Monthly Archives: October 2014

Día de los Muertos

You might recall that last year I had a story published in Horror Novel Review’s anthology, “One Hellacious Halloween” (available wherever fine books are Amazon.) Well, for your reading pleasure, here’s the story! I’d still encourage you to pick up the collection, though. Support the starving authors of the internet, as it were.

It was the sound of voices calling to each other from across the apartment that summoned Javier back to consciousness. “–this fucking place? It looks like a goddamn horror movie. Fucking black candles and bones and… Jesus Christ, I think these are real! What the fuck black magic voodoo bullshit did we walk in on?”

“Don’t be a bitch. Find the drugs so we can kill the motherfucker and get out of here.”

The hell you will. Javier twisted his head, trying to look around and assess the situation. Texan accents. Probably meth heads. They’d tied him to a chair they’d dragged over from the dining table. At the moment, they were tearing apart the altar he and Ángel had built in the corner of the room, knocking over the candles and the bottles of tequila, scattering the marigolds, checking the life-size statue of Santa Muerte for compartments or hidden stashes and throwing her robe-clad, bony form to the ground when they found none.

Javier strained against the ropes. He tried to stand up and couldn’t. It was no use. The knots were sloppy but effective. He tried again, and the chair thumped heavily against the carpeted floor. The two men turned to look at him.

“Well, look at that. Our little friend’s waking up.”

Javier closed his eyes, took a breath, and did his best to look as frightened and pathetic as possible. He sized the two men up from behind his feigned terror. They were armed, one with a pistol, the other a pipe wrench. They wore ski masks, coveralls, and gloves. They might not have been professionals, but they certainly weren’t amateurs either. The only things distinguishing them from another were their weapons.

They flanked Javier. “Alright, wetback,” Pistol said. “Here’s the thing: this is not your day. It is, however, ours, so let’s make this real fucking simple. You tell us where you’re keeping the drugs, and we leave.”

“¿Drogas? ¡No hay drogas aquí!”

“Cut that shit out. We know you speak English. Your hombre told us everything after we did a little persuading.”

Javier’s expression hardened from fear into anger. They killed Ángel. He closed his eyes and tried to make himself look frightened again. “Please, my brother and I were just in town visiting family for Día de los Muertos! Just let me go!”

“Look at that!” Pistol said with a laugh. “He speaks pretty good English for a wetback, doesn’t he?”

“He doesn’t speak it that good. I guess nobody told him that today’s Halloween. In America, we celebrate Halloween on Halloween, not some made up voodoo bullshit.”

Javier’s anger got the better of him. “I speak English better than you, pendejo. And go fuck yourself. I was born in Laredo.”

Pistol and Wrench were both silent for a moment. Without a word, Pistol smashed the barrel of his gun across Javier’s mouth. Javier tasted metal and blood.

“Our mistake,” Pistol said. “You were born in Laredo. Now, then, Laredo. Where. Are. The. Fucking. Drugs?”

Javier spit two broken teeth from his mouth. Blood and spittle ran down his chin. “There are no drugs here,” Javier said as calmly as possible. “And there never were.”

“Bullshit!” Wrench shouted. He lowered his face down to stare into Javier’s eyes. “You think we don’t know cartel goons when we see them? You think your little boyfriend didn’t tell us everything?”

Javier matched Wrench’s gaze, held it. “We’re here to kill a rat, not to peddle meth. And even if we were, you think we’d use two fucking guys with no backup? That’s fucking amateur.”

It was Wrench that hit Javier this time, hard, on the knee. Javier screamed. Darkness crept in again at the edges of his vision.

“This is ABT territory,” Wrench said, “and you will show some fucking respect.”

“Help me carry him over to the table. We’re going to make him talk.”

Javier’s gaze drifted over to the fallen statue of Santa Muerte. Her skeletal gaze met his own. Those dark, eyeless sockets seemed to have pity and love in them. He could almost imagine them weeping for him. Santa Muerte, I have given you offerings of tequila and marigolds, blood and marijuana. I beg you, save me. Save me, or at least strike down my enemies.

Javier closed his eyes and recited in his head the prayer his grandmother had taught him when he was only a child. Santísima Muerte, I beg you, see me. I beg you, punish my enemies. Those who for evil, for heartbreak, or for money want to hurt me, to curse me, I beg you, make them pay for their sins.

Santísima, protégeme. Protégeme. Protégeme.

* * *

Just before midnight, the two men took a break from their bloody work. “Hey, Laredo,” Pistol said. “You ready to talk yet?”

Javier looked up from the ground, his eyes nearly swollen shut. The man before him was a barely distinct blur, and it was all Javier could do to spit blood in his direction.

