"Hillbilly snakeface." he reminded her. "I'm so rural I feel like pulling over every time I see three goats in one place."
"I'm scared to ask why."
"It makes you feel like... you know... something's going on..." he explained earnestly, if unsuccessfully. Susan turned her smile back to the damp olive-green and saturate black of the old growth wood enclosing them, its darkness pierced by lemon-pale sunlight where the red oaks had succumbed, their slender descendants yearning toward the canopy which otherwise permitted no such intrusion. Ponderous branches almost met over the dirt road. The smell of rain-soaked soil, the deep mounded litter beneath the boles and even its unseen strata of stone rose, cool and pond-like, about them in the open car, counteracting the somnolent influence of both the shade and the sound of the engine. Furtive birds stooped across the way before them and vanished into the gloom on either side, emitting single-note alarms. The jagged, high-key stripe of light falling between the branches overhead bisected the road and flashed up over the bonnet.
She handed him a banana from her mirrored bag, pausing in the midst of peeling her own to watch him bite through the thick yellow skin and consume the stalk as though it were no less delectable than the rest. The violence with which he stamped down the brake forced her nose into the fruit and she exclaimed while William leapt the door, jumping the tiny stream that had cut into the verge and wading no small distance into the trees where she lost sight of him. He returned some minutes later with a T-shirt full of toadstools, their slick ruby caps spotted icing-sugar white.
“Isshûk.” he explained as he shook them into the plastic bag she held out with a dubious expression. “Viking sulphate.”
"Poisonous." she told him.
"C'est égal... everything good is poisonous. They’re fucking potent around here, I can tell you that much... dogboys go through sackfulls of them before Savhain.” She looked at him blankly. “Halloween, cloudcheeks. It's always sooner than you think.” William assured her with an anticipatory smile, rubbing his hands together. “We’ll light fires and get fucked up."
“There seems to be a lot of that.”
He crossed himself emphatically at her lack of enthusiasm.
"Are you suggesting we do otherwise... what next, poupée? Harpoon Father Claus? Spit-roast his sparkly trolls?”
"I don't really do that holiday stuff." she sighed.
"Yes you do..." he grinned, patting her back as she frowned at him.
There was nothing to herald the location of the gates at which he braked again, their silvered shape set so far back from the road that Susan would have driven past them though their dead-wood arch towered into the living branches. The horse chains that had raised them were still lashed around their union, wound slackly about each bole where they rusted slowly into the wood. The great plank gate itself, as tall as William, had been secured with an enormous heart-shaped lock, hand-forged from native iron and as plain in its intent as in its function. Leaving the car on the road, they stood together before the cyclopian construction, Susan waving away the midges that whined by her ears while William climbed up onto the gate and aimed a piercing whistle into the woods beyond. Though she did not perceive it he received an answer, caught an overhanging branch and pulled himself up into a sugar maple, reaching into its fork to retrieve a key as imposing as the lock below. She frowned up at the apex of the arch as he let himself down; something rusted and metallic had been recently removed or determinedly effaced from a peg, leaving only an ocherous stain on the wood.
"What was that?" she inquired, intrigued by the reluctance that delayed his reply; William kept his voice low while he heaved the gate across the trail.
“You and your beady eyes. It was an îve, a symbol... this is a hahdri... alujha land... they all used to have their own sign, but they take them down now. Makes you too easy to find.”
“Do they know I'm coming?” she whispered from behind the wheel as the Jaguar chugged beneath the arch.
“I told Cay the deal and he doesn’t have a problem with it. But...” He twisted around to look back at the road while they continued on down the drive, which was little more than two dark wheel tracks pressed into the undergrowth by infrequent vehicles. “We’re three days out from a full moon, so there'll be a lot of fucking itches that need scratching... and someone’s just been through here so I’m guessing there’ll be dralna... ignore their bullshit, and don’t, er, look in their handbags.” He smiled again at her uncertainty. “Caleb’s crew lives here, off the grid... they rest horses, breed a few for beer money. He wants me to look at a mare he’s buying. Have a look around... it’s nice.”
