Aphelion Issue 258, Volume 25
February 2021
 
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World's End

by Leslie Edens




The large branch fell before the rains came, in a fit of dryness. The lights were on the edge of the world. We had been waiting for someone to share this with, and then he came, a lone man wandering in from the forest's darkness, on the edge of forgetfulness, dressed in rags and dreads and other fringe bits.

The rains came, and the rains pounded. The dark trees ringing our cabin dripped steadily, heavy droplets from their overgrown arms, their ornamented branches. The man was sitting with coffee, his hands on the table's edge, ready to stay or take flight. We poured, my brother and I. My skirts dragged the dusty wooden floor.

"How long have you lived in this cabin?" he asked.

I stirred a pan of eggs.

"We've been here forever," I said, shrugging. "You know how it is."

"We inherited the cabin when we were young," said my brother, and he shrugged too.

"It sure gets dark early this far north," the man commented, because we were on the 59th parallel.

The man's name was Nome. The rains died to a trickle, and we discussed the impending task of clearing away the branch.

"It's a large one. Almost like an entire tree. Have you got a chain saw?" he asked.

We had an axe, and a maul to hit it with.

"That's harder. But I can handle it," he said. He breathed in and out, folded his hands into themselves. Like a tiny prayer.

"Good," I said, and my brother nodded. We were pleased. This business should be taken care of quite soon.

"Surprised you didn't clear it away yourselves," he said as he headed out to our modest porch.

"Oh, we're getting on in years," I assured him. "I know we may not look it. Good genes. Barton threw out his back some years ago and hasn't been the same since."

"Yeah, well, the lack of sunlight don't hurt. Folks down south get wrinkled up pretty quick. I came north in my twenties. Haven't looked back," he said. He lit a cigarette.

Inside, Barton lit incense.

I sat next to the man on our gnarled rocking chair, constructed from bits of old wood found around the place. I rocked, a creak back and forth. There was no rush, and nothing to hurry about. This business would be taken care of soon enough.

Barton put on a record, a Tibetan chant.

"I hope you don't mind spiritual music," he called out the door.

"Naw. Nice to hear any music at all," said Nome. He smoked.

The record repeated, repeated, repeated the chant. I felt my eyelids grow drowsy. I could feel the state coming on, like my tongue had sunk into my mouth, my eyes had sunk lower. And the world was starting to change.

"I'd better get to it. Don't want to lose the light," the man said. He stood up, stretched, yawned. "It sure does get dark around here early."

I nodded, and my brother nodded from inside. I heard him drag his feet to the door. He felt the change as well.

I tasted the coffee. It had gone stale. That much time had passed. The man shambled toward the outbuildings, at ease. Unaware of any changes, unaware of the shining world around. I raised my eyebrows at Barton, and he smiled.

The outbuildings were really just shacks and lean-to's, some of them put up in less than a day. They held a variety of tools, and they held back the wilderness that surrounded our small plot. Thanks to them, we knew where the boundaries lay.

The man started to stroll off the property into the woods. We had only an outhouse, and I think he meant to take a piss. I nudged Bart.

"Don't go far," Bart called to him. "There's sinkholes down that way."

"Right." The man's voice was muffled in tree branches. The chant repeated, sank into the softness of firs, melted into the draping cedars. How much had they kept for us, these trees, cradling their needled arms? How much to come?

The world was changing slowly, and then in fits and starts. I sat back, creaked, watched it change. Barton sat on the armrest of the rocker, creaked, watched with me. We waited like that for a while. Not speaking.

The man stumbled back, crossed the clearing between the outbuildings and the house. With him, he lugged the axe and maul. He rounded the house, humming softly to himself in time with the chants.

The branch had fallen before our front doorway, nearly obscuring the house. For some months, it hadn't mattered much. Not many came to call.


*****



When Nome first appeared, walking out of the woods, he might not have seen the cabin, so thick lay the foliage of the fallen branch. But from behind flickered our lights. He ran as if to save us from a fire. Then we came out on the porch, and the flicker, as he approached, died away. He stopped, a look of confusion.

"Hello there, friend!" said Barton. "You look like you seen a ghost."

Nome glanced from me to my brother and back.

"Thought I saw fire in this old cabin," he said, his voice still dry.

"Oh, there's a fire here, all right. Care to come inside? Warm yourself," I said, laughing.

Our witch-lights sometimes drew people in, made a beacon like that.

"Thank you. I've been hiking awhile. I'd love a good fire," he said. "Name's Nome. Like the town in Alaska." He came in amiably enough, almost like he'd forgotten what he saw.

"You believe in otherworldly spirits, Nome?" asked Barton.

Nome shrugged.

"I've never seen anything to convince me," he said.

"Of course, if you haven't seen," I said, setting a glass of water before him. "Why would a body believe what they hadn't seen?"

