Cast of Wonders 404: The Oak Knowers (Part 2 of 2)
The Oak Knowers (Part 2)
by Wesley Jenkins
“I don’t know how to find someone like this,” says Priscilla, loudly, over the sudden swell of midnight noise.
“I do,” says Renia, strolling confidently to the edge of the pit and kneeling. Silently we join her. It’s not a message she sends, more like a scent, something more primal than emotion. We always know when she is calling us. Only Jamian, still manning the circle’s rim, remains standing. Renia looks up suddenly, straight into my eyes. I’m surprised to see fear on her face, though I know we all feel it, but there is also certainty. “The killer. I can feel him.”
“Yes,” I say, that niggling feeling and the fear attaching to each other, spinning out into a web, growing limbs. It leaves my body. In the black air, woven from wind and fog, a form like an over-sized doll takes shape, definite but insubstantial. A blurred face, like the bulb of a flowering plant, rises up on the stem of the body. Now I can see him, and as I look at him, absorbing his smugness, my fear turns to anger. The wind is still wild, reckless, just like this working. Our fury is stirring air. Another oak slips out of the night, slender, pale as bone. Another. Another. “Oh my God.” The revelation. Kaitlin gives voice to it.
“We aint’ gotta look fo’ him. He commin’ to us.”
“Yes.” Our voices have melded. Jamian, patrolling, whispers the word as well. His head is raised high now. For two more oaks have come, gathered round us in their ring of eternal strength, the strength of memory and the slow seasons, pouring one after another from the rings, chasing each other into oblivion in the silent heart of each tree. Great huge things. Not a part of Tower Grove, not a part of any park or place. Perhaps others cannot see them. We’ll never know, we can only see with our own eyes. To us they stand high above the other trees, which, as the final three oaks emerge, all seem to sink out of view. Only the white, white oaks surround us and the thin fog hanging between the trunks. Jamian’s steps grow shorter, fewer, he stops.
We wait. So much of our power lies in waiting. We listen too, to the gentle susurrus gliding over tree limbs like delicate fingers over the strings of a harp. There’s something in the sound, sorrowful, on the one hand remaining unintelligible and on the other hinting endlessly at nature’s terrible secrets. The oaks are whispering to us. In the air, the doll-shape has grown, but the face is gone. The form is composed of dark storm clouds, roiling, silent flashes of lightning brightening at random intervals. It is boiling with heat, but indecipherable. Pouring into itself.
“He’s coming.” It’s Jamian who says it. He’s knelt next to me. I feel strong now, steady. The circle, small as it is, is complete. We’re not worried that Jamian has quit his watch. The oaks are many, a truer protection.
“Maybe,” I respond. “We don’t have anything of his though, not even his name. I can feel him, but…”
Jamian extends one of his large hands, fingers stretched wide. “He is coming.”
“He is coming,” chorus Renia and Priscilla together. The voices are knotted up in each other. There’s force in them. I can feel the tug, he’s not far away. But we haven’t really hooked him yet. Will alone is not enough.
“He is coming.” This time Kaitlin joins the others and I finally realize what they’re talking about. They don’t mean the killer. They mean the killed.
I take Priscilla’s hand. Alone I say, “He is coming.” She gives a squeeze. Her eyes roll back in her sockets and sweat pours down her forehead. She’s headed up. It’s always a struggle but we’re giving her a push. The mist grows thicker, gushes past the oaks, invading the circle. Renia, as always, looks worried by this. Kaitlin is shaking her head, already sorry. Jamian is resolute. And me? I’m still just afraid.
“Blood and earth,” I murmur. Priscilla, shaking, twists from my grip and hurls herself into the pit. It’s too small to contain her, but it must have grown because she lies nestled in it with a lost expression on her face, like a little girl who’s just tumbled into a well. Looking up at us her eyes are different, supple, overflowing with loss.