Susan murmured to herself as they drove by the shambolic remains of a stone hut, some abandoned, rudimentary edifice almost abolished by the trees. The vast, hand-cut stumps of original forest spoke of Sisyphean colonial labours even as they mouldered back into the earth, the wilderness having eaten of the doomed pilgrim flesh it had starved and defeated. That they were entering a valley was only vaguely communicated through the surrounding trees, which ended abruptly in a cleared circle of habitation soaked in the drowsy colours of a clement afternoon. Four modest weatherboard cottages raised at the start of the previous century squatted at a respectful distance from each other around a huge barn of the same vintage, all five buildings rendered in similar shades of steel and shady river blue by thick milk paint, sharing an open yard crossed by foot-beaten paths. A weathered company of caravans hunched at the edge of the cleared land where the trees reached over to drop leaves on their tin roofs, the stone hearths and wooden beer crates arranged nearby speaking for their erstwhile occupants. They left the Jaguar beside three other cars in the shade at the head of the clearing. Susan caught a glimpse of further open ground beyond the buildings, a lengthy avenue of paddocks flanked on either side by forest. The barn itself seemed to grow as they approached it, spreading out to occupy the clearing with its gabled enormity, roof curved like a boat’s hull and studded with tiny windows. Behind its skirt of seeding grass she saw a neat footing of boulders buried to their shoulders about the foundations. To the west, a long elliptical yard was laid out and floored with sawdust; the vast hangar-like darkness behind the plank door housed a company of horses dozing in their stalls, nodding and swinging their lazy tails against the flies.
She wandered up to the railing with William and smiled at the only figure that she recognized, his green mohawk rendered less distinct by the growth of his dark hair. He drew a shrewd gaze from her feet to her forehead and reached under the rail to shake her hand, turning with William toward the warmblood mare he had been called to examine. It stood with its great hindquarters twitching against the biting flies, composed of varying shades of fumed oak bay that darkened to a bitter coffee black at its extremities. The polish of its summer coat drew each vessel and plane in soft relief upon its roman nose; Susan stood with her chin on the railing, enjoying its sweet, malted scent.
William took long steps back from the horse, consulting his own almost infinite mnemonic catalogue of merit and defect. Caleb sat down on a block of wood by the door of the barn and lit a cigarette, letting the hand fall between his knees.
“I mean, she looks fuckin great, but I can't get her much outta second gear, be fucked if I can say why...” he suggested. “Can’t do a prix if she can’t step out right. Gonna rain tomorrow, truck’s coming for her if I go cold.” Susan’s attention was drawn past the railing by the approach of a small knot of men from the distant field, shirtless, sunburnt and sweat-stained, chain saws and hatchets swinging from their dirty hands. Two carried shotguns slung across their shoulders on makeshift straps of gaffing tape. They did not interrupt William's observations but banked in a drift against the railing on either side of her as they set down their tools and swore at the heat of the day. She felt the weight of more than casual vulgarity in their interest; the men had brought the forest with them in the stares that regarded her so deliberately, their imagined usage of her body as they considered its attractions plainly written. The darkness of her own responding glare seemed to feed rather than deter the attention, nor was their host entirely immune to the phenomenon, though he seemed more conscious of its effect.
“We brought you some isshûk.” William observed, his voice drifting around the back of the horse; she remembered the plastic bag of mushrooms in her hand. Nodding, Caleb turned his gaze on the miscreants before directing her around the southern corner of the barn.
“Annick’s back there with the goats. You might wanna...”
Grateful, she followed the narrow little path past the main door. A lock, as stout as the one securing the gate, hung from the woodwork, which was itself reinforced with straps of iron nailed across the lower panels; the thick blue paint was younger than the wind-worn colour on the walls, roughly daubed over long, hatched gouges in the planks, some of which had been cracked through, and reinforced on the opposite side. The yard itself was devoid of the fowl and smaller animals she might have expected and the belled beasts mentioned by her host were easy to locate at the edge of the clearing, tall, lop-eared nannies tethered in a row before a pen containing their prancing offspring. A woman looked over her shoulder from the bucket on which she sat, lean and smoothly inornate in a plain T-shirt of faded khaki and jeans, milking the largest goat into a steel pail. Her copper-black hair was braided tightly back from her broad, grave face, crow’s feet gathered at the corners of her eyes. Two little girls sat in the grass flattened by the bleating kids, playing with a bowl of water and battered coffee cups, their dark, whisping hair tied in knots upon their heads.
“I’m Susan..." the latter offered. "I came out with William.”
The woman wiped her hand on her thigh and offered it to her.