“Heh. Alright, then. Happy fucking Halloween, I guess.”

Javier let his head slowly fall back down his chest, too heavy for his beaten body to support. That was when he saw it. He thought it was a trick of his eyes, a blink at the wrong time that made a bony hand look like it had moved. But then it moved again. The skull turned on the ground to look at the two men in their coveralls, and Javier saw anger in those empty, eyeless sockets. Fleshless hands pushed a fleshless body off the ground, and Javier thought he was hallucinating it all until he heard Wrench scream.

Oh, Santísima, Javier thought. You heard me.

Javier grinned through the pain. “Midnight,” he whispered as Santa Muerte glided forward, bony fingers wrapping around soft pink throats. “It’s midnight. It’s not your day anymore, gringos.

“It’s mine.”


Horribilis, Pt. 9

Chana frowned. “I am no princess.”

Anya sighed and rolled her eyes. “Of course, child. The daughter of our chief and the heir to his rule is not a princess. How silly of me.” Anya went silent. Her expression turned serious, humorless, as hard as the stone of the mountains that surrounded the Great Lake. The coldness there surprised Chana. She felt her eyes widen, cursed the instinctive reflex, and hoped that her body betrayed no other sign of surprise. Perhaps Anya hadn’t noticed.

Probably she had, though. The old woman was nothing if not observant.

“Barring some wholly unforeseen calamity, a hypothetical which does not exist, as Tiris can see the future, you will lead our people in the future. It will not be easy. For good leaders, it never is. You will have to be many things to your people, as a leader and as a woman. This has been true since you were a baby, since you could crawl, since the people heard you utter your first words. It is as true of you now as it will be when you are an old crone like me and your own son or daughter is the chief. Sometimes you will have to be a warrior. Sometimes you will have to be a diplomat. You will have to be tireless even when you want to collapse, brave when you want to run, gracious when you want to be cruel.

“And you will have to be a princess when you want to be a child hitting other children with sticks.

“Now, do as you’re told and trim that bandage so we can cover it with your hair and no one will wonder how you got injured and what is wrong with you and if you are fit to lead.”

Chana frowned. There was no helping it now. She could do nothing to conceal the displeasure she felt at the idea, especially since she knew the older woman was right. “Yes, Anya,” she muttered as petulantly as a child.

“Yes, my lady,” Anya corrected her with a grin.


Horribilis, Pt. 8

With a sweeping gesture towards the cabinet, Anya stepped aside from the younger girl’s path. Chana stepped forward and carefully considered her options. “Why, Anya. Did you remove the labels from everything so that this would be more of a challenge for me.”

Anya snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself, child. How could I have known you were coming? I just don’t label the things I use all the time. So few of our people can read that there’d be no sense in it.”

“But you put symbols on things so you can describe them to the others. Bones, stars, water, animals. I’ve seen them.”

Anya laughed softly. “I suppose I might have intended to test you and so directed you towards my private supplies. Get to work, child. You’re wasting time.”

Chana nodded and after a moment’s hesitation, turned to the pitcher of water Anya kept in the room. “The first thing she must do,” she could hear Anya’s voice in her head from years before telling her, “was to clean the wound.” She flushed it with water, letting the dirty, bloody mix run down her face and into a bowl to be thrown out later.

She then returned to the cabinet and opened a box full of clean rags, wiped her wound and her face dry. Those would have to be burned later, but that was a task for when the work was done.

She pulled a bottle of clear liquid from the shelf, unstoppered it, and sniffed. It smelled like Kayla’s still that she used to turn fruits and grain into firewater but stronger. She poured some onto another rag and wiped the wound once more, hissing as the liquid stung her like an angry insect.

Finally, she selected a long, thin rag and wrapped it around her head, tying it off with a knot so that it was firm but not painfully so. She turned to the older woman and grinned. “So simple a child could do it. I don’t know why we don’t get the children to do your job.”

Anya laughed. “Because no mother wants to see her daughter become a ‘witch.’”

“If you’re a witch, I’m a princess.”

Anya’s eyes sparkled at that, and a slow smile crept across her face. “Oh, you are, child. Just not the kind our people expect you to be.”


Horribilis, Pt. 7

Anya threw open the doors to the unused room where she treated all her patients and the two women walked inside. There was a cot, a desk, a large free-standing shelf with bottles and jars, some clear and some opaque, some labeled and some not. There were liquids and powders and dried herbs and fresh herbs, and on the top shelf, where most of the villagers would not be able to reach (although Chana could just barely reach it) and Anya herself would need to stand on a chair or a stool, were Anya’s most prized possessions of all: the ancient and irreplaceable books from before the Gods’ Judgment. Those dusty tomes had survived where their authors had not, and for the information contained within, the ancient secrets about the stars and the body and the plants and animals of the world, they’d been guarded as jealously as gold and silver, as wives and daughters, as the last scraps of food in a long hard winter.

