Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
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by Richard Wolkomir

"Skink?" Dr. Jane says. "What're they doing to that goat?"

Hammer, hammer, hammer, pretending not to hear, brow furrowed under straw hair, pale-blue eyes totally focused on those twenty-penny nails, doing the work, getting the new railing onto her dock, doing the job.

"Please stop banging."

Bang. Bang.

"Skink! Men with sticks!"

He squints across the Colohappa, a quarter mile, over to Old Mullett, on the south bank, where the goat's tethered under the cabbage palms behind Bad Deane's big Cracker house, up on posts, to get air under, and this year's Three Chosen Senders, wearing the black fedoras, are walking the counterclockwise circle around the tethered April Goat, after each turn touching its back with their black-painted sticks, sending into it Old Mullett's winter build-up of ugly--spites, angers, miseries--of which there's always a lot.

"They're just touching that goat light with those sticks, on its back," Skink says.

"Skink?" she says, giving him her brown laser-eye look, from behind those squinty little eyeglasses.

He mumbles: "I'm banned over there."

She looks at him sharper.

She's even shorter than Skink, and she's gone to plump, with gray hair, but he figures her backbone's made of titanium, and disaster's on its way.

"Whose house is that?" she says, staring over at the goat.

Now the Senders have gone, job done, and it's just the goat, eating Bad Deane's lawn.

"Gilson Deane," Skink says. "Bad Deane."

"What'll happen to that goat?"

Skink doesn't answer, not sure what answer he can give. She waits, looking at him, and he still doesn't answer, pretending to study a handful of nails, choosing the best one.

"I thought so," she says. "I'll go talk to Mr. Gilson Bad Deane."

"Best not," Skink mumbles.

"Meaning what?" she demands.

Meaning, he thinks, Bad Deane'll set your house's wires smoking. Or he'll send you sickness, and nobody'll know what, and you'll die. Skink can't tell her, though. Jane Bantonak, PhD--she thinks PhD, and she sees PhD. So he can't tell her.

"Best not," he says.

* * *

Skink, thinks Jane Bantonak, is an odd little varmint.

She's just parked in front of Bad Deane's house, after weaving her black Volvo through Old Mullett's maze of riverside streets, most dead enders, forcing her to repeatedly back around in the driveways of sun-blasted shanties, their rusted-screen porches maybe flying Confederate battle flags, out front a dead shrimp boat on blocks. This house, too, sits on posts, but it's bigger than the others, with new screens around the porch.

She walks around back to see the goat.

Best not?

She smiles to herself.

And how, exactly, can Skink be "banned?" Who bans you from a town?

Again she smiles--with affection--remembering Skink forgot to put in his dentures this morning. Back in his "mad-dog days," Skink's term, before he sobered up, barroom melees left his incisors missing in action.

It occurs to her, just now, how much she looks forward to Skink's visits, his odd-job days. Those sharpshooter eyes. And the conversation, who knows where it'll twist? Mostly she avoids her retired-executive neighbors. They're seething, subliminally, over their relinquished corporate clout, so they focus fiercely on nine-irons and par, their new bottom line, along with power-hosing their driveways.

She walks up to the goat, which looks at her with slitted amber goat eyes, and she inspects it for cuts or signs of broken bones. It seems healthy. Still, those black sticks!

She's running her fingers along the goat's back, to see if it flinches, because of painful bruises under the hair, when she feels watched and turns: a small man stands just behind her, grinning and blinking at her.

Possibly, he's simpleminded, with that grin, round head canted over. What hair he has, on the sides, is going white.

"Help you, Ma'am?" he says.

"Gilson Deane?" she says.

"Yes'm," he says, ducking his head, round blue eyes blinking.

"This goat," she says. "I saw men hitting it with sticks."

He blinks, head canted over.

She says: "I'm from the Colohappa Animal Protection Society."

He just blinks at her.

"I volunteer," she says.

Finally he speaks.

"Now, where do you live, Ma'am?"

Jane points across the river, to her house, over on the Colohappa Village side, one of the big, new-built stuccoes along the bank, some looking more like hotels than houses. Jane guesses Bad Deane knows every garage over there has a remote-controlled door and a Lexus inside, or a Cadillac Escalade, and every front lawn has a pushed-in sign: "This House Protected by Intruder Alarm." It makes her feel--over here in Old Mullett--like a bully, a thought she dismisses as ludicrous. This is about the goat.

