Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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The Moonshine Monarch and the Elm

by P.F. White


Sergeant Lucas Black had been wounded four times in Vietnam. He had nothing to return to in his hometown of Gypsy, West Virginia, so he signed on again after every stay in the VA hospital. Some men would call him brave. Others knew better: Lucas Black was a man who believed in getting things done, hard work, and dedication

Lucas was twenty five when they sent him home. He had taken a round in the leg, and would walk with a limp for the rest of his days. Uncle Sam had no use for limping soldiers, unless they were good at pushing papers or fixing machines. So they gave him a bus ticket, and sent him back to the rolling hills and haunted glens of Gypsy, population four hundred. Some folks would call this lucky, but others knew better. Gypsy was as broken and desolated by poverty as any in Vietnam.

Lucas had no parents. His father had stabbed his mother when he was seventeen, and been sent to prison for the crime. Lucas had no siblings, and no girl. He felt uneasy in the company of strangers and few of his high-school friends stayed behind in the small town. The army or the mines claimed most of them.

Lucas Black was alone and unwanted in the world. He packed away his things quickly and efficiently. He broke down his M16 rifle and stored it in oil cloth, in his mind never to be used again. The house, an old colonial with seven rooms and a leaky roof, was overrun with vermin. Rats in the walls and birds in the attic. Lucas didn't mind; after four tours in Nam he was used to them. He let them be and went to work in his mother's overrun garden instead. When it grew too dark to work he took to refurbishing his father's moonshine still. His memory of the old man was good, and he never gave up for frustration. Lucas Black believed in getting things done, hard work, and dedication.

When he started he didn't have much of a green thumb, or much skill with the brewing apparatus, but within a year his hard work paid off handsomely. He had a garden full of vegetables, and a dozen jugs of 180 proof liquor. Some folks would say that he had a talent for the work, but others knew better. He wasn't happy, but he was surviving. Vietnam had taught him that much. His government money was almost gone when he went into town to sell his first batch of shine.

His father's truck still worked, barely, and he coasted to town on the fumes. He didn't make much of a ruckus, just a recluse coming down from the hills. Gypsy was a sleepy place and its residents had long ago learned to respect each other's privacy. The town had only once entertained excitement. An event long ago when a Romani king had come there to die. The impression it had made had changed the town's name, but not much else.

Some folks would call the place haunted. Claimed there were ghosts and nasty things in the woods left over from the Gypsy magic. Others knew better. The spirits came first...

Lucas parked his truck outside of the largest store in town, a shop that fed and clothed most of the residents too lazy or reclusive to drive the two and a half hours to the nearest Wal-mart. He hefted a jug and walked inside. The shopkeeper had a massive white beard that framed his face like a halo. His name was Earl, and he had bought moonshine from Lucas's father long ago.

"Afternoon Earl."

"Afternoon Lucas."

The two men eyed each other for awhile. Then Lucas spoke.

"I got a few jugs of the family stock."

"I kin see that," replied Earl.

"Was thinking we could do business."

"Looks like."

Lucas grunted and placed the jug on the counter. Earl opened its top and took a sniff.

"You do just like your daddy taught you? I ain't gonna go blind?" Earl asked warily.

"You ain't." Lucas said. He stood uncomfortably stiff, a habit left over from the military and uselessly formal in his home town.

Earl made to say something else when another voice butted in.

"Do you mind sir, that is to say do you fathom I could entreat you for a taste of such fine ambrosia?"

Lucas turned and regarded the speaker. A man, short and red-faced with a curly salt and pepper beard caked thick around his face, obscuring his mouth. The man wore a green bowler hat and a matching green blazer. He seemed to be fidgeting a lot and wore gold-rimmed glasses with a green tint. In his pocket was a daisy. Wilted.

"Friend of yours, Earl?" asked Lucas.

Earl shook his head. "Just a customer."

"Oh but not, that is to say not just any customer. I, sir, am a man of quality." The stranger produced a card from thin air, flourishing his green-gloved hands needlessly.

Lucas took the card and looked it over. It was a king of clubs from a deck of playing cards. For some reason the club was a green clover. The king resembled a distorted version of the man before him, but with claws, fangs, and pointed ears.

"What's this supposed to mean?" asked Lucas. He didn't trust the stranger.

