by RON RIEKKI
This story first appeared on Dark Moon Digest in 2018.
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
When Arne, the neighbor’s boy, went missing, my daughter Brooklyn casually mentioned Vuorwro and I told her to never casually mention Vuorwro. In fact, I told her to never mention Vuorwro at all. Her reply was to ask me if Vuorwro only eats boys. I told her that, no, Vuorwro eats anything alive.
“Would she eat a steak?”
“No. But she would eat a cow.”
“Would she eat a dead child?”
I told her not to say things like that and then I told her that, no, Vuorwro does not eat dead children, only living children.
“Then I’d kill myself before she ate me.”
Outside the window a tree in the front yard looked in on us. My daughter saw what I was looking at. “That tree wasn’t there before,” she said.
“Yes, it was. I think.”
“No,” she said and the front door slammed. My daughter walked up to the tree. It was just a tree. Or maybe not.
Vuorwro isn’t a witch. Vuorwro would eat witches. Vuorwro is one of the great Saami ghosts. I am Saami. My daughter is Saami. We are Laplanders but we never use the word Lapland. That horrible word translates as the “land of idiots.” It is a colonizer word, a word of humiliation, the way that language tries to suck on your blood unless you reclaim the word. Saami is the Saami word for Saami. It is our word. And we have our ghosts. We have our stories. But for us, our stories are real. This is Kajaani. In Kainuu territory. I have a secret for you. People go north, thinking the aurora borealis is better up there, but it actually weakens the farther north you go. The reason my people have lived here since before Columbus is because with the northern lights, this is the most beautiful place in the world. My ex-wife is Anishinaabe. She told me the Anishinaabe call those lights “the northern ghosts.” Our most beautiful moment, actually the world’s most beautiful moment, is when the sky is filled with ghosts. Or what looks like ghosts. And this was last night. And one of those ghosts came down and took Arne. He would not take my daughter. Or my son. They would put up too much of a fight. I know. I experience that wonderful fight daily.
My son Rob is addicted to the couch. He could sleep through Armageddon. In fact, all of the rumbling would just lullaby him to sleep. He’d count locusts like sheep and drift off into one of his beautiful nightmares. He is the only boy I know who has a nightmare and wakes me up in the middle of the night to tell me it wasn’t scary enough. In the dark, the moonlight failing to do any good at seeing his face clearly, he’d say, “The snakes of my dreams are too lethargic.”
“Did you just use the word ‘lethargic’?”
“Isn’t that right? I mean, lazy, like the snakes didn’t even come after me or anything.”
I told him to go to sleep. He did. I look at him on the couch. Vuorwro, if she comes tonight, I’m assuming will mistake him for dead; he’d be safe. It’s my little girl I worry about. And at that thought I heard her outside, screaming at the tree.
From the window I watched her having a deep conversation with the branches. I assumed she was warning it. Maybe not. Who knows with her? She stormed back into the house, announcing that Vuorwro’s coming tonight.
“Don’t say that!”
Her bedroom door would have slammed but she didn’t have a bedroom door. I’d taken it off. She broken the thing so many times that I figured it was better for her to slam air. I told her she still had a door but it was now invisible. I told her I thought she’d prefer an invisible door to a visible door. She thought about that and agreed.
Later that night while eating supper, Brooklyn cleared her throat and said, “Mr. Thomas told me that when people burn to death they smell like pork.”
“Who’s Mr. Thomas?”
“The one who came to the neighbor’s last night.”
“A paramedic came to the neighbor’s last night?”
“Don’t you have eyes?”
“You are two seconds from being sent to your room.”
I took a bite of roast and told Rob to wake up while he was eating.
“I am awake.”
“Then open your eyes. When we’re awake, we keep our eyes open. It’s a thing humans do.”
Rob opened his eyes and tried to keep them open without blinking. I could tell it hurt him. I put my fork down and waited to see how long he could go. He went long. I imagined him becoming a Navy Seal one day. Except Navy Seals have to wake up at 3 a.m. I imagined him being a seal one day, a mammal sun-tanning its stomach on a lagoon rock having its twelfth straight hour of daydreaming.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Brooklyn.
I went to pour myself some milk, but my glass was already full.
“Are we going to be eaten tonight?” she asked.
“No,” I said and poured more gravy instead. “We have to all keep water in our bedrooms tonight.”
“We know.” I had told them already: Vuorwro can’t enter a room if it contains water. My daughter before had asked me how much water exactly. I didn’t know. I just know that all smart Saami keep water in their bedrooms. Otherwise Vuorwro can enter. And all doors are invisible to Vuorwro. All walls too. She can walk through anything. Except bodies. Those she can eat. But she can’t stay long enough to eat anyone if there’s water.