Chana stood before the shelf, her gaze drawn upwards. “Someday I’ll have to copy those all down again,” she said softly. “I’ll have Magos tan some skins as thin as he can, and I’ll make ink from ash and oil, and I’ll write it all down.” She paused for a moment. “I’ll have to write down how to do those things as well.”

Chana said nothing. She wasn’t sure if the old woman expected a reply or not, but it didn’t matter. She cleared her throat and said, “Well, then. Enough of that. Let’s see if you can do this without any instruction, shall we?”

Chana glanced over her shoulder and smirked. “But what if I pick up some poison and rub it into my wound and die? Will you say something to stop me then.”

Anya let out a single laugh, a sound more like a dog’s bark than anything else. “Child, if you poisoned yourself after all I’ve taught you, you deserve it. Now, then. Get to work. If you talk any longer, you’re apt to get an infection from wasting time.”


Babel

Do you remember

The language we spoke then?

A subtle tongue

With rolled Rs

And muscles vibrating

Like taut strings

Playing off of each other

In harmony

 

We held each other

And we trembled at

What our voices

Had built

Soft promises piled up

To reach the sky

Towers topped with

Choruses singing

Mouths wide in Os

Big enough to

Swallow the world

 

I remember the language

I remember the words

Syllables of love and praise

Deifying mortals

Exalting flawed humans

Lifting each other up

So that angels would have to say

This is not right

This is not allowed at all


Horribilis, Pt. 6

Chana blinked in surprise. Her mind was still processing the woman’s words, trying to make sense of them, when the wooden door to the home swung open. The older woman filled the doorway, shorter than Chana’s own considerable height but broader, her body at once strengthened and bowed by many long years spent tending to the pains and needs of her people.

She looked up at Chana in surprise for a moment before her expression turned back to in irritation. “Ah. My apologies, child. I thought you were someone else.”

“Marius? What ails him? Is he unwell? Is it serious?”

Anya chuckled and shook her head. “Oh, you needn’t concern yourself with that, I promise. There is nothing wrong with him that couldn’t be solved if he would spend more time playing with his children and going with the other men on hunts instead of drinking his wine and worrying about his hair growing thin and grey.”

Chana tried to summon Marius’s face in her mind’s eye. It had been a while since she’d spoken more than a few words with him out of politeness. Was his hair growing thin and grey? Was his belly growing fat? She’d have to make it a point to go and see him. It wouldn’t do for her not to know her own people.

Anya spoke, stirring her from her reverie. “What do you need, child?”

The younger woman pointed at the wound on the side of her head. “I was careless during training this morning. Father insisted that I see you so you could bandage the wound.”

Anya sniffed and nodded once. After a moment, a wry smile crept across her face. “Of course. And I assume you would rather I let you dress it yourself, yes?”

Chana grinned back at the old woman. “You know me so well, my lady.”


Horribilis, Pt. 5

It was a short walk to Anya’s. The older woman lived away from the rest of the village, closer towards the hills, next to the winding creek that flowed down from them and into the Great Lake. When Chana had been a child, it had seemed strange to her that anyone would want to live so far away from the people around them. Her father had told her that Anya chose to live so close to the hills because it made it easier for her to gather and grow the plants and herbs that she used in her salves and tinctures. Her mother had said that Anya lived apart from the village because she had had a long and hard life and she preferred to spend most of her time alone.

As Chana grew older, she had decided that perhaps Anya had been asked to live apart from the rest of the village because the screams of women in childbirth, of men and children having their broken bones set, were too unpleasant for most of the village to be comfortable with having in their midst. Very few people paid Anya social calls. A healer was the kind of person one only went to go see when something had gone wrong, or you were afraid that something could go wrong.

“When I am the chief, I will ask Anya to come back. If she doesn’t want to, that’s fine, but I will not have her living alone because our people don’t like what she represents. Let them grow tougher stomachs. Perhaps she can even help with that.”

After thirty minutes, Chana found herself on the old woman’s doorstep. She lived in a small home, an unassuming place made from the local redwood and with a thatched roof. It was, funnily enough, much newer than the homes in the village, the ancient manors that had been built by people long dead and patched together countless times over the long years. Chana knocked firmly on the doorstep and a voice cried out from inside. “By the Seven, Marius! I don’t care how embarrassed you are or how bothered that little wife of yours is, the herbs will be ready when they are ready!”


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