“Annick... that’s Frida, and the little one, she’s just Girl for now.” she said, nodding in turn toward the children.
"We brought mushrooms..." The woman smiled to herself knowingly against the soft flank of the goat as she considered what must have driven her visitor from the yard while Susan sat down in the grass, feeling it compress beneath her legs, and inspected one of the amanita, intrigued by its confectionary perfection. “It’s lovely here.” she remarked, turning to look back through the barn. As she did so she glimpsed the small black pistol strapped beneath the denim over her hostess's ankle.
“Can’t come out of the Five Nations and not like the sight of trees.”
“Is it all yours?”
Annick smiled again.
“Don’t so much own a hahdri as it owns you.” She moved on to the next nanny with her pail, the warm, damp smell of the beasts and their milk sitting heavy in the air around them. The girls crawled under the little fence, the eldest in a caramel corduroy pinafore; the younger wore a Barbie T-shirt and shorts and leant against a goat, directing sidelong gazes at the stranger from a round face faintly shaded with a fade of darker colour on her nose and forehead, a pattern at once ghostly and striking. The sound of feminine conversation turned them back toward the barn; a handful of women in shoulder-baring dresses, skinny, low-slung jeans and charm-laden jewellery walked out of the wood behind the caravans, clutching flour and oatmeal sacks tied off tightly and bulging with some hidden weight. A trio of younger girls, barely into their second decade but already wistful doppelgängers, trailed behind them dressed in careful imitation of their elders, who shooed flies from their faces with maple switches and seemed to agree on something as they approached, chuckling amongst themselves. Susan had seen some of them at the party attended by Caleb; they wore artful lipstick and spiky eyes in defiance of the rustic nature of their errand.
“Annick... are you doing that by hand? Get a thrall.” one of them called, shaking her head as they strolled by and hooking a thumb toward the barn. “Are Cay and Lamb back here?” The contents of her sack slid in a restless circle against the woven plastic.
“They’re all back there...” Annick replied. “Don’t you keep them waiting.”
The witches glanced at one another.
“We never do.” they laughed, setting off. Susan looked to her hostess while in the yard the womens' silhouettes cast their purposive familiarity with its inhabitants in a somewhat theatrical light.
“You’re not... with them?” she asked, reaching out to pluck a twig from the nearest girl’s hair. Annick shrugged.
“Kind of half-way, I guess... I'd let it all go, if things weren't like they are. Too hard, these days, too hard on your family... I don’t want it for my girls.” Once more she sat back from the goat and picked up her stool, moving to the next and muttering to herself. “Running with all that, finding someone like their father... then losing him, losing their land to dead meat, ending up on the spike in the city. Better they meet a lawyer, find a nice condo, stay out of the dralna.” She laughed. “Damn, but I hate it when I sound like my mother.” she added, nodding toward William through the shade of the building. “Rough ride you picked there.” Feminine laughter drifted their way on the breeze as two witches told a joke between them, their hands on his arms and gazes on his face as he indulged them. Susan shook her head.
“He’s much easier than he looks.” she smiled. Annick glanced up at her misunderstanding.
“Sweeter than treacle, no doubt. Aint why the Black Ops want to bag him up, though. And it aint why the dead meat are on his brother.” The blunt force of her language struck Susan unexpectedly. “Tie that lead for me? She’s going to step back into this.”
"You don't like Edward either?"
"Didn't drive all the way to his show for the pictures." The woman shook her head. "Less said about some things, the better."
“I was thinking, if... I mean, if anyone really wanted to get them, they could have done it by now.” The sound of Susan's own naivety embarrassed her and she looked down at the grass. The eldest child arranged the coffee cups beside the pail, watching her mother fill them halfway before taking one to their visitor. “Thank you Frida, that’s lovely manners.” she told her, setting aside her disquiet. Not to be outdone, the nameless toddler forsook her caprine support and lurched forward to lean against her knee with a look of doubtful inquiry into her unfamiliar features, the puzzling colour of her hair, and finally the pendant that hung from her neck. Susan handed it to her, and the little girl dropped down onto her haunches to examine the jade at length.
“Guess you can look at it that way, but Girl there... she doesn’t have a name because her parents didn’t get round to giving her one. Got pulled out of their car by a bag van. Caleb’s brother and his old lady... a year ago now.” She shrugged back her plait before resuming her chore. “We’re not all the way out here for the great schools.”