"I need your assurance this animal isn't being mistreated, and won't be," she says.

He's squinting and blinking across the river, which sparkles under the Florida sun.

"Who's that working on your dock over there?" Bad Deane says. "Is that Skink Pickett?"

"Oh, do you know Skink?" she says.

"He send you over here?"

"I'm with the Animal Protection Society," she tells him again. "I…."

"This goat's got no problem, Ma'am," Bad Deane says. "She's doing good."

He's still staring across the river at Skink, banging on her dock, and she senses something under that blinking and grinning, like a blade, maybe imaginary, but if you grow up in a bad section of Brooklyn, you keep watch, which served her well at Cornell and later at the Boston Institute of Science, where academic gunslingers would gleefully spine-shoot a colleague, if you didn't watch them.

"Black fedoras?" she says. "What was that all about, and those black sticks?"

Bad Deane stays silent, still staring across the river, not just at Skink now, but all of Colohappa Village.

"That was gator swamp," he says. "Gators and panthers and bears, back to the Old Bones."

It feels like an accusation, but she has no idea what it matters to him, or what to make of "Old Bones." Maybe he really is a simpleton.

"Deanes been here since Old Bones times," he says, now staring again at distant Skink. "So's Picketts, like Skink over there, and Scarboroughs."

She can hear the hammering, from across the river.

I should sample his DNA!

She stifles a laugh at that sudden thought. Deanes, Picketts, and Scarboroughs. She decides to talk to Skink.

"No cruelty to the goat, Mr. Deane," she says. "You understand that, don't you? I'll be alerting the sheriff!"

He grins at her, head canted over, nodding.

* * *

Bad Deane sees orange in this woman's aura.

Power, he thinks, but coming out the front of her head, not the back. So she hasn't got the inside eye. Still, she wants to move people, make them do things, what she thinks right.

He cants his head farther over, to see better, blinking for focus.

Turquoise flares.

Energy. She's got that, and she'll use it to get people hopping.

She's babbling about the goat, but he's not listening. He stares across the river, where the swamps were, and the spirits swarmed. He looks at the big stucco houses over there, where they filled the swamps and buried the spirits.

Now she means to meddle on this side.

It's not her livestock. No business of hers. She doesn't belong over here.

Skink Pickett sent her.

Bad Deane's sure of that.

Skinny little weasel's bent because he tried to block Bad's curse on Big Nose Swank, who's dead anyway. Skink thought he had more juice, younger man's juice, found out he didn't. Went up against the old man, up against his professor, and got his curseblocker stuffed down his throat. Now he's banned, and wants revenge, so he sent over this busybody to cause trouble.

She could, too. She's got no eye, but she's got brain, and what they think is education. Her aura showed it. And that new sheriff, from down in Miami or somewhere, college boy, he doesn't know Colohappa ways like old Joel Jackson did, an Old Mullett boy himself, so this new one won't know enough to keep his deputies out of here.

That's what Bad Deane thinks, watching the woman from across walking back to her car. He hears the spirits over there, buried deep under those stucco houses, wailing, those Old Bones.

He cants his head over and blinks to focus, as Miss Animal Protection Society eases her lardy butt into her black car, getting a fix on her.

He keeps his inside eye right on her back.

* * *

"Skink, what're they doing?" Dr. Jane asks.

She's sitting in her chaise lounge on the dock, looking across the river, at people milling in Bad Deane's yard, so many you can't see the goat.

Skink lays his deep-fried-catfish sandwich on the dock, fishtail sticking out of the bread, and stands up, hands on the new railing he finished two days ago, and looks across the river, too. He sees Bad Deane walk out of the crowd, down to the riverbank, and stand staring across, at this house, at them.

Bad Deane's ramping up.

It's why Skink called Dr. Jane this morning and said he should rake the fallen palm fronds around her dock, along the bank, because snakes could slither up out of the river and hide under there. He'd never called her like that before, suggesting work for himself. He didn't want to call her, isn't sure why he did, except Bad Deane would go for him anyway, probably. So he called Dr. Jane, about snakes.

She'd said, "You're the expert on Florida pit vipers--rake away!"

Last time, it hadn't worked out against Bad Deane. He supposes it probably won't now.

"Skink?" Dr. Jane says. "Would he sell me that goat?"

"No," Skink says.

She goes back to staring across the river, and he knows she's thinking she can't do anything, because it's legal to keep livestock and slaughter them for food.

She says: "Who're the Old Bones?"

He looks at her, on the chaise lounge, sipping a limeade through a straw, with her notebook computer on her lap. Then he looks back across the river, at Bad Deane. He doesn't want to explain all this to her, not now.

"Lived here before Crackers."

"Oh," she says. "Indians."

He shakes his head, looking across the river at Old Mullett.

"Before them."

"Pre-Clovis?" she says.

* * *

Bad Deane's stoking his burn.

He's looking across the river at the two of them, on that dock of hers, and he's stoking.

Sheriff Green-Behind-the Ears rolled up yesterday, talking big: you people think you can keep cooking meth and smuggling in coke on your shrimp boats, and just get winked at, but this is a whole new sheriff's office! And, by the way, I've got old ladies pestering, so be sweet with this damned goat!

Bad Deane thinks: three deaths.

Number one: Skink.

Then he thinks, maybe number two.

Because Skink admires that old lady he putters for. Bad Deane's seen that. He's kept his inside eye on that boy. Drunk old Black-Eye Pickett whacked on Skink, on all those little Picketts, and on Evie, too, and she wasn't no saint anyway, gator-mean herself, and Bad Dean sees right through Skink, sees that rich old lady over there's his new mama, even though he's forty now. She thinks high of Skink, too. He saw that, looking at her, when she pushed in over here, like she ruled the Colohappa, north bank and south bank, too. And what's between them, it gives Skink some juice.

Bad Deane stands at his lawn's edge, glaring across the river, moccasin venom oozing inside, seeing Skink over on that dock again today, standing beside her, and remembering he took Skink in, because Skink had the eye, and all Bad Deane had to take over one day was two brat daughters, weak eyed, who turned against him, anyway, and ran off north. And then Skink, who'd taken the learning from him, he turned.

"Rottenness, that's all you do!" Skink said, after Bad put the sickness on Big Nose Swank, who'd had it coming, out there on Bad's shrimp boat nights, taking on more than shrimp in the dark, and creaming off what belonged to Bad.

Skink's only forty, though, against Bad Dean's seventy-one. You get old, you wane, but Bad Deane knows: you lose juice, but you gain wile. And when that old lady dies writhing, Skink'll weaken, and he'll get it next.

"Sheriff'll be cake," Bad Deane thinks.

He stands on the river's bank, staring across, letting the moccasin venom ooze up.

* * *

Jane Bantonak thinks: Skink's frightened.

He's holding onto the dock's new rail, staring across at the far bank, where a toy figure, diminished by distance, stares back this way.

She wonders if Skink actually fears that head-bobbing old man over there, maybe because of some childhood trauma, like Bad Deane yelling at him for an escapade, something like that, and ever since it's lingered in his central nervous system, a perturbation, which reminds her what she's been meaning to ask him.

"Skink," she says. "I need a sample of your hair."

"Why's that, Dr. Jane?" he says.

He doesn't turn his head, still staring across the river. Over there, the crowd in Bad Deane's yard has thickened, and Jane hears singing. It's faint. Maybe it's a chant.

"It's for my book," she tells him.

He keeps his eyes on the far bank.

"It's about my co-evolution theory," she says.

Skink, looking across, says nothing.

"I've proposed that other humanoid species, not quite like us, evolved along with us, and inter-mated--that's my theory--and some of us still have their genes in us," she says.

He's still looking across. It's louder over there. It's definitely a chant, she thinks, and now the crowd is rotating, marching in unison counter-clockwise, which is strange. She can't even see the goat, because of the crowd.

"This business about the Old Bones…."

He's not looking at her, staring across the water, so she assumes he's not listening, but then he speaks.

"What's pre-Clovis?"

