Why They’re Never About The Good Ones
By Evan Dicken
Once upon a time, in a valley in Lower Saxony just south of Meppen town, there lived an old woman and her two grandchildren.
Helene had been a weaver in her younger days, but over the years the damp of the fens had stolen into her joints, twisting her fingers until they grew as gnarled and useless as the roots of the scrubby trees that crowded the river bank.
Katarin and Klaus had come north with the Spring floods, refugees from the labor pains that accompanied the birth of French democracy. Their father had gone off to fight Napoleon, and their mother, always sickly and lovelorn, wasted away for want of him.
Helene had no money, and the children were too young for real work. By all rights, they should have starved.
But they didn’t. Once a month, after Helene had put the children to bed and believed them asleep, she would leave the cabin. She always returned before sunrise, her eyes puffy and rimmed with red from weeping, but bearing a basket brimming over with food. Katarin and Klaus were curious, but when they asked Helene, her face turned dark as a midwinter storm.
“It is best that children not know of such things. Do not ask again.”
So they didn’t.
One morning, Helene tried to rise and found her legs cold and dead. The children, being dutiful and well-mannered, ran down to the river to gather wood. When they returned, Helene could barely move. They stoked the smoky fire as best they could and piled their threadbare blankets upon her, but nothing could return the warmth to their grandmother’s body.
“Children, come close.” Helene’s voice was little more than a whisper. They took her icy hands in their small ones and pressed them to cheeks wet with tears.
“Have you wondered how it is that we are poor, and yet always have enough to eat?”
“Yes grandmamma, but you told us never to ask,” they replied.
“You are good children. I do not want you to starve when I am gone. So listen carefully.”
And they did.
“One wegstunde downriver, where the Ems begins to curve toward the Nordradde, there is a knotted yew tree surrounded by old gravestones. At the base of this tree is a tiny door. Go there on the night of the new moon. You will find a basket of food outside. Take the food, but you must promise never to open the door.”
The children promised.
So hearing their pledge, Helene died.
They buried her beyond the high water mark of the Ems, where the floods would never reach. There was no marker, but Katarin collected some white swamp lilies from the marshy ground near the river and spread them on the grave.
Autumn left little time for mourning, and the children’s days were spent collecting firewood for winter, fishing in the Ems, and trying to plug the endless leaks in the hut’s thatch. Soon enough, however, the food ran short and the new moon came.
That night, they followed the Ems south. Katarin tried to be brave for Klaus, and succeeded until she was startled by one of the big-bellied toads that slept along the river bank. It leapt into the water with a great splash, drawing a frightened cry from both children. Katarin took Klaus’ hand, and they ran.
The wet ground sucked at their feet, water splashing up from puddles to seep through their thin, leather boots. The forest was loud around them. In their panic, every rustle became the stalking tread of a hungry troll, every night call the moan of an unquiet spirit. They ran along the bank of the Ems, afraid of the haunted darkness that stretched to either side.
Breathless, Katarin and Klaus reached the old graveyard, and there, just as their grandmother had said, was the yew. It was a squat, knotted thing, with broken finger branches and scaly bark that sloughed off like the skin of a plague victim. Set deep into the roots at its base was a small, red door.
Light streamed from the cracks around the lintel, and sounds of merriment came from within. Viol, drum, and clavier accompanied voices raised in song. After the creeping dread of the forest, it seemed to the two children as warm and comforting as a mother’s embrace.
As promised, outside the door was a wicker basket. Breads, ham, cheese, sausage, and other delicacies jostled for position in the children’s hungry gaze.
Katarin edged up to the yew, Klaus clinging to the waist of her blouse. The music swelled as she neared the basket, and Katarin was struck by the feeling that there were people just behind the door, pressed against the warm wood, waiting to be let out. Individual voices crept from the chorus, voices that Katarin recognized. There was her father’s deep basso, the clear chime of her mother’s laughter, even grandmama’s warbling tenor.
They were all in there.
She looked into Klaus’ eyes–as wide and liquid as the full moon reflected in the Ems–and knew he could hear them too.
When she turned back, there were letters on the door. Katarin couldn’t read, but she did recognize some words. Her own name, her brother’s, and below them, etched into the wood was one she remembered from the shops in Meppen town.
Her hand trembled in the air for one heartbeat, two, then closed on the handle of the basket. “Grandmama told us not to open the door.”
