By the time I reach the henhouse with my shotgun, the chickens have stopped screeching. I can’t see much in the pre-dawn gloom, but it’s clear that whatever’s got at the hens is long gone. I crouch and finger the wire, which is all torn up like an animal tried to dig under it. Nothing I can’t fix, but I have enough to worry about without this mess. The henhouse door is about ripped off its hinges so I’m careful when I pull it open to peer inside. Twelve bony hens huddle together, clucking with fear. There should be thirteen.
“Damn.” Da’s going to have my hide. We can’t afford to lose any more birds.
The metallic sound drifts on the still air. It’s coming from the up near the Deadwood, right where I’ve laid my traps.
I latch the door and set off toward the bare, grayed-out pines, soft as I can be, shotgun at the ready. The air is choked and lifeless. I don’t much care for being here, especially since those trees are creeping closer every year. I ain’t seen them move, but when I was little they were a good mile up the mountain. Now they’re only a few hundred yards away from the house.
Wary of wayward limbs, I creep along, dead leaves and brittle needles crackling beneath my bare feet. My heart pounds. I can hunt in the Deadwood, so long as I don’t touch none of the trees. Last winter we were desperate for firewood and Da tried to cut one down. That’s when it fell, hurting him so bad he ain’t left his bed since. The one time I took an ax near them, I ran right into one of the branches. The wound it gave me on my shoulder is still weepy and sore.
A few steps more and I catch sight of the critter. I freeze. It’s no animal there with its leg caught between steel jaws.
It’s a boy.
Mortification roots me to the ground. He’s naked and filthy, tearing at the dirt and yanking pathetically at the trap as if he’s too stupid to realize it ain’t going to let him go. The chicken dangles from his mouth like a bloody pendulum. Dark stains cover his lips and ankle. That leg must be paining him something awful but he doesn’t whimper or scream, and from the way he’s yanking he’s liable to tear his flesh straight to the bone. “Stop that, you ken? Hold still and I’ll get you out of…”
He lifts his head and that’s when I get a good look at his eyes. They’re all silvery, reflecting the faint light in a way that ain’t natural. A shiver goes through me, cold as the river on a winter’s day.
He’s one of them.
I aim the shotgun at his head. Fell children are supposed to be a demon’s get, hale and vicious things capable of luring a man off and devouring him like they did to my granddad. One shot and he’d be put out of his misery, and I wouldn’t have a chicken thief anymore, either.
Then I look at him, really look. He ain’t all that different from me, hungry, desperate, trying to scratch a living in this godforsaken place. Murderer or no, I can’t bring myself to shoot. Besides, he’s sickly, and it ain’t just ‘cause he’s got his leg stuck in a trap. His ribs and shoulder bones are near to poking through his skin, and despite the cool morning air, he’s sweating.
That strikes me as strange. In all the tales about fell children they don’t get sick and they heal so well that folks use them to cure their own ills. Our nearest neighbor, Archie Greaves, told me a story once about a farmer who caught himself a fell child and cut out bits of its skin and organs to put on someone every time a member of the household got hurt or sick. Pretty soon, all the neighbors heard about it and then there weren’t any bits left. Weren’t a fell child left, either.
He yanks again and lets out a hiss of pain. That decides me. I don’t like seeing things suffer. I undo my belt—which is just a bit of rope to keep a pair of Da’s old pants up around my waist—then hold him tight and tie him so his arms are pinned to his sides. I shove his head into the ground, pull the hen from his mouth and gag him with my handkerchief so he can’t bite. Cautiously, I push the levers to open the trap.
As soon as I do, the boy wriggles, doing a fine impression of a snake. He doesn’t get far. The hen’s a bloody mess, but I pick it up anyway. No use wasting the meat. “You owe me for this hen.” I shake it at him, splattering more blood across his face.
The boy just stares at me, eyes glassy and wild. I scoop him up and heave him onto my good shoulder, wincing at the reek of dirt and sweat and piss. He hisses through his gag and almost slithers out of my arms but I hang on. It ain’t long before he gives up and just dangles there, probably worn out from all that struggling.
By the time we get to the cow shed, the sky has lightened to gray. The cows hear me coming and start lowing. “I’m coming, you fell beasts,” I tell them, but they keep on mooing. The boy needs looking after but there ain’t much I can do just yet. I dump him in a straw-lined stall that used to be occupied by our old plow horse. His ankle is bleeding something awful. I don’t have any bandages, but my shirt’s all torn up and near to rags anyway so I rip it into strips and bind his leg. I can’t tell if it’s broke. I hope not. I ain’t squeamish, but there’re an awful lot of things that can go wrong with a broken bone.
There’re only four cows, now, skinny, ragged things that ain’t worth nothing since they don’t give much more than a bucket full of sour milk. Quick enough I shoo them out to pasture and lock the shed door tight. Then I check the coop for eggs—there ain’t none, on account of the hens being all roughed up—and go in to Da.