“He is coming,” she repeats, a bit hoarsely, and then the nightmare. The cloud-shape above her twists, as if in agony, and then brightens, softening into the form of a boy I recognize. We had gym together. We only talked once or twice. Corey is tall, thin, and more handsome than I recalled. A perfect hole, still trailing blood, pierces his head clean through. I’m confused. There’s no hole in the cap, yet the wound is so clear. The spirit, percolating over Priscilla, gives a belly deep laugh that scares the shit out of me.
“Smart Mark,” he chimes, and winks at me. “Proper Priscilla. Calm Kaitlin. Radiant Renia. And Juicy Jamian. You guys coming to my party or what?”
We are silent. We have seen many things, even faced the dead before, but never like this.
I’m surprised to find myself speaking first. “You died. You’re safe now, but… We need to know, where did he leave you… your body? For your parents. And ummm…” I need a squeeze from Renia’s hand, which she’s placed over mine, to find the strength to finish. “The man who… You know, the guy who killed you? Who is he?”
I peter out at the last few words because Corey is laughing again, uproariously. His shape contracts and expands, as if he really is made of smoke, and I feel oddly revolted. “Dead! Ha! I know I’m dead nigga’. You’re alive! There, is that news? Yall stupid sometimes. Fine. I’ll help you out. Mom and pops, they’ll be okay. Someone told me.” When did the wind stop? Only in this moment do I notice the perfect, complete silence surrounding us. The oaks, white and imposing, shout their power down on us all.
“But yeah, it would make them happy. I still love them, man. Love. There’s love on the other side. She knows.” He’s looking at Priscilla whose head is down. She isn’t moving. She won’t as long as he’s with us. When she opens her eyes and lifts her head the spirit will disappear. “She begged hard, yall, or I wouldn’t have come. They’re prolly missing me at my party…” He looks off into the darkness and fog beyond the oaks. Spirits are so easily distracted.
“So who?” Kaitlin says it. She’s got Renia’s other hand.
“I don’t know.” Corey shrugs. “Some white guy. Got me when I was walking back from a friend’s a couple nights ago. Boom. Just like that, outta nowhere. Dumped me in the river. Don’t look like that, it’s okay. I don’t remember pain… Look it, I gotta go soon but here –”
The face of the killer, in every exquisite detail, is hammered into our minds. It’s the way Corey saw him the instant before he died. A pale round face, neither handsome nor ugly, brown hair, a flat chin, no one special. Still, it’s striking. The eyes, blue-green, are full of a primal fury. What is this rage? I mean, where does it come from? It goes far. It’ll lead him to kill, a lethal focus. No, I know the word: obsession. Maybe I recognize it more by what it isn’t than by what it is – the opposite of true love, completely beyond reason and absolutely deadly. Poor Corey never stood a chance. A shadow of the fear that crossed his heart in that last moment touches us. I don’t feel the same as I did before this instant. Some things you simply can’t forget. The face is clear and the emotion is strong. This is more than enough to hone in on the killer.
“But, Corey,” says Renia, “aren’t you angry?” Her eyes are full of tears that have yet to fall. I don’t like to think about how beautiful she is to me, in such moments, but her braids are glistening under the spectral light of the spirit and she’s so earnest. This sympathy – she really means it, she always does.
Corey smiles, very slowly. It’s clear that he feels sorry for her. “Renia, oh so fine all the time. I’m good, girl. I got all I need. Look it. You don’t have to worry, I’ll look out for you. All of you.” He waves. “Peace dudes.” Then he’s gone. Before he fades completely he spares a wink for Jamian, blows him a kiss.
Does Jamian feel it? As the boy’s ghost fades he rises to his feet, stretching out his arms. The face melts away and the cloud loses Corey’s semblance, though the basic human shape remains. Jamian pulls something from under his hoodie. A twig? A small branch, hawthorn. He keeps it for protection. He knows he always arrives last, that he’s our guard. For the first time it occurs to me that his position is not a matter of negligence at all. I’m so stupid. How come I didn’t see this before?
