Aphelion Issue 296, Volume 28
July 2024 --
 
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Porch Song

by Jim Wright




Mrs. Corrigan sat on Miss Neti’s porch, stitching her embroidery. The summer evening was pleasantly cool, with faint breezes that promised rain. Across the street, heat lightning flashed over the treetops. Moths bumped and fluttered around the electric light. You could tell even at night that the levee was close by, she thought, because of that river smell, like a wet dog.

Mrs. Corrigan was a widow. She spent most of her days in mild melancholy, remembering dead relatives and friends.

But you never felt alone at Miss Neti’s. Most every night, she could be found on her porch, greeting visitors from her rocking chair. Miss Neti had lived in this house as long as anyone could remember. There were some who swore that she had been a lovely belle in Farnsville during the War of Secession so many years ago.

Miss Neti always wore a blue cotton dress with an apron more patches than original cloth. She was small and plump and had strong cheekbones. Her white hair was short and spikey, with a twisty cowlick. She was quick to laugh, in a fusillade that sounded sharp and merry as a blue jay: Ha! Ha! Ha!

Most of all, Miss Neti liked to sing, humming and crooning in a low, off-key voice. Mrs. Corrigan discovered that, whenever she was feeling blue, she always found deep comfort in this aimless porch music. She imagined she could hear in Miss Neti’s wavering, improvised notes the simple majesty of church plainsong and the soothing hope of a future reunion with loved ones she had lost.

Mrs. Corrigan heard a piping “Hello, Miss Neti!” from the sidewalk. Howard Laney bounded up the steps. Howard was a boy who got into a fair share of mischief in his free time. Now he stood on the porch practically hopping with excitement: “Have you heard the news? Somebody got shot tonight down on Main Street!”

Miss Neti put a hand to her mouth and frowned.

“Goodness, how terrible!” Mrs. Corrigan said. “What happened?”

“That’s all I know,” said Howard with a shrug. “Some guy got shot. My dad just heard it from Mr. Ryerson.”

“Oh dear,” said Mrs. Corrigan. “My niece Annabelle works at the fabric store down there.”

“Well, gotta go,” Howard interrupted. “I am spreading the news—bye!” He hopped from the porch, arms spread like an airplane, and ran off down the street.

Mrs. Corrigan turned to Miss Neti. “I should call my niece. Will you be alright, dear?”

“Run along, honey,” said Miss Neti in a whispery voice. “You know I’ll be fine.”

Mrs. Corrigan stowed the embroidery in her bag and hurried down the steps.

Alone on the porch, Miss Neti picked up an empty canning jar, unscrewed the lid, and set it in her lap. She began softly to sing a nameless, shifting tune. As she sang, her chair rocked back and forth like the shuttle of a loom.

******

Aaron Boyd peered at a scrap of paper on the table. In the half-light of his cell, he recited in a mumble the syllables copied in prim script on the slip. At the top was written Spell of the Lost. Each time Aaron came to the end of the recitation, he scratched a mark on the whitewashed wall with a pencil stub. It was late morning on a sticky July day, but Aaron felt a small shiver as he chanted the guttural syllables again and again.

The everyday sounds of Farnsville State Prison echoed down the cellblock corridor. At dawn, the clang of cell doors and shuffle of inmates had signaled roll call and breakfast. Later, a swell and ebb of voices, laughing, cursing, outside the window of his cell meant that the prisoners had gathered in the yard and then trooped off on their work details. Today, though, there was a new, disturbing clamor. Out in the yard, hammers banged. Saws rasped. Footsteps thumped on wood. He was eager to look out at what was being built, but the window was set too high on the wall to reach.

Aaron heard the slam of the entry door to the cellblock and the hard click of wingtip shoes approaching, regular as a metronome. He reached over, slid the paper under his bunk pillow, and swung his chair toward the door. A small man approached, trailed by a taller figure walking three steps behind. The small man came up to the cell door, gripped the bars, and grinned. It was Warden Spengler, dressed in a dapper blue seersucker suit. Spectacles magnified his watery eyes as if he were goggling through a fishbowl. Behind the warden stood Officer Pigniola, a big shambling guard with a taste for beating inmates. Everyone called him Pignuts behind his back.