He’s got the fidgets again, sometimes letting out these little moans. What he’s dreaming about, I don’t know, but from the way he’s whimpering, it’s right bad.
“Da.” I shake his bony shoulder and wince at the sting in my own. “Da. Wake up.”
He starts awake, sees me, and the tension drains from his face. “Jamie Boy.” His voice is raspy but full of love. “Thought I’d lost you in the mine. I thought…”
“I’m fine.” Lately, he’s been fearful of the mines, even though a cave-in closed them when he was a boy. It might have something to do with the two fingers missing from his left hand, which he said were blown off in an accident, but he won’t say how and his grim look forbids me to ask anything about it. Spoonful by spoonful, I feed him his morning gruel and try to keep my hand from trembling.
“Something’s been at the hens. I heard them. You catch it, Jamie Boy. You ken?”
“Aye, Da.” I decide to take a bit of a risk. “Maybe it’s one of them fell children.”
His eyes spring wide in terror. “Don’t you say that, Jamie Boy. Not ever. Those children are foul, evil things that done climbed up out of the mines and killed your granddad. I don’t want to see one, never.”
“Even though they heal folks?”
“That’s just a tale, Jamie Boy. Don’t you pay it no mind. Them children were all hunted down, anyhow.”
I don’t tell him I got one out there in the shed, and he doesn’t seem all that evil, just broken and sick, like Da. “You’re right, Da. Ain’t likely no truth to it. I’ll keep watch over the hens tonight.”
“You’re a good boy, Jamie.” He leans back in his pillows, trembling from the effort of sitting up. “Your shoulder pain you?”
From the waver in his voice, I know he feels guilty for not being there to keep me from harm. “It’s fine, Da. It don’t hurt.” I don’t like lying to him, but he’s got enough worries.
“I’ll be out of this bed soon and you won’t have to do everything yourself.”
“Soon, Da.” It’s an old banter with both of us knowing it ain’t likely to happen. Having a fell child handy might do him some good, but I don’t want to raise hope where there might be none.
He falls asleep then and I go through my usual morning ritual of rolling him to one side and then another so I can change the sheets. They’re old and ragged, but I keep washing them anyway because that’s all we have and I can’t afford more. The Deadwood sores on his backside and legs are getting worse, turning into raw, seeping things, but there ain’t much I can do except keep them clean. I ran out of money for the doctor months ago, and except for Archie Greaves the neighbors won’t come near on account of the Deadwood creeping closer every year.
Chores done, I go out to visit my captive. He’s curled in the straw and shivering the way animals do when they’re frightened to death. When I reach out to touch him, he’s hot as a brand. His eyes are open but he’s in some sort of daze, the way Mama was when she lost all that blood after she gave birth to my stillborn sister. The sight chills me something fierce.
I fill up the old wooden horse trough, which is big enough to fit the both of us. After taking care of Da for so long, I don’t have shyness when it comes to filthy bodies so I’m not troubled by handling him. It’s impossible to guess how old he is, since fell children don’t age. If he were human, I’d guess sixteen, maybe eighteen like me, but small. Others have already taken bits of him. Scars cover his bony body, all over his arms, chest, legs, and a ropy one right across his throat like someone had slit it and he’d lived anyway. That must be why he doesn’t talk. He can’t.
He doesn’t react when I carry him over and plunk him in the trough, not even when I hold him under a moment to wet his dreadlocked hair. Gentle as I can, I clean him up, being especially careful with his ankle. I pick at a chunk of mud and dried blood on his shoulder it slides off, revealing a nasty wound full of lead shot.
No wonder he’s dying. Lead’s poisonous to the demon-touched. I pull him out of the trough and lay him on a moth-eaten horse blanket to dry off. I have to sweep out the stall--it’s bloody, and he’s made a mess in it besides--and put in some new straw. Then I drag him inside on the blanket. He’s right pretty now that he’s all cleaned up, which kindles an odd kind of stirring in my belly.
I put a knee on the boy’s back to hold him down and cut out the lead balls with the knife Da gave me when I was five and learning to hunt. The boy squirms and breathes hard, but there ain’t no other sound from him as blood oozes over his shoulder, dark and thick as molasses.
As soon as I dig out the last pellet, he takes a deep, relieved breath. Silver-gray eyes stare at me. Ain’t nothing human about them, and they chill me right to the bone. I edge out backward and toss the mangled chicken corpse in to him. He grabs it and hisses, baring crooked yellow teeth. I leave him be before my stomach turns and lock the shed good and tight.
At dusk, I head back out, telling Da I mean to put the cows in and stay to watch the henhouse. It doesn’t take much coaxing to get the skinny beasts inside; they ain’t keen on being out at night.
I take a lantern over to the last stall. The boy is curled up asleep, but at my approach he opens his eyes and watches me. Feathers and dried blood stick to his cheeks. The hen’s beak, bones and feet are shoved into the corner and piled over with straw.
“It’s all right. I ain’t going to hurt you.” I hang the lantern on a hook near the stall’s door and slip inside.
He hisses, but I move slow and quiet until I’m near enough to touch him. The warmth he gives off is enough that I won’t need a blanket if I stay in here all night. Then I chide myself for being crazy enough to consider sleeping in here with a critter liable to tear my throat out.
“I just want to feel your shoulder. You ken?”
Other than a twitch, he don’t seem to mind none when I stroke the fresh scar. It’s right strange how his flesh just healed over like that. I look down at his ankle, which ain’t quite tucked beneath him. Same thing. That morning, it had been cut near down to bone. Now, the wound looks to be a year old. He’s got more meat on him, too. Must have been that poisoned lead keeping him from healing.
The shadows thrown by the lantern make the rest of his scars stick out. I can’t help but touch them, wondering who did such terrible things, and how. There’re a few patchy scars on his chest, and a long, vertical one on his belly which looks like someone sliced him open.
“Ain’t any others like you left, are there?”
His expression don’t change, but loneliness emanates from him like heat from a fire. Being pretty much on my own I can sympathize. At least I got Da, sort of, but not for long. Soon I’m going to be just as alone and scared as the boy.
He tucks his head into my shoulder. I ain’t bothered to put on a new shirt, so I feel his warm breath right against my skin. Then there’s something else. Wetness. Stinging.
He’s licking me, right over that Deadwood sore. My gut twists with revulsion and I want to push him away, but I can’t. He’s got me pinned up against the wall, one bare leg curled around mine, and I’m sure this is it. I’m going to be all torn apart just like Granddad.
I’m trembling bad as the time I had the flu and near died, but he ain’t tearing at me. Whatever he’s doing with his tongue is sending darts of pleasure through me, and I’m all hot and tingling. I’m too aware of the warmth of the closeness of his body, the way his pecker nudges my thigh. He burns like cinnamon, hotter than the peppers I once got in trade for a gallon of milk. Fire scalds my throat and down into my belly. Colors flare in front of my eyes, red, yellow, orange, all shiny and sparking brighter than the stars.
Hot fingers find their way onto my chest and crawl all along my skin. His touch jolts me like lightning and something deep inside me breaks loose.
I shove him and crawl free, shaking, feeling damned for letting him do that to me. He ain’t natural, so that means what I’m feeling for him ain’t natural, either. He’s witched me, somehow. “Don’t you touch me. Keep away from me, you ken?”
Ain’t no sign he kens at all. There’s a crimson trail leaking from one corner of his mouth. Blood. My blood.
I grab my shoulder. It’s still wet from his saliva, but it don’t hurt no more. I look down and see only a puffy red scar. The wound is gone.
Come morning, Da’s voice is weaker than usual when he asks, “You well, Jamie Boy? You’re looking mighty flushed.”
My raggedy shirt hides my healed shoulder so he can’t ask questions, but I’m too ashamed to tell him about the way the boy showed up in my dreams. “I must’ve ate something bad, Da.” Not that he looks much better. He’s pale, skin clutched tight against his face. It can’t help that there was blood in his piss this morning.
By the time I get round to cleaning him, he’s got the fidgets, again. He twitches, and I have to be careful to keep from being jabbed with one of them bony elbows. His voice is raspy as he begs me, “Don’t go into the mine, Jamie Boy. Don’t you go.”
“I won’t, Da. I promise.” I’ve never been near the mine, except once when he took me there so’s I didn’t stumble across it by accident. Besides the Deadwood trees lurking like usual, there wasn’t much to see, just a rotting, boarded-over entrance into the heart of the mountain.
That seems to calm him a little, and I get the sheets changed and him resting as comfortably as I can. Not long after, I hear hoofbeats coming up the overgrown dirt path leading up to the house. Only one person bothers to come see us these days.
“Jamie Boy,” Archie says as he dismounts. He ties his gelding securely to the fence since the trees spook the poor thing so badly he’d run if he could. “How’s your da?”
“No change.” I don’t tell him about the nightmares. Ain’t his business.
“From the wife,” he says as he takes out a few packages from his saddlebags. He hands me two loaves of bread, a hunk of cheese, and some oats to make Da’s gruel. If it weren’t for Archie, Da and I would starve.
I tear into the bread, too hungry to mind my manners. “Tell her thank you. I’ll be along to help mend your fence when I can.”
“Ain’t no hurry.” He nods at the woods behind me. “Best you be careful in the Deadwood. John Oakes told me he shot at a fell child. Caught it stealing his chickens.”
I chew a bit of bread to cover my fear. “But they ain’t all bad. You said they heal folk.”
Archie glances at the house then back at me. “Don’t you be getting ideas about hunting it down to save your Da. Only way they heal is by giving their skin and their insides to someone else. It’s a bloody business. Your da wouldn’t want you cutting up one of them children like that. It changes a man, and not for the better.” He jerks his head at the house. “How is he really?”
They’ve been friends for longer than I’ve been alive. Some things I can’t lie to him about. “He ain’t long for this world.”
He pats my shoulder then goes in the house, then, like he always does, and I sit on the splintering fence and nibble on bread and cheese. Soon enough Archie comes back out wearing a long face. He doesn’t say anything as he gets on his horse, which is more than ready to leave.
“What happened to him in the mine, Archie?” I ask, hoping my friend might have a way to give Da a bit of comfort.
The horse prances, snorts, jerks its head. Archie tugs at the reins to keep it still. “Cave collapsed. You know that.”
That’s what I was told, but it can’t be the truth if it keeps giving Da nightmares. “Then why’s he so scared of it? He get trapped inside?”
Archie lets the gelding head off. “Take care, Jamie Boy. And mind what I said about that fell child. You leave it be.”
Come late afternoon, Da’s burning up. The bed is soaked with sweat and piss, and when I roll him on his side the wounds are seeping greenish pus. His breathing is hoarse, almost whistling.
“Da?” I don’t know what to do, and I ain’t ready to be left all alone. Not yet. Not ever. Ain’t nothing for it, except…
I feel sick at the thought. The fell child might be unnatural, but he ain’t an animal for slaughter. Archie’s warning sticks in my mind.
Da moans and starts to shiver. “No, Da. I’m afeared of the mine.” He sounds so small, so lost, and I know right then I ain’t got a choice. I can’t let Da die scared like that.
This time, I have the knife in my hand when I go see the boy. He crouches in the corner of the stall, knees up against his chest as if to protect his belly from the cutting to come.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I got to help my Da. He’s dying.”
His eyes are dark slits.
“Please.” I grab his hair and yank his head back, exposing that long scar around his neck. “I don’t want to be all alone out here. You got to help me. You got to.”
There’s something in them eyes, all cold and gray like ice, that makes a right queer feeling bubble up inside. A mixture of lust and revulsion hits me. He might be demon-touched, but I can’t help thinking about the feelings I had when he healed me.
He must be thinking the same thing, because he reaches up and strokes my face. It’s gentle, almost ticklish. Then he clasps my hand holding the knife. I tense, prepared to fight him for possession, but he pulls it toward himself.
Guilt and relief wash over me. I lead him outside to where I got everything set up. Knife. One of Ma’s old mixing bowls. Leather straps, with which I bind him to the rickety kitchen table I dragged into the yard.
“It’s for Da,” I tell him. “I’m doing this for Da. After this, I won’t hurt you again. I swear.” I shove a rag in his mouth, not so much to silence him since he can’t talk anyway, but to give him something to bite on. “I’m sorry.”
I can’t tell if he hears me or not. He’s gone all quiet and still, eyes glazed as if he’s seeing into some other world. This ain’t nothing that ain’t been done to him before, but that doesn’t ease my mind. My hand’s shaking and my gut is all twisted up. He’ll heal up right quick, I’m sure, but this ain’t like slaughtering pigs and sheep.
I pinch the skin on the top of his thigh and nick it. Carefully, I run the blade beneath the skin until I get a good-sized flap. It’s a seeping, pulpy mass, but comes away in one piece. I set it in one of Ma’s old mixing bowls and steel myself for another go. It ain’t long before his legs are a patchwork quilt of flesh and bloody muscle. Those silver eyes keep watching me, giving me chills, but I can’t back down. Not now.
I lay a hand on that soft, flat expanse of belly, feeling it lift up and down as he raggedly breathes. Then, before I can change my mind, I plunge the knife into his stomach.
The boy arches from pain or shock or both. I shove his hips down and keep slicing. Thick, black blood oozes out of the wound, a steaming, stinking mess. I ain’t cut into nothing living before and it takes all my nerve to keep the knife moving. When the incision is long enough, I pry the flaps of skin apart, careful to keep my gaze right there on his belly. I don’t want to see his face.
Someone else has been here before me. The liver’s gone and his stomach and guts are all torn up, but both kidneys are still there, tucked neatly at his back. I slice at the veins and arteries on the left one. As soon as it’s freed, I set it in the bowl along with the skin and do the same with the right.
The boy’s stopped moving, and I’m fearful I’ve killed him. His head’s rolled to the side, eyes closed. His chest doesn’t lift.
“I’m sorry.” It ain’t enough, but they’re all the words I got.
I ain’t no hand with a needle and thread. All I can do is piece together his torn flesh, bind it with one of Ma’s old nightshirts, and hope it heals.
He’s barely breathing by the time I take him back to the stall. I know he ain’t nothing but a demon. I know this, but he looks so human and fragile that I’m near sick from what I’ve done.
“I’ll come back,” I tell him, running a bloodstained hand through his hair. He’s hot again. Burning. “I just got to take care of Da.”
I pick up the bowl and its precious contents and go inside.
Da barely responds when I roll him onto his stomach and draw up his nightshirt to expose the thick, twisted scar on his lower back. The sores are raw, gaping wounds, and it pains me to see them. The bed reeks of his sickness and it’s all I can do not to gag.
“What are you doing, Jamie Boy?”
“Just hold still, Da.”
I lift out the pieces of flesh and place them one by one over Da’s open sores. Then I lay the kidneys on his back, right over the bone shattered by the deadwood tree.
The boy’s flesh clutches at his skin like a living creature. The kidney vessels and veins stretch out and dig in, attaching themselves to Da’s spine with the same ferocity the boy had held onto the dead chicken.
Da bucks, but there ain’t much he can do, weak as he is. He wails as the black blood crawls around on his back like a live, livid bruise then sinks into his pores. The kidneys use their arteries and veins as anchors to pull themselves into his body. Black blood mixes with red in a sickening, slippery miasma.
Da’s screaming and doing his best to roll over. I crawl onto the bed and put all my weight on his shoulders to keep him down. He’s breathing so hard I’m fearful he’s going to have an attack and die right there and I’ll have killed him.
I stay like that, watching his body absorb bits of the boy’s and trying not to be sick, until my arms are shaky and sore. By then, Da’s gone still and pale. Sweat coats his skin. “It’s all right, Da. Everything will be all right.” But I can’t help feeling I’m lying.
I clean him up again then, exhausted, I leave him long enough to go check on the boy. He’s right where I left him, crumpled, makeshift bandages stained. His body feels hot enough to light the straw on fire.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him again. His eyes flutter open for a moment to stare at me before they close. It ain’t right what I done, I know it, but I ain’t going to let Da die if I can help it.
But by the time the sky lightens to gray, Da’s cheeks are no longer a sickly ashen color. His breathing is calm and even, and the sores have vanished, leaving only scars.
“Jamie Boy?” There’s wonder in his voice.
“I’m here, Da.”
He clasps my hand with a strength that hasn’t been there for months. “Jamie Boy. What did you do?”
I was hoping he’d be happy, or at least grateful, but there’s an urgency in his tone that sounds angry rather than relieved. “I fixed you up, Da. That’s all.”
His grip tightens. “How?”
“I’ll show you.”
I help him wash and dress. He leans on me as I lead him out to the barn. The boy is still on the ground but he’s torn away the makeshift bandages. The cuts I made are already healing over. When he sees Da, those silvery eyes focus and he lets out a hiss like an angry coon.
At least, I think that’s what Da says. His voice is so soft I can barely hear it. For a second, Da looks like he’s going to reach out and stroke the boy’s head, but then he pulls back and shudders. “What have you done, Jamie Boy?” A tremor shakes Da’s whole body so violently I expect him to collapse right there.
“Da…” Everything else sticks in my throat.
He turns, eyes are sad. “How could you?”
The words are knives in my chest. “I need you, Da, and I didn’t want you to suffer no more.”
He lifts one shaky hand to my cheek, and for an instant, I feel the love he’s always borne me.
The slap comes as a shock. It sends me reeling back against the wall. I clutch my stinging cheek, staring in disbelief. “Da, I didn’t--”
“I’d rather be dead than have…that…in me.” His face is drawn and hard, and he gestures shakily at the boy. “It’s an evil thing. It killed your granddad and now it’s come to punish me for…”
For what, I don’t know. My belly knots into a painful twist. The boy’s got some sort of sense back and his gaze flits between Da and me. I don’t know how much he understands, but when Da lifts the small ax from its place on the wall, he tenses.
Da holds up the tool to me, testing its weight. “You give me no choice, Jamie. I got to kill it.”
I grab his wrist, desperate to stop him. “No, Da. He ain’t what you think.”
My refusal ages him another ten years. He looks sunken, old and more fragile than when he laid in bed. “It’s a fell child, Jamie Boy. A devil spat out by the mountain. It ain’t right to let it live.”
He shrugs free of me and goes into the stall. I lunge and I’m racing, flying to be there before the ax lands, but land it does.
At first, all I feel is the impact in my side along with knowing that something’s gone awful wrong.
The next instant there’s a terrible sucking sensation, and then Da’s holding the dripping ax. The look on his face is dreadful, all pinched and tight with guilt and horror. I don’t really understand why until the pain hits. An agonizing flare tears up my left side.
All of a sudden my legs won’t hold me and I keel over into the hay. My skin is slick and sticky. My whole body’s afire.
Da rolls me onto my good side and I scream, it hurts so bad. But then I taste blood in my mouth and I choke and there won’t be no more screaming. Won’t be much breathing, either.
“Jamie Boy.” Soft, withered hands stroke my cheek and draw my eyelids shut. I want to tell him I’m not dead, but I can’t. Everything hurts too much. I can’t think, can’t move.
“Bastard,” Da says, but he ain’t talking to me. He holds the ax tight and swings.
And then there are muffled, fleshy sounds I can’t focus on because I’m trying to breathe instead. Da’s killing the boy and there’s nothing I can do. Nothing.
Everything goes quiet for a long time. Someone touches my face. When I drag my eyes open, it’s the boy, not Da, hovering over me like a cat studying its prey. I don’t know where Da’s run off to or if he’s still alive.
“You going to kill me too?” I mouth, with no idea whether or not he understands.
He prizes the wound apart with his fingers then darts his tongue inside. It squirms, exquisitely painful as it searches my gut. He may not be using a knife, but he’s cutting me all the same. His hands are like iron clamps on my waist, keeping me pinned. I moan and sob and beg him to stop, but he doesn’t.
I ain’t got the strength to keep fighting him. Last thought I have as I drift away in a haze of pain is that I deserve whatever he’s doing to me.
When next I’m aware, sunlight is peeking through the gaps in the stall wall. Ain’t no sign of the boy. The shed door gapes open. Somewhere off in the distance the cows are lowing. I don’t know where Da’s run off to, but I’m betting he ain’t going to waste time on them beasts.
There’s nothing left of my wound except for a puckered scar. I finger it, incredulous. It hurts, but at least I ain’t going to bleed to death.
My legs are shaky as I head out toward the pasture. All around me the cows are shifting and mooing. They need milking, but I ain’t up for that today.
There’s a body out there in the muck. I roll Da over and wipe the mud and cow shit from his face. The ax is there, embedded in his chest, adding blood to the foul mixture.
I don’t have any tears. The boy has sucked those out of me along with my blood. I can’t feel anything. Not pain, not sadness, not even love for the empty shell that had once been my da.
The boy’s waiting for me at the edge of the pasture, gray eyes staring. He’s a bit thin and hollowed out, but naked as he is, it’s clear he’s healing up all right. I see both sides of him now, demon and human, the child that once was and the fell creature he’s become. “Lucien. That what he called you, ain’t it?”
He don’t answer, but I know I’m right.
“I cut you up to save him, and now…” I point toward Da’s body.
Lucien recoils. His silver gaze remains transfixed for a minute, then he gestures someone falling and pounds his chest.
I don’t know whether to believe him or not. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The emptiness inside me won’t let me feel anything at all. “You killed my granddad, didn’t you? That’s why Da knows—knew—you.”
Lucien sidles nearer. He’s warm, and I shiver at his nearness. I don’t move as he puts his face near mine. My gut twists, in disgust or desire, I can’t tell, but I don’t resist as he kisses me. He tastes of blood and ash, and inside I’m hot and cold and afraid and wanting something else, something I don’t dare give name to. He tugs at me, trying to pull me toward the Deadwood.
I take one look at the trees and shudder. They’ve moved, almost to the foot of the mountain and within reach of the rickety old house. A breeze sweeps through them, and the eerie, wooden sound is an echo of the emptiness inside me.
“I ain’t going in there,” I tell him. “Them trees will eat me alive.” It’s probably what he wants, after all.
He yanks again but I pull away. I bend over and grab a few stones, gritting my teeth against the flare of pain in my side, then lob them at him. “Get away. Leave me be. I ain’t like you. Murderer.”
The rocks fly through empty air, all but the last which smacks him on the arm. One final, unreadable look and he’s gone, leaving me alone with the Deadwood closing in.
Whatever Lucien did to me, it ain’t like what happened with Da. Spit doesn’t work near as well as blood. I’m soon feverish, and my side aches something awful. I can’t stay near the Deadwood no more. Every time I look at the trees, they’ve creeped closer to the house.
There’s only one place I can think of going, and I stumble in that direction. I don’t get far before my trembling legs give out, and once I’m down, I don’t have the strength to get up again. My side throbs and I close my eyes, hoping it’ll stop soon.
The gruff voice rouses me from my stupor. It’s old Archie Greaves. From the traps and shotgun slung over his shoulder, he’s been out hunting. His face is hidden behind his bushy gray beard, but his eyes are full of concern as he crouches beside me.
“What the hell you doing here? Where’s your Da?”
“Da’s passed on.” It’s harrowing to say. “The cows. I got to see to the cows…”
“Never you mind about them beasts.” He lays a hand against my cheek. “You’re burning, boy. What you done to yourself?” He lifts the bloody remnants of my shirt. All around the scar, my flesh is red and the veins are crawling like spiderwebs up and down my side. “You got the blood poisoning.”
That ain’t it at all, but I can’t tell him the truth without being afeared he’ll stalk Lucien. Archie’s a mighty good hunter and always gets what he’s after. “I going to die?”
“Ain’t no telling yet. Come on, boy. I’ll take you home.
Archie’s farm is well clear of the Deadwood, and it ain’t long before he’s got me washed up and tucked into one of the spare beds. His wife, a sweet, rosy-cheeked woman who reminds me painfully of Mama, doses me with tea and broth and kind words.
After chores, Archie comes in and keeps me company for a spell. When he asks what happened, I tell him Da was delirious and killed himself with the ax. I don’t mention Lucien. “You going to tell me the truth about what happened to Da in the mine now?”
He puts a pinch of tobacco in his pipe and lights it. “Best you rest, Jamie Boy.”
“Please. I got to know.”
“I promised your Da I wouldn’t say.”
Pain gives my tongue blades. “He ain’t here no more. He’s got no hold on either of us. Must have been something right bad, scared as he was.”
“Aye. It was.” Archie sighs and taps his pipe against his teeth. “You understand, boy, he only wanted to protect you. Them trees…”
“Them trees wanted him. Why?”
There’s a long pause, making me think Archie ain’t going to tell after all, but he does. “Your Granddad, he were fond of sending little ‘uns down into the shafts. They were cheap labor and could crawl deeper inside the mountain to get them pretty stones. He’d get them from orphanages or buy them up from poor folks and send them into the dark. Your da, he was friends with them children, especially the oldest one, Lucien.”
The name sends a shiver through me, and I think of the way Lucien and Da reacted to each other. “The cave-in wasn’t no accident, was it? Da was a murderer.”
“Don’t you say that, Jamie Boy. Your da was a good man. It was your granddad that was the real bastard. Ain’t nobody who crossed him. Your granddad say, ‘Jump,’ and everyone within hearing would leap off a cliff if it came to it. If they didn’t, he beat ‘em right bad.” Somberly, Archie shakes his head. “No. Weren’t no accident. Seems the local officials were getting mighty curious and asking too many questions. Your granddad got scared and sent your da in with a load of dynamite and told him to seal the kids inside. Your da panicked and blowed up his fingers along with the tunnel. I went in and dragged him out, but them poor kids were trapped. Everyone figured they’d died, but a week later, they come crawling out. They weren’t the same, though.”
Archie nods. Smoke trails from his pipe, twisting into the air and looking as ghostly as the Deadwood trees. “Them children were demon-touched. Ain’t no other explanation. All that digging and dynamite woke something deep in the earth that gave its life to them. They went after your granddad one night. Slaughtered him in his bed. Can’t say as I blame them, but it set everyone else after them.” He took another puff and shook his head. “Used to be right pretty up there on the mountain, with all the yellow wildflowers blooming, but when the children died, so did everything else. Their blood made them trees hunger for more.”
The churning in my stomach increases. I’ve done everything wrong. Da had murdered Lucien and I’d near killed Lucien to save Da, who’d died anyway.
Archie sets a callused hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Jamie Boy. It ain’t right for you to carry the burdens of them that’s passed on.”
This is more than a burden. I got to make things up to Lucien, but even if I weren’t so sick, I ain’t got the least idea of how to go about it.
The cows are dead. Archie took his boy up to the house and found their rotten, bloated corpses. The chickens didn’t fare any better; weren’t nothing left of them but blood and feathers. They found Da, too, already tangled up in the roots of a Deadwood tree.
“We couldn’t fetch him home. I’m sorry, Jamie Boy.”
“Ain’t no matter,” I say, but it is. Unless I do something about Lucien, I’m going to end up just the same. The wound in my side won’t heal proper. It festers inside me until every breath is an agony. Archie’s wife mixes up a poultice which helps some, and fixes me up a tea that dulls both the pain and my senses. I drift off, and my dreams are of Lucien and the other children, dying there in the dark, betrayed by my da. The trees are there too, looming like hungry ghosts, stabbing me with sharp, bare branches.
By the time I wake all chilled and sweaty, I know what I have to do.
Everyone’s gone to bed, so it ain’t no trouble for me to sneak out. I take one of the lamps, feeling right bad for stealing after Archie’s looked after me so good, but I’m going to need it.
My side hurts like hell and I suck in the cool night air, which eases the ache some. There ain’t but one place I aim to go, and it’s like the Deadwood trees know I’m heading that way because for once they don’t reach out and grab me. They let me pass.
The old mine entrance is just like I recollect. Weathered boards are nailed haphazardly across the opening, leaving a gap big enough to pass through. A chilly breeze wafts from the interior. I light the lantern and go inside.
The place is narrow, dusty and filthy, but like the Deadwood, there ain’t no feeling of life. No bats fly from the rafters. No rats scuttle along the ground.
It’s more instinct than knowledge that guides me through the winding shafts and collapsing tunnels. I know I’m at the right place when I see cracked, burned timbers dangling ominously from the ceiling and a pile of rocky dirt that looks like a dead end. I’m fearful of breathing lest the roof fall in atop me.
Then I see it. There, over to the right, is a boy-sized hole dug through the fallen earth. I’m a mite larger than that, but I know I got to go through it.
Dangling the lantern ahead of me, I crouch and crawl inside. The stones jab my skin and tender belly. It’s like I’ve swallowed a jar of razors and they’re all cutting at me, and I’m only halfway through.
Inch by inch, breath by breath, I pull myself along. Then the tunnel opens up. I collapse, crying in earnest from relief. I have to stay there a while, all curled up and weepy until my side stops hurting enough to let me move.
