The Oak Knowers
by Wesley Jenkins
Part 1 of 2
When the moon sits high, and our parents have passed out for sure, we gather in the grove to do our business.
We never call it magic. Magic is something magicians do, pulling rabbits out of hats. I guess witches turn princes into toads and sorcerers cruise from kingdom to kingdom, toppling regimes and screwing everything in sight, but we have never been so outrageous. For one thing, we believe in rules.
Rule One: arrive on time. Not like Jamian, half an hour late with the sides of his head newly shaved so he sports a faux hawk, sneakers scuffled, his black hoodie a wrinkled mess. He has to be the guardian of the perimeter because shotgun is, apparently, a very old idea. Old enough to make it into the Teachings, anyway. The last to show up walks the circle, keeps watch. As jobs go, it’s boring as shit. Serves him right.
After we nod our recognition, he pulls up his hood. The trees, sparsely placed in their purposeful rows, are all still green, but winter is nipping at the breeze and a fog is rising from the grass. Tower Grove is empty this late, except for the park attendants – the circle’s meant to keep them away. All the houses lining the street are dark, old two-stories of brick and timber, newly painted with neat staircases leading up to each door and manicured bushes out front. Well-tended places full of white families who can afford to live here. St. Louis was built a long time ago, when American builders still cared about beauty, and even the older, dilapidated neighborhoods have a faded grandeur, the husk of glory after all the money has been sucked out. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still shitty places to live. We’re lucky. Our families made it to the Shaw. Schools where kids actually go every day and grocery stores all over the fucking place. Plus it’s close to Tower Grove, the greenest, loveliest place in the city according to everyone. Unless you’re an asshole who prefers Forest Park. We’re not assholes.
Rule Two: always arrive with an offering. I bring a silver chain I found at a thrift shop. Probably not silver, in fact, but some metal pulled from the earth. Kaitlin brings an old pair of earrings. Renia a piece of her mother’s peach pie in a thick bandage of napkins. Jamian has a wadded up five dollar bill and half a cigarette – the gods aren’t picky. We place these things in the center of the circle, where we have dug a pit, and burn them. Kaitlin calls the fire. It’s easy for her. The objects are whirled in a blaze of summery orange and eaten by light, gifts sailing in scarves of smoke up to the old ones. Without these gifts they won’t hear us. If they don’t hear you they can’t watch over you. Not once, since we first made the circle, has one of us shown up without an offering. Except Priscilla, standing some distance from us. As our dark one she brings nothing at all. She merely watches from the sidelines as the smoke rises into the cold sky, tracks it on its heavenly path up to the realm of the gods, her eyes always heavy, half-lidded and full of dark promises. She, alone among us, has visited those lost regions. The rest of us wouldn’t dare.
Finally, Rule Three: get straight to business. This is where it always gets complicated.
“Again?” says Priscilla, from her corner of the circle.
“That nigga’ is late every time.” Kaitlin inspects Jamian as he marches around us, arms crossed. Her jacket, purple, a used Northface, has golden studs along the edge of the hood that frame her dark round face.
“There’s not even an oak,” complains Jamian, who must have heard her. “Anyway, I’m the best guard you’ve got so…” He makes a sound like a fart, blowing up his considerable cheeks, before marching off to the perimeter of the circle. We don’t have to tell him where the rim of it is. All of us can feel it. Slowly he follows that edge, staring out into the darkness that falls outside of it. There are dangers out there, we can feel them too, twisting about in the hidden places and shadows. We must always remain vigilant, so as usual, we’re slightly distracted. Tense.
On cue, Renia rolls her eyes. She’s thin, almost severely so, but pretty, with an endless collection of braids that always seem to flow in one direction. We never catch her arranging them but it has to happen sometime. “Whatever,” she says. “So what’s going on in the neighborhood this time? Vampires?”
“We’ve never found one of those,” says Priscilla. There’s a note of irritation in her voice, and the two girls round on each other, a slight predatory look sparking in their eyes. None of us were friends before the circle came to us, so we still have confrontations like these sometimes. Jamian acts like he doesn’t notice. I make a face of disgust, but hold my tongue. Beside me, Kaitlin looks very amused.