I’d seen the ambulance next door. I knew there was a paramedic. I wondered what the neighbor’s bedroom looked like. To eat an entire child, I imagined, would not be clean and clear and easy. I imagined the red. I imagined every shade of red. Tuscan and electric crimson and rose and rust and oxblood and red-violet, all over that boy’s bedroom.
In Saami stories, there is a lot of cannibalism. Because of our stallo, our cannibalistic giants of the wild. And because of our starved ghosts. They all seem so hungry. So eager for the flesh of those who still feel cold. I imagined the millions of ghosts of the world all brutally craving cold. In the Saami language, there are more than one hundred ways to say snow. We actually have a word for the ghosts of the snow, those ghosts who are seen in blizzards, in storms, their body almost snow-blind. I can’t say the word. You’re not supposed to say the word.
“Vuorwro,” my daughter says and twirls her spoon in her potatoes.
That night I ensure and reinsure that my daughter and son have more than one cup of water in their rooms. I only had one thermos so I saved it for my daughter who would be much more likely to knock a cup over. I didn’t want the water to be absorbed or evaporated or in any way not be there. I wanted water to claim the room. I even hid a couple of glasses in the back of each of their closets. Brooklyn asked if it would be smarter if we all just drank a bunch of water before going to sleep, but I didn’t want her getting up in the middle of the night and wandering the house. I told her to stay in her room for the night. She said she wanted to stay in my room. I tried to ensure her that Vuorwro is a myth, folklore. Brooklyn looked down at the floor, the cups of water at her feet by her bed.
“I thought all we need is one?” she said.
“I’m being safe.”
I went to bed. I couldn’t sleep. I listened to the house, its thirst. I drifted off. Night happens. It gets into your skin. The dark lulls.
The yell woke me up. I believe it was the word dad. Or maybe dead. I sat up. I heard it again. It was dad. I turned on the light and picked up a cup of water, holding it before me like a lantern.
I turned on the hallway light. In a row in front of Brooklyn’s bedroom stood all of the cups, the thermos on its side, empty. Next to the thermos stood Rob.
“She should show you what she done.”
“Who should? Vuorwro? Or you mean Brooklyn?”
“Both,” said Rob.
Brooklyn stepped out of the shadows of her room.
“Where’s her water?”
“She took it out.”
“She did something bad.”
Brooklyn came to the edge of her bedroom, standing before her door, a step outside of the hallway.
“Explain yourself,” I yelled at my daughter.
“She can’t,” said Rob.
“She can’t speak.”
I imagined Vuorwro eating her throat. I looked to see if her neck was only blood. But she looked the same. Maybe her cheeks were a little swollen.
“Put the water back in your room,” I said.
Brooklyn shook her head no.
I stepped forward with the cup, about to go into her room, but Rob grabbed me.
“She ate Vuorwro.”
“Vuorwro is in her stomach.”
“Quit playing games and get to sleep.”
I picked up the thermos. I saw a spider inside and dropped the bottle. It clattered on the floor and rolled to Brooklyn’s feet. The spider crawled out. Rob stared at his sister, ignoring the spider.
“Show him,” Rob said.
“Enough,” I said.
“Should she have not eaten Vuorwro?”
“I told you so,” Rob said.
“Say something,” I said to my silent daughter.
Brooklyn opened her mouth and kept opening it and kept opening as a fingernail emerged and another and a hand and another hand and a half-human, half-reindeer head that seemed to gasp for air and then the skeleton that is Vuorwro’s body, its feet-hooves stamping on my daughter’s tongue and then leaping into the room, hovering there, midair, then swinging around and exploding through a wall so that my daughter stood alone on an empty stomach. She walked by me to the front room, turning on all of the lights, and then, before going outside, she turned on the front porch light.
On the steps, she took my hands and put them on her shoulders.
“The tree,” she said. “Gone.”
It was. The absence was calming. You could see the sky, the third quarter moon, and, clearly visible, the North Star. We believe that the North Star is the top point of the pole that holds up the world. If the North Star should slip, the entirety of our world would plummet into oblivion. My daughter stood still, staring up at it, her posture of iron and steel.
Ron Riekki’s books include Blood/Not Blood Then the Gates (Middle West Press, poetry), My Ancestors are Reindeer Herders and I Am Melting in Extinction (Loyola University Maryland’s Apprentice House Press, hybrid), Posttraumatic (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle, nonfiction), and U.P. (Ghost Road Press, fiction). Right now, Riekki’s listening to James' "Laid."
by GEOFFREY MARSHALL
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
If you don't like your deacon, don't you carry his name abroad.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Just take him in your bosom and carry him home to God.
Oh, blessed be the name of the Lord.