"Now if I saw—" He took a giant gulp of water then, his furry Adam's apple bobbing. He swallowed, continued. "That'd be a whole different matter."

"We've seen things around here," said Barton. "Things hard to explain."

"All too easy," I put in. "The witch-lights."

"Sure, there's a legend," said Barton. "You can get a flyer about it from the Chamber of Commerce if you hike that way about fifty miles. Provided the town's still there."

We both laughed. It had been a long time since we'd been out that way, and neither of us was sure it still existed. But Nome looked spooked.

"Why wouldn't it be there?" he asked, peering into the crevices of our walls, the corners of our ceiling, where shadows moved and came and went.

"Just the legends say eventually, in the fullness of time, the witch-lights will envelop the town. Envelop the world. That's the extent of what they know about it. But I can tell you a little more," said Barton.

Barton could tell him a lot more. Almost everything. I grinned widely. I knew he wouldn't. A storyteller, Barton. He'd take the man right up to the edge, get him all hot and bothered, then leave him to stew. Masterful. A real artist. Nome would be pissing his pants by morning. If morning came.

"I'll make us omelets," I said, and Barton wove his story web. I listened, half in and half out of the kitchen. I loved to hear him tell a tale.

"If you go into town to get that flyer from the Chamber of Commerce," said Barton, "It'll tell you about the witch-light legends. Some people call them will o' the wisp. Say it's swamp gas or some damn thing. There's even people that calls them aliens. They had a fair kerfuffle some years back trying to start up a tourist business, showing people the lights. Didn't last long."

"Why not?" asked Nome. I presented him with a chair, and he sat at the table, took the coffee I handed over.

"Disappearances. Disturbances. Fires, both real and false. That's a part of the legend too. It is said that anyone who tries to investigate the lights, who purposely tries to get too close, will succumb to their power. And that, I reckon, is what happened. These are not friendly lights."

Barton got up and poured himself some coffee, then he poured more for Nome.

"Many years past, when the town was just starting up, a rival town grew up in this very location. Right around here."

"Here? You mean, here here?" The man pointed to the floor.

"Right here. The head of the town, the mayor, was a strong, determined woman who had come north to make her way. Mae Felding. She's buried around these parts, or might be, if a sinkhole hasn't taken the grave." He winked at me over the man's shocked expression. "And the other town was headed up by a man name of Lightwood. A sort of magician fella. He was known to spend a lot of time on parlor tricks, though toward the end, he got more interested in the mystical. Tried to contact the dead, that sort of thing."

I snorted. I'd always thought Lightwood's interest in sťances a foolish occupation when he had a real flesh-and-blood town to tend to.

"Over the years, the two towns turned rivals. There weren't many residents, and each town tried to attract more people. It went back and forth. One year, the swamps would flood and everyone ran for Lightwood's town, which was higher and drier. Next year, mysterious deaths would occur among the animals or crops would dry up, and everyone returned to Mae Felding's town. So it went, year after year. Then... that's when the witch-lights first came into play.

Nobody is sure who started them. Some say for certain, Lightwood called forth evil spirits, with all his dabbling in spiritualism. But it wasn't so cut and dried. Many had seen Mae Felding working strange arts under the full moon at midnight on a barren hill, or concocting brews out of swamp water and crushed bones, and that wasn't the worst of it. Mae Felding had a strange floating light herself that she kept in her house, and several witnesses had seen her talking to it, directing it—like it was her familiar."

Nome sat at attention, his coffee cup dry, and I could tell Barton had him. I poured him another cup, and he jumped, came out of it a bit.

"Regardless of who started it, the lights did funny things. Lured in travelers." Barton nodded at Nome. "Led away animals and drove them into the swamp. Ushered in a bad mist that made everyone sick. There's one report of everybody in Mae Felding's town seeing spirits at midnight. Another of people in Lightwood's town being called from their homes by the voices of lost loved ones. Each time, those lights were at play. Whoever loosed them, soon they affected everyone in both towns."

"So what'd they do about it?" asked Nome. He chuckled, but his eyes were wide now, staring at Barton.

"Who says they did anything? But you're right. They tried. Mae Felding and Lightwood put their differences aside for the good of their respective towns. They called in a seer—one of Lightwood's favorites—and they held a cleansing ritual. Both mayors participated, since neither would admit to starting the trouble. They intended to hold two rituals: one in each town. But it so happened Lightwood's town was the more populated at the time, so they began there. They called the witch-lights, and the seer tried to cast them out, send them back to the beyond. But so many came—more and more—and then, as if they recognized them, the lights began to pass into Mae Felding and Lightwood, to inhabit their bodies. And as they were possessing them, do you know what they said?"

Nome shook his head, eyes glued to Barton's face.