“Wicked ghosts then? This shit is endless and always the same,” says Renia. She’s smooth, her smile bends every now and then into a more serious expression, but bounces back just as quickly. It makes it hard to take offence at her teasing without seeming like a total asshole. “Dark spirit energy, otherworldly gateways, paranormal disease –”
“None of those, either. This is different…” Priscilla is cold, precise. I brought us here, called the meeting, but her intuition, a gift that comes from her place in the circle, always gives her a clue about the truth of our current assignment, the mission we’re mean to finish before the night is done. Her premonitions have never been wrong. Whatever she has to share with us tonight is clearly weighing on her mind more than usual, but Renia is oblivious. She’s having too much fun.
“Okay! So you’re one out of six at this point. And thanks for bringing up the poltergeist after what happened last time,” Priscilla’s face reddens. We never talk about what happened with the poltergeist.
Jamian shakes his head as he walks behind me on his patrol. He mumbles so only I can hear. “She knows got damn well not to bring up the ‘geists, man.” He makes a sound like he wishes he could dismiss all this bullshit.
Renia can’t possibly have heard Jamian, but she looks at us, seems to think twice about what she said. “Sorry.”
Priscilla has gathered herself. But she’s still frowning and her tone is cutting, “You know what –”
“I know that it’s getting late and I totally had to sneak out to get here, so…” My voice breaks through hers and all of them look at me, even Kaitlin.
I am not the leader. We do not have one. Handling problems by committee might be the worst idea in the universe, but tradition matters in circles like ours. I drop my head. My hood covers my face. It does make it easier to conceal emotion, in this case my shame.
“No offence meant,” I amend. “We’re short tonight. Dylan and McMillan have tests tomorrow and Kid B. never comes anymore so it’s just us.”
“We’re uneven.” It’s Priscilla who admits this, shaking her head of curly brown hair. She’s pale. We think of her as black, treat her like one of us anyway, though her true color is dusky pink. Her mother is darker than I am and her father, well she’s never met him so how would we know? She spent her elementary school days in the County with the rich kids, Ladue, but we’ve done our best to forgive her for this.
“We do need our balance,” said Renia. “I can always feel how they’re missing. Like a hunger…”
“I am problem guy,” I pipe up. No point in letting her go on like that. “You want to find one? I’ve got you.”
“If you want to solve one, come to me,” says Priscilla. The smile is cynical, but very effective.
“And if you want it to not take forever, come to me,” says Renia, but she’s rolling her eyes again. “We all have a purpose. That’s one of the Teachings. But Jamian’s right, there’s no oak here and we’re missing half our best folks. We’re a shitty grove of druids.”
“Says who? Anyway, I’ve got it right here. Look.” I pull out the problem I’ve known all along would occupy our time tonight.
It’s a red cap with the Cardinal’s proud mascot embroidered on the front. It’s dark, so you’d have to be one of us to know right away that there was blood on it. Our eyes see further on nights like these. All of sudden my heart sinks. The hat is soaked in blood, suffused with it. I feel just the way I felt when I collected it from the street. I knew on sight that something was wrong about it, though the details can only be uncovered, here, in this place, with my crew around me.
Jamian ceases his orbit so I know it’s serious. Renia’s crying. That’s to be expected. Kaitlin, completely silent, examines the hat impassively. She’s short, thick, very dark, with straightened hair she always combs the same way and a permanently sad look on her face, the strongest of us. Priscilla just frowns, but she can’t look away from it, either. Jamian begins to shake with rage.
“What the fuck man?” he says, starting his rounds again. His hulking shape cuts a weird silhouette in the shadows, circling round, round. The circle is not a thing or a place, it is a presence. It’s as much defined by where he puts his foot as by anything else, or perhaps a better explanation of the circle is the line beyond which our fears collect. I hope he’s being careful.
“I found it on South Grand last night on my way home,” I tell them. “I felt something when I saw it. It’s Corey’s. From school.”
