Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Corruption's Device

A Tale of the Crow Witch

by Mike Phillips



Enchantment lay thick upon the old woman as she sat behind the cash register, totaling the day's lunch receipts. Unhappy with the results even upon the third attempt, she set about the counting once again.

All but one of the customers at Syl's Café had finished lunch, polishing off an old fashioned blended milkshake or a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie, and had gone back to work. The singular woman in a floral print dress and cardigan sweater drank the last of her tea, collected her things, and went to see what the trouble was about.

"Goodness me," the old woman said, about to throw up her hands in frustration, full of receipts as they were, "I just don't know what I did with it. Where did it go?"

"Whatever is the matter?" the last customer, Lynn Weigenmeister, asked with concern, taking her wallet from her purse.

"I'm so befuddled today I don't know up from down," the old woman exclaimed, trying to rub the pain from her forehead. "I've used the same system for thirty eight years to keep it all straight and now look at it, useless."

"It doesn't add up?"

"No, and you can imagine what my husband will say."

"It's not that bad, is it?" Miss Weigenmeister asked in a kindly voice.

The old woman rolled her eyes and held a tight smile. "Forty years in marriage, thirty eight in business. He managed the kitchen and I managed the books."

Nodding with understanding, Miss Weigenmeister handed over her check and a ten dollar bill. "Well, here is mine at least. Perhaps if you counted the receipts out in front of me, I might see where you're making your mistake. Though I'm not much good with numbers myself, I might be able to help you figure the figures."

"You'd do that?"

"Does Syl make the best rutabaga pasties in town?"

The old woman smiled and blushed. "Well, thank you. You are a sweet girl."

As the old woman set down the slips of green and white paper, indecipherable scrawls of blue ink upon each, Miss Weigenmeister perceived again the working of a spell. When the fifteenth bill was laid it was promptly overlooked.

"There it is again, not a bit of help," the old woman said in resignation. "Not that I'm blaming you, dear."

"No, not at all, but I think that I've found the trouble. Why don't you read them backwards and see if I can't catch it for certain this time?"

The old woman again counted, this time from back to front. The same receipt, the ninth this time, was left out. Miss Weigenmeister snatched the slip of paper off the counter and held it up for a closer look. Upon it, if she was making out the script correctly, was a roast beef sandwich with gravy, an order of fries, a milkshake, and three pieces of pie. It was a hefty bill for one person and an odd order that left little to go on.

"No," the old woman protested in a distant voice, allowing little time for Miss Weigenmeister to make her examination, "not that one. You can't count that one."

Surmising what had happened, Miss Weigenmeister laid the check onto the counter with a loud smack. The old woman woke from her haze with a start. "What?" she asked. "What was that?"

"The missing check," Miss Weigenmeister explained, working her own bit of magic. "It had fallen on this side of the counter."

The old woman took the slip in her hand and marveled. "Yes. Yes, that was the one. Thank you. Oh, thank you so much. I knew I lost it somewhere."

"Of course." Miss Weigenmeister wondered if the cash drawer wouldn't be short the exact amount when the till was totaled at the end of the day.

"Oh, my, that reminds me. One of the old county buildings has been sold and when they cleaned out the vault, those nice young men gave the historical society some documents dating back to the incorporation, maybe even before."

"Really? That would be a wonderful addition to our archives. Perhaps someday we'll have a suitable exhibit."

"I know how you like to hang up all those old photographs. I gathered as many as I could and Syl helped me put them into frames. Do you mind if I bring them over to you at the library later? No, better make it tomorrow. I don't feel up to it all of a sudden."

"That's most generous. Tomorrow will be fine. Thank you."

"And thank you."

####

Outside it was a shining fall day. The trees were hot with color, fired in orange, yellow and red. The air was crisp but mild. The week before had been gloomy, which had made Miss Weigenmeister claustrophobic and in some way sparked this rare foray into town. Her next stop was the hardware store.

Apples were plentiful this year, and she had decided to put up extra applesauce. In fact, it had been a bountiful year for all her garden. She had canned more green beans, pickles, and tomatoes than she had in all the years she could remember. The only trouble was she had run out of jars.

The door of the hardware store struck a bell as she pushed it open and she caught the smell old pipe smoke and ashes in the wood stove yet to be cleared from the previous winter. The Ball and Kerr, she knew, were with all the other canning supplies, in the row next to the kitchen appliances.

The wood floor bespoke many days of hard boots and heavy boxes with the passing of her feet. As she walked the aisle, she listened and enjoyed the sound of the creaking boards. Then it struck her for the second time, the working of a spell.

"Gayle, did you see where that radio went?" a gruff voice called from behind tall shelves stocked with merchandise. "We didn't sell it, did we?"

"The radio?" Gayle answered from the counter.

"Yes, you know, the big one on the shelf."