Klaus wiped his nose with the back of his arm, and helped Katarina lift the basket. Together they carried it back into the night. And though they oft returned to the graveyard, they never once opened the door. For they were obedient children, and heeded their elders.
Which is why nothing bad ever happened to them.
By Raymond Ziemer
There they go scritching and scratching again, from the old Thote burrow.
It’s a secret.
It’s bad to keep a secret. I kept a secret about the bog berries, but the Takers found out. Now I have to sleep all by myself, instead of warm and snug with Fleek and the rest of the Drove.
I found the bog berries all by myself. I’m a good Finder. But Finders can’t keep secret bog berries for themselves. That’s against the Law.
There are Finders and Feeders. Feeders eat leaves and grass and seeds from the meadow. Finders go out to find other food. Then there are Takers. They protect the Drove. They take food from the others and bring it to the Elders. That’s the way it’s always been, Mook says, so that’s the way it has to be. That’s the Law.
If Mook says it, you better listen. You might think he looks funny with his broken tusk and his patchy mane, but if he swipes you with a claw it will leave a mark.
One time I found a nest of truggles in a tree. It was fun to play with them – but Mook saw what I was doing. “What happened to their wings, Mott?” he asked.
I said I didn’t know. “I found them that way,” I said, but that was a Lie. They had tried to fly away, so I pulled their little wings off. I’m bad.
It’s the Things making noises. The Things are my secret. I found the Things on the hillside. It’s dangerous rooting under the Sky where a Snoo could get you, but I’m not afraid. I watch the Sky.
I saw the shiny seed pod drifting down out of the Sky. I watched it flutter to the ground and I watched a long long time until the little Things came out. I watched them wobble about on their hind legs. Then quick as a Snoo I snatched one up. It was only as big as my paw, with shiny white skin and a funny bubble head. It made a squeaky noise, and wiggled like a Googa, so I squeezed it tight until it stopped.
I brought the Thing back to the Forest. I wanted to show it to Fleek. She’s very hairy and once we groomed each other, which was nice. But Mook saw me.
”Where did you find this Thing, Mott?” he asked.
“Down by the spring,” I told him. But that was a Lie.
Mook leaned forward on his knuckles and sniffed the Thing. He tasted it and drooled with pleasure. “If you ever see another Thing like this, you must bring it to me,” he growled, and waddled off to share it with the Reverend Maker.
The Reverend Maker made us all, Finders and Feeders and Takers. She’s big and needs a lot of food. Mook says she’s making another. Reverend Maker makes the Laws, too. The Laws are important, so the Drove can Find and Feed forever.
Sometimes I think the Laws are just for the Takers and the Elders, so they can feed on the choicest bits and mount the hairiest mates.
I’m bad. I kept the secret of the Things and went back to get some more. They weren’t hard to find. I’m a good Finder.
I watched them scurrying around on their hind legs, moving sticks and stones with their tiny little forepaws. They made little dens for themselves, by sticking stones together. They’re funny Things.
Whenever I could, I went out and played with the Things. They tried to hide amongst the rocks, but I could dig them out. Mook always says, “A good Finder has to be a good digger.”
Sometimes they wave their little forelegs at me and squeak, almost as if they could talk.
If you pinch the bubble head off one, there’s another furry little head inside. And if you peel the shiny white skin off, they’re all pink meat inside. They have bones, but you can crunch those easily. I found out that they can sting, too, if you aren’t careful. In their paws are little stingers that you have to pull off.
Once while I was watching, a Snoo swooped down and flew away with one. That made me mad. I wanted to keep the Things for myself. I went back to the Forest and dug out the Thote burrow in secret. That was bad.
Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t meant to be a Keeper. I like to keep things for myself, like secrets. A Keeper keeps the Laws and Lore and Secrets.
But isn’t it bad to keep secrets?
I went back to get the Things that were left. I stuffed them in my gathering basket, brought them home, and hid them in the burrow.
Now they’re scratching to get out. Scritching and scratching, all the time! If some Taker hears, he might get mad. A Taker will kick you with a hind foot sometimes just to hear you bleat.
I uncurl myself and stretch and then I creep down the dark tunnel.
The secret burrow is empty. In the thick blackness I can smell them, but though I claw the walls and floor — they are gone!