She has the odd sensation he's trying to distract her, although she has no idea from what. He's looking intently across that water, though. And it looks to her like sweat is filming on his forehead.

"It's anthropological orthodoxy," she says, and she launches into it, even though he seems to be paying no attention at all, and is actually starting to look sick, how Clovis-culture people reached the Americas first, supposedly, over the Bering Sea land bridge, 13,500 years ago, but some new digs suggest people already lived here, maybe many thousands of years before Clovis.

"How do they know that?" Skink asks, nearly a whisper.

His eyes are fixated on the river's far side.

"Carbon dating," she says, but doesn't feel like explaining radioisotopes right now, or what anthropologists do, or what orthodoxy means, or what's a dig. She's upset about the goat.

So she says: "It's a big feud."

"Are you feuding, Dr. Jane?" he asks.

He sounds even fainter.

"I'm not an anthropologist," she says. "I'm an evolutionary geneticist."

She's feuding, though. She resigned after the big blowup over her theory, and that mess on TV news, supposed to be off the record, when she told a reporter the Institute's president apparently thought Boston Science was Cambodia and he was Pol Pot.

It's more than she wants to explain to Skink right now. She probably couldn't explain it to him. She knows he never finished high school.

She thinks to herself: it must be so simple, Skink's world.

Immediately, she's appalled, at her own smugness.

She thinks of her daughter and her sons. Is this why they don't think much of her? They all sided with their fathers. A noise from across the river makes her look over: it's a yell, and the crowd has stopped moving now, and somebody's holding up something, which looks like an axe, painted black.

"What are those people doing?" she asks Skink, and turns to look at him.

He's now leaning against the railing, using it to stay upright, eyes squeezed shut, face pale under a sheen of sweat.

That catfish sandwich, she thinks. Salmonella?

* * *

Skink, perched atop the live oak, looks down at his flesh-self leaning against the dock's rail, flesh eyes tight shut. He's opened his Old Bones eye now. He's gone out.

His pinions stir in the breeze blowing upriver from the Gulf. His talons squeeze his perch, testing, and the branch cracks.

On the dock below, Dr. Jane rushes to his flesh-self, thinking he's stricken.

Skink, looking down, sees her put a palm to his forehead, to feel for fever, sees her concern, fondness. He sees she's exiled here, to her late third husband's Colohappa winter house, a thousand miles south of the Charles, sees she's lonely, sees her ferocity to see what is, although she peers through just a slit, sees her will to do right, what she guesses right, sees all that, then turns his osprey eyes, like telescopes, on Old Mullett.

They've just swung the Black Axe and slaughtered the April Goat.

Bad Deane's sucked the force of it, Skink knows, and now Bad Deane's got the violence in him, and the death.

Bad Deane's flesh-self stands like a statue on the far riverbank, eyes shut, head canted aside. He's gone out.

Skink scans the river, sees him, surging this way, halfway here, triangular head up from the water, black scales glistening in the sunlight, reptile eyes fixed on this dock, on Jane Bantonak, and across the water he hears Bad Deane hiss.


Skink feels the power, knowing Bad Deane aimed for that, to intimidate him, and Skink knows--way down--he is intimidated, because Bad Deane's got all Old Mullett behind him, fearing him, and they live off the shrimp his five boats net at night out on the Gulf, and, even more, the bags of powder delivered by cigarette boats up from the Bahamas, watching for the shrimp boats' lure lights to glide toward them across the black water, to make the exchange.

"Skink--come back!"

He watches the moccasin undulate across the river, toward him, and Skink feels strongly pulled, back to Old Mullett.

Hot sun. Shack-lined streets, smelling of river mud, and fallen palm fronds, and red cedar, and shrimp frying in lard with onions and green peppers on heavy black kitchen spiders. And all those people you've always known, their grievances, passions, envies, feuds, loves, joys, miseries, those strands forever reweaving, and wild liquor nights, amped-up music and fists, talking trash to a man who'd knife you, a thrill in your spine, and all of it twisting back, generation before generation, to the Old Bones, and he's banned, apart now from who he was.

"Come back, Skink--and one day, in my place…."

It comes as a hiss, across the water. Soft.

Skink thinks: why not? Why do it hard?

