Cast of Wonders 448: The Oak Knowers (Staff Picks 2020)
The Oak Knowers
by Wesley Jenkins
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.
“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.