Blessed Be The Name — Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson
Mantegna the Psychic stood on the shore of Lake Torment. He absent-mindedly swatted a mosquito as he gazed across the water, then examined the red smear on his hand. With a name like Lake Torment, he somehow felt entitled to a few theatrical flourishes — and what did he get instead? Dead trees. Many, many dead trees.
He was annoyed. He was only there by accident (really). That afternoon he had been free as a bird, on the open road with his next show a day away. Music came and went with the radio reception and he sang along whenever he knew the words (always). Then came the traffic stop.
A cop had flagged the cars ahead of him to the side of the road where, after a brief discussion, the car would invariably perform a u-turn.
He could save himself some time and just bang a u-ey — except — except he was curious (being a natural born rubbernecker), so when his turn came, Mantegna inched onto the shoulder to take his turn. He stopped adjacent to the cop and rolled his window down a crack — mosquitos poured through the narrow opening.
The officer (who relentlessly windmilled his arms) barked out the facts — the road was closed (an accident ahead) and would be for some hours. Mantegna could drive back for something like twelve miles then take a left. Follow the gravel road that would bypass the closure and rejoin the main road. Easy right? Or he could go fuck himself — that last bit left unsaid but Mantegna was a psychic by trade. So he just knew.
A few minutes later he had settled in behind a half dozen other cars. He was nagged by an obscure feeling that a gentle guiding hand now controlled his course. He had concluded early on that free will was mostly an illusion. You decide to go right, but really the road decides for you. You come to find that gentle guiding hand can also be a fist so you just follow along and turn right yourself or else you careen blindly off the road — into the unexplored land of the lost. He rolled the window down and spat a few chewed up crescents of fingernail into the wind.
He was a few miles down the gravel road and the cars ahead had kicked up a haze as they rumbled along. A random glance or bad luck, he never could decide but, whatever the reason, he saw the sign —nailed to a dead, bark-free trunk. The ancient paint was mostly flaked off and the wood was weatherbeaten from decades of exposure to the elements. He sometimes wondered how the sign caught his attention and also why he reacted the way he did — or even how he knew it said ‘Lake Torment’.
He jammed the brakes and abruptly abandoned the caravan of rerouted vehicles. The drivers behind him shook their heads (fists too) as he took the road less travelled and was swallowed up by the bush.
Branches hung low over his windshield and beat a relentless tattoo on the roof of his car. Somewhere in the back of his mind he gave himself no more than ten minutes, then he would turn around. His suspiciously somnambulant steering ended pretty close to his self-imposed deadline when at last he could drive no further. What had started as a rough gravel road had narrowed into a hardly distinguishable trail that wound around the trunks of the brooding conifers that loomed above.
With a curse he heaved himself upright and stood on the rocker panel. He caught a sparkle of light just ahead and perhaps, just perhaps, a clearing. After a hike that lasted only a few stumbling minutes, he found himself on a bleak mosquito infested shore.
He peered across the lake — if you could call it that. Really it hardly qualified as a swamp and the dark water looked as soupy as the Deepwater Horizon oil slick. This little side-trip had already cost him an extra hour or more. He spun on his heel (so gracefully, he imagined) to head back to his car. What he didn’t notice was the tree root at his feet, hidden in deep grass. His heel caught and down he went and, as he went, he finally did see that root as it rose to meet him. No that wasn’t right. He fell (so very not gracefully) towards it. However you thought about it, the end result was the same — his forehead collided with the damn thing and out went the lights.
Some time later — an hour, a millennium — he opened his eyes and immediately noticed the acute lack of sunlight. He blinked a few times in hopes this would autocorrect but it just stayed dark and he was forced to admit he had been out for several hours. He dragged himself upright and his teeth clacked involuntarily with surprising force. He had to get a grip — he couldn’t spare a dime to pay the damned dentist with his bankbook as it was. He groped at his forehead, not wanting to find what surely would be a massive lump.
No lump did he find, but what he did find was even stranger — he was wearing his stage costume — shirt, cubic zirconia studded cufflinks, not to mention his shiny black dress pants. He even had his shoes and cape (velvet lined). He loved his cape — his dad always said he was a wordy little prick but he did look dashing in a cape.
He felt a passing urge to kick the root, but even he learned his lesson (eventually) and, besides, he had just noticed something far more interesting — something that had grabbed his attention by the lapels and was shaking the bejeezus out of him. What he noticed was a bony hand protruding from the water.
He blinked. Maybe it would go away. Blink. Hard no. Blink. Now the hand was even closer. Closer. But Maybe it wasn’t a skeletal hand at all. How could it be? Just a tree branch. Had to be. He edged nearer—one foot, then the next — a Texas two-step towards the water— and waited for the illusion to dissolve.