Just off the dock now, that thick snake body undulates in the tannin-brown water, head up, reptile eyes fixed on Jane Bantonak.

Skink thinks: this isn't my place, all these stuccoed houses, with their sprinkled lawns, clipped and straight edged, even though he now mows most of them, and power hoses their driveways, too, so they won't see any of the black subtropical mold, and fixes their docks when the rot starts, none of it his place, because they see a skinny little Cracker, with no front teeth, talking Cracker, which amuses them, and they tell each other Skink stories, except…

Not her.

She'd fight for a goat.

It's up on the dock now, slithering toward her, wide-open fanged mouth cotton-white inside, but she doesn't see it, can't see it, because she has no Old Bones eye.

Skink does.

He spreads his wings, lifts off, shaking the live oak, eyes riveted on the snake on the dock.

* * *

Jane Bantonak searches her slacks pocket for her iPhone, realizes it's in the house, on her desk, decides to run up the steps and dial 911, because Skink's having a stroke. And just as that thought goes through her mind, she thinks she sees something on the dock, coming toward her, but actually sees nothing. Then she jerks up her chin because the top of the live oak over the dock thrashes, although nothing's up there, either, and she curses herself for a flibbertigibbet, but stands frozen, a deer staring into oncoming headlights, and feels a coldness around her, holding her, something beyond….

"Deoxyribonucleic acid!" she yells.

She almost laughs, because she knows it's like holding up a cross to ward off evil, and she's not even Christian, but then she forgets it and runs up the dock's steps, realizing--just this moment--she has old-lady legs, and her time's almost gone.

Then she's in the house, punching the numbers.

Nine. One. One.

* * *

White-jacketed, young, the doctor frowns at his clipboard: "Where did this snake bite him?"

"On my dock," Jane Bantonak says.

"No, I mean on his body," the doctor says. "I couldn't find the fang marks."

It occurs to her, just now, how much she doesn't know. Something crawled on her dock, and froze her, but she couldn't see it. And something shook that live oak up on top, but she couldn't see it.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio," she says, "than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

"Hamlet," the doctor says.

They exchange a look of mutuality, of shared knowledge. Then she looks at Skink, lying in the hospital bed, pale, with a plastic bottle up on a pole sending a plastic line into his arm, dripping a clear liquid into him, and the doctor sees her looking.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," he says.

Jane looks at him.

"Arthur C. Clarke," he says, and then looks at Skink, asleep in the hospital bed. "Your friend here will be okay, but he'll need another day here, and after that he'll be weak some days."

"He can stay at my place," Jane Bantonak thinks.

And she thinks: "We'll have a lot to talk about."

* * *

Down the hall, in that same hospital, an old man lies dying. Two surgeons stand beside his bed, talking in low voices.

"It's a weird case," says the male surgeon, older, originally from Bangalore. "It's as if something gripped him, hard enough to crack his ulna, and cut into him…"

"But no wounds," says the younger doctor, a woman, blond.

"In India, I've heard of…."

He cuts himself off, fearing his younger colleague will think he's superstitious, not fully emerged from the undeveloped world.

In their green hospital tunics, they stand looking down at the patient, like two Nile ibises, and the patient looks up at them, rapidly fading blue eyes still fierce.

"Can you tell us what happened to you?" the woman says.

He can, for a few minutes more, she sees, but he won't. He just stares up at them, while they try to think what to do, and know there's nothing they can do to help an old man so grievously injured, when they can't see the injuries.

Abruptly, face contorted, the patient does speak, but it comes out as an exhaled whisper.

"What?" says the doctor from India.

Now the patient's face relaxes, to resemble the round face of an infant, as if he's regressed to his start, shedding his life as a snake sheds its skin.

Looking down at the body, brow furrowed in puzzlement, the woman says: "I heard what he said."

She turns up her palms and shrugs, to indicate it makes no sense to her, his final word.



2013 Richard Wolkomir

Bio: Mr. Wolkomir is a long-time contributor of articles and essays to magazines, e.g., Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian, Playboy, National Geographic, now turning to an original interest in speculative fiction, with SF and fantasy stories currently appearing in a variety of publications, including Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. More information at www.richardjoycewolkomir.net.

E-mail: Richard Wolkomir

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