"I don't remember ever having a radio," replied Gayle. "This is a hardware store for goodness sake, not some fancy electronics boutique."

Miss Weigenmeister had to suppress a laugh despite her concern for the enchantment. She moved along quietly so as not to disturb the conversation.

"I know this is a hardware store. Bless me, my grandfather started this hardware store over a hundred years ago, but I say we had a radio and now it's gone."

"Maybe someone bought it."

"Well, I didn't sell it."

"Neither did I."

"It was here this morning. You've been at the counter all morning."

"So have you. Maybe it's out back sleeping in the stockroom, pretending to go get nails."

"No need to get snippy if you forgot to write it down."

"Snippy? Me?" Gayle retorted. "Maybe I'm not the one who forgot to write it down."

"A lot of things haven't been written down lately. Maybe now I know why."

Miss Weigenmeister believed that she knew why. Thinking it time to announce herself, she coughed and said, "Excuse me, where are the canning supplies?"

A bald head belonging to an old man poked out from around the aisle. He wore a leather apron with wide pockets, a button down shirt and dress slacks that were flawlessly pressed. "Oh, Miss Weigenmeister, where did you come from?" the man, Thomas, asked in a pleasant voice.

"From outside," Gayle shouted.

Ignoring his wife, Thomas said, "What can I do for you today?"

"I came in for canning supplies, but it sounds like you've been having a bit of trouble."

"Honestly, all this rain has me in a daze. Here, let me help you with the jars."

The sale was made with little more evidence of the spell. Thomas seemed brighter as he carried the heavy box full of glass jars outside and strapped it to the front of Miss Weigenmeister's bicycle. But if he had remembered where the radio had gotten to, he didn't say.

"Well, it seems today is a proper day for me to be out after all," Miss Weigenmeister said to herself, wheeling her bicycle down the sidewalk. "There's a puzzle that needs solving. I imagine the trail will set itself before me soon enough. People certainly are acting strangely."

Focusing, she bent her will upon the problem, searching for guidance. Divination was a particular talent of hers. Divination of this type, in pursuit of evil, almost seemed to come to her as if gifted by some unseen force.

"The direction defies detection," she announced aloud with a sigh, getting nothing. "This isn't going to be as easy as I thought, but then again things seldom are. I'll have to come back tomorrow and do some more investigating. A trail like this won't grow cold in haste."

Making the decision final, she again addressed herself, "I need a gallon of milk and the gas station is nearby, best price in town, so I might as well get it there and then start home."

Enjoying the sun, trying to soak in as much light and heat as she could before the cold winds of winter blew, Miss Weigenmeister made her way to the corner gas station. When she arrived an old Chevy was idling near the door. As she walked in, an unremarkable young man dressed in jeans and a dirty denim jacket stood before the counter. Kent Rubley, she knew him. He was buying cigarettes.

"He's too young to be buying cigarettes and he shouldn't even be driving," Miss Weigenmeister thought. But then it hit her. The enchantment stank on him like the spring manure pile at a hog barn.

The young man eyed her, then glanced to the security camera mounted on the wall behind the clerk. "Oh, it's you, the librarian," Kent said, taking his hand from his coat pocket. He opened his hand and showed her some strange looking piece of jewelry. She could not see it so as to be able to describe what it looked like, but the pretty thing certainly glinted in a way that caught the eye. A fog rolled over her mind. Recognizing the enchantment, she turned her will and it went away.

"Well, look at you," Kent said with a smirk. "The pretty librarian here, with me, totally under my control. What I would do to you if this camera wasn't watchin'."

Miss Weigenmeister didn't respond. She let her features go blank.

"Yeah, I'd love to take a turn at that," he said, his eyes appraising her. "Sorry babe, but I got to go. The camera's watchin', you know. I'll take you up on your offer next time." He stepped abruptly away, flinging the door open in front of him.

As the door slammed shut, the clerk came back as if from a pleasant dream. He blinked, shook his head, and then looked up. By that time, Kent had dropped his car, a thunderously loud machine, into gear and pulled away.

"When did you get here?" the clerk asked, confused.

"I've lived here all my life," Miss Weigenmeister said, leaving no room for questions or answers. "I have a few things I need to take care of, but I'll be back for my bicycle later."

Now she worked a bit of an enchantment of her own. If she were going to follow the young man, she would have to be after him quickly. Kent was growing bold, more confident in his abilities. How he behaved toward her indicated a more threatening intent, a malice that was beginning to fester.

"Do you mind if I leave it out back?" Miss Weigenmeister said.

"Feel free, but be careful," the clerk replied. "A lot of stuff has come up missing around town and none's to blame."

"Thanks for the warning, but it's probably just some misunderstood youth. These things have a way of working themselves out in time."

"I hope so."

She wove a new direction into her spell. This one was built more solidly, more subtly than the first. "Would it be acceptable for me to lock my things into the restroom?"