“Morning, Gator,” the warden said. Aaron nodded.

Pignuts tapped the cell door with his baton. “On your feet for the warden, Gator.”

The warden waved a hand. “Never mind that, Officer Pigniola, The man’s got a lot on his mind today.”

“Big night ahead,” he said to Aaron. “Thought I’d pay a visit, see if you had any questions about how things are going to go.” Aaron remained silent.

“Lemme tell you,” said the warden, “that gallows that they’re finishing up in the yard is a beautiful piece of work. Yellow pine. Twenty-three steps to the platform. That gives you a fifteen-foot straight drop if you need it.”

The warden looked appraisingly at Aaron. “But you weigh at least 180—a seven-foot drop’ll be plenty. Yessir.”

Aaron looked at him.

“We got some special rope for the job,” said the warden, rubbing his hands. “It’s been boiled so’s it don’t stretch, and they waxed it so’s it’ll slide easy through the knot. You won’t feel a thing, probably. Plus, they’re going to put a bag over your head.”

The warden jabbed a thumb toward Pignuts. “Officer Pigniola will come by at 11:30 to walk you to the yard. Should be over just after midnight.”

“You got questions?”

Aaron shook his head.

The warden hesitated, then reached into his suit pocket, pulled out a small Bible, and stuck it through the bars. “Here, take this, Gator.” Aaron did not move. “Holy Scripture. You got a lot to answer for to your Creator.”

Aaron stared at the ground and shook his head again: “Don’t want it.”

The warden’s face reddened. He tucked the Bible back in his pocket. “Well, here’s a weather report, Gator: Where you’re going, tomorrow’s gonna be a hot one.” Pignuts snorted a laugh.

The warden’s grin widened: “I’m just having a little fun with you. Don’t take it the wrong way.”

Aaron squinted at the warden. “When this is over, maybe I’ll come back to have some fun with you,” he said.

The warden laughed in small barks. “Where you’re going, son, there’s no return ticket.” He pushed away from the cell door. “See you tonight, Gator. Don’t be late.”

Aaron tilted back in his chair and watched the warden click briskly down the corridor, followed by the shadowy bulk of Pignuts. A vein in his head throbbed. Then Aaron thought about the coming night and felt again in his guts that squirming worm of fear. His palms grew sweaty, and the spit dried up in his mouth as he imagined the judgment that waited in the murky realm on the other side of the noose.

He was a tough guy with steady hands, no coward. Ask anybody. He had earned the nickname Gator because he was relentless—he could take any amount of punishment and always come back at you, looking to even the score. Aaron was a criminal, sure, but above all, he was a professional. Take that guy he’d dropped with an icepick in Ohio when he tried to double-cross Aaron on a shipment of bootleg liquor. Or the old man he garroted in Tennessee to claim the insurance. In his line of work, people sometimes got broken. Regrettable, but unavoidable. Even the bank guard he’d shot in the head, the rap they were going to hang him for, was a dope who’d had no business reaching for his gun during the stickup.

But Aaron winced remembering that time when he was on the run in Oklahoma and had his way with a waitress he’d met at a diner. Things somehow got out of hand. It was more the liquor’s fault than his. He never got nailed for it but read all the newspaper articles about her disappearance. If it counted for anything, he felt bad about what he had done. But when he passed over, he would face a hard, hard judgment for it, he knew.

By afternoon, the cell was heating up under the relentless sun and Aaron felt rivulets of sweat trickle down his chest. He heard inmates in the yard, returning from their work assignments. Aaron finished another recitation of the spell and paused to count the tally marks on the wall: 94. Tedious work. Thinking of the spell brought to mind Larissa. He had only recently met this woman. Yet she had had somehow convinced him to spend the last fleeting moments of his life engaged in what was surely the quest of an idiot.

Two months ago, Aaron had been in the middle of appealing his murder conviction when he was transferred to Farnsville Prison. The local newspaper wrote a string of colorful stories casting him as a romantic desperado. Soon, he was getting a flood of mash notes from lonely women.

One day, Benny Nokes, an inmate on mail detail, stopped by Aaron’s cell shaking his head.