The hand not only did not dissolve, it had risen out of the water, ulna and radial bone clearly visible. He reversed his two-step just as the arm was fully out of the water and the rounded dome of the skull broke the surface. He figured his best move was to now move away from the walking (or was it swimming?) skeleton. Especially as a dozen or more skulls emerged from the water like a pod of tiny bleached whales. He took a few rapid steps backwards and fell again, his foot catching on that very same root. That damned root. He kicked at the thick bark, a move that accomplished nothing, except to bruise his heel.
Mantegna forced by his curiosity, stared at the lake and faced the others, who sat in rows on pews of dank, waterlogged wood. The standing skeleton swayed in the throes of soundless oratory, while the seated skeletons nodded, some even lifting their arms and waving them overhead — a silent congregation enthralled by a silent sermon.
Mantegna was likewise enthralled, albeit from the ungainly position of his posterior, which was planted in the deep grass. As he scrambled to his feet, a translucent veil of ghostly flesh formed around the congregation’s moldy bones. Slowly the skeletons solidified, down to their hair and clothes — simple dresses, hats, vests, pantaloons — all homespun and stitched by hand. The grass, the night sky, even the lake — all painlessly bleached from his sight and he found himself inside a rough chapel. The congregation sat on the now sanded planks of their pews — Mantegna himself in the last row — and watched the Preacher behind his makeshift pulpit.
His mosquito bite had begun to itch and he dug his finger into the small lump until his nail found relief. While he gouged, he began to perceive the voices of the congregation. Some now stood and waved their hands while others sang in languages he could not understand.
The preacher raised his voice above the din, “Acts chapter nineteen, verse six, my brothers and sisters.” Bang. His fist on the pulpit, “and when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.”
Soon they all joined the linguistic frenzy, some with eyes closed and some in prayer, with their palms held up in supplication. Mantegna had already guessed they were speaking in tongues, but he wasn’t certain about the prophecy part — a sketchy claim given the languages amounted to nothing but gibberish and random babble.
Now there was blood under his fingernail but at least the itching had ceased. As he calmed down he noticed the man seated beside him. The man’s prodigious cheek muscles twitched but, unlike everyone else, he sat silent and stoic. Also different (troubling really — Mantegna admitted) was that the man was staring directly at him.
After what seemed like an eternity, the man spoke, “Let me show you what happened to us.” Strange visions passed before Mantegna’s eyes.
There was the Preacher in earlier times — younger, handsome and so, so charismatic — his passion contagious and his faith a living thing. His followers left their lives behind to build a paradise. Mantegna saw them construct the chapel along with smaller cabins for the families. They farmed the land and tended their livestock — cutscenes of wind-rustled cornrows and swine, caked in mud.
“These were the good times,” the man whispered, “everything was good until came time for baptism.”
The Preacher left his pulpit and made his way towards them. The man’s eyes remained locked on Mantegna’s even as the Preacher approached and the two embraced.
“My deacon,” the Preacher embraced him, “do you remember our promise when we swore to build this haven?”
The Deacon grimaced and pushed away, “We said we would build Paradise.”
The Preacher nodded, “And consecrate our toil with baptism.”
The Deacon said nothing but his jaw muscle ticked with each beat of his heart.
“Destiny calls us,” the Preacher said and the scene began to dissolve, “my friend, the time has come to finish what we started.”
Then Mantegna was outside, again on the shore of Lake Torment. He blinked under the white hot sun while mosquitoes swarmed his sweat-soaked head. The Preacher had talked about destiny. Mantegna sneered. Destiny was just something people said when they felt out of control —as if the past somehow had them by the throat, jerking them around like a puppet on strings. Bullshit. Fate was an excuse, destiny was manufactured and, sometimes (sometimes), the puppet could cut their strings. Even he had managed to do that once upon a time.
He observed the congregation, all dressed in flowing white robes. They were hand in hand, every single pair of eyes trained on the Preacher who was up to his waist in the lake’s impenetrable water, deep in prayer. The Deacon, as usual, was at the back of the crowd with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.When at last the prayer came to an end, the Preacher beckoned to the group and the first of the congregation stepped into the water.
The man splashed forward, his legs churned and his gown spread out around him like the wings of a dove. The Preacher gently tilted the man backwards with one arm under his shoulders for support. His lips formed in words of prayer as he submerged the man’s head with his other hand.
Time passed. The rest of the congregation looked on and stared, and merely continued to stare as the man’s feet began to kick. The Preacher’s forearms bulged as he held the man under, until, at last, he thrashed no more. He nudged the body and allowed it to float behind him, out towards the center of the lake. He turned to the next in line, his hand outstretched. Come my child, come down to the Jordan.
