mouse’s head. “The agency said I needed these papers signed. And I’ve got a problem with the fact it’s consider unpaid time off.”
“Such short notice,” shrilled Hop with a distracted look in his large button shaped eyes. “I’m not sure we can approve this, Ms. Sunday. We’re understaffed as it is, we lost Saturday due to the Eploxian Riperture.”
“You mean we lost the old bag” asked Clara referring to the charmless Dorotea Dore, the erstwhile Ms. Saturday. There were occupational hazards to being a maid for Dominic Thule, Paraxegnostic of the Occult Arts – such as abrupt and painful death.
“I mean we lost Saturday,” Hop huffed. The jerboa mouse was having a hard time leading his partner and following the maid’s questions. He stopped in mid turn with one long leg gracefully extended and bowed out from the dance. “Of course, there’s still a day called Saturday, but the sanctum has been dislocated from the when and where of it. The rest of you maids are going to have to step up until Thule gets the sanctum re-situated.”
“Not my problem,” said Clara. She stooped and managed to hand the papers down to the mouse without dropping anything. “What I have an issue with is it being unpaid time off. I’ve worked six months here now. I should have earned at least a day. Also, I need to complain about the uniforms, I mean the lingerie, ‘cause that’s all it is now.”
“First, you’re a contractor through the agency – all issues with personnel must go through them,” Hop said dismissively as he ruffled through the papers. “Second, I don’t like those silly pieces of cloth either. Having to watch a bunch of furless, giant two-trunked legged humans totter about isn’t something we mice care for. Those silly little strips of cloth squeezing your mammaries together and…”
“I like you to,” interrupted Clara dryly.
“Third,” concluded Hop, his eyes wandering off to follow his erstwhile dancing partner who was making introductions to another male rodent of dashing stature. “This needs to be signed by Master Thule in triplicate before I can sign off on it. We must follow procedure; we must create meaning from meaninglessness. We must be essential to Essentiality. Waste not, want not.”
“Yeah, follow the corporate line,” said Clara. “Okay fine. Thanks for the pep talk. I take it Thule’s in his private chamber? I gotta drop this stuff off anyway. Be right back.”
“His door’s unlocked,” said Hop and burst into a high chittering laugh. The rest of the mice burst into giggles as if their leader had made the wittiest of remarks.
“What a cutup,” mumbled Clara and navigated through the crowd of hysterical rodents.
Not having her hands free, she kicked the door open and strode in.
“There were to be no interruptions,” shouted Thule. “Can’t you see I’m indisposed? I’m involved in the middle of some very exacting meditations!”
Clara’s jaw dropped, along with the groceries. For Dominic Thule’s idea of exacting meditations involved the intimate attentions of Ms. Friday who knelt between his legs on the monstrosity of a bed where they reposed.
“It’s not my fault,” shouted Clara. “You told me to get up here with the cheese, and these pork rinds! The mice said I could go right in. What’s she doing here, I thought she quit!”
“Ss-sunday,” the lamia raised her head.
“Cocksucker,” responded Clara.
“Ss-stupid human,” the lamia hissed, her yellow eyes glowing.
“Girls! Enough,” sputtered Thule. “Ms. Sunday, put the refreshments on the table and exit stage left with no further verbal venom dispensed. And for your further edification, those are couenne de porc.”
“You can dress it up any way you want,” declared Clara looking away. “But a pork rind is a pork rind and a blow…”
“Ms. Sunday,” exclaimed Thule. “No more of your quaint humor. Not everything is as it appears. I have to attend a thaumaturgic summit this coming week-end. I must mediate a matter between dear Aleister and the Mystery Club. Therefore I must be totally purified of all my basest emotions and drained of all my physical passions and desires – I must be totally neutral. I can only attend to the mental; Ms. Friday attends to the physical. She’s doing quite well, I must say.”
“Look, I need these forms signed,” said Clara and sidled up to the bed with gaze averted. “A quick scribble and I’m outta here.”
“I don’t have a pen,” said Thule with a contented grunt. “Ms. Monday is also in residence. Not only is she a battlemaid par supreme, but she can also stand in as my proxy. Now depart, begone, flit away.”
“Let the clever girl join us,” said the lamia. She opened her mouth and let the long forked tongue slither down the length of Dominic’s thigh. “Imagine the pleasures we could share together.”
“Even the mice were piled up in a corner going at it,” complained Clara. “Honestly, it’s disgusting. The place smells like the Playboy Mansion. I need a smoke.”
“The sanctum acts like an amplifier,” said Laura signing the forms. “Everything is in resonance with Dominic Thule’s desires, base as they may appear to be. So, when he engages in ritualistic sex magic, we’re all under the influence. Look how flustered and red in the face you are.”
“I take it you’re immune,” said Clara fumbling out a cigarette from her purse, which was the size of a shopping bag. A lighter was nearby on the table.
“I pray,” said Laura coldly. “To what and to whom is my business. Don’t touch that!”
Clara pulled her hand back quickly from the lighter.
“Like everything else around here,” said Laura. “What appears to be a cigarette lighter is not. The Dragon Torch would incinerate the entire room, us included, if activated incorrectly. Didn’t you learn anything from your experience with the Slootch Horn?”
“I really need a smoke,” said Clara sulkily.