“Gator,” he said, handing over an envelope. “Here’s an oddball letter.” The envelope was addressed to “Mr. Aaron ‘Gator’ Boyd, Inmate”. Its front was covered with tiny, precisely penned wedge shapes.

Aaron tore open the letter and pulled out a typed sheet of onion-skin paper and a small photograph of a woman with a big smile and anxious eyes. He studied the picture for a long while. Then he turned to the letter:

‘Mr. Boyd,

I write you as a friend. I am sure that you are guilty of all the crimes of which you are accused. Yet, looking at your picture in the newspaper, I see in your eyes that you can feel remorse.

I am a research assistant in the Department of Ancient Languages at Farnsville University. Recently, I was translating some of the earliest clay tablets in our collection from the Akkadian Empire and came upon a series of spells to summon the dead back to life. I cannot share details in this letter but am convinced by many signs that these spells hold real power. I have told no one of my discovery.

I know that my words must sound crazy. But Mr. Boyd, I fear that you will fail in your appeal and soon face execution. If there is even the slenderest possibility that you can invoke this old magic to survive your coming death, you owe it to yourself to take the chance.

Please allow me to meet with you to share my secrets. There is no time to lose!

Sincerely,

Larissa Hartnett

PS. I have copied a Babylonian spell of oblivion on the front of the envelope to shield the contents of this letter from the Watchers.’

Aaron smiled to himself as he recalled putting down the letter, exhaling deeply, and shaking his head. Psycho. But that same day, Aaron learned that his appeal had been denied and the execution date was now set. He lay awake all night thinking about her words. Why not take the chance? The nutso ramblings of a stranger were his only glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak future. Plus, she was good-looking. The next day, he added Larissa to his visiting list and sent her a postcard inviting her to the prison.

He was interrupted in his thoughts when Officer Dempsey shuffled up to the cell. Dempsey was a short emphysemic with a spreading belly and a face like an exhausted potato. Aaron quickly pocketed the spell.

“You got a visitor, Gator.” Dempsey winked. “Your lady friend, Miss Hartnett.” Aaron stood and stepped to the cell door.

Dempsey pulled out handcuffs. “I’ll have to put these on ya,” he said. “You’re on deathwatch. So’s we got to use the cuffs. You know, for security.”

Aaron looked at the cuffs and spat on the floor. “They shouldn’t push a guy on his last day, goddamnit” he said. “It ain’t right.” But he slowly turned toward the window and held his wrists behind his back. “Go ahead, you can cuff me.”

As Dempsey walked him down the corridor toward the visiting room, Aaron wondered how Larissa would carry herself in their final meeting. In the last two weeks, she had been to visit twice. She was a tall woman, with auburn hair pulled back in a tight bun. When Aaron first met her, he could see in her eyes that she had fallen hard for him and felt a flush of pride.

But she took charge right away. Larissa had an urgent, breathless way of talking, as if she might fend off disaster through words alone. She dictated a set of rituals to complete on his last day on earth that seemed like lunacy. Read aloud exactly one hundred times the spell she had copied out for him. Dab his blood on a scrap of paper and burn it. Eat only bread and water---the ‘pilgrim’s meal’. Whenever he asked for explanations, she would slide her eyes around the visiting room and say that she could tell him nothing more, because the Watchers might be hovering near.

And yet—Aaron had to admit that Larissa had made the wasting seconds of this terminal day more bearable. Her goofy faith in the power of some ancient magic; the mind-numbing recitations of gibberish she had assigned; a chance to visit with her one more time, look at her body, and know that at least she would grieve his death—these distractions held his fear at bay.

He and Dempsey exited through the large steel door of the cellblock. Crossing over to the administration wing, Aaron saw with a stab of anxiety how the sunshine streaming through the skylights cast long, slanted rectangles onto the polished floor. Late afternoon already!

Dempsey marched him straight to the far side of the cavernous hall and unlocked a door marked “Visitor Booth: Private.”