“That boy who’s missing?” asks Priscilla, blinking. “How many days has it been? Two. It’s not the first time he’s run away.”
Renia inches closer. She’s got the most to lose, in this moment, and we’re trying not to push. But we’ve been together a while now, more than a few months, and we don’t have to ask her to touch it. She takes it from me silently. The rest of us are tense. We never know just how bad it will be.
Renia must be getting stronger, or more used to the roller coaster, because it’s quick business. She shivers, shakes her head, thinks, then hands the hat back to me. I’m impressed. She only has two words to offer.
We face this fact in silence. We don’t ask her to go on. We wait.
In her own time, Renia continues. “I can’t tell what it was that killed him. But it was harsh and sudden. He didn’t see it coming. The last feeling was fear – it is most of the time, you know – but this was different. It’s not just surprise, it’s shock. He’s shocked by… Something strong.”
“Any idea what kind of something?” presses Priscilla carefully. We’ve gotten into fights before this way. Renia takes everything so personally. Empathic gifts, none of us envies her.
“Just that it was big and older than him.” says Renia. “Older than us,” she amends.
“He’ll come back,” says Jamian from in front of us – he meant the victim. Then, on the side, he added, “Souls return.”
“But families stay broken,” I say. “We have to find the killer and put it right.”
Jamian stops again. Priscilla and Renia stare at me, blatantly horrified. Kaitlin perks, like she might speak, though she doesn’t.
“You mean you think it’s a person? Marcus, no,” says Renia, shaking her head at me. “We can’t. Spirits are one thing…”
“We should call the police,” says Priscilla, though she has the grace to be shamed by our glares of disapproval. “I mean, we’re only supposed to deal with spiritual problems, not this. This is…”
“She’s right,” pipes Renia.
“She is,” offers Jamian. I’m a little surprised. He was the one I was counting on for support.
The energy of the circle is bending, turning against me. We’re only strong together. Outside of the circle, in the daylight, we’re like every other kid in the Shaw, more or less. Its corner stores for Rap Snacks, basketball, a secret smoke behind the gym – we’re not into serious shit. But it is night and we are close. The Teachings have made us wise in ways I can’t explain. Not completely. If all of the others say ‘no’ it’s over. The circle will break and we’ll have to go home before one of the park attendants catches sight of us.
I look to Kaitlin. She hasn’t spoken yet. I can feel our group’s connection hanging by a hair. Once severed it can only be called another night to a new purpose. The cap will go in the trash and the boy who wore it will be forgotten.
“I knew Corey,” she says. There’s something I see in her eyes, then, as they stare into mine. I give a sigh of relief. She turns to the group. “He gone for good. You think the cops gonna find his killer? You really think they care? Girl, you from Ladue but you can’t be stupid like that. And Renia, yo’ people from the North side. His grandmamma lived up there. He told me. What about yo’ own, sis?”
She has to turn again to find Jamian, who’d slipped back into his rounds, probably trying to avoid those eyes. She catches him quick. “And you. You know what, he liked you, boy. Told me himself. Like, like like. I mean, it don’t make no difference –” I can tell from the way Jamian’s head falls that it very much does, “– but he still ours. Yall hear me?”
They don’t have to answer. The second she opened her mouth I knew they’d cave. The matter was settled.
“Fine,” says Priscilla, speaking for all of them. She looks a little guilty. Kaitlin’s like that, can crawl right under your skin. “But the Teachings don’t tell us how to track criminals. Justice is not the job. I mean, I just turned fifteen. I can’t even drive yet…”
“You don’t need to know how to drive a car to solve a murder,” I say, with more confidence than I feel. “All we really have to do is find a name. Give it to his family. They’ll do the rest.”
“Yeah, and let them know where… well, where his body is,” said Renia. She looks over at Priscilla with those big brown eyes. This time there’s a tenderness between them. So often they forget that their gifts are alike. Only they have to experience the pain of others as if it truly were their own.
“We can do something like that.”