"No problem," the clerk said, retrieving something from under the counter. "Here's the key."

"Thank you very much."

####

Taking one last careful look around before entering the restroom, Miss Weigenmeister brought her bike inside and set it against the wall, locking the door behind her. She took off her clothes and folded them neatly upon the basin. Then, feeling an anxious, but familiar, turn of the stomach, she began. She looked at her hand and forearm, thinking about the fine bones within, how very much like the bones of a bird's wing they were. That was how the change began.

The hairs stood upon her arm, broadened and grew dark, becoming feathers. Her legs diminished and her feet became clawed. Her nose lengthened to a point and her eyes moved to the sides of her head. Even before the change had completely worked upon her, Miss Weigenmeister flew out the open window in pursuit.

In the guise of a crow, Miss Weigenmeister rose high in the sky, soaring, gliding, searching for the car. The spore of the old Chevy's passing was unmistakable. A plume of exhaust rose like a skunk's tail, black and fetid. Along the road the young Kent now traveled there were but a few houses and nowhere else to go. He was headed home.

The wings of a crow aren't made for traveling distance and neither are the arms of librarians. By the time Miss Weigenmeister had found the place she was looking for, she had grown tired.

Kent's was a nice house with a well kept lawn, trim bushes and a little garden out back. The soil looked appreciated and well tended. As late in the season as it was, flowers bloomed. The remnants of thick vines in a compost pile revealed a bounty of tomatoes that may have rivaled even her own.

Miss Weigenmeister kept her guise, first hopping then flying more in the way of a crow in the wild, searching for some way inside the house. No doors were ajar. The windows were far beyond the ability of a crow to open. She considered making the change but there were no clothes on the line to be had.

"Am I the only one who doesn't use a dryer nowadays?" she asked herself, spying an exhaust vent from the basement choked with lint.

A window opened, and from it came a white puff and the sharp smell of burning tobacco. "Perhaps your power over your parents isn't complete," the crow said in a low voice, watching the boy draw deeply through the cigarette and then expel a white cloud into the outside air. "If you have to hide your smoking from your parents, may I assume then that the power you have is temporary or perhaps focused on a single object?"

The crow waited until the boy had finished his first cigarette and then lighted upon the windowsill, stepping cautiously inside. "Well good day, Mister Rubley. Haven't you been busy?"

"What? A talking bird?" the young man said in surprise, coughing out smoke.

"Yes, or perhaps someone has mesmerized you."

He turned pale. "How do you know about that?"

"You might as well ask how a crow can speak. I won't tell you that either, Kent Rubley, now that I know what mischief you have been up to." She added scornfully, "Shame on you."

The pretty thing was still in his pocket. He took it out and flashed it at her.

"That won't work on me. You've had your chance and failed. Give it to me."

"No, It's mine," Kent said, growing angry, though he was still unable to decide whether or not he should attack so strange a messenger.

"I bet it isn't yours. I bet you stole it from that nice old man you do lawn work for. Wasn't he a magician of some kind before he retired? They say he was very good, even worked Vegas for a time. Shame on you. Shame on you for stealing from an old man and using his tricks for evil purposes." She hopped nearer, saying, "Now give it to me. These are not things for you to meddle with. Give it to me and return all that you stole. And don't forget to pay for that lunch."

"What? How did you know?"

"I know everything. And if you don't want everyone else to know too, you'll make this right. If you force my hand I'll have the police come. There's enough in the bedroom here to send you to the juvenile home. How would you like that?"

Kent moved to attack, but his response had been anticipated. Without sound or gesture the crow loosed her spell and the young man froze. "We can do this all day if you'd like," the crow said smugly, but she released him a moment later.

"But what are you going to do with it?" Kent asked as he held out his hand.

Taking the medallion in a claw, Miss Weigenmeister said, "Its previous owner used it for good. He made lots of children happy without much reward for himself, but that part of his life is over. I'm sure Mister Mercer would be happy to have it pass on to someone deserving, someone who would use it as wisely as he did."

She gave Kent a sidelong glance and said, "If you make amends, if you prove to me that you have learned responsibility and are capable of an equal good, maybe some day this great gift will return to you. I'll be watching." With that, she flapped her wings and was away.

THE END


© 2011 Mike Phillips

Bio: Mike Phillips grew up on a small farm in West Michigan. In addition to hard work and responsibility, his father gave him a very special gift. Each year during summer vacation, the television was turned off. This meant that when not tending sheep, mending fences, gardening, building furniture, chopping wood, or goofing off, Mike’s summers were spent reading. In memory of all the wonderful stories and things he didn’t understand at the time, Mike hopes that through his writing he can, in some small way, share this gift with others. An earlier tale of the Crow Witch, The Planting of the Spectre, appeared in the November 2010 edition of Aphelion. For more Crow Witch stories, visit Aurora Wolf.

E-mail: Mike Phillips

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