As the door swung open, Aaron saw Larissa seated on the other side of the glass. She wore a simple short-sleeved white cotton dress. Her hair fell around her shoulders today. She looked smaller and more vulnerable than he had remembered. Her eyes were moist. Dempsey unlocked his handcuffs, and Aaron sat at the counter. He and Larissa touched fingertips through the small gap between the glass panel and the countertop while Dempsey stood in the doorway with his back to them.

“Hello, baby,” said Aaron. “Long time, no see.” A spasm of emotion crossed Larissa’s face. She took a breath.

“Aaron, my darling,” she said in a quiet voice. She peeked at Dempsey to check that he was out of earshot. Her voice picked up in velocity as she asked—had Aaron recited the spell a hundred times, had he burned the blood-paper as sacrifice yet, did he know that she thought of him every waking moment and would always belong only to him?

Aaron stammered out answers. For the rest of the visit, he and Larissa caressed each other’s fingers and said little. The woman’s eyes were downcast and glistened with tears. Aaron tried to look distraught. But he found himself shooting hungry, sidelong glances through the glass at Larissa. Then he would think of his approaching hanging and his heart would hammer.

At last, Dempsey cleared his throat. “Time’s up, Gator,” he said gently. He bowed his head toward Larissa and touched his cap. “My respects to you, miss.” Aaron stood, and Dempsey reattached the cuffs. Larissa pressed close to the glass. She put on a tense, wavering smile.

“After… it’s over, you can count on me. To take care of everything,” she said, a tremor in her voice. ”Stay strong, my love. I’ll be waiting for you at the other side.” She blew him a kiss. He left her framed in the window of the visitor’s booth, her tear-stained face reflecting something like elation.

Aaron came back to his cell to find his requested last meal laid out on the table—three slices of white bread and a tin cup of water. Drained of energy, he lay on his bunk and listened to the familiar soundtrack of the prison, the clang of doors, the flush of a water pipe, snatches of conversation from the guard station. Regret pooled in his chest as he imagined being cut off forever from these sounds, once so ordinary, now so precious.

He turned over in his head the last undone tasks to clear the path to his soul’s return. The work seemed stupid, pointless. But the thought needled Aaron that, improbable as they were, these magic rituals were his only possible escape clause from death and the dark reckoning to follow. After a time, he pulled himself off the bunk and slumped in the chair. He fished the spell from his pocket, smoothed it on the table, and again recited the alien stream of sounds. After each reading, he scratched another mark on the wall.

When the tally reached 99, Aaron groped under his mattress for a sewing pin. He jabbed his forefinger, watching the blood rise like a wet red jewel, and held it over the written spell until two drops fell and were wicked up by the paper. Aaron tucked a match behind his ear and recited the spell a hundredth time. Finishing, he struck the match into flame and lit a corner of the paper. It flared on the tabletop and burned to ash, a wisp of smoke curling skyward as if tracing the path of spirits.

It must now be early evening, judging by the light from the window. Aaron took a bite from a slice of bread on the table and chewed mechanically. It shifted around his mouth like scrap cloth. He took a swallow of water and lay down on the bunk. He willed himself to remember that he was a tough guy, that he did not back down from any fight, that he always came back hitting hard…

The click and scrape of the cell door jarred Aaron awake. The room was now dark. Pignuts stood just inside his cell, holding a flashlight and grinning. Behind him were three other guards from the night shift, their faces indistinct in the faint light of the corridor.

“Out of bed, Gator,” said Pignuts. “It’s showtime.”

As the fog of sleep cleared, Aaron felt a thrill of anger shoot through his body. The thought flashed of how glad he was that Pignuts would march him to the gallows. His hatred of this slouching, brutal, mocking prick would animate him, help him to maintain composure, allow him to step off the stage of this world with the dignity of an outlaw.

Cuffed and in leg irons, Aaron walked slowly through the empty corridors of Farnsville Prison with his four-guard escort. As he passed other cells, faint rustlings told Aaron that inmates were watching him through the screen of darkness. They passed in procession through the archway of the outer door and down the steps into the prison yard. Aaron smelled the soft, seductive scent of honeysuckle, an odor so jarringly beautiful that it brought tears to his eyes.

The yard was lit with floodlights. In its center between the two wings of the prison stood the high gallows. At its base, Warden Spengler huddled in conversation with a white-haired preacher and two guards. About twenty chairs had been lined up in rows near the gallows steps. Aaron recognized a reporter in the front row, but the other seated guests were blurred in the glare, like a tribunal of angels. At his approach, the preacher walked up to him waving a Bible, but backed away at Aaron’s scowl.

The warden looked at his watch. He cleared his throat, faced the seated visitors, and delivered introductory remarks that Aaron could not hear. The warden turned and asked if Aaron had any last words. Aaron said nothing. After a pause, the warden nodded at Pignuts.

“Up,” said Pignuts. Aaron looked at the flight of stairs to the scaffold.

“Lot of steps, ain’t there, Gator?” said Pignuts with a snicker. “Bet you never thought you’d have to climb halfway to Heaven to go to Hell.” He poked Aaron hard with his baton. Aaron clumped up the stairs in his jingling chains, stepping onto a broad platform at the top. There he was met by a trim, polite man with glossy hair who looked like the counterman at a drugstore. The man led Aaron onto a chalked X on the floor with a noose suspended overhead. The man pulled the noose down over Aaron’s head and tightened the waxed length of rope until it snugly gripped his neck. Aaron looked down over the lit yard at the spectators tilting their heads toward him. He was a tough guy, Aaron told himself. A tough guy. A very tough guy. He stood tall; shoulders thrown back.

The man dropped a sack over his head. In the darkness, Aaron’s eyes swam with afterimages of the fierce lights. A dog barked. Somebody intoned a loud prayer to the Lord Jesus. A fire engine raced down a far street, its siren a faint warble. Then—whoosh, the trapdoor opened, and Aaron fell away through a tearing flash of light.

******

The woman lay on the embalming table, a sheet pulled up to her neck. Don Maroney applied Cherry Blossom lipstick to her mouth with light, confident strokes. He stepped back to study his handiwork. In life, Mabe Stillwell had been hard featured, with a vinegar personality. But the undertaker’s makeup softened the contours of her face to create the illusion that she had found peace. The viewing was not until tomorrow afternoon. Plenty of time in the morning to dress her and place her in the casket.

As Mr. Maroney stacked the cosmetics in the storage box, he looked over at a coffin of unfinished pine boards propped on sawhorses in the far corner of the prep room. Its lid was ajar. Hank and Beeb had brought the coffin in early that afternoon. It contained the body of a convict from Farnsville Prison who had been hanged the night before. Mr. Maroney wrinkled his nose. Times were tough, so Maroney Funeral Home took in any business it could, but the contract to bury inmates from the prison was a nuisance. It barely covered the cost of dumping the bodies into pauper’s graves.

And this one—Boyd was his name—was as cold-blooded as they come. He had read an article about the hanging in the morning paper. The reporter described how Boyd had shown no regret for his crimes and even refused the prayers of a clergyman. Mr. Maroney thought with contempt of the proud criminal brought low. Now, Boyd’s body lay in a dingy box, just a shell of decaying flesh, even as his soul surely suffered indescribable torments in Hell. The undertaker’s eyes crinkled with pleasure.

He heard the repeating thud of the brass knocker at the front door. He looked at his watch. 8:21 pm. Who could it be at this hour? There were no wakes scheduled for tonight. He gingerly pulled the sheet over the woman’s face to protect her makeup. Mr. Maroney straightened his tie, rolled down his sleeves, buttoned his cuffs, and shrugged on his suitcoat. He came out of the prep room and walked through the east viewing room. Reaching the vestibule, he snapped on the outside light, and opened the door.

A woman stood there, tall, attractive, her flowing hair in some disarray. She wore a simple white blouse and navy skirt with low heels. He recognized her expression from a thousand funerals—dazed, grieving, with sunken hollows beneath her eyes.

“May I help you?” he said. The woman looked at him as if trying to focus.

“My name is Larissa Hartnett,” she said finally in a whispery voice. “Are you Mr. Maroney?” He nodded, with a questioning look.

“I don’t mean to impose,” she said, the tempo of her voice increasing “But I wonder if I could come inside for just a moment.”

“Whatever for?”

“I was told that your funeral home is… is handling the burial arrangements for the body of my fiancé, Aaron Boyd,” said the woman. Mr. Maroney stiffened.

“I would like to ask—” Her voice tightened and jumped a half-octave. “I beg you, Mr. Maroney, to let me see my Aaron one last time. To say my goodbyes. Oh, it would mean so much!” She ended with a tiny sob and looked away, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief.

Mr. Maroney felt a blush of irritation flame across his face and bury itself in the roots of his thinning hair. Damn that prison. The instructions on the release form they sent with Boyd’s body had specifically directed him to bury it tomorrow in Potter’s Field. No headstone, no mourners. And no profit, he thought bitterly. Yet, this complication was standing on his doorstep, a gangster’s girlfriend seeking his most professional attention and sympathy, no doubt without expecting to pay a nickel for it.

He adjusted his spectacles and hardened his heart to shoo her away. Then he noticed that, in her grief, the woman had neglected to fasten the top two buttons of her blouse. He gazed down at the swell of her breasts and felt a wave of charity. He sucked in his stomach as best he could.

“Yes, Miss Hartnett, of course. We can certainly allow you a few minutes with the… deceased. Won’t you come in?”

He held the door while the woman slipped past. He led the way past the cut flowers in the vestibule and through the viewing room with its couches and chairs upholstered in blue velvet. As they entered the prep room, Mr. Maroney saw the woman’s eyes take in the bright overhead work-lights, the cement floor and drain, the covered body on the embalming table. Her nostrils flared and he realized that she was smelling the formaldehyde that he had long ago ceased to notice.

“I am sorry, Miss,” he said in his most unctuous baritone. “You have my sincerest sympathy. I know this room is spartan and not what you deserve in your time of mourning. Mr. Boyd’s body is over here.” He approached the coffin, lifted the lid off with both hands, and leaned it against a wall. He bowed his head as Larissa came up to the coffin.

Aaron Boyd’s body was still dressed in its gray prison uniform. It lay slightly crooked and tilted to one side, as if it had been dumped carelessly into the box. One eye was half-open and the other closed in a frozen wink. Its lips were blue. The livid tip of a tongue poked out between the teeth. A purple ligature mark ringed the neck.

Mr. Maroney expected the woman to dissolve into hysterics at the sight. Instead, Miss Hartnett’s eyes grew wide with apparent fascination. She approached the body, looked it over, and lightly touched its cheek and forehead. She turned to Mr. Maroney.

“You have been so kind already. Could I impose on you for one more favor…could I have just a few minutes alone with my fiancé?” A single tear started down her cheek.

Mr. Maroney had been unsettled by the intensity of the woman’s gaze as she studied the corpse. But at the sight of her tear, he ducked his head in a bow, murmured “Of course, Miss. I’ll be next door if you need me,” and slid out of the room with the grace of a butler.

The woman waited for the click of the door, then opened her purse to remove a sheet of paper and a small cloth bag. She placed the bag on the corpse’s chest and unfolded the sheet. It was filled with neatly copied cuneiform symbols and the heading Spell of the Found. In a low voice, the woman chanted the ancient syllables from the sheet, her eyes occasionally straying to the face of the corpse. She paused in her recitation and carefully opened the drawstring of the bag. The woman shook some dirt from the bag onto her palm and sprinkled a bit onto the mouth of the corpse. She finished reading the spell.

The woman waited expectantly. But there was no sign that the spell had worked any change in the body. Five more minutes passed. The corpse lay stiff, inert, regarding her with its mocking wink. She heard a clock ticking on the wall and Mr. Maroney clearing his throat in the other room. Her face registered impatience, worry, and, gradually, an expression of dawning despair.

And then she saw it—a luminous white moth the size of a silver dollar perched on the brow of the corpse. It had simply appeared. The moth flexed its wings in a slow, fanning motion, as though resting after a long journey. The door opened and Mr. Maroney stepped in, his face radiating concern.

“Are you all right, Miss Hartnett?” he said solicitously. He saw the moth.