There didn’t appear to be much separation of age between them, but Clara knew better now than to make assumptions. Ms. Monday, sleekly clad in a Chinese gown of orange silk, was her superior in so many ways, Clara often felt like a child in her presence.
“A shame you’ll be missing Aleister,” said Laura. “Aside from his obsession with buggering anything in reach, which is why Dominic is working so fervently on his ‘meditations,’ he’s simply the most interesting man there is.Where are you going?”
“Out of town,” said Clara gathering her things together. “Family business: my Mom left me some property in upstate Vermont. I need to get the deed out of the clutches of some of my relatives. I found out recently they had gotten their grubby hands on his papers.”
She stressed the word relative with distaste.
“So far away from the city… and the sanctum,” said Laura. “Nothing’s a coincidence anymore, Clara. Being exposed to the flavors of Essentiality changes everything, how long has it been?”
“Six months,” said Clara. “Six months of Slootches, Goblins, Ghasts, dirty dishes and wedgies from underwear Thule believes is appropriate as a uniform.”
Laura brushed the complaint away with a frown. “The doors of perception have been opened a crack, an unavoidable occupational hazard. Nothing can be seen or interpreted as it once was. Something’s wrong, this trip shouldn’t be undertaken.”
“Family business,” said Clara. She felt her temper rising. “What I do in my own time is nobody’s business but my own.”
“Not anymore,” said Laura coolly. She pulled open a drawer and pulled out a gun. “Take this, if you must go. The clip has been microchambered, over a hundred rounds. This isn’t a safety; you can switch between phosphorus – good for vampires, silver for werewolves, hollowpoint for humans and zombies. One has to cover all the possibilities.”
“I don’t have a license,” said Clara, waving away the weapon nervously. “Guns give me agita. I already had some trouble with the law a few years back, I did some stupid shit. I get caught with a gun I’m so smoked. No thanks.”
“No one will know,” said Laura with an enigmatic smile. She made a gesture over the gun whose frame melted into an entirely different shape within moments. “Abracadabra, a la kazam, something along those lines. A brush won’t arouse any suspicion.”
“That’s really cool, but it’s really only Vermont! You know, land of Ben and Jerry,” protested Clara. But saying no to Laura wasn’t an option. She took what appeared now to be a brush gingerly between her fingers, shook her head and dropped the disguised weapon in the purse. “Thanks, I think. HEYY!?!”
Dominic Thule bustled in, shirtless. Clara’s surprised protest had been the result of a resounding swat directed at her rear.
“Such cheek,” the paraxegnostic chuckled and brushed back at his unkempt mane. “I should have rung the bell. Ms. Friday demanded a break, said she was in need of a snack, I do hope the mice are on the alert. I needed a break also, holding a Lorenz Dissipation within my mind’s eye while she attends to me is exhausting… exhausting I say.”
“Poor you,” said Laura.
“Vermont,” Dominic steepled his hands and stared down the bridge of his nose. “I heard. I hear everything, but pay attention to nothing. By the Decrepit Deities, I’m concerned, most concerned – I sense a distraction – I think – probably not – but to lose a maid on the very day of Aleister’s visitation? So very suspicious, perhaps Syrus knew what he talked of… Ad tristem partem strenua suspicio.Think of all the so-called accidents that occur on a vacation; accidental tumbles off pleasure boats, evisceration by toilets, overdose of instant coffee – the possibilities for an unfortunate conclusion are endless. I get confused.”
The paraxegnostic had to stop to take a breath. His eyes crossed, he contemplated eternity – or nothing at all. There was a pause of an awkward length which dragged on and on. Clara found herself in desperate need a smoke and realized she was without a lighter. Laura looked intensely bored and was examining her fingernails. Clara palmed the Dragon torch off the desk and slid it into her purse. She’d be able to light up once out the door.
“We simply can’t have you waltzing off to some sticky finale by maple syrup – ha heh..” Thule started back up with a decisive manner to his tone; apparently decisions of some sort had been made during his contemplation. “Therefore I’ve had the thought, indeed a multiplicity of thoughts on how to handle the matter. Primus, we really should have some way of tracking Ms. Sunday in the eventuality she encounters one of those unpleasant little men who live up in the Green Mountain way. You do know what I’m referring to, Ms. Sunday?”
“No, I don’t drink that brand of coffee,” said Clara overwhelmed at the morbid possibilities declaimed upon by the paraxegnostic. “Look, I’m doing this on my own time. I only work here one day a week.”
“Coffee? Never mind, I blame that man Irving – they had to go somewhere to avoid the tourists. Anyway,” Thule clapped his hands together then pulled them apart to show what appeared to be a cat’scradle of black string. A hideous looking spider was sluggishly embedded within the strands. “The Latin escapes me at the moment so I’ll use the vulgate. I believe‘the Crackling’ is in order.”
“Excuse me?” Clara said, backing away. “I have a phobia about spiders. We’ve gone over this before.”
“Too late,” said Thule and with a quick motion flung the webbing, and the spider, at Clara’s head before she could duck.
“You son of a bitch,” squealed Clara and swatted at her head as the spider burrowed into her hair and embedded itself painfully to the back of her scalp. “Holy shit!”
“Remember you can hear my thoughts, but not the other way around,” said Thule with a smile. “You’ll have to vocalize, vocalize out loud my good Sunday! You’ll have to warble like a silver-voiced bell bird with a throaty coo and a saucy shake of a plumaged tail!”