Mantegna ran toward the congregation. Stop, oh God stop, he begged. Make them stop. He reached out but his hands passed uselessly through the immaterial baptismal gowns. He sat helpless but could not turn away. Someone needed to bear witness. One by one the worshippers stepped into the lake, each death a spike in his beating heart. The trail of white wings stretched out behind the Preacher, beautiful, even in death. Until, until at last, there was only one.
The Deacon alone of all of them met Mantegna’s eye, “You cannot change the past Psychic,” he said.
“My deacon,” the Preacher held out his hand one last time, “my friend, your time has come.”
The Deacon joined the rest of the congregation. When his death throes at last were over, the Preacher dragged himself to the shore and collapsed. He rolled onto his back and stared, eyes wide open, at the sun. The flies buzzed around his head. Mantegna was close now and watched as the man blinded himself.
“You saw what he did to us?” It was The Deacon was beside him again.
The Preacher began to whisper, “Matthew, chapter twenty seven, verse forty six, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” There were tears now, pouring from those awful eyes. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?,” he called out, louder and louder until his chest heaved and he fell silent.
Mantegna looked away as the nausea gripped him.
“He repeats the Redeemers words, but he is not the Redeemer,” the Deacon said, his grasp firm on Mantegna’s wrists.
His fingers were cold bone despite their fleshy illusion. The grip itched like a mosquito bite, like a thousand mosquito bites. Once again he showed Mantegna visions of the past — scenes flashed before his eyes. The pigs slaughtered in their pens. The clouds tainted with smoke. The cabins in ashes. Mantegna’s eyes brimmed over with the squalor of the desecration. He closed his eyes and prayed for the torment to end.
The other spirits of the congregation now joined them — a phalanx that drew them inward, inward into a strangled circle. Mantegna shuddered as the burning itch on his wrists became unbearable.
“The Preacher lives,” the Deacon squeezed harder. One by one, the spirits evaporated into small clouds of ash and death that stank of their burned out chapel. The clouds sped towards Mantegna, narrow funnel clouds that spiraled into his mouth with the screech of a banshee wail and the taste of mold. The Deacon — the last in this as in everything — dissolved into a cloud of mosquitoes and swarmed down the dry walls of Mantegna’s throat.
Silence fell and the lake was still, yet the sky began to pinwheel. The Preacher lives. Mantegna stumbled, took a step back, felt his heel thump against a root. The same root. He fell and knew no more.
Sunlight eventually warmed his eyelids and the reddish glow told him it was daylight. He opened his eyes and winced as he caught a glimpse of the sun. The Preacher lives.
The endless chatter from the voices guided him — more than guided — they confided in him. He became the mortal vessel of their unrequited hopes, their lost dreams, and, all the while they led him onward.
Time refused to pass, yet he found himself sitting in his car. He was parked in front of a large tower. His walk to his car, the (unbearable) trundle to the road, the gauzy dullness of his brain as his car rolled down the blacktop, his arrival in this parking lot — all a blur, a stop motion journey that took four hours but somehow only lasted ten seconds.
He knew where he was (the voices whispered to him now) — the Avalon retirement residence, domicile of the Preacher, the only survivor of the (unremembered) Lake Torment Massacre. He exited the car, his knees wobbled, his back creaked, the Congregation like an angry nest of wasps infested his mind. The front doors seemed so very, very far away. The Preacher lives. He presented himself at the front desk and somehow, before his tortured mind really understood what had happened, he stood in front of a door.
He knocked and waited for an answer. At last it came. Enter.
He didn’t know what to expect. The Congregation in his mind was silenced in the presence of the old man. The Preacher lay in a hospital bed, back raised to a three quarters sitting position. His skin, weathered, thin as tissue paper, his arms frail — but the eyes, the eyes. Sightless, milky white, and yet electric.
“You brought them along for the ride,” the Preacher said.
The voices came to life — let us have our revenge. Mantegna’s head swam and he focused on the Preacher.
“My congregation is dead,” he said. His tongue passed across his cracked lips. “Mark, chapter five, verse thirteen — ‘And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine’.”
The old man’s voice pierced the veil of torment and cast a silence over the swarm, “My Deacon…” he trailed off with a cough. Slowly, inevitably, Mantegna drew closer, closer until his ear was less than an inch from the man’s lips. “The Deacon was unholy — Mark, chapter five, verse nine — ‘My name is Legion: for we are many.’”
He was blindsided by an overwhelming itching sensation from the wound on his neck. “You killed them, didn’t you?” Mantegna said.
“Like the Savior, I tried to cast them out. I offered salvation.”
“No mortal can offer salvation. Only God. There were no demons. There never were,” Mantegna said, “and when they failed to appear you decided to force them out.”
“They didn’t come out for me,” the Preacher said, “why wouldn’t they come out? They should have come out for me as they did from Him.”