"Speaking through the mayors' bodies, the witch-lights said 'We will take the towns, and so we will take this world.' Then the lights disappeared, and left behind the bodies of Mae Felding and Lightwood, all dried up and quite, quite dead. So everyone hoped their retribution was complete. And indeed, for some time after, the lights were seldom seen in Lightwood town. Mae Felding's town was another matter. It was so thickly clustered with witch-lights, anyone who had a mind to stay there soon went insane and ran into the swamp or fell in a sinkhole. Eventually, all had to move to Lightwood town, and Mae Felding's town was no more."

Barton thumped his hand on the table, and Nome jumped.

"This was right here?" Nome said, glancing around at our plain walls, our modest furniture.

"Right on this very spot." Barton's smile stretched wide. He had him, he really had him. I had to hand it to my brother.

Nome let out a big sigh, then he grinned too.

"That's some tale! You had me going there. I even thought I saw something earlier, like fire-lights, when I came up to your house."

Barton nodded.

"Well, there's probably some truth behind the legend," he said. "Just a bit. People do see strange lights in these forests. S'pose it probably is just swamp gas after all." And he laughed, and Nome laughed. We all had a good laugh. Then Barton's face turned thoughtful.

"But you know. Thing is, they called this town, the one that used to be here, World's Edge. The town on the edge of the world. Not the edge of the continent, surely. But the edge of the natural. And there's something to that. This area. We don't go past the far property line much, beyond the outbuildings."

Nome smirked, thinking he was being kidded. "Thought there were sinkholes."

"Oh, there's sinkholes, all right. Both physical... and the other kind. If I were you, I'd walk the other direction when you leave," said Bart, and his eyes glinted serious, not a hint of mirth.

Nome looked from Barton to me, and I nodded. "Listen to my brother. Go back the way you came. We'll put you up one night in exchange for getting this big tree limb out of the way. But after that, you have got to return. The spirits won't rest easy with this disturbance for long."


*****



Bart and I listened to the man work, slamming the axe deep into the wood, the heavy thunk of the maul. Nome worked hard, and we could nearly taste his sweat. I licked my lips and watched the trees on the property line shimmer. I watched each needle move in the breeze. From the forest, over the property line, mist drifted, each tiny particle of moisture visible. Meditation kicking in. The world had fully changed, and now all things were happening, and all things were possible. The chant continued, and Nome worked in time to it, thunking along with each chime, each beat. Openings in the world now visible to us; witch-lights dotted the grass, flocked the skies, hung thickly through the trees. So many sinkholes. So many places for a spirit to get in.

Barton and I waited on the rocking chair, staring fixed and frozen, then remembering to breathe. Our rocking continued in time. The creaking sent shivers through me, as did the thunk-thunk-thunk, as did the chants, as did the gentle whisper of the breeze that blew the witch-lights forth, around the house, toward the man chopping wood with an axe and a maul.

He would not need to believe, for he would see.

His screams sounded fine music, and when we rounded the corner, we found him with the maul bounced off his head. We hummed our approval to the ones all around. The ones who came to us from beyond the edge. Now we would brew fine concoctions and call forth more of the same. The man's death would feed them, and so we could keep on. Keep on sharing this beautiful, shining world with all our brothers and sisters. I held out my hands, allowed them to buzz through me, inhabit me, fire me, and enliven me. I am very little without them and dead sure, a mere memory of a woman once strong and hearty, gravestone with the name Mae Felding sunk somewhere deep into the swamp.

And my brother, Barton Lightwood. Known for his ability to mesmerize with magic as well as tales. So many foolish arguments we'd put behind us now that we'd come to be here on the World's Edge, swimming with witch-lights and complete, perfect at last.

We bent toward Nome's body, fell groping toward it, allowed our lights to leave us and feed. So for a time we lay still, crumpled and shriveled on the forest floor together as we had that day after the last sťance. Our witch-lights—spirit-lights, really—clustered on the man's form until he collapsed into the fetid earth, sinking, flattening. Still they nudged at him, until only a silhouette remained, a man-pattern in the dirt, a fading form that rain and wind and spirit-lights would soon wash away.


*****



The world was bedraggled and damp when we went out many hours later. Not much to it. Nome was gone. Things were normal—no lights, no shine.

"We'll have to start again," said Barton, and I agreed. It had all gone extremely well. Our strength was growing, and I felt optimistic. The branch was mostly cleared away. The lights awaited on the edge of the world.

Maybe in a month or so—time aplenty, no rush—we'd visit Lightwood town.



THE END


© 2021 Leslie Edens

Bio: A resident of Bellingham, Washington, I run a freelance editing business and edit the work of indie writers, and I have self-published thirteen novels in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and humorous horror. My website is www.spectricity.net. I am also a regular at the Village Books open mic and in local NaNoWriMo events.

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