Priscilla is silent. We take it as assent. She never likes to use her talents. Understandable. Her specialty is frightening at the best of times, the stuff of life and death. We’ve all read the Teachings, together, at the same time as we were first instructed. But there were certain names and signs, certain cursed runes and old spirits that were mentioned only in passing. Knowledge of them is considered both a privilege and a burden. Priscilla alone among us holds those names and signs in her heart, those nightmares are tied to her. Sometimes, when we’re together, I can hear snatches of the dark thoughts and traumas that haunt Priscilla’s mind. My gift is gentler, it’s easier for me to turn it down, but I can’t help but hear those whispering thoughts echoing out of her. Even now…
I look up at her, alert suddenly, but she doesn’t notice.
Renia and the others shift in discomfort, registering my fear.
Chief amongst the horrors Priscilla had learned was the name of Morrigan. I’d heard her think the name only once, after the poltergeist. It was a name her thoughts whispered now, a name draped in sadness. Around my head the black air seems to burn with cold.
“Priscilla,” I say it loudly to get her attention. “Would you like me to –”
“No,” she snaps. “No. Let’s just do it.”
“Agreement.” We all say the word in unison, and there’s that feeling, the one we always have when working as one, a wash of warmth and excitement. We’ve sworn ourselves to the case in the circle and it’s settled. Now we must see it through to the end.
“Look, an oak,” says Kaitlin, pointing to it where it stands, just at the edge of the circle. It’s emerged out of nowhere. We know enough to be frightened by it. Something greater than us is beginning. An oak is power. It’s found us from the other side. Priscilla is shivering, though it hasn’t gotten any colder. Her breath is coming out in clouds of white.
Kaitlin takes the cap from me, tosses it in the pit, and a black wind hurls itself out of the night. As the trees go crazy in the gust – willows throwing hair and maples dancing, spruces clashing branches and thin elms bowing – another oak rises from the darkness, another, another. Four, all the power we could need.
End of Part 1
About the Author
Wesley Jenkins is a writer from Houston, Texas and proud Grinnell College alum. He enjoys Tweeting terrible things, devouring science fiction and fantasy in all its forms and defying expectations (or living up to them, depending on his mood). He works in education and youth development and hope to tell stories featuring queer folk of color “because”, he says, “I am one and I love us”. In the summer of 2015 he was accepted into the VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation) as a member of Tananarive Due’s Speculative Fiction Workshop. In 2017 he published a piece about race and the prestige podcasting world on Buzzfeed. Writing is his obsession, his passion, and his dream.
About the Narrators
Alex Jennings (he/him) is an author, teacher, and performer living in New Orleans. His writing appears on WRBH Reading Radio, Podcastle, Room 220, New Suns: Speculative Fiction by People of Color, and forthcoming from Strange Horizons. He also MCs and co-produces a monthly literary readings series in New Orleans called Dogfish.
Moses Utomi has done a lot of different things for a little bit of time, but writing is his constant. When he’s not indulging his restlessness by traveling about, he’s being a martial artist or doing karaoke—with or without a backing track. He currently lives in New York City.
Cherrae L. Stuart is co-host of the Entertainment News Podcast TCAD and Movie Review Show the Ten Min Take. She’s also the star of the Science Fiction Comedy Podcast Good Morning Antioch. Season Three coming soon!
Eden Royce is a Freshwater Geechee from Charleston, South Carolina, now living in the Garden of England. Her short stories are in various print and online publications including, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Vastarien, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, PodCastle, and PseudoPod.
Her debut middle grade historical Southern Gothic novel is forthcoming from Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. Learn more at her website edenroyce.com.
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her family. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times, she juggles, none too successfully, the multiple other facets of her very busy life.
Khaalidah has been published at or has publications upcoming in Strange Horizons, Fiyah Magazine, Diabolical Plots and others. You can hear her narrations at any of the four Escape Artists podcasts, Far Fetched Fables, and Strange Horizons. As co-editor of PodCastle audio magazine, Khaalidah is on a mission to encourage more women and POC to submit fantasy stories.
Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.