"It's me, King. That is to say King Clover. Better known as Mr. Clover to some or perhaps, that is to say famously as The Great Clover King."

Earl took the man for a crazy and squared his shoulders. Lucas knew better. He had seen things in Vietnam. Foxes of smoke and screaming women that were not women. A thousand jumbled images and fears in the night. They haunted him, even in daylight. Some folks had said that his mind was broken, and others had known better. This man was not crazy. He was something else entirely.

Lucas asked him bluntly.

"You said you wanted some of my shine?"

"No, that is to say maybe. I said I wanted a taste, a sniff, a sampling," the man said, moving his feet in a strange dancing lilt. He swayed and shifted as if to an invisible wind and his clothes clung tight to his form.

Lucas was weary of the man, and cautious. He figured that at worst he would lose some shine to a stranger, whereas to refuse might invite the night terrors back into his life. Some would call this superstitious. Others know better. Lucas took the chance.

"Sure stranger. I'll give you a taste. You want one, Earl?"

Earl nodded, but continued to watch the short man with suspicion. Lucas uncorked the jug and took the first pull himself, to prove its lack of toxicity and settle his nerves. It tasted like fire and cordite. A pain behind the eyes like getting shot. Lucas knew the feeling well. For some reason it soothed his nerves.

He passed the jug to Earl who drank sparingly and nodded. The shopkeeper panted and gasped, then handed it to the little man who knocked it back. The man only seemed to take a sip, for the briefest moments before smacking his lips and smiling. The man handed back an empty jug.

Lucas did not know what to say.

"Excellent! That is to say superior!" the little man exclaimed. He noticed the look on Lucas's face. "But oh! I have offended! Let me offer to make amends, that is to say let me give payment in kind."

Lucas folded his arms. Earl looked dubious.

"You own the charming little house with all the birds and nooks and garden things, yes? The white shack surrounded by the hills and nestled away from the world? Don't answer, my boy, I've been there many times."

Lucas shut his mouth. He disliked the entire situation. Overhead he heard the whirl of chopper blades and far away gunshots. He held his breath to avoid the smoke that welled in his eyes. There was something about the little man, something from Vietnam. Lucas balled his fists and held himself together as the man swayed and danced, still speaking.

"You seem to have a knack with plants, a real green thumb sort of talent. We like that, my friends and I. We have certain tastes, certain crops, and we were looking to..."

The man seemed to notice the posture of his audience for the first time and held up his hands in defense.

"Oh no, no no, nothing like that. That is to say, nothing your government would care about. No, ours are plants more...unique."

He grinned broadly at his words and seemed for a moment to stand still. His audience was taken aback. The little man's teeth were disgusting slabs of yellow, and he seemed to have hundreds of them lining the gaping hole of his mouth.

"She really is a beauty, I'm sure, that is to say I'm certain that you will be just the one for her. The name is --"

"Listen, mister." Lucas nearly shouted to be heard over the crash of gunfire in his ears. Lucas knew that he needed to leave, whatever the situation. His neck hair stood on end and sweat greased his brow. He would fight if he had to. He swallowed and tried to speak calmly, stuttering slightly.

"I don't want no trouble and I don't care about the booze. If you ever want any more of it just ask Earl here, all right? I don't mean to be unfriendly but I don't want you on my property again."

The man grinned and acted like he hadn't heard or didn't understand.

"Oh don't you worry about that. She will be no trouble, none at all. Good for you even, yes, a fantastic pair."

The man tipped his hat, revealing a mass of dry crackling white hair underneath before strolling out of the shop. Earl and Lucas watched him stutter-step and dance he way from the shop. The whirl of helicopters and gunfire faded, but did not disappear.

"Queer folk around here Earl." Lucas stammered.

"Sure is," agreed the shopkeeper. He eyed Lucas questioningly. The boy did not look well, but the shopkeeper did not know how to say it.

"You'll give me a good price on the shine then?" Lucas said from between clenched teeth.

"Course," Earl said. "Same as I gave your daddy, 'cept raised up for that in-flation. Costs a lot more to keep flesh and spirit together these days, even here."

Lucas nodded, eager to get back to his home.

The world made him nervous. He had hoped that America would be different, but it wasn't. The war had followed him here. Only his hilltop home seemed safe. It was his castle, his everything now. Some folks would call that paranoid, but others know better.