“Don't you worry?” Susan asked over the child’s head.
“Everyone should worry.” Annick spoke with a stoicism that darkened as her testimony concluded, sliding the pail out from under the nanny as she stood up and tipped her head toward the barn once more. “We’ll be okay, til someone gives us up and they come out with enough heat to take us in. We’ll all be like your friend there, one day. Last ones standing.”
From the yard, the witches quit the men and wandered back toward their vehicles, calling cajoling farewells and invitations to William and Caleb that brought Susan’s teeth together in her frown, arranging their sacks in the trunks and trading cars as they negotiated their various destinations. Two members of the cutting gang broke rank and begged passage, leaning over the doors of the cars and attempting licentious persuasion that was ridiculed and rebuffed. They were left behind in a blue cloud of exhaust fumes while Annick penned the goats and hoisted her youngest ward onto her hip, committing Frida’s hand to Susan’s. Together they made their way toward the yard, pausing to pour the milk out to a stall busy with spotted calves.
The bay mare carried William in a circle between the railing, his pale face expressionless as he assayed its gait. It threw out its lacquered hooves in taut, collected deliberation, mane lofting and falling against its neck as it passed them by, listening as closely to his murmured requests for change of pace and lead as he did to its footfalls. Satisfied, he let the mare halt before the barn door where it dropped its head, its breath scattering the sawdust as it nosed the small puddle of milk the child had poured for it.
“She's short on this one.” he said, patting the animal’s right shoulder while Caleb scratched his neck and shook his head.
"There you go." he shrugged.
“Got a pick?”
Heaving himself off the stump, their host went in search of the implement while the unnamed infant squirmed and reached for William, jogging impatiently; he accepted his admirer with both hands, forestalling a less equable demonstration by sitting her in the crook of his elbow. The child lifted Susan’s pendant from her chest and showed it to him, cackling as he allowed her to place it on his nose, then in his mouth. He took the pack of cigarettes that she extracted from his pocket from her, spitting out the pendant while the horse began to doze beneath them.
“When you're twelve I’ll buy you your own.” he laughed. “Don’t tell your aunt and uncle. How’s it hanging, Annick?” he added, nodding down at Susan, who leant against the doorframe. “Christabel been telling you about my nasty h-o-e s-h-i-t?” He spelt the last two words out in deference to his fellow passenger.
“You said shit.” Frida informed him, returning with her father.
“Young lady, you go to a much better school than I did.” William replied. He slid down from the horse’s back, eyes suddenly wide. “Look out, the baby’s going for the jugular!” he exclaimed, lurching backward and passing the girl over his shoulder, bending to roll her across his back and catch her as she fell, shrieking with exhilaration. Susan stared in bemusement while Girl bitterly resisted his attempts to hand her over, grasping his shirt with both fists. “They can fly unassisted until they’re four years old...” he added, turning as though to toss his burden over the railing.
“We’re four hours from a fuckin defibrillator, so quit giving your girlfriend a fuckin heart attack.” Caleb smirked.
Extracting himself from the child's clutches William bent to pick up the horse's hoof, knocking the sawdust from its figured arc and drawing the tacks from the horn, running his fingers around it slowly in search of the pathology he suspected. He used the hooked tip of his nail to remove a piece of road metal and looked up as the animal flicked her heavy tail.
“There's a pissy little abscess, right up there along the bone.” he related, letting her foot down. “She's good everywhere else. Clean that up and you've got a twenty grand ride for eight K.”
The figures grouped about the railing shook their heads and murmured at his prognosis.
“You’d pay that for her as she is?” Caleb frowned, handing him a can of beer.
“I’ll swap the jag for that horse and this crazy baby.” he replied as the girl was returned to him. His host shook his head.
“You’d have yourself a fuckin deal if I wanted any blood of mine living under the same roof’s your Judas fuckin brother.”
“Not this again.”
“Yeah it’s this again... fuckin dirty bastard...”
“Who’s been putting it around this time? Starts with S, ends with a tuck?”
Drawing himself up, the lycanthrope hooked a thumb in his jeans and spat over the railing, leaning an elbow on the wood.
“It aint like I like Siobhan, but it’s comin in from all points... Ed took a neckfucker payout, now he’s just waiting on word to start in on the rest of us... you know he’s mean enough to do it too, so don’t fuckin look like that.” Caleb related. The idlers behind them voiced their agreement.