Mantegna recalled the visions, the slaughtered swine, “My god, you drowned them to drive the demons into the swine.” He was again gripped by cold fingers of nausea. He vomited. Nothing but smoke emerged, hanging stagnant in the air — a coagulated mass between Preacher and Psychic. The blind old man began to pray and the noxious smoke sizzled and seethed and was slowly drawn to the old man where it settled and sank into his chest.
When the cloud had been fully absorbed, his hands fell to his sides. “I wanted them to die with the swine,” he said. Mantegna could see an oily film polluting the whites of the Preacher’s eyes and he jabbed at the call button.
“But now I know they’ll die with me,” the Preacher said — the last words Mantegna ever heard him say.
The doors of the Avalon closed behind him later that evening. Somehow only twelve hours had passed since he was forced to take his detour. Mantegna the (now genuine) Psychic started his car and pulled out of the parking lot.
From a window high up in the Avalon, a doctor looked down — the same doctor who answered the call of the Psychic and attended to the Death of the Preacher. He watched Mantegna’s car turn the corner and, from his eyes, as if from behind another window, the Deacon peered out.
Mantegna felt his gaze, that tormented gaze, as he drove away. “Addio my friend,” he said, “go with God.
Geoffrey Marshall is a writer in Aurora, Canada. He knows just enough to be dangerous (mostly to himself) in several different fields. You can find his work in The Ansible, Academy of the Heart and Mind and the September 2022 issue of MoonPark Review. His education never really took, through no fault of his instructors (debatable) but he did manage to acquire a BA in English Literature from Carleton University. Find him on twitter @g_k_marshall.
by JOYCE CHNG
First appeared on Future Fire (Issue 2022.63)
Hear this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
"You don’t have to cut open your veins,” the old woman warned me, “just to let them feed on you.”
It was the day after Qing Ming, when the tombs were swept and the visitors had already left in their cars. The hill of the graves was buried in its usual silence, filled only by the sound of wind and the skitter of spirit voices.
“My blood’s treacle,” I said quietly to the elder. “Like spun sugar.”
“Our lives are not a perpetual Spring Festival,” the crone whispered and hobbled down the leaf-covered path, signaling the end of the conversation. She was always like this. I had grown used to her ways. The uncles who swept the tombs and kept the graveyard respected her, often giving her cigarettes and glass bottles she often hung on trees.
With a sigh, I drove off on my moped. I would be back again to seek her healing and counsel.
In the evenings, I sang to the crowd, strumming my guitar to the evening rush-hour traffic. I bared my veins and they fed. I felt good and bad at the same time. Their eyes glistened above their masks, gleaming at the prospect of a good feed.
My blood was treacle. Sweet. They lapped it up like sugar.
“Don’t you feel tired after they feed on you?” Anna asked when I packed up for the night. She had insisted she accompany me when I busked on Singapore’s streets.
“Yes,” I said and took a sip of the isotonic drink.
“Then why do you keep doing this?” Anna sounded exasperated tonight. It was the full moon. She might turn into her true form later. I kept a close watch on her eyes.
“And this… after the virus has ravaged all of us? Why, Dawn, why?” she continued, relentless, like a wolf pursuing her prey.
“You’re so pessimistic,” I said curtly.
Even the mildest cases experienced Change. Some grew powerful. Some gained magical strength. Some developed animal traits.
Theories of the virus had percolated, gained popularity and then disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Flu. Cold. Disease. Change. Everyone still wore masks now, afraid of the virus and the change it had brought.
For me, my blood became sweet. Honey. Treacle. And they fed from me even when I bared my soul to the unkind world.
“I don’t care if you were a singer or a writer or a poet,” Anna growled even as black fur receded back into her skin. I cradled her in my arms. She shivered after her Change, her body trembling from the clash of cells, muscles and transformation.
I kissed her sweaty brow. I didn’t care or thought I didn’t, because my voice was my life. Wanting to create was my blood. I wanted to sing. I wanted to write.
“They feed from you,” Anna said. “I don’t like it, Dawn.”
“Don’t worry. I know how to protect myself,” I lied.
I remembered watching the spun-sugar artist when he performed his craft in front of admiring eyes. He often showed up during Spring Festival, at the big fair, spinning molten amber sugar into delicate-looking dragons, phoenixes and goldfish. The air smelled sweet, like burnt sugar. The artist shaped fins, feathers and scales like magic. When I bit into the dragon, sweetness burst in my mouth.
The artist loved making the golden figurines. He also loved the sounds of the admiring crowd.
When I grew up, music and words were my world. I loved making them. And like the spun-sugar artist, I loved the sounds of the crowd.
The old woman was at her usual spot amongst the graves of old colonial Singapore. The spirits chattered around her. They smelled me and salivated. She glared at them. Cowed by her stare, they fell back.