####

There was a new addition to Lucas's home when he finally coaxed the truck up the hill. A massive elm tree stood in the center of his garden, pushing the other vegetables aside. Solid, imposing, and beautiful. Lucas frowned at it and approached with hands on his hips. His eyes were on the tree-line, looking for snipers, and the shadows of other things. He felt nervous but forced it down.

"How the hell did you get here?" he asked the tree.

It did not reply.

He examined it closer.

It was young, strong and healthy and looked like it had been on the spot for years. There was no sign of foul play, or mischief. Even his vegetables were undisturbed, pushed aside gently as if he'd planted them that way.

Lucas scratched his head, glared at the tree-line and briefly considered getting his axe and cutting down the invader. He touched it, and the fury in him died. It was just a tree. Whatever the man from the shop had done, it wasn't the tree's fault.

"I guess you can stay," Lucas said to the tree. He patted its side like a dog and went inside to get his gardening supplies.

The day was late and there was work to be done. Lucas Black was a man who believed in getting things done, hard work, and dedication.

He labored in the shade of the Elm and took periodic drinks from a half empty jug of shine. It seemed that no matter where he worked the elm would cast its shade upon him, and whenever he got hot or tired a breeze would rustle through its branches. He grew friendlier as the day went on and took to talking to the tree, at first jokingly, and then more earnestly.

It was silly, of course, and he knew it, but the more he spoke the more comfortable with the arrangement he grew. Finally the sun went down and he patted the tree gently. He liked it. It was a good tree by him and could stay in his garden.

Lucas went inside and fell asleep. He dreamed of songs he had heard the women of the east singing at night when they thought no one could hear them with fires burning in the jungle and words that made colors in a man's mind. For once they were not broken up by gun-shots or scattered by fire as they had so many times in the war. There were no terrors to haunt him. His troubled mind knew peace.

He got a late start in the morning, but the plants didn't care. They accepted his water and attention as always and he found himself welcoming the chance to talk to his tree again. At night he slept the sleep of the just and was not troubled by screams, fire, or the sounds of the night terrors. Instead there was only singing: the mysterious songs of the east serenading him into dreams that relaxed his tense mind, little by little.

Time passed this way and Lucas grew accustomed to the arrangement. He began to confide in the tree things he had never before told anyone. He told it about his father, about the drink and the craziness that had overtaken him. How Lucas's mother had always egged him on with taunts and ridicule; no matter how bad things were, she made them worse. He told the tree he had always wanted to say something, do something, but was young and powerless.

His father had been a large man, and hated his son almost as much as he had hated his wife. Lucas confided that if there was a gun in the house he probably would have shot his father. As it was he could only wait for the tragedy and call for the police to take him away.

The tree understood somehow and soothed his fevered memory with gentle breezes. His garden thrived under constant care and wild-flowers grew, unbidden, around its edges. The plants spread into a place of real beauty, with the Elm its magnificent centerpiece.

The time came for Lucas to return to town, purchase supplies and pick up whatever money Earl owed him. He felt a great sadness upon leaving his garden, and foolishly went to give his tree a good-bye pat before starting up the truck.

His shine had made a tidy profit and Earl asked for more of it. Lucas gave him what he had distilled and promised he would deliver more but needed to get back to the garden. Earl understood and got Lucas his supplies without fuss. The boy seemed a lot more at ease to the old shopkeeper, which was good.

While Lucas was loading everything into the truck he heard a familiar voice.

"Greetings! That is to say good-afternoon. Are you enjoying my little re-compensation my boy?" asked the stranger in green.

Lucas turned to him and made to smile, but something held him back. He wanted to like the man, but something simply didn't seem right about it. A familiar knot turned in his stomach and from the distance he heard the approach of choppers.

"If you mean the tree...well, I like it all right," said Lucas, fighting the feelings back into his head.

"You like Her all right, that is to say it's a female, my boy. But you already knew that, I'm sure, strapping young thing like yourself. I bet you two make the most dashing, that is to say inseparable pair."

Lucas grunted at the man, unsure of how to respond. The sounds of danger grew louder as they met eyes and smoke grew thick. Danger prickled the hairs on Lucas's neck as he saw deeper into the man's eyes than before. The night terrors were there. They lived in the dark, in the forest. There were fires, and bodies, and blood. Ancient things and woods thicker than any he had seen in Vietnam.

A world lived in those eyes too old to be called evil.

Without saying a word Lucas dropped his supplies and jumped into the truck. He sped away from the green man, looking back only to see the creature grinning at him with yellow terrible teeth.

Lucas took the winding dirt roads at dangerous speeds, uncertain as to his purpose or haste but determined to make speed. Bodies choked the hill-side. The creeks ran with blood and fire covered the forest. Creatures watched from the tops of trees and birds of smoke took to the sky. He could only drive faster for his castle, for his home.

It came into view and he slammed the truck to a halt, running from it with fists clenched and eyes tight. He kept low to the ground, every sense ready to fight.

There was no one to be seen. The air was still and smokeless. He came to his garden, looking first for his tree. Upon it were dozens of brutal claw-marks. Something like a bear or wolverine marking its territory with deep gouges and stripped bark. Many branches were broken and the flowers around the garden were dead and wilted. It wounded him deeply in ways he didn't think he could feel. He fell to his knees, and uncertain as to why he hugged the wounded bark to his chest. Tears came to his eyes unbidden and nonsense spilled from his lips. The nightmare had come to his castle and he had not been there to meet it. He didn't know what to do.

"This won't happen again Evaline," Lucas Black said to the tree, uncertain where the name had come from but knowing somehow that it fit.

A gentle breeze stirred him as he cried. After some time, he composed himself, the soft parts of him hardening. There was no smoke here, no fires or bodies. He went inside and unpacked his M16, the strength and certainty of steel filling his bones. Lucas Black was a man who believed in getting things done, hard work, and dedication.

He stripped the rifle in a cold fury. Cleaned it expertly with little fuss, checking every component for proper function. He loaded four magazines of full-metal-jacketed ammunition and slammed a magazine into place. He chambered the first round as he had done dozens of times before, the ritual giving him strength and power against the darkness.

He slung the gun over one shoulder, and headed back outside. He stood at the edge of his garden, hefted the weapon with face hard and pointed it at the tree-line. In his mind he saw the enemy. That same force that had taken his flesh, his friends and his peace of mind forever. The terrors of the night. The fire and smoke. It lived in those trees, he was certain of it.

Some folks would call that insane, but others knew better.

He thumbed the weapons safety off and fired into the trees, pouring round after round methodically into the woods until the weapon was empty. He reloaded and grimaced at the splintered bark and broken limbs of his work. The darkness had been pushed back, he was sure of it. Somehow he would make things right.

"It won't happen again," he promised the tree. He knew that it believed him. He would make a stand. Lucas Black was a man who believed in getting things done, hard work, and dedication.

He went to work on his garden until dusk, always with loaded rifle close at hand, seeking to repair the damage and make things right. For a long time he did not speak. He knew what he needed to say, what Evaline wanted to hear. Finally, he began.

He told his tree about Vietnam. The men he had killed, and the women in the jungle. The bombs and the fire and the bullets. He told about his friends, and his enemies. The night terrors that haunted him and took the minds of so many. He told about watching entire fields of people dying around him. Burning the forests and villages. The savagery and the terrible feeling of life that clung to a place so close to death.

When he was done the moon was up and it had long since grown too late to work. He crawled into bed exhausted, with his rifle near at hand and his window open to hear the wind whistle through the leaves of Evaline.

It wasn't long before she came for him. First in song, soothing his mind as she had so many times. Then her ghostly form stepped naked into his room and climbed into his waiting arms. She was beautiful like no girl had ever been. A creature of the wild, inhuman and untamed. Her hair curled like moss, at once green red and brown. Her eyes were silver and her smile was understanding.

Her skin was cool, and soft. Scarred around the deep claw-marks, red and tender but healing. Her breasts had been savaged and bitten, but Lucas kissed them until she moaned. Her maidenhood was taken, but Lucas didn't care. To him she was perfect.

He told her that he loved her and she kissed him like no other girl ever had. She had no voice of her own, but he understood her through his own broken memory. They made love until the morning, falling asleep in a tight embrace. Yet she still slipped away as easily as the morning dew.

Lucas found her outside, standing watch over the garden. He leaned on his rifle and smiled at her as she stretched her branches to the sun.

A familiar voice came from behind Lucas.

"I told you that you, that is to say caretaker wise...well we were right." He whirled around into a combat crouch, raising the rifle and aiming on instinct. The safety ticked off.

The man in green stood beaming at him with his crooked yellow teeth. He held up his gloved hands in surrender.

"I told you not to come onto my property." Lucas growled, a king suddenly, defending his land from a devil. A warrior made of cold rage to stand against the night.

"Oh yes, that is to say you mentioned it...but as you know I left something of my property behind." Replied the green man, shuffling his feet in his peculiar kind of dance.

Lucas felt rage churn his stomach, but the terrors did not come. It was his ground and he held control.

"Evaline is not yours." Lucas Black said as he aimed his rifle at the green man's head.

"Oh, on this, that is to say, you are mistaken, my boy." The green man's smile faded and his hands dropped. "The creature is very much my people's property and you are simply its caretaker. Your affection, that is to say your infatuation with it is, unfortunate, and by all means supportable. Do with the girl what you will, but at the end of the day we will use her charms for our amusement."

Lucas tasted blood, his mouth clenched too tight to speak which led the man in green to continue.

"My companions have already had their turn, that is to say, but I have not had mine. We are many and ancient. Your kind are but flies to us, that is to say expendable and weak. We are kings of this land." The green man took a step forward. Lucas shot him in the left knee-cap. The 5.56 millimeter round exploded the leg into splinters and the green man toppled screaming a harsh animal cry. The wind blew in surprise but Lucas advanced on the thrashing man.

He bled freely but the limb appeared to be made out of some sort of soft living wood. Lucas kicked the snarling man in the stomach with his army boot and the man ceased his noise to suck in air and cough.

Hate-filled eyes glared at Lucas not for the first time. Lucas pointed his weapon at the green man's head. Lucas for once in a long, long time was utterly in control.

"Can they see us?" he asked.

"Yes!" spat the green man, his eyes crazed and his face far from human.

Lucas nodded, recognizing the twisted face of a night terror. His enemy.

"Show me your hands," said Lucas.

The creature cursed and spat.

Lucas shot him in the right knee-cap. It exploded into splinters and red syrupy blood.

The creature howled again like an animal, its face distorting into knots and whorls somehow both animal and unnatural.

"I said show me your fucking hands" Lucas shouted. Fireworks exploded in his vision and the taste of the blood-lust threatened to overwhelm him. He knew he would not lose control. The night terrors were before him. The choppers and smoke did not dare approach. This land was his.

The creature stripped the green gloves from its hands, revealing sharpened claws somewhat like a raccoons. Thick hair sprouted from the creature's arms and faded into the soft wood of its skin, becoming splinters and twigs.

Lucas nodded in understanding, and shot the creature in the face three times. It went limp after the first shot shattered its face to pulp and blood soaked deep into the ground. Its body ceased all traces of animation by the third shot, becoming badly carved and wooden in death. The terror of the creature fadied from the world.

Lucas turned to the tree-line and glared.

"Did you see that, you motherfuckers!" roared Lucas, king of his castle, lord of his domain. "If I see any of you on my property, you are dead! Your families are dead! I will hunt them down and cut them to pieces! Get it? If you show your faces here --" Lucas lost focus for a moment. Something in the trees moved. He was back in Vietnam. The night women and the horrors were coming for him. They were all around him. He growled in the back of his throat, a bestial sound. He aimed expertly and fired quickly, snapping shots into the fleeing unseen forms of night terrors that howled in fear of his power.

Sap exploded and blood dripped as his worked the weapon back and forth across the tree-line. Anything that moved felt his fury, his power.

The trees stopped moving. Whatever was there had gone away. He finished his words softly to himself, completing the thought: "You are all dead."

Lucas approached Evaline and looked upon her with clear eyes.

Lucas Black had something worth fighting for. Worth returning home to. Lucas Black would not give her up. Lucas Black would not leave her side, not ever. No matter what the night terrors did, no matter when they came or how many. He would fight for his love no matter what. Some folks would call that dedication. They'd be right.

"Not ever." He promised to Evaline. The breeze gently kissed his cheek in response. Lucas Black believed in hard work, dedication, and getting things done. Especially dedication.

THE END


© 2010 P. F. White

Bio: P. F. White is a sailor currently serving in the U.S. Navy. His tale blending boxing and not-so-funny animals, Blood, Bears, and Canvas appeared in the November, 2009 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: P. F. White

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