"We all fuckin know he is." one of them asserted, his statement like something shot from a shaken bottle; he was broad, overalled and ponderously-formed, heavily-countershaded by the intensity of the tan on the upper portions of his arms and shoulders. A gap between his lower teeth formed a berth for his drooping cigarette.
"Mallet, how about you sit the fuck down before I kick your asshole outta your ear? If anyone's gonna chew this pasty fuck a new one, it'll be me, thanks all the fuckin same." Still shaped by the tensile strength of the convictions they visibly stowed in the face of their leader's displeasure, Caleb's subordinates raised dust with their boots as they straightened up off the railing, Mallet favouring the discretion recommended to him.
“Honestly, I don’t think Edward's involved with anything like that.” Susan ventured. “He sacked Opal the other day... they've had a huge falling out.” Her remark drew every surrounding gaze toward her, and she coloured slowly while Caleb shook his head.
“That’s real nice of you to say, but this shit goes way past Opal. She’s just the bitch of a bitch of another bitch.” he replied. His eyes stayed with her, their deep green enclosed in vivid, lamp-black circles, the muscles in his jaw and bare arms flexing at the prospect he expounded. “And old Ed’s what you might call an evil fuckin genius... he got a tongue of his own for refuting this shit, so you tell him we're all fuckin ears.”
William finished his beer and crushed the can in his hand with a mimed, eye-rolling roar to amuse the child on his arm.
“I don’t think he hears too well these days.” he admitted. “He's solid, though, and I don't say that for my health. But I'm happy to discuss it further, if anyone else is.” The expression he offered around the yard did not ease his companions' scowls, but Susan watched the potential coiling behind them fade as none of them were tempted to accept the invitation implied.
“Then I suggest you pull him off that hooker and get him to fuckin clarify.” murmured Caleb.
“What’s a hooker?” Frida inquired.
“Never mind, sweetheart.”
"I've been trying." William admitted, patting the horse's flank. "Was this everything? We've got to get back."
Girl flung herself face down into the grass and wailed passionately upon discovering she could not catch him up as he sat down behind the wheel of the Jaguar. The dramaturgical ardour of her demonstration caused him to sigh and rise once more, stuffing the bag of dope into the glovebox while Susan shook her head at him from the passenger seat.
“Remember... no, not try again.” she told him. He grimaced at the ascending volume of the child’s entreaties and walked back across the yard to hoist her from the ground; she climbed onto his shoulders in order to avoid Annick’s patient attempts at retrieval as the sun flared and dipped below the roof of the barn. William let her down into his arms and pressed a kiss to both her ears, stroking the fox-brown lick of hair back on her head while she allowed herself to be consoled, and eventually transferred into the woman’s charge.
Susan’s eyes stayed with him all the way down the meandering trail. He smiled down at her questioningly from the gate as he replaced its key.
“Nothing...” she replied, though she continued her inscrutable observation. Finale sunlight, swimming with dust and miniature fauna decanted from the overhanging branches laid itself across the lane in stripes of bronze and secret purple; he slowed the car in appreciation of both the evening and her regard until she leant across, stepping her foot down on the brake and drawing them into a halt in the midst of the way. Removing the glasses from his head, Susan set them on the dash and turned to kiss him, reflecting on the strange, privileged intimacy of the act itself, at once symbolic and intrinsic. The light shifted, darkening her skin and turning her into a subtle, private version of herself, her warm arm curling around his shoulder. "I heard you the other night, out on the balcony. I don't think you weak, just because you're not mean or hard..." she told him. "I think you soft, and I think you kind, and... I am in love with you... I just... didn't realize." She watched his eyes darken as she spoke. "I'm that baby... when you leave, all I want to do is lie down on the grass and scream." He smiled, inviting her into his lap, and she sat back against him, taking the wheel as the Jaguar rolled forward. William retrieved his glasses and arranged them on her head while she steered in a leisurely meander.
"You might want to think twice about getting down like that with an ethnic minority, Christabel... I smell troubled times, and I'm pretty sure I saw pointy white hoods back there."
"I don't care. Use your ghetto powers on them."
"You don't care now. You might, one day."
"Don't worry." she smiled. "If anything happens, I'll protect you."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce