Monday, January 09, 2012

The Witch's Door

This was in response to a Flash Fiction Challenge: Gypsy Woman by my friend at Bony Fingered Limbs.
Each week, she throws down a challenge to come up with a 1,500 (or less) short story based upon inspiration received from a photo chosen. This weeks photo is a Gypsy Woman staring into a crystal ball and the word count is 1,000. I will attempt to weave something from this and see how it turns out.
Thanks for joining me.
*note: I realize this is too long for the FFC, but once it started (like a bloody nose) it was hard to stop. I also re-read my initial un-proofed version and found it woefully inadequate. I have done some updating to the story. I'll look at it again with fresh eyes later and see if it all makes sense. As always, I appreciate your feedback. - Frank*

The Witch's Door
By Frank D. Vincent

Late August
Somewhere along U.S. Highway 71
  Maggie Davis was 54 years old. She thought of herself as slightly pudgy, with more grey than brunette hair. She colored frequently though and was currently a resilient, dark brunette. There was no touch of grey apparent, even to a trained observer. Her natural son, Tyler was the quarterback for the Waldron Bulldogs. His adoptive brother James, played Outside Linebacker. It had been a rough blow to the family, the tragic passing of her husband, a short 5 years ago. The boys had taken it hard. Then again, what 12 year olds that adored their father wouldn't have taken it hard? Maggie tried to think of something else, before the memory of That Day brought itself fully into her mind. She was on the long drive back from Fort Smith, where she'd closed up the 14 theater movieplex for the night. She hated driving an hour to work each day, especially down U.S. Route 71 at this time of night. But work was difficult to come by these days and the mortgage still needed to be paid. So she made do with what she could. Still, Maggie was grateful for the job. Mr. Miller had taken a chance with her 3 years ago and she didn't want him to regret it. She had worked very dutifully and had risen to Assistant Manager. It was her responsibility to close the Theater Wednesday-Saturday, even though it meant missing Ty and James' football games. She had promised them both that she would attend at least 3 games this year. But she had yet to ask Mr. Miller for the time off.
  She often spent the hour long drive thinking over grocery lists, chores that needed tending to or about Tyler and what might become of his life. She was in a reflective mood as she made the change off of I-540 and onto Highway 71. Her thoughts tumbled in her head like the laundry that she worried over. She'd left it sitting in the washer and she knew that Ty's good church shirts were in there. That would just mean a bit more ironing to do tomorrow evening. She felt her nose starting to drip and she grabbed a tissue from her purse in the passenger seat. The cold she been fighting for the past few days was almost over, she thought. She was even running a slight fever this morning, but couldn't allow herself to get sick. As she drove, her thoughts turned back to the poster on the wall in the Theater, across from the cash register at the snack bar. It was an odd thing to think about, that poster. An add for an upcoming movie, it was of an old gypsy woman, looming over a seer stone, well a "crystal ball" for those who were unfamiliar. But Maggie was far from unfamiliar. Her thoughts drifted back. Back before she met the man she would marry and then lose. Back to the summer of her 17th year, when she and her best friend Janet found the witch's door...
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  Janet and Margaret were hanging out in the woods that summer, outside of Acorn, Arkansas when they both heard the girls faint voice calling for help. The woods that they spent their time in, like many their age, were known as the Ouachita National Forest, one of the South's oldest national forests. But folks in these parts knew it for other things, like spirits and Spirits. Moonshining was an Arkansas tradition for some time. Polk County was also known back then for being the whitest county in Arkansas. In fact, Maggie hadn't seen a person of color (except on the t.v.) until that day in the woods. She and Janet had been forbidden to go to this part of the forest, but for two 17 year old girls on summer break in 1975, getting into trouble was about the only thing