“Motherfucker,” shrieked Clara and ran about in circles.
“What’s all the commotion about?” Hop asked. He brushed back his whiskers and stared critically at the scene from outside the door.
“On to secundus, the timing is perfect,” exclaimed Thule at the sight of the mouse steward. “I have a task for you Master Hop for I must return immediately to Ms. Friday’s tender embrace, she wishes to emulate Uroburos – in other words she wants some tail. Perhaps you find that offensive?”
“I do,” said Hop. “A word about that lamia by the way, she broke up our party…”
“Orgy,” said Laura wickedly.
“Ms. Sunday has some personal time scheduled,” said Thule. “But I’m most concerned about the scheduling – I sense ominous ominations, so it’s best she skips the entire week ahead of us and goes right to it. Please escort her to the Hall of Doors and use your mousy sense as to which is the right one to push her through. There. Space and time are neatly circumvented and thoroughly confounded.”
The paraxegnostic’s words trailed away as he dashed out the door.
“Will someone please help me?” Clara shouted. She was doubled over in a corner and reduced to clubbing at the back of her head with the clutched purse. Hop warily eyed the antics of the scarlet clad maid and tugged at his brocaded jacket.
“How am I supposed to get her down to the Hall of Doors?” the rodent protested. “An assist, if you please Ms. Monday?”
Laura stood with a dolorous sigh.
Clara ate dirt.
Not by choice of course, this was no case of geopaghical addiction. But rather, the first step – or push – out of the Hall of Doors was not quite level with the unpaved road wending deep into the Vermont woods. Her outstretched foot gouged wildly at unresisting air and she tumbled indecorously forward like a scarlet pinwheel.
The fall was not great, but the unexpected shock left Clara painfully out of breath. She caught the jeering chirp from Master Hop as he slammed shut the door, so when sufficiently recovered, she lifted a one fingered salute. Which faltered and dropped to her side as the erstwhile maid realized she was quite alone.
Clara stood up and once she was able to, let out a long drawn scream of rage which made the the crows flap from the treetops in protest. Of all the things Clara had been subjected to, this was simply without a doubt the worst. An unwelcome arachnid spy of sorts embedded in her scalp, an entire week of her life summarily dismissed. She may not have been looking forward to visiting the far distant relatives, but to be summarily heaved through time and space back to the mundane world in such a manner…
She unstrapped the high heels and flung them into the underbrush. The knee high stockings were pulled off and discarded.Then she began to walk, albeit gingerly, in bare feet down the road clutching the heavy purse at her side.
The road wended its narrow way into the darkened mass of trees with the high branches weaved together to almost block out the sun. However, the shade provided little relief from the oppressive mid-summer heat. The air was heavy and thick beneath the pine covering and Clara was soon panting, rivulets of sweat poured down her brow and neck.
Good lord, she needed a smoke, so what if it made her feel even more parched. In a moment a cigarette was dangling from her lips and the lighter was rising automatically towards the tip when she recalled the final admonitions of Dominic Thule concerning accidental death.
Hastily she put away the Dragon Torch. Smoking was a terrible habit anyway.
Clara’s memory of her relatives was poor, what she could remember had an almost Brothers Grimm quality which the atmosphere of the wood enhanced. As she stumbled along, her memory dredged up childhood recollections.
Bobby Roy was her cousin. She didn’t like him, didn’t like anything about him at all; the pipestem limbs, the shock of blond hair that fell down across sunken cheeks, the phony way he talked like a country hick with a knowing sneer, as if he was privy to matters he wouldn’t share. He gestured for her to come into the barn and she followed cautiously into the shadowed interior.
“Check this out, Clara,” he said and rooted about in a barrel, “Ma and Pa did some rendering yesterday. Cooked us down some pig fat into tallow, want some? I’ll make ya eat it.”
“Ewww, that’s so guh-guh gross,” Clara stammered as the boy thrust the globs of fat towards her in his open palm. “Get away from me, B. Roy. Stop it! I’m telling!”
“I want to show you something cool,” said Bobby Roy. “I caught myself a frog, here he is in my fishing bucket.”
He picked the frog. Clara felt sorry for the poor creature, for the bulging eyes and gaping mouth.
“I’m gonna rub it down,” said Bobby Roy with a knowing smile.
“Leave Mr. Gribbit alone,” said Clara. If she gave the frog a name, then Bobby Roy would have to be nice and let it go down in the pond. His greasy hands slid up and down the body of the frog.
“Check it out,” said Bobby with a snicker. He grabbed the long legs of and pulled them straight.
“Don’t hurt it,” Clara shouted. She made a half hearted grab which the boy shrugged away. “I’ll tell your ma, I will.”
“Look at him, stiff as a board,” Bobby Roy said and poked at Clara with the length of the paralyzed frog. The big green eyes were fixed wide. “Stupid Mister Guh-guh Gerribbits got r-riguh-guh- mortis. What are you gonna do Clara? Are you just gonna stand there and cry?”
“Take it back, make it alright,” Clara sobbed. “He’s not dead is he, B. Roy?”
Bobby Roy swung the frog’s head into a barnpost with a dull whack. “He is now.”
A sound of disgust burbled from Clara’s now dried lips. Was it any wonder her Mother had fled such a backwoods hell as soon as she could?
The rising sound of a vehicle’s engine drove any fancies of cosmopolitan superiority clear from her thoughts.
Clara simply didn’t want to meet any strangers, dressed as she was, on some country back road. Concealment was easy enough – a simple sidestep behind a nearby tree, the rusted yellow pickup truck would have trundled by with no one the wiser as to her location. But there was no way to avoid Dominic Thule’s thoughts which suddenly resonated through her head with an accompaniment of static, growing suddenly shrill and painful with a burst of coherency she desperately didn’t need to hear…
“Yes! Yes! Excellent, Ms. Friday!”
Clara let out a shriek. She grabbed at the back of her head and jackknifed into the air as if she had been hooked by an invisible line.
“AAAAAAAAAAaargh! I am finally purged!”
For the second time in a day, Clara pitched facefirst into the road. The purse went flying.
The pickup truck came to a stop in a swirl of dust. With a grinding of ancient gears it slewed backwards towards Clara before she could get back to her feet. The car doors on swung open and a distasteful duo stepped on each side.
“Hubba, hubba, what we got here?” barked the driver. He was a disturbingly large behemoth with muscles barely restrained by the sleeveless underarmor. Calves as knotty as diseased grapefruit showed beneath the cargo shorts. A thin gold chain was like a choker around the bullneck.
“You be proper, boy,” wheezed the small woman. She leaned against the truck bed for support as if too frail to stand on her own. Her rheumy eyes were sunk deep in a wrinkled visage topped by a hair bun of steel gray. “Why, it’s your little cousin Clara, all grown up.”
“Auntie Squamble?” Clara stood up and stared in disbelief. If her childhood memories were correct, this ancient crone was her mother’s sister. Talk about highway miles. Was country living really that hard on a person? “Uhm, how’d you know I was coming? I didn’t even have a chance to call.”
“I felt the old timey feeling a stirring and knew you was a coming.” Auntie Squamble paused to let loose an alarming series of liquid coughs followed by a spit. “By the turn of the moon and the flow of the blood, here you be.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said the bodybuilder with a sneer. “Looking guh-guh-good, couz. I seen girls more covered up down at the local club.”
“Bobby Roy!” wheezed Auntie Squamble.
“It couldn’t be helped,” said Clara, looking down at the dust covered maid uniform. “I came rather unexpectedly. I didn’t have time to change.”
“Whatever,” said Bobby Roy. He stepped forward and laid a heavy hand upon Clara’s shoulder. “I don’t care how you guh-guh-got here. What matters is your coming with us… now.”
“My purse,” protested Clara. She barely managed to snag the purse strap as Bobby Roy pushed her forcibly towards the truck. “Ow! Stop it! That hurts. And you can stop with the stutter. I got over that, years ago.”
“Guh-good!” Bobby Roy said. “It was a dumb way to talk.”
Bobby Roy took up most of the front seat. Wedged in between the two, Clara clutched the purse for comfort and tried to find ways not to come into physical contact with her Auntie Squamble whose body odor filled the truck cab with mothballs and decay. The old woman’s fingers suddenly wrapped around Clara’s forearm. They felt like wooden twigs covered in a deep winter’s frost. Clara couldn’t resist a shudder.
“Cobwebs, cobwebs,” murmured the old woman, barely audible above the grinding noise of the clutch as Bobby Roy turned the truck about. “Cobwebs all over your soul, something’s been at you, girl. What could it be?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Clara said. She felt the spider tense. “Anyway, I’m here about the deed. You know, Mom left me some land and I thought I’d come up and take care of it this weekend.”
Bobby Roy let out a bellow of laughter. The truck tore down the road, seemingly hitting each and every pothole.
“There’s no deed,” said the old woman. “Nothing for you to worry about at all, we just needed you. Welcome back, Clara.”
“Let’s finish this pig,” whispered Auntie Squamble. With the spatula she slid the rather gray looking piece of pork onto Clara’s plate. The equally gray looking pile of not-so green beans already on the plate splattered upon impact.
There had been nothing but an ominous silence from her two relatives throughout the drive to the farm and then the long wait for dinner. Fortunately, there had been no further “Cracklings”from Dominic Thule’s spider which had been a blessing and given Clara time to settle down and consider the situation.
Too much was simply wrong; her memories of the farm didn’t seem correct, at all. For example: Auntie Squamble was her mother’s older sister, but she had aged far beyond what could be right.
“Where’s everybody?” Clara said and pushed the beans back onto her plate. Auntie Squamble moved back to the stove. She wiped her gnarled hands upon the gray checkered apron.
“Oh, they’re here,” barked Bobby Roy. “Only you and your Ma left. What a commotion that was all about.”
“If they are all still here,” asked Clara looking pointedly at the empty chairs pushed in the table. “Where are they? Where are my uncles and other cousins? A farm this big needs a lot of help, weren’t there like hired farmhands, I remember Tim – the guy with the hat? If this is what it’s all about, I’m afraid I can’t help – I’m not the farmer type. I’ve got a life somewhere else.”
“Looks like you hang off a pole to me,” mumbled Bobby Roy a smirk in between bites. A dribble of gravy ran down his chin. “We’ve got lots of help around here as you’ll see – and you are going to help. I’m too busy making deals with the men in the mountains to do all that stuff. It would mess up my weightlifting cycle, can’t get strong if you’re tired and shit. I’m getting close to a pr in bench.”