I am mad. How I growl and thrash! At last I perk my ears to listen. Snuffling, I stretch and sweep my whiskers all about the burrow. When I brush the pebbly ceiling, I find the little crevice where they hid, the little nook they scritched and scratched. Clever Things! They’ve tunnelled back into my den.
I scramble back, but they are gone. Scuttling up to green Forest light, I see no sign of the little Things.
But I will find them.
I’m a good Finder.
Why I Hate Zombie Unicorns
By Laura Pearlman
The good news is, zombie unicorns almost never bite. The bad news is, even a tiny scratch from a zombie unicorn horn will turn you into a zombie. Mom discovered that by accident.
Mom was really smart. She was the first scientist to figure out that when the unicorns first showed up, some of them were already zombies, and some of those got bitten by lions or wolves or whatever, and that’s how it all started.
She used to let me watch her work in the lab. I just had to stay out of everyone’s way and not touch anything. She got me a lab coat, and we dyed it pink. I had my own notebook, too, and I’d write down everything I saw her do, and then she’d quiz me about it over dinner.
Anyway, Mom was preparing some samples. She had two unicorn horns. One was pure white and shiny and smooth. The other was gray and drab and had jagged edges. She let me write labels for two test tubes: “normal unicorn horn” and “zombie unicorn horn.” Then she put on a pair of bright purple latex gloves and winked at me. Her gloves and my lab coat were the only colorful things in the lab – everything else was white, brown, or gray. She put a clean drill bit into her drill, then set the white horn on top of a sheet of paper and started drilling into it. Powdery stuff fell out. It looked like fairy dust. When a little pile had collected on the paper, she poured the unicorn dust into the “normal unicorn horn” test tube, put on the stopper, and threw away the paper.
Then she started on the other one. But just then, one of the monkeys shrieked. Mom got startled and cut her finger on one of the edges of the zombie horn. It was just a tiny cut. The kind you cover with one of those band-aids that’s a circle instead of a rectangle, and then it just falls off the next day and you forget there was even a cut there at all. But this time, when she took off her gloves, her hand was already turning gray.
I wear my pink lab coat everywhere now. Everyone calls me Science Barbie, but I don’t care.
After Mom’s accident, I started spending most of my time with the older kids. Jason is fifteen, and Jill and Kyle are sixteen. I thought they wouldn’t want me tagging along, but Kyle said it was okay because I was the only twelve-year-old with enough guts to sneak outside. The others went along with it because everyone always goes along with what Kyle says.
It doesn’t really take a lot of guts to go outside. The fence keeps out the human zombies and the big zombie animals, so all we get are little ones, like rabbits and mice. And the traps get most of those.
I mean, it’s not completely safe. They had to shoot Mrs. Taylor last summer. She was already a zombie when they found her, so they couldn’t tell exactly what happened, but they think she was sitting under a tree reading a book and got bitten by a zombie mouse. She was always doing stupid stuff like that. Everyone knows you don’t sit on the ground.
And then Mrs. Johnson shot Mr. Johnson in their room by mistake one night because she thought he was a zombie, but it turned out he was just shuffling around because he was drunk.
And it’s not like staying inside kept Mom safe.
Sometimes I think Kyle is more afraid than I am. He says we’re all going to starve to death because zombie bees can’t fly, and that means they can’t pollinate, so all the food crops will die. I got really scared the first time I heard him say it. But that night I had a dream, and Mom was in it, and she was alive and normal and human, and she hugged me and laughed and said “have you ever seen a zombie bee?” And then I laughed and we held hands and started singing:
Have you ever seen a zombie bee?
Or a zombie fly?
Or a zombie flea?
Have you ever seen a zombie bee?
No you never have
‘Cause there’s none to see.
There were more verses, but that’s all I could remember when I woke up. Anyway, I told Kyle there was nothing to worry about — bugs don’t turn into zombies. But he wouldn’t listen, and he kept saying we’re going to starve, so I said hey, one thing we’ll never run out of is zombie meat. And he said you can’t eat zombie meat, because that’s just like biting a zombie. And I felt really stupid, so I said yeah, if you eat raw zombie meat, but maybe not if you cook it.
I didn’t mean we should actually do it. I wished I hadn’t said it. But it was too late to take it back. Kyle said we should cook some zombie meat and feed it to one of the dogs. I didn’t want to do something that mean, but none of the others said anything, and sometimes it’s just easier to go along with what Kyle says.