they could think of to do. The lonely voice drifted between the two girls as they sat on the mossy ground, sharing a small bottle of moonshine. Janet had absconded with it from her uncle's house. On her last visit, she had located his stash and siphoned a small amount into an old, glass medicine vial, the kind with a cork in it. The potent elixir was already coursing through their veins and their mood had lightened to the point that little things were instantly funny or just outright hilarious. Their mood changed however, when the cry for help broke through the fog of their inebriation. Janet swung her head to her left and peered through the forest undergrowth.
"D'ja hear that Mags?" she asked, her voice slightly slurred and hesitant.
"Yeah Jan, I heard it, but..." Maggie's voice drifted off as they heard the voice again.
'Pllleeeeaaassseeee. Some Body Heeeeeellllp!'
"Oh gosh Mags! That gives me the chills!" Janet said as she shuddered.
"C'mon Jan, we gotta help her!" Maggie said, as she stood up and then pulled her friend to her feet.
"Which way did it come from?" Jan asked, as they both turned, slowly listening for the voice.
Maggie heard a faint cry and pointed, "This way Jan! C'mon!"
  The girls left their makeshift picnic area and dashed into the forest, pausing now and then to listen and then moving rapidly along, trying to find the body that belonged to the voice. The voice had a kind of  musical quality to it, almost ethereal in nature. They pushed through the forest, more than once startling a deer from its afternoon bed, in their search.
  Janet came around a large tree and froze in her tracks. Maggie bumped into her and stumbled for a second before catching herself. She too stopped in her tracks as both girls gazed at a dilapidated wooden shack erected in the middle of the woods.
  "Moonshiners..." Janet whispered as she tried taking a slow, cautious step backwards. Now everyone in moonshine country knows, that an illegal moonshine operation is guarded with guns and protected with violence. Anyone who trespasses, whether 17 year old girls or 87 year old men, will meet with violence. If you were caught at a moonshine still, you were dead. Simple as that. But the girls hadn't tripped any alarms, nor did they hear any dogs barking. Perhaps it was an old site.
The wooden shack leaned awkwardly against a large dead tree and had obviously been there for quite some time. The girls were about to slip back into the forest, when they heard the voice again, this time clearly coming from inside the shack.
  They looked at each other, frightened and unsure of what to do, when the small, misshapen door to the shack creaked open slightly. A tiny old woman, with white rheumy eyes, peeked her head out ever so cautiously. Her long hair was blanched white and her skin was dark, like the color of a deep summer tan.
"Heeellloooo?" she feebly called out from her perch at the door. "Is someone there?"
Neither girl said a word nor moved an inch, unless you count the jackhammer of their hearts in their chests.
  "Please, don't bother an old woman." the frail woman called out weakly. "If you are here to steal from me, you'll find I haven't much to take," she went on. "I'll gladly give you food and shelter if proper trade can be arranged..." Her small head tilted left and right as she strained her ears, listening for any noise. Janet moved her foot slightly and the loud SNAP of a twig, shattered the silence. The old woman's head snapped in their direction.
  "Oh! So you are here." she tittered. She pushed the door open fully and the girls saw her twisted right hand resting on the handle of the door as she made her way out of the shack. Her left hand rested on a gnarled stick, which she used to hold her balance as she slowly made her way towards them.
  "Please don't be frightened," the old woman said. "I'm all alone here in the woods and would terribly enjoy a bit of company." Her vacant eyes moved about in their sockets, deeply unnerving Maggie.
Janet spoke with nothing more than a whisper, "We're sorry..." she said.
The old woman's deeply lined face broke into a wide smile, a smile that made Maggie suddenly feel at ease, despite the woman's rolling unseeing eyes.
  "Oh, but you're just a child!" the old woman said. "Come child, come. Please, both of you come inside, let me warm you up with some tea! I've made a fresh batch of the sweetest tea." The woman turned and slowly made her way back to the shack, her walking stick leaving little dents in the ground every six inches or so. The girls looked at each other and slowly came around the tree. As they made their way toward the little shack, they instinctively clasped each others hands.
  At the door, Janet ducked her head and stepped into the darkened hut, but Maggie hung back, looking at the delicate workings of the wood that were unseen from a distance. Tiny, curved etchings showed where a detailed hand had artfully peeled away the wood, to find its shape. She peeked at the front of the door and saw all manner of small carvings. Lightly scrapped from one solid piece of wood, this door must have taken years to complete, to get all the intricate carvings just right. Over here she could see a carving of a bear and over there was an eagle perched on a tree. Trees and plants were carved everywhere, the detailed workings were really quite beautiful. She was mesmerized for a moment, until she heard the old woman break into a tinny, high-pitched cackle. Instantly warning bells went off in her head and she tried to take a step back away from the door, but a gnarled hand shot out of the darkness and clutched her wrist. The small hand was hot to the touch and bony. It felt as though a skeleton had crawled out of a fire and latched onto her. She tried to pull away, but the old woman was strong. Her wrinkled face appeared in doorway with that broken tooth smile, but somehow, this time it was not ease she felt, but revulsion. From closer up, she could see the rotted stumps of teeth, gathered together in a shriveled, gaping mouth. A slippery, mottled-brown tongue crept out and licked the woman's upper lip.
  "Don't be shy now." the old woman coaxed. "We'll just have a quick visit and you can be on your way."
  From inside the hut, she heard Janet's voice, "This is great Mags! This place is amazing!" The old woman's grip was like iron. She pulled and Maggie was helpless against her. The door clapped shut behind her.
  What happened inside, neither of them could clearly remember. The hut was bathed in dimness, and incense stung their eyes. The old woman explained, as she shifted and moved through the hut, that she had called to them and drawn them to her. She took an ancient looking knife and selected several small discs of dried plant material. She diced the discs and proceeded to chop them more finely. She explained that she was the voice in the woods. She had lived here in these woods since she was a little girl and had drawn people whenever she needed. She took the bits of plant and brushed them into a small kettle over a meager fire, that was already boiling. She also told them, that unless she drew them to her, her little hut could not be found. She stirred the kettle and told them that once they had their visit, she would see that they got back to the woods they knew. She smiled toward them as she drew a ladle into the liquid. She filled three small wooden cups and gave each girl a cup filled with the sweet smelling liquid. She took her own, bade them to drink and drained her own cup first. Both the girls looked to each other and tentatively raised their cups to their lips. When they drank it, a bitter-sweet taste filled their mouth and a warmth flooded over them. She told them to remain still and to not move. She then explained that a dream had come to her, a dream about them and the future. She often had these visions and they had become stronger since she lost her sight. She showed them several crystals and rocks of various sizes and shapes. She explained to them, that these seer stones could portend the future. The old woman sat across from them with a large wooden bowl filled with water. She took more of the dried plant and set it alight in a blackened bowl and placed it between them. She then blew the fire out and bowed her head over the bowl of water. Seconds turned into minutes and minutes began to stretch into unknown time. The tea began to work its way through them and the old woman began to chant. Slowly and quietly at first, but gradually increasing in pitch and velocity. Then she began to speak.
She raised a gnarled finger and pointed to Janet:
"Twenty and three, will bring you an ill-suited lover.
His face will be strong, as strong as his fist.
From his loins; he shall make you a mother,
But your son, shall not fade into the mist.
He will know the blunt sting of battle,
And yet his confidence, it will not rattle."

  Her finger dropped for a moment and then raised and pointed to Margaret:
"More than love, will come your way,
Many a lover you will have, until at last; your itch will stay.
The man for you, a great love will be,
But, untimely his death, you will live to see.
A son for you as well will spill,
And older yet, you may surely get,
But, for the boy to live, he must learn to kill."

The rest was a blur. She vaguely remember the woman giving them small hard loaves of homemade bread and walking with them through the forest. They woke up on their blanket in the woods where they first heard the voice. Over the rest of the summer, they returned both together and separately and tried to find the old woman's home. But they could not. Over the years, the memory blurred and changed and faded away. Until that is, Janet met her lover.

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  Maggie's eyes were now moist with tears as she drove down Highway 71. She remembered her dear friend Janet, who met a man by the name of Shaun O'Malley. He had a mean streak, longer than his rap sheet. But Jan was in love and by then, it was too late. Maggie tried to help her get away from him, but Janet could not break the spell he held over her. Maggie met the love of her life many years later. She and Jan had even been pregnant together. They had given birth within two months of each other. Janet's boy was named, James Patrick O'Malley. And the older he got, the worse his father became. Janet began to cling to drugs to numb the physical and psychological abuse. But in the end, Janet and Shaun were dead and 8 year old James' broken leg was mended, as was his heart, as he was adopted into their family. Only four short years later, Maggie's husband was killed, by a drunk delivery truck driver. One moment he was there, waving and smiling, crossing the street. The next he was gone.
  Maggie wiped the tears out of her eyes and thought of the boys that she'd raised. James and Ty were young men and the best of friends. Somehow she knew that bond would last between them for many years to come. Her thoughts turned to the rest of what the old woman had said. The strange bits about 'battles and killing'. She had forgotten about that. Not that any of it had made any sense to her at the time. She paused and considered what she'd remembered from what the old woman had told them. As she did, pieces began to fall into place. She pondered over them for a moment. But, her nose was running now. That cough she'd had the past couple of days must be settling in, plus the crying didn't help.
  She reached over to her purse in the passenger seat and took out another tissue. She wiped her nose with it, but when she brought it away, was surprised to find blood.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Excerpt from, The Gambler's Journal

This story was written with inspiration from a Flash Fiction Challenge on:
The picture was of a message in a bottle, washed up on a beach.

The Gambler
...My four year old granddaughter held my hand as we walked slowly along the beach. She skipped and jumped, splashing in the water's edge and pausing every now and then to inspect a shell or rock in the sand. The sun had just risen only an hour ago and the whole world was still new. There was a slight chill in the air, mostly due to the wind coming in over the water, but it was refreshing just the same. The warmth of the sun on my face and the weight of the child's hand in mine, warmed my heart. It seems to me that the older I get, the more reflective I become. Not a dweller mind you, dwelling on the past can't change anything. No, not a dweller... a reflector. Lately I'd taken to looking back at my life and seeing both the error and blundering luck that saw me through. Mostly what I feel these days is simple gratitude. I am extremely grateful for my time here on this planet and for the experiences that I've had. Sure, there've been rough times. Difficult times. Times that felt as though the whole world bore down upon my head and threatened to break me. But then there are times like these, this moment right here; the angelic chubby face looking up at me, with a sweet and innocent smile. The light that plays through her soft, blonde-brown hair as it's swept away from her face by the salt-kissed breeze. The eyes that have only known tenderness and kindness, untainted by the pain in this world. These moments are what it's all about. These moments make it all seem worth while.
"Spin me!" she says.
I grab both of her hands and we twirl together under the newly born morning.
This is the moment I want to cherish and remember for as long as I have left. If they catch me, this will be my final thought and I will die a peaceful man.

To whomever finds this, know that of all the defining moments in this journal, this moment with my granddaughter, before the plague, is the greatest memory of who I was. I was a Grandpa, a Father, a Husband, a Friend. I know that it won't be much longer now. In fact, James just told us that our escape route is now blocked. Turns out that our traps have turned against us. Fire is a fickle beast and cannot be expected to follow where you want it to go. Point in fact, that's what I told James when he schemed up the idea. But youthful arrogance has seen us through the past few weeks. I never would have taken the risks on my own, but it has allowed me to live a little longer and chronicle our last days together.

2:30AM - Going to Make a Break For It
This is it, James has a bold plan (again) and we've all talked it out. Sounds like they got the strongbox they found in the office opened. It contained some brick-a-brack, a couple of sex magazines, some Polaroid pictures and a set of keys to the "Dawn Treader", a boat out there on the dock. James took Dale up to the roof and they found it with Dale's binoculars. James says its about 500 feet away. But we'll need a distraction to get the dead away from the building. They hover out there, making those horrible noises, like idiot children that can't talk, but instead drool bloody spittle out of their mouths as they pull and grasp to get to us. The sight of them makes me want to be ill. 
I remembered to check my shotgun, its fully loaded now. I guess I hadn't filled it after yesterday's 'exercise'. 
I found an old wide mouthed milk bottle. Lord knows what is is doing in here, but the rubber gasket still works (I put some water in it to make sure). And guess what? The journal fits in it just so! So that'll be my storage container for now as we head for the boat. In case something happens to me, hopefully this will survive. I'd been looking for something to keep it in and by golly, if I didn't stumble upon it!
The 'distraction' is ready to go, everyone's gathered at the door.
Wish us luck...
Excerpt from the 'The Gambler's Journal'