“The men in the mountains,” Clara said blankly though her mind raced back to Dominic’s mention of them. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are they?”
“When I was a young girl, I peeked through a keyhole and saw what I shouldn’t have seen,” said Auntie Squamble. She sat down slowly at the head of the table. “Such wicked, shameful behavior ye wouldn’t believe. Curiosity is a weakness in the young who lack the wisdom of their elders, so I’ll be asking the questions.”
Bobby Roy rolled his eyes.
“I don’t think so,” said Clara. “Let’s cut the crap, why was I…”
“Are ye a witch?” interrupted Auntie Squamble. She stared at Clara and licked her blue lips.
“Excuse me?” Clara said.
“I knew you’d be comin’, a tale of money found always brings the relatives a runnin’,” creaked Auntie Squamble. “But my, how the old timey lit up like a torch in my head, I get my boy and drive down the road – and there ye are, all covered in cobwebs. Ye didn’t drive here, almost as if you dropped from the sky. And we’ve been hearing stories from the places just around the sky’s end. Don’t think we don’t know.”
“Uhm, no, actually I don’t have a clue,” said Clara. “This is sorta creepy.”
Bobby Roy pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it.
“Wanted dead or alive,” Bobby Roy smacked his lips and read slowly. “For countless crimes of murder, riot, destruction of property and theft of human livestock from the Goblin Food Expo: one Clara Clover – human. If seen in any of the Realms, report immediately to the authorities…”
“All lies,” snapped Clara. “Are you kidding me? Goblins? Are you on crack-cocaine or something? Okay, I’ve had enough, I’m out of here. Drive me to the nearest town now. I’m not staying another minute.”
“Like mother like daughter,” said Auntie Squamble. “When a hen cackles too loud, we know the eggs have been laid. Ye will be staying then, witch. For that’s what you are, like your mother and her mother before her.”
“Definitely time to go,” Clara pushed the plate away and began to stand. But Bobby Roy’s big hand came down on her shoulder.
“I’ll take my cousin to her room,” said Bobby Roy.
There wasn’t much choice with Bobby Roy’s hard grip directing her. Up the stairs they went and down a dark corridor.
“She’s crazy, absolutely batshit nuts,” Bobby Roy whispered in her ear, he unlocked the door and swung it open. “One of these days I’ve got to get her into an old folk’s home, the kind with Nurse Ratched and a whole bunch of meds. Can you believe that nonsense I had to read? You killing goblins? That’ll be the day. I’ll take you out of here, but wait till she’s asleep.”
“I can do that,” said Clara. “But…”
Bobby Roy thrust his big head forward from the sloping muscles of his traps and smiled in a manner that did nothing to allay her concerns. His teeth were yellow and the incisors were too long.
“The door won’t be locked, but you stay here till nine,” he said. “The old bag goes down early. Get out and go straight to the barn where I got my truck. I’ll be waiting”
“On second thought, why wait?” Clara asked. “If she’s really got issues…”
Bobby Roy smacked her in the rear then shoved her forward into the small garret and slammed the door shut.
Clara took stock of the room. She looked around. For furniture, there was only a spindly bed with a worn comforter and a cheap pine cabinet lit by a dull lamp. There were no windows. It was unbearable hot and stale. Clara sat down and felt the the springs of the mattress press into the back of her thighs and buttocks.
“He touches me one more time and I kill him, cousin or not,” Clara muttered under her breath. She emptied the contents of the purse onto the mattress and sorted through all the objects. Her hands were shaking The Dragon Torch was slowly carefully placed on the pillow along with the disguised gun.
“Testing, testing, one, two three, over and out,” Clara said and tapped the spider. “Can anyone hear me? Mister Thule? Hello, hello? Hellllllllooooo… Warble this, you pathetic excuse of an employer, I want my week back. Let me guess, I don’t have any coverage.”
The spider didn’t respond, there wasn’t the slightest bit of Crackling to be discerned. The cellphone was likewise useless and she let it drop with a shake of her head.
Clara stood up and went to the door. She put her hand on the doorknob and turned it. It was unlocked. Bobby Roy had been truthful in that respect. The hollow core door swung open with a creak. Clara stepped out.
“Like I said, waiting is stupid,” Clara whispered to herself. She closed the door carefully and tiptoed out into the corridor. She almost made it to the landing of the stairway when she heard the steps creak.
Auntie Squamble was coming up. There was no time to go back, Clara slid into the bathroom and behind the door just in time.
“Cobwebs, cobwebs, too many cobwebs,” Auntie Squamble rasped. She went by in a dusty cloud of grey spun hair. She’d let down her bun. “I’ll shake those cobwebs out of her and clear my mind’s eye. Damn girl. And damn that boy, he didn’t lock the door.”
Clara heard a click. She pressed her eye to the crack and saw Auntie Squamble putting a key back in the front pocket of her apron. Then the little old woman slumped wearily.
“Oh, it’s such a mortal weight raising up the Tallows each and every night for all the work that needs to be done,” Clara heard Auntie Squamble sob as if she was in pain. “The moon comes to full hay tomorrow night. My sister was worth somethin’ after all these long years gone by, her baby doll’s all mine now. By the blood, I’ll be young again.”
Clara shrank back as the the old crone gathered herself and drifted back down the stairs. Horrified, Clara realized she’d left the Dragon Torch and Laura’s gun in the garret. The door was locked.
There was nothing to do now but wait for what felt like a year and a day for evening to come, sweat-drenched and with a rising panic at each sound from below and Clara’s thoughts running free and wild. Why had she not seen or noticed any of this when she was young, in those long past days before her mother had taken her away? Could a child only see magic in a teddy bear but not in the perceived daily work of her elders? Or was it the usual fade of a glamor, such as what Dominic Thule had used to ostensibly protect her when she stepped out into the mundane world beyond the residence and all its oddities?
Whatever her mother had chosen to be, and Clara distinctly remembered the long hours her mother had spent cleaning houses for a pittance to keep them fed and sheltered; Clara was definitely the descendant of a witch-family, and a rather unpleasant one at that. Perhaps her ancestry was why she had ended up working for Dominic Thule, it was in the blood.
A door slammed and the silence stretched out waiting for Clara to act. She took a sip of water from the faucet sink to ease her thirst, stretched and moved quietly out into the hallway with all her sense alert for anything.
Clara’s last boyfriend had taught her a few tricks, such as how to hotwire a truck. Said last boyfriend was also still in jail and Clara knew how lucky she had been not to join him and had stuck to the straight and narrow ever since. But now was not the time to worry about technicalities. Surely there’d be a toolbench in the barn; all she would need was a flat head screwdriver. And she didn’t need her cousin’s dubious assistance.
The house was empty. No time to waste. Clara was down the stairs, past the deserted kitchen and out onto the front porch. The moon was waxing gibbous over the Green Mountain, near to full. The stars tracked clear in the night sky without the city glare. The barn was near, a different shade of shadow. Clara threw caution away and ran.
Bobby Roy’s truck was parked halfway into the drive bay and within seconds her plan of action was foiled. The doors were locked. She held back from pounding on the car windows out of frustration. Fine then, she’d find a towel and a hammer and break them open as quietly as possible.
A row of flickering fluorescent light hung from the rafters, there was enough light to see what was inside the barn. She stepped past the truck taking a deep breath and immediately regretted it. A rancid, overpowering smell burrowed into her lungs and she had to hold back the urge to vomit. Somehow, the smell was familiar.
In the middle of the drive bay, beneath a heavy pulley arrangement with a rusted metal hook was a large cauldron situated over a hearth of coals. The smell became worse as she approached. Clara held her breath and looked over the rim. The cauldron was a bubbling mass of grease, viscera and bones.
“Check this out, Clara,” Bobby Roy and rooted about in a barrel, “Ma and Pa did some rendering yesterday. Cooked us down some pig fat into tallow, want some? I’ll make ya eat it.”
“Oh, Jesus!” The bones weren’t those of a pig. Clara stumbled away and tripped. She fell back into one of the bays and hit her head.
It took a few minutes before the barn stopped spinning and she could recover. If she was truly the descendant of witches, she probably had no right to be calling on the higher powers, but it had been an involuntary reflex at the gruesome sight. Now she understood why her mother had been so insistent on Sunday school.
Clara reached out blindly to the object which she had knocked her head againstand pulled herself up. Then she realized what it was. What they were, for as she looked about wildly she saw there were two, side by side, in each bay.
These were not the modern funerary coffins, but rather single massive logs of a fungible dark wood, the surface exterior smeared thick with tallow.
Clara had had enough. She decided it would be best to make a run for the woods. Better to be lost and cold than stuck in this madness.
But it was too late, she heard their raised voices. Auntie Squamble and Bobby Roy were both coming.
“Not tonight,” mumbled Auntie Squamble. “They’re best woken at the full moon. Tomorrow I can eat her soul. Let the sap drip back into my bones, the juice in my body.”
“I checked the plants, the leaves have all gone yellow,” said Bobby Roy. “We can’t delay the harvest another day, the pods have to be collected tonight. I got buyers all lined up. We have to do this now.”
“I’m too weak,” wailed Auntie Squamble. “A day’s pity is all I ask. We got her now all locked away and tomorrow night and forever after will be a different matter.”
“There’ll be time enough to rest,” said Bobby Roy in a tone that brooked no argument. He took off his shirt and dropped his pants to stand naked before the cauldron “Undress and speak the incantation. Let the witch raise the tallows. Let the warlock direct the harvest.”
“Oh no,” whispered Clara, hidden safely in the loft above. “Please, please, please don’t take off… oh, ewwww…”
Clara buried her face in the dusty hay. The sight of Auntie Squamble and Bobby Roy capering about the cauldron in their birthday suits was not something she wished to behold. But she could hear everything: the susurrant chant they sung, the splashing of the cauldron as it whipped into an unnatural boil, the rasp of the coffin tops as they were pushed aside by those within.
Whatever Bobby Roy was talking about, he must be referring to those little men in the mountains. Was he a drug runner between the boundaries of Essentiality? How times must have changed, wasn’t the story of Rip Van Winkle about a long nap ruined? Clara couldn’t accurately remember what the point of the tale had been about, but the image of hopped up little dwarfs on speed played havoc with her thoughts.
“Look at them,” said Auntie Squamble, breaking off the chant. “I told ye it was a day too early. They haven’t hardened as is proper.”
“They’ll do well enough,” Bobby Roy shouted back. “What’s it to me?”
Clara had to look.