Jason and I went to the kennels to get a dog. We chose Mrs. Taylor’s old dog. I thought her name was Lady, but Jason thought it was Sadie, so I’m not sure. Anyway, Lady or Sadie or whatever her name was hadn’t had any human attention since Mrs. Taylor died. She was really happy to come with us. I wanted to forget all about the experiment and spend the afternoon playing with the dog, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
When we got back, Kyle and Jill were roasting a zombie rabbit over a fire. We didn’t know how long to cook it. Zombies are all gray inside, so you can’t judge by the color. Maybe you can judge by the smell. Jill said that when they caught the rabbit, it had that fresh-zombie smell they get right after they turn, sort of like mushrooms and rotting meat. By the time I got there, it smelled like an older zombie – less like mushrooms and more like rotten meat, with some sour milk and dust mixed in (it also smelled like burning hair, but I think that’s just because its hair was burning). Half an hour later, the burnt-hair smell was gone, and the zombie smell was stronger; it smelled like the oldest zombies, the ones that turned three years ago. And the smell kept getting worse. After an hour, we all wanted to puke. That’s when we decided it was done.
The dog wouldn’t eat it. And I said well, I guess this experiment didn’t work, and Kyle said no, we just need to keep her chained up until she’s hungry enough.
It took three days. She didn’t turn into a zombie, but she did throw up a lot. And I said okay, eating cooked zombie meat won’t turn you into a zombie, but it won’t keep you from starving, either.
And Kyle said, not so fast. The meat was three days old, so maybe it went bad. So we kept the dog chained up another day and cooked another zombie rabbit and made her eat that, and it was the same as before: she didn’t turn into a zombie, but she did throw up. A lot. But at least then we let her go.
I felt bad about what we did to the dog. I started spending more time alone, reading books. Not even reading, most of the time — I found some art books and just flipped through them, looking at the pictures.
One of the books was called Masterpieces of Tapestry, 1400-1600. This was the most boring of all the books, because the tapestries were all super-old and faded. I was about to put it down when I saw a picture of one with a unicorn in it. And then another picture with the unicorn being killed, and then one with the unicorn alive again. A zombie unicorn. But that didn’t make sense. I remember when the unicorns first showed up. I was nine.
I ran outside and showed Kyle the book and said look, zombie unicorns were here a long time ago and then they left so maybe they’ll leave again. He said it was just a story and I said how could there be a story about unicorns 500 years before anyone ever saw one? And even he had to agree it might be true. And then everyone just got really excited, and Jason came up with the idea that maybe if we killed all the zombie unicorns, that would cure the zombie disease. I wasn’t sure how that would work, but it seemed like a good idea anyway.
We decided to kill as many zombie unicorns as we could. But first we had to catch them. The tapestry book said they’d come up to a virgin, so I said Jill and I could try to lure them in, but Jill just laughed and said I was on my own. So I sat in a chair near the edge of the fence while the others watched and waited, ready to shoot any zombie unicorns that came close enough. But all I got were regular unicorns, not the zombie kind. After a few days of this, we were all getting kind of cranky, and everyone started yelling at me, and I said it wasn’t my fault — if they wanted a zombie unicorn, maybe they needed a zombie virgin. And everyone stopped yelling and just looked at me.
I wish I hadn’t said it. But it’s too late to take it back.
About the Authors
R.G. Ziemer was born on the South Side of Chicago. He has taught English, worked construction, and never stopped writing. He presently teaches composition at the College of DuPage and is working to complete a YA novel, The Ghost of Jamie McVay. His poetry has recently appeared in the journals Prairie Light Review and Rivulets.
About the Narrators
Alexis Goble has been a slush reader for Cast of Wonders since the spring of 2015. She’s new to the world of audio, and you may have heard her on previous Cast of Wonders episodes. Alexis is a jeweler and lives with her partner in Cincinnati, OH. You can occasionally find her on Twitter.
Jonathan M. Chaffin is the designer and writer behind the Cthulhu tiki mug and other horror-themed barware collections from Horror In Clay; each object has a backstory and contributes to a narrative for the collection. He also co-owns Mug Crate, the quarterly tiki mug subscription box, has narrated and designed for Pseudopod, and frequently speaks on all things tiki, horror, crowdfunding, and pop culture at events like DragonCon and Anachrocon. He also writes horror movie reviews for The Collinsport Historical Society from time to time.
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.