“Goddamn blowfly!” He snatched a flyswatter from the wall and rushed the coffin. The woman gave a stifled cry as he smacked the corpse’s forehead with the swatter. Ahead of the stroke, the moth fluttered into jittery flight to hover near the ceiling, staying just out of reach of the undertaker’s determined flailing. When Mr. Maroney paused for a moment to catch his breath, the moth swooped down and landed on his lapel. The woman watched in wonder as the creature seemed to melt away into the worsted wool of the man’s suitcoat. Mr. Maroney slapped his palms in panicky thumps against his chest, still trying to crush the vanished moth.

And then Mr. Maroney froze. He dropped the flyswatter. His face contorted, reflecting confusion and fear. His expression went blank. The man breathed in deeply, as if savoring the air. Finally, his features assumed a playful, conspiratorial look. Mr. Maroney eyed Ms. Hartnett with a knowing smile and winked.

“Hello, baby,” he said in a gravelly voice. “Long time, no see.”

******

From the scaffold, the death-spirit that once was Aaron Boyd plunged into a place beyond all light or hope. Mocking voices with tongues of whirling wind called it Krait and cursed it. They hissed that the blessed Guardian of the Great Gate herself had judged the spirit with these damning words: Weighed, measured, found wanting.

Cries of countless lost souls echoed across a vast emptiness. Krait felt itself pierced by ten thousand blades, each a searing ember of agony. The voices, always in its ear, sneered with delight that this was only the beginning, that far more imaginative tortures awaited.

Then, a miracle— a shaft of sunlight broke through the startled ring of Watchers to illuminate the stifling darkness. Among the damned, only Krait managed to fly up that fleeting, narrow pathway of light. The Watchers surged in pursuit, tongues lolling from brutal jaws. But it slipped past them all. Now the fugitive spirit found itself in the prep room of a funeral home, greedily gulping the precious air of the upper world.

Krait was repelled by the sensations of this undertaker’s body in which it had taken refuge. Blocky false teeth cluttered the mouth, a thick pad of belly fat hung like a sack of sand, arthritic knees ached. But the spirit exulted at the discovery that it could subdue the creature’s flabby consciousness, smothering its host’s will and rifling through its memories. Krait commanded the husk of this man with the delicate touch of a rider mastering a skittish horse.

******

The portly Mr. Maroney stood near the coffin, smiling at the woman. She shifted toward the door. She eyed him with a look of recognition mixed with growing unease. “Aaron?” she said.

“Yeah, it’s me, baby. Jesus, I guess your magic act worked.” The man pushed his spectacles up his nose. “Come here.”

The woman smiled weakly but stepped back. Krait read in her troubled eyes the first stirrings of disgust and fear. It thought of the Watchers from the deep, never tiring, who even now were intent on pursuing him, their escaped prisoner, across the living world. The spirit made up its mind that this woman Larissa was a liability. While she lived, she could put them on Krait’s trail.

“I am so grateful to you, my love,” said the man softly. “You worked a marvel…bringing me back from the grave. I owe you everything. How can I ever repay you?” He walked toward the woman with arms outstretched, as if to embrace her. But the clench of his jaw and a glint in his eye triggered a warning in Larissa, and she screeched and broke for the door. Mr. Maroney lunged but she eluded his grasp. The woman raced from the prep room, through the house, and out the front door.

Mr. Maroney stumbled onto the porch well behind her, winded and limping. Krait cursed its borrowed body as a sorry bag of rancid meat. It watched the woman run down the street and disappear into the twilight. She had to be eliminated, and soon. The man’s eyes narrowed.

He walked back into the house, continuing to the prep room. Mr. Maroney opened the bottom right drawer of a battered desk and pulled out a Smith & Wesson .38 snub-nose revolver. He checked the cylinder. All chambers were loaded. He slipped the gun into an inside coat pocket and headed out the door.

The cool evening air was soothing after the oppressive heat of the day. Mr. Maroney strolled down East Hendrick Street past well-kept houses. He waved to neighbors out on their porches, ignoring the lazy murmur of their conversations. Fireflies winked in the bushes.

A moth emerged as if tunneling out of the man’s coat to perch on his lapel, its wings vibrating. He continued to march obediently. The moth launched into the air, flying in a tight circle. Mr. Maroney stumbled, put his hands to his head with a groan, and looked around in terror. The moth landed on Mr. Maroney’s shoulder. The man straightened, and his contorted face smoothed again to impassivity. He resumed walking. The moth sank away into the cloth of his coat.