Jamian lifts the stick of hawthorn, very gently, stretches out to place it in the cloud. It rests in midair for a moment, suspended in the smoke, and then, creaking, begins to grow. There are no leaves, it’s not a green movement, other sticks are springing from this one stick, webbing together, tracing the outline of the smoke until a large, humanoid figure is complete, a hollow wicker man floating in the air.
Priscilla, blinking herself awake, reaches for the rim of the pit. Kaitlin and Renia bend to help her out of the hole. There’s only the black, the twelve slim oaks, and the wicker man bathed in moonlight, but the coarse cry of blackbirds, circling invisibly above, rains down over us. I know we are observed. A presence is with us. The gods are watching.
“We didn’t get the name,” says Renia.
“We don’t need it,” I reply. Sometimes we only understand in pieces. When our understanding is whole we are unstoppable. We’re all tired now, and sure to be haunted, but the work of the night is not done. Not yet.
Jamian nods to me. “He is coming.” The birds are still cawing, but his voice cuts overs them, insistent. He’s not speaking a question, it’s a command.
I look at the girls, intent, repeating. “He is coming.”
“He is coming,” we all say in unison. A thundercrack splits the sky and the cries of the crows reach a shrill crescendo, rippling through us. Can you see sound in the Otherworld or have we simply going insane? Maybe both. It doesn’t matter. The Teachings are firm – the right questions always matter more than the right answers. The right question is: who is coming? And the answer arrives straightaway.
The man steps into the circle as if we should be expecting him. He’s wearing a red Cardinal’s cap – a reflection from the other side or is it really his? The man is real. We can tell that. His brown hair and scruffy cheeks look unwashed, but he’s middle-aged, it’s not really a dirty look on him. He’s got a can of beer in one hand, not quite empty, which he drops as he approaches. He seems hypnotized, a sleep walker. He says nothing as he draws close to the pit where we are gathered.
He doesn’t look at us as he climbs down into the hole, nor does he seem to note the wicker man which is slowly lowering itself in front of him. Size and time are both funny here. The pit now seems much bigger, flat inside. There’s plenty of room for both men, the one of flesh and the one of wood. When the wicker man touches the ground it splits open, as if it’s been sliced down the middle, one half swinging on an invisible latch so the hollow interior is on display.
The man, silently, walks up to it, turns around, steps backwards so that the back of his head is nestled against the hawthorn branches, arms and legs fitting into each perfectly sized limb of the wicker shape as if it had been molded to fit him.
I can’t look away as the other half slowly swings closed, shutting the man in a cage of hawthorn. Two holes have stretched wide in the wicker face so we can see his blue-green eyes.
“What we doin’?” asks Kaitlin. “The police can take him like this right? I mean, what’s the… What are we…”
But in her heart she knows the truth. Priscilla, tears streaming down her face, looks down at Kaitlin. Out of the sky, like a dropped stone, a gleaming crow falls and alights on her shoulder. We are disturbed. She doesn’t seem to notice the animal. Her pink eyes are aimed at Kaitlin. “You asked for justice. I went far up this time. She –”
“Who is ‘she’?” demands Kaitlin.
“– told me what to do. Jamian knows. Marcus knows, he heard it. Renia…?”
Renia won’t look at any of us. All around, the oaks have gone from white to steely gray. The fog is sucking itself out of the circle. Making space for what?
“I won’t do this,” says Renia, but then Priscilla takes her hand, gently.
“Look at me. He’s done it before. He’ll do it again. Soon. Not to someone we know, but still…”
“The police,” says Kaitlin. “I hate ‘em, but –”
“There is no proof.” Priscilla’s voice is very hard, unlike her. “She didn’t tell me who it would be, his next victim. Only that it would happen. He’ll do it his whole life. Renia, he’s a murderer.”
“It’s wrong. The Teachings are against violence. Well, mostly… I couldn’t live with myself.”
“How many other murders can you live with?” Priscilla is glaring into her soul and Renia looks down. She isn’t crying. That’s how I know she’s made her choice. As if to banish any doubts, another crow falls, talons clutching Renia’s shoulder. She also doesn’t flinch.
Jamian, who seems impassive, can’t take his eyes from the wicker man. “I’m not all the way sure, either. There are other things we could do…”
“She was clear,” says Priscilla. “Either we do it or we don’t, no in betweens.” Jamian, frowning, nods. He looks directly at the bird that chooses him. Of course we all see them. Tonight we see as one, we mesh. I know he’s thinking of poor Corey. In fact, so am I, but when Priscilla turns to me I’m still unprepared.
“Marcus,” she says to me, “the Teachings tell us there is mercy and there is judgment and the wise soul metes out both. You have to trust me.”
Priscilla, wherever she was raised, is my friend, like all the others. We couldn’t make the circle if I didn’t trust her. I’m seeing Corey as I look at her, laughing, smiling, so happy. Why does it make me feel sick to think of him that way? In fact, why does it fill me with rage? I don’t notice my shoulder’s been taken until I see Renia staring at it with her wide eyes. The creature is weightless. Is it here to give power or simply to bear witness?
Finally, Priscilla reaches out to Kaitlin, taking her by the shoulders, pulling her into her thin embrace. Kaitlin shakes there for a moment, then pulls away, swallowing before she dares to speak. Her voice is weak, feather soft.
“Who is ‘she’?” she asks. The question must be important. Kaitlin never repeats herself. Are there tears in her eyes? Is such a thing even possible? Priscilla leans back, the shadows wreathing her round.
“The Morrigan,” says Priscilla, chilling each and every one of us to the bone, “washing the bloody clothes of all the children who will die by this man’s hands on the rocks of inevitability in the ice cold river of time. Corey was not the first. Corey is not the last.”
“No,” says Kaitlin firmly, her decision made, “he will be the last.” She turns to the pit, the man of flesh inside the man of wood. Her crow is silent in its descent.
We join hands. Kaitlin is strong, but she can’t do this alone. She pushes. We push with her. The breeze has died. The air is very still. Priscilla sees justice, Kaitlin a terrible ultimatum. Jamian sees vengeance and Renia compassion for those victims to come.
And me, what do I see?
I see dark red flames, the color of blood, rushing up out of the earth to catch the hawthorn, flowing high to engulf it, foot to crown. They snatch the sticks, roaring bright orange as they rise into the black sky. Around us the oaks, pouring their slow strength into us, are bleached white as the moon. The heat is awful. We sweat beneath our hoods. It takes forever, this burning, eating of man and wood, scorching them to ash, and yet at the same time it’s over just as it begins. The oaks, mollified, sink back into the darkness from which they were called. The pit closes as if it never was, swallowing the boy’s hat and the man’s ashes along with our small offerings.
Tower Grove glows around us as the spirit world retreats and the familiar one returns lit by streetlamps, a distant moon. The stars have reignited in the sky and the air is quiet, still. Each winding cement pathway is clear, the pagodas and bridges, even a lonely park attendant, lights flashing on his little golf cart which he drives up the short street that cuts into the park. He doesn’t look our way.
The girls are gone, though I don’t recall them leaving, and I find myself at the edge of South Grand already, looking up toward my building, a brick thing waiting in the distance. I can’t help but glance back, just once.
I see Jamian. The last to come is the last to leave. He bends, picks something up, walks over to a trashcan, throws it away. It flashes before it sinks into that final darkness. Nothing of importance. Litter. Just a half-crushed can of beer.
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.
Dom Rabrun is an artist living in the Washington, DC. area. He specializes in experimental animations, drawings, and videos. You can learn more about him and his work at www.domrabrun.com.
Cherrae L. Stuart
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.