Bobby Roy and Aunti Squamble were encircled by the risen. There were more than Clara expected; a good two dozen or two, swaying in unison. Some of them were vaguely familiar to Clara, and she realized with a feeling of trepidation that she was looking upon long lost members of her extended family.
Meanwhile Auntie Squamble was dipping a ladle into the bubbling cauldron. Bobby Roy would extend a finger and gesture. A figure would shamble towards Auntie Squamble and receive an unholy baptism of rendered fat upon a decayed brow. But something was wrong; two of the revenants lurched into each other and fell with a liquid splat. As Clara watched in horror, they seemingly merged together and something wrong began to wiggle about with four arms and four legs.
Ye never listen, ye fool boy,” Auntie Squamble squealed. “Look what we’ve done! We’ve made a fine mess.”
“All the more fun for me,” said Bobby Roy with a manic giggle. “That’s the last one. Hold on, I guh-guh-got something special for a special person who’s here with us tonight – time for some dubstep. C’mon now everybody, let’s pop and vibrate.”
“Oh no,” Clara almost blurted out. She pressed deeper into the straw. But she knew it was to no avail. Bobby Roy knew she was in the barn; had known all along, as he had planned it.
Bobby Roy capered about. Clara clasped her hand over her mouth to prevent a shriek of outraged horror. For in a horrible and liquid display of synchronization with their master, the tallows – for that was what they were – obediently followed his motions.
“What do ye mean? What are ye doing?” Auntie Squamble flailed at Bobby Roy. With a laugh he grabbed the old woman around the waist and spun her about like a rag doll in spite of her screams.
“Raise your hands, raise your hands,” Bobby Roy shouted. “Then take your partner by the neck and twist and shout.”
He lowered Auntie Squamble to the ground long enough to wrap his meaty hands about her frail neck. Then he broke it.
“Murderer!” Clara shrieked and jumped to her feet. There was no point hiding. “Oh my god, you killed her. You killed them all.”
Auntie Squamble fell to the ground without a single twitch.
Bobby Roy looked up with a smile, and in perfect harmony all the tallows tried to followed suit. But their eyes were empty of life and their jaws drooped unhinged.
“Everywhere you go, the backwoods have their stories,” said Bobby Roy. “Down south, it’s voodoo. Up here where the seasons are harsh, you put the extra bodies down for the winter months and give them a semblance of life with rendered fat and some magic when the time comes. Rouse them back up when the weather’s warm for the planting and then for the harvest. Least that’s what she told me. Truth of it is, I got sick of it all. Tired of her homilies about old ways and blathering about the stars and stuff. I’m all about profit motive, moving merchandise, hangin with my boys down in Boston on the weekend. You know, having fun.”
Clara couldn’t think of a response. She could barely keep from retching.
Bobby Roy spurned the body of his mother aside with his foot. “So when I found out my favorite cousin had the gift and was raising hell in the goblin realms, well… I knew what had to be done. The old fool thought she’d eat your body and soul and take everything for herself. As if! Thing is, I always had a thing for you Clara. Really pissed me off when that bitch of a mother of yours took off. I had no one else who really understood.”
“This is wrong, so very wrong,” Clara’s voice trembled. “Bobby, turn yourself in to the police. You need help. You really need help and I’m not the one to do it. I can’t do anything at all. I’m no witch. I’m just a maid.”
“Clara,” said Bobby Roy. “I’m a warlock if you haven’t noticed. I can teach you whatever she knew, most of it was bullcrap anyway – it’s all about having the talent. Think about how much money we can make as a team, she was holding me back all these years. We can expand, I’m talking mansions in Bermuda, offshore banking accounts. Who’s going to charge us? – we’re not even selling drugs in this world!”
“Go to hell,” Clara said.
“Raise your hands,” Bobby Roy and the tallows stepped forward as one. But when the tallows raised their hands towards Clara she saw them elongate and begin to stretch towards the hayloft
“I won’t have a hard time convincing you,” said Bobby Roy genially. “Think about the alternative. What I feel, they feel. What I do, they do. Think of those Japanese cartoons, the wrong ones. Had a feeling, hell, I hoped you’d put up a fuss because this is going to be fun.”
“I don’t think I’m buying into the business model,” said Clara and extended a middle finger towards her cousin. “And Pokemon’s the only thing I watched, that other stuff is filth.”
Clara backed away from the edge racking her brains for an escape. There didn’t seem to be one, the tallows didn’t even need a ladder. The first had begun to clamber up the wooden framework, in a moment they would upon her.
Hay lofts usually had a large door. The hay bales would be winched up from outside and stored by a trolley mechanism. She remembered it now, remembered the racking as it was called when she was a child and carefree. She spun and ran, the door was there, closed only by a latch which she pulled open with a trembling hand.
Clara looked back. The tallows had made it up onto the hayloft, the multi-limbed one leading the way. The eyes in the dual head now gleamed in a predatory way, she knew Bobby Roy was looking through them
“Screw this shit,” she said and jumped into the darkness.
Clara landed hard and wrong. She twisted her ankle badly. The jolt of blinding pain ripped a scream from her lungs.
There was to be no respite, she heard the first of the tallows land almost on top of her and splatter on impact. Then more came down with catastrophic results. In the dim light of the moon she saw the creatures standing and slipping in their own viscera.