“You back for your cleansing ritual, ah?” the elderly lady said. She was the graveyard’s guardian. The tomb sweepers gave her a wide berth whenever she was out and about on her business.
I removed my mask. “Yes,” I nodded.
“Ah, today you show your true face,” she chuckled, amused. “Most of them don’t. Do you feel safe around me?”
“Strange. The spirits are afraid of me.”
“You guard the graves.”
“Pity. I’m not usually that frightening.”
She lit incense sticks with her beaten-up lighter. The sandalwood smoke wafted over me, creating a thin layer of protection over me. I sighed. I could feel myself healing already.
“So much damage,” the old woman tsk-tsked. “They literally gouged you out.”
“They were hungry.”
“You need to protect yourself more often. Predators will eat and they don’t care about your life.”
She patched up the holes with the sandalwood smoke and incantations. They only worked for two weeks. Then I would be back again.
While I sat feeling the effects of the smoke infused with my blood, the grave guardian told me stories about Singapore, before the virus came, before Change came. So much joy. So much beauty. But what was normal didn’t remain normal. Things went back to normal after that. People still wanted to feed.
What had changed were us. We changed.
I sang once more at the quay where the entertainment thrived and the vampires fed even as they dined on rare steaks and Pinot Noir. They gave me money. I needed it. They gave me shelter. I loved it.
The one-room apartment I shared with Anna was cosy enough. Having my own piece of air was an illusory joy. Anna made living a thing of beauty. Plants were everywhere in our little home. She placed pots of herbs on the ledge where the sunlight flooded in like a golden sheet. Mint. Rosemary. Lavender. Basil. The air was often fragrant with their sweet and sharp scents. We even salvaged wooden crates from the nearby supermarket for shelves and impromptu tables. We had tea-lights all over the apartment. In the dark, they glowed like tiny suns. This was our home, where we could be normal, relaxed, happy.
When I came back that night, Anna was not home. She had not been home for days now. She now craved being in the open, in the rare forest fragments. I was afraid I had lost her, lost her to the change within her.
Would I be lost too?
Suddenly feeling a wave of dizziness, I collapsed on the sofa. The vampires had fed hard tonight. But at least I had money to pay for my rent and bills.
My skin crawled. It felt as if it was inflamed.
I burned. I was on fire.
Then I caught something golden, gleaming down my arm.
Golden liquid flowed down open wounds. I gasped. I was criss-crossed with gold, with amber liquid that smelled like burnt sugar.
“Old lady, can you save them? Please?” the wolf said to the grave guardian. “They are dying.”
The grave guardian gazed sadly at the emaciated figure before her. A spider-web of golden streaks covered the skin, dripped down the thighs.
“Aiyah, they are just too far gone,” the old lady said, shaking her head. “They should have stopped baring the veins to the jiang shi.”
“Is it too late to save them? Please, auntie, please save them.”
The grave guardian stared back at the black wolf. A human’s eyes gazed back at her.
“I told Dawn to protect themselves. Our lives were too fragile to feed a world that wants to eat us.”
“And look at them now. So weak, no blood at all.”
The old lady lit her incense sticks and readied her incantations.
“I will see what I can do,” she declared. The spirits shrank at the tone of her voice.
Then she sang down the skies, the earth and the stars. The sandalwood smoke wrapped the figure like a gentle loving cocoon.
And there was silence amongst the graves.
I came to and stared into Anna’s golden eyes.
You need to stop feeding them, the wolf seemed to plead.
Please stop, I beg you.
I sang to the crowd.
I needed to.
My golden blood flowed inside me, singing, dancing, glowing.
The wounds grew bigger.
I beg you.
The old woman shook her head.
“The sandalwood smoke can’t protect you forever.”
I sang because I had treacle blood.
I would keep on baring my veins to them.
I didn’t know why.
When I visited the graveyard, the old crone was no longer there. The uncles told me that she was “just gone” like that. Like incense smoke. She left me a present, apparently. They came back with bundle of sandalwood incense sticks.
In the wind, I heard her gentle laughter.
Joyce Chng's fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, Accessing The Future, The Future Fire and Anathema Magazine. Joyce also co-edited THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Fire Heart, a YA fantasy under Scholastic Asia, is published in 2022. (Pronouns: she/her, they/their)
THE VENGEANCE OF BLOOD
by ADAM BRECKENRIDGE
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
The woman’s flesh was so soft, so youthful. How could you not want to plunge a knife into it?
He followed her from a distance, keeping to the shadows as best he could. There were few people out this evening, so he had only to worry about her spotting him and not so much about the eyes of others. It gave him ample time to study her. She wore high heels and a floral dress that clung close to her figure. Her hair was done up in a bun, and she walked with such confidence, that she seemed fearless. It was rare to see women walking alone late at night like this. It was as if she wanted someone like him to target her. All the same for her, he thought, not that he cared for her life. It was only her death that he was interested in, and he had never wanted to kill anyone so badly.