Mr. Maroney crossed Church and Lanford Streets, turning right onto Main Street. It was a busy Friday night. A steady stream of traffic wended through the town. Many of the shops were still open. Ahead, Mr. Maroney saw a sheriff’s car idling at the curb outside Kendall’s Department Store. He walked up to the passenger side of the patrol car and tapped smartly on the window. The window rolled down half-way and Deputy Harrison leaned over.

“Hey, Don. What brings you out tonight?” said the deputy. “Drumming up business?” Mr. Maroney smiled and gave an affable nod. A moth sprang up like a white flower on his lapel. The man stepped back three paces and pulled a gun from his inside coat pocket.

“Christ, Don, what are you doing?” the deputy blurted. Mr. Maroney pressed the gun against his own right temple, his arm trembling as if with a slight palsy. Deputy Harrison jumped out of his car, pulled his gun, and came around to the curb.

He called out in a shaky voice meant to be calming: “Don, put down the weapon. Everything’s going to be OK.” Mr. Maroney stared placidly at the deputy, as if taking his measure. Then he pulled the trigger.

At the gunshot, Mr. Maroney collapsed onto the sidewalk. A passerby screamed. No one noticed a pale moth fly up from the body to flutter in a gyre overhead. Deputy Harrison holstered his gun and rushed to the body. The moth descended, alighted on the deputy’s shoulder, and vanished. A look of utter surprise crossed the deputy’s face, overwritten almost instantly by a crafty, controlled poise.

A crowd gathered around Mr. Maroney’s corpse. The deputy crouched by the body, pretending to feel for a pulse in the neck artery, as Krait took inventory of the capacities of its new host. Harrison was strongly built, had easy access to cars and weapons, and knew everybody in town. Through this body, Krait thought, it would be an easy matter to track down and erase the loose end of Larissa Hartnett before the night was over.

A doctor clutching a medical bag rushed over from the building across the street. While the physician worked to revive the corpse, the spirit silently savored its triumph. Today, it had sprung free from the net of death and brought with it the infernal tools to prey without limit on humankind. Through the end of time, it could stay one step ahead of its former captors, always hiding within the herd and covering its tracks by snuffing out each of its discarded hosts. What once had been a puny man now wielded the powers of a capricious and vengeful god…

Faint, seductive strains of music intruded on Krait’s reverie. The orchestration was catchy, with driving syncopation, like a jazz band in a classy speakeasy. The melody was unfamiliar, wild, joyful. The song invited the hearer to imagine tasting all forbidden pleasures, to dream of inflicting on others pain without limit. And within the braided strands of music there floated an assurance of perfect sanctuary.

Krait listened, enthralled, swept into the tidal pull of the song. The spirit slowly relaxed—then released—its grip on its host. The deputy jumped to his feet with startled eyes, as a white moth ascended unseen in widening spirals over the dead man and circle of onlookers. It climbed above the city of Farnsville and flew off toward the river in pursuit of the enchanting music.

******

The hour was late. Children chasing fireflies and playing tag had long since been called in by their parents. House lights all along the street were winking out. Miss Neti sat on her porch singing a meandering song.

A moth of brilliant white emerged from the darkness and flew a ragged dance in the yellow light. Miss Neti held out a hand. The moth came to rest on her forefinger. Still singing, she slipped her hand into the canning jar, gave it a little flick to shake off the moth, and capped the jar.

Miss Neti held the jar close to her face and watched the moth stir, then flutter and thrash against its glass walls. With a gentle smile, she tapped the jar lid lightly three times while saying, “Weighed, measured, found wanting.”

Miss Neti pulled a cardboard box from under her chair. It was crowded with jars of flapping, quivering moths. She stowed the new jar in the box.

From somewhere in the night, a river barge sounded its horn. Miss Neti rocked in the porchlight and started another song.


THE END


© 2024 Jim Wright

Bio: Jim Wright (he/him) lives in central New York State, USA. He writes short stories when he can and works as a school psychologist when he must. He is a member of the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY.

E-mail: Jim Wright

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