I hold up the lantern. The light isn’t strong enough to reach from one side of the cavern to the other, or even floor to ceiling, yet I’m certain sure that this is where Lucien and the other children died. I feel it in my bones along with another presence that waits with all the patience in the world. Could be the demon? If it is, I hope it don’t mind what I’m about to do.
I take my knife from my pocket and, before I think about it too much, slice a long gash in my forearm. Fiery pain spreads all the way up to my shoulder and it’s a long moment before I can speak. “I can’t undo what my da and granddad did, but I can give you back what I took from Lucien.” I hold my dripping flesh over the soil. “This is what you wanted all these years, ain’t it? The blood of me and mine. It’s yours. After me, there ain’t no more. It’s finished.”
There’s a little hiss as the ground sucks hungrily at my blood. Every time the flow stops I pick at the wound or cut a fresh one to continue the offering. It hurts bad but ain’t nothing compared to the agony in my side. After a while dizziness forces me to lie down. This cave ain’t unlike the Deadwood trees, stealing the life and blood of them that’s harmed them. This time, though, I’m giving it of my own free will. “I’m sorry for what I done to Lucien. I’d take it back if I could, but this is all I got left. Tell him I’m sorry. Tell him…”
The lamp flickers and goes out. Darkness, impenetrable and absolute, surrounds me as it must have Lucien and the children. I’m dying too. I don’t mind. I did what I came to do.
Then there comes a stirring. Something brushes against me, light and fleeting as a butterfly’s wing. It touches me all over, then it’s inside me, hovering at the edge of my mind. The demon, maybe, only it don’t feel like a demon. It’s more nurturing, and I ain’t scared at all.
“Tell Lucien I done it for him,” I whisper with no real idea of whether or not the creature understands. I’m real cold now. Everything’s all still and quiet. I can hear my heart pound but even that’s slowing down, giving way to silence.
Another presence joins the first. Warm breath caresses my face. When I taste hot blood and ash, I know who it is. I want to grab Lucien and haul him close, to absorb the firm heat of his body, but I can’t move. “I’m sorry.”
He kisses my arms, right where I’ve laid them open. The wounds sting but I’m past caring. Lucien’s here. It’s enough.
Then I’m falling down, or up. I can’t tell, but my body’s down there on the ground, all bloody and still. I don’t regret my sacrifice, except for Lucien, who can’t scream, but makes his anguish felt all the same. I share it, but there ain’t nothing to be done. I’m sorry, is all I can think. I ain’t got a mouth to speak or eyes to weep.
There comes a subtle stirring. The air in the cave flutters as the great presence shifts, rolling like a sow reluctant to rise from the mud. Then I’m being pulled down, back into cold stiffness, cradled in tender, inhuman arms. This is the creature that gave bits of itself to transform those children into something inhuman, but it ain’t a demon at all. I can feel the way it stretches through the cave and beyond, into the trees and deep underground. It hurts, too. Sorrow fills it, so much that I’d weep with it if I could. When Granddad blasted his way into the mine, he cut into the heart of the land itself. Angry and hurt, it sent the fell children after Granddad. Later, it sent the trees creeping toward Da and me, because when we were dead, maybe then it could heal. Giving it my blood of my own accord had been something…unexpected.
I can’t see nothing, but I feel the presence shudder. The sticky, wet heat of blood envelops me. A hand--or its like--presses something thick and slippery against my chest. The thing takes hold, sinking into me, and I know there’s only one organ it can be.
There ain’t no pain. Not like it was with Da. My body absorbs the presence’s heart as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. A tingling spreads throughout my body as it transforms from the inside out.
That ain’t all, though. It weren’t the presence’s bits and pieces that made Lucien and the others fell children. It were the kiss, the very breath of life. It surges within me now, filling my chest, my body, my soul. All that emptiness from Da’s death, all the fear from living so long near the Deadwood seeps out and leaves me stuffed up with love. I ain’t never felt so alive.
When my new eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a boyish shape. I reach out to it, and Lucien grabs my hand. “I didn’t want to hurt you. I didn’t.”
He kisses me, and my loneliness fades.
In the moonlight, we pay a visit to Archie Greaves. He’s sitting alone on his porch, pipe dangling from his lips. When he sees us, he gives a start. “Jamie Boy. What you—”
The words die as I step near enough for him to see what I’ve become.
“It’s over,” I tell him.
His gaze shifts from me to Lucien. “Is that…?”
“We ain’t evil,” I say. “But we ain’t human, neither.”
“Jamie Boy.” My name comes out cracked. Broken.
Into his palm I lay a tiny yellow flower, the first stirring of life from the Deadwood. He gapes at it, cupping it carefully as if I’ve given him gold dust rather than a bloom.
“You done it, Jamie Boy, but…” He takes my hand. “Best you don’t come back here. Other folks, they won’t understand.”
It’s right nice of him to worry about me, but I tell him he doesn’t have to. “We ain’t neither of us alone no more.” And in the end, that’s all that matters.