The only thing about her appearance that perturbed him was a strange tattoo of three wavy lines printed in bright red on the back of her right arm. It was a maddening distraction from the perfection of her skin. Why on earth would a woman so flawless blemish herself? He felt like he was justified in killing her for that alone and, though it wasn’t his usual method, he planned to cut the tattoo off of her after he was done and destroy it.
She came to the doorway of a walk up. It seemed she’d reached home. This was when he could feel the tolling of the minutes, the giddy creeping towards her demise. That she did not know she was about to die, that this mundane routine of opening the door were some of the last minutes she would ever know, made it all the sweeter for him.
Watching her unlock the door made it clear he wouldn’t be able to get through without a key. He had to make his move now. He crept up behind her, and just as she was closing the door he put a knife to her throat and a hand over her mouth. She started and tried to shout but his hand absorbed it. He could feel her body tensing but the quiver of fear he usually felt at this point wasn’t there. She really had far more courage than was good for her.
“Don’t say a word,” he whispered, “not if you want to live. Take me to your place.”
Give them hope. He loved to do that. Always give them hope… until the last minute.
She nodded, then led him up a flight of stairs. He was astounded at how calm she was. Perhaps she really believed he would let her live. They came to a T-junction hallway. Empty. She moved to the left and unlocked the second door on the right. When they were inside he whispered, “if you scream you’re dead.”
She nodded. He removed his hand from her mouth and shoved her through the door before locking it behind them. She was looking at him with…was that contempt?
“You’re going to regret this,” she said, keeping her voice low.
“I haven’t regretted a single one of my victims yet,” he said, approaching her, frustrated. She wasn’t acting like his other victims. Her poise and the glimmer in her eyes made him realize he had better make this quicker than he cared for. He wouldn’t be able to draw out the torment as he normally loved to but something about.
“My blood will—,”
He plunged the dagger into her throat, stopping her mid-sentence.
Blood poured from her neck, down her dress and pooled on the floor. She fell to her knees, then toppled over, eyes staring up at him. Her death was now inevitable, and for him this was the orgasmic moment, when he could see the life draining from his victim’s eyes, filled with the knowledge that this was it for them, that they would never again draw breath, never again see their loved ones, that countless years had been taken from them with the flick of a blade. He breathed for this, thumped his heart for this, lived for this. The pain of their death was the ecstasy of his life.
But there was no such pain in her eyes. She continued to stare at him with her level anger even as her blood pooled around her, even as the life went from her eyes. Still, she died as all the others did. No amount of anger or defiance could stop the inevitability of death.
Yet, he was disappointed. He thought this would be one of his most glorious kills, but there was something about the whole thing that felt wrong. He felt dirty. He needed to wash his hands. He stepped over her body, avoiding the pooling blood, and went to the sink. It was dangerous to use her sink but as long as he was careful he should not leave any prints. He worked at his fingers, becoming lost in the rhythm of the cleansing. He did not see that the woman’s blood was moving, coagulating. The blood rose up and took human form.
It stood behind him in a wavering impersonation of the woman on the floor. Though the blood had no pupils, it had the impression of eyes, and when he turned around, he saw, above all else, that level glare that had so unsettled him. When faced with such an impossible sight, it is perhaps inevitable that he would focus his attention on something so small.
He grabbed his knife and took a swipe at the form but the blade came away coated in blood. Then the form hit him in the jaw with the weight of bricks. There was nothing watery about the punch. It was harder even than flesh, harder than bone. He staggered against the countertop. His face was throbbing, his jaw broken.
The thing’s hands grabbed the sides of his head. Only now did he understand that these were his final moments, that he would never draw breath again, never see his family again, decades of life gone in a moment. Did his eyes have the imminence of death in them? He felt the terror pounding in his chest and radiating through him. He didn’t want to show fear but couldn’t control it.
He felt his neck snap. Then, he ceased to perceive anything.
The blood pooled to the floor and retreated back into the woman, flowing back through the gash in her neck, which sealed shut with the last drop that passed through it.
The woman stood up, felt at her neck where the knife had pierced her and where now a dull, throbbing pain was receding. She looked down at the man who had killed her, his head twisted around backwards, the horror of death burned into his face. On the back of her arm, the tattoo glowed red and four waving lines could be seen there.
Adam Breckenridge is an Overseas Traveling Faculty member of the University of Maryland Global Campus where he travels the world teaching US military stationed overseas and is currently based in Japan. He has thirty-three story publications to his name and has most recently appeared in the Fantastic Other, and Lucent Dreaming and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.