If Clara had meant to take her chances in the nearby woods, that choice was no longer available to her. She could barely crawl, which she began to do. Instinctively she made for the light shining from the house; there was nowhere else to go.
“HELP! HELP!” Clara screamed. “I’M WARBLING AS LOUD AS I CAN!
The spider dug into the back of her skull.
“Really, this better be important,” Dominic Thule’s thoughts spilled into hers. “Aleister and I are in the middle of a very fine bottle of port and his attentions are turned solely towards Laura for which I am very thankful. I simply don’t have his inclinations, if you know what I mean. If he holds to the Second Vows of Muguwwa-sothot — all should go as conceived by my intellect. My intellect is spendid, if I may say so.”
I DON’T WANT TO DIE! DAMNIT, THULE… HELP ME!”
“What is this? I can’t understand a single one of your thoughts. Is something wrong?”
A hand grabbed her ankle. Clara sent it sailing. She pulled herself up the stairs of the porch. The tallows were following, some in parts – some still whole having come the long way around.
Clara had seen too many horror films. Somehow the familiarity of it put herself outside her own body. She could hear her own yelps of terror and pain as she stood up on one leg and staggered into the house. It was going to be spam in the cabin time, and the spam was truly coming for her in bits and pieces.
Clara was in the kitchen. She tried to hold the door closed, but Bobby Roy hit it hard from the other side and sent Clara sprawling. Her cousin’s great bulk filled the doorway, the tallows pressed up close behind.
“Hey,” said Bobby Roy.
“I wish I had a slootch horn,” whimpered Clara. It was over.
Lightning flashed like a strobelight, thunder crashed. The very air pressed against the house and blew out all the windows. Bobby Roy was thrown across the kitchen. He landed with a clatter of pots on top of the stove.
Silence followed. Clara lay by the kitchen table staring up at the light fixture. With a groan, Bobby Roy pulled himself up, shaking his head.
“I am here,” announced Dominic Thule, stepping through the doorway. And indeed he was, elegantly dressed in his psuedo Victorian attire with his hair slicked back and utterly out of place among the shambles. A silver tipped walking cane was tucked under his armpit.
“I don’t know who the fuck you are, but you’re going down,” snarled Bobby Roy and gestured. The tallows gathered themselves on the porch and tried to set upon the paraxegnostic, but they froze and toppled as soon as they came within a hands breadth of Dominic within the kitchen.
Primitive re-animates. How quaint,” said Dominic with a petulant lift of an eye-brow. “Really, young man, you’re out of your league.They seem to be dissolving from the inside out, you may want to look into that. Ah, there you are, Clara.”
“Oh, thank God,” babbled Clara. “I really didn’t think… I mean… there’s been so many maids before me.”
“I’m trying to do better,” said Dominic. His expression was almost rueful. He bent down and stretched out a hand.
Bobby Roy lunged forward, his expression one of pure rage. His massive fist crashed into Dominic. The paraxegnostic flew one way, the walking cane another.
Dominic wobbled to his feet and touched his brow.
“Is this my blood? Indeed it is my blood. My blood has been spilt, woe is me,” declaimed Dominic in a shocked tone. He stared at his hand and then let loose a high pitched wail.
“Are you kidding me?” Bobby Roy snarled. He stepped forward and threw another punch. Dominic caught the blow against his temple and squealed. He turned and ran through the gathered tallows out the door. Bobby followed, his curses trailing off as he pursued.
“Oh, come on!” gasped Clara.
Bobby Roy would be back in an instant. She only remembered the crawl to the hallway as a red tinged nightmarish haze, and then she was hopping up the stairs on one foot, holding onto the railing with all the strength she had left.
“Clara, what are you doing?”
Clara looked down the stairwell, Bobby Roy stood there with the tallows slithering by. Then they were coming up after her, no longer as individuals but as one gelatinous mess of faces, limbs and torsos.
“I’m saving myself,” said Clara. There was no more pain in her ankle. She threw herself against the flimsy door. Once, twice, thrice and she crashed halfway through. She tumbled in before the tallows could get a grip upon her. She couldn’t pick up the concealed gun on the bed, her right arm hung loose, the shoulder was dislocated.
The tallows pushed aside the wreck of the door and slid in like a wave of jello. Clara picked up the dragon torch from the pillow with her left hand.
“Fire it up,” she said. She flicked the wheel of the lighter.
“Where is he?” Laura said. The battle maid stalked about brandishing her blunderbus – but it wasn’t necessary. The few remaining tallows were sagging apart in congealed pools of grease and body parts. She was putting on a martial show for her admirer.
“Right here, you’re late,” said the mouse and wiped the blood off of Dominic’s temple with a handkerchief. The paraxegnostic lay in the grass whimpering.
“This all seems impressively… trivial,” remarked Aleister. The dark mage turned his cloaked back on the burning house which lit up the surrounding fields. “Dominic, without a doubt – seeing you beaten, physically no less, was amusing. But it wasn’t that amusing. Next time, wait for your battle maid.”
“Is that pork I smell?” Dominic managed to feebly say. “Hop, prepare me a snack and summon Ms. Friday. I need her ministrations at once.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Hop crossly. “What in the name of the Decrepit Deities caused you to take the sanctum here? Everything is out of time and… oh, that’s why.”
Clara hobbled out of the smoke.
“I want to go home now,” she said and promptly collapsed.
“Humans,” muttered Hop.