Trick or treat

Hey Intrepid Readers,

It's Halloween and for a treat I thought I'd put up a short for you all to read; maybe you want to save it for when darkness falls, the moon rises (or the storm clouds smother the light and stars) and ghosts and ghoulies come out to play...

   Whatever you're getting up to this Halloween don't waste it on Monday blues!  Now, for the treat...or is it a trick? You decide. Read on...and listen for the owl...


Quinn Smythwood

The Bitch is Dead

The owl is gazing down from the tree. It’s dark out or I would see the pale green bark, the dark emerald leaves and the white ivory of the thorns. I wonder if the thorn tree is significant or if the owl would have been just as menacing sitting among the long leaves of a eucalyptus. The owl doesn’t call my name.
Summer and the heat is oppressive. There are lines of bright shimmers across the cheeks of the men who dig the grave. There’s something wild about their eyes; like the whites absorb the sunlight and burn brighter than the darks of the iris. Sometimes you wonder if they’re even alive, until they raise their voices suddenly and you’re broken out of the illusion. I try to persuade myself that it’s only my morbid mood that colours the gravediggers this way. The bitch is dead. She’s not coming for you. I wish I could be more convincing.
   There are no mourners. The plot of earth lies lonely among a dozen wood crosses. They’re thin like plywood and already a few are rotting, mirroring the process below their sharp African sun thrown shadows. Plastic flowers hang from a few, fading quickly in the hot harsh light. At last the gravediggers are done and the coffin—a box really, cheap wood with a splinter-touch surface—is lowered with small ceremony into the earth. The bitch is dead, I think, and watch as the fine dry sand is thrown back into the hole covering the box and the crone within. When it is done, I stand on her grave and look down at the freshly placed cross pegged into the ground. Goodbye, I silently tell her. A jewel falls from my forehead, a silver bead of perspiration that hits the arm of the wooden cross and draws a wet line across it. I fall back. The noon sun beats down and I retreat. The bitch is dead. I’m free.
   The night falls slowly, but not slow enough. The owl is there among the mint green branches, watching me with unblinking amber eyes and I lock the doors and close the windows even though the heat of the day is trapped inside with me. I sweat. I perspire. Not all of it is the heat. The owl does not call my name.
I dream of stars that are too bright. I am back in the past and I’ve drunk the hot liquid in the bone cup and my mind is not clear. My mind burns and my thoughts are a fever. The witch is watching me. Her smoke yellowed eyes are bruised with age. She’s old, so very old. They say she can talk to the spirits. They say she can cure all ills. They say she can make cattle barren, make their udders dry. I forget why I came to her in my dream. There are shells in her hair, shells and bones; the frail skeletons of small things, of rats and birds. She takes my hand and pricks the fingers one by one, grinning at me with dark lips over toothless gums. She’s old, so very old. I forget how I got here.
   I wake drenched in my sweat, in my terror. I get up and on the way to work, I stop at her grave. I stand on it. The sun is rising but there are too many shadows still on the ground to separate her wooden cross from the thrown darkness. I stand there a long time in my mind, seconds on my watch and then hurry away. I work like the gravediggers, I work like the owl called my name. I work like I am dead.
   In the fading day I pass her grave again on my way home. The light is thin when I walk under the thorn tree to reach my door. The owl is there and I feel its eyes on my back, drinking in my soul. I open the door and slink inside. The owl does not call my name.
Sometimes I think I am going mad. The witch lies in her grave, but every night I feel she visits me. I dream of her tasting my blood as it wells from small pricks in each fingertip. I dream of spinning under the hazy influence of the hot drink she spills down my throat. I dream of the chanting words and the sharp bark of laughter like hyenas calling on the wind. The air smells of dirt and fire and I taste ashes on my tongue. Sometimes I know I am going mad. I don’t know how I came to be under her dark eaves. I don’t know why I drink her hot potion. I don’t know why I visit her grave. I think someone told me that the owl would call my name.
   I read the paper in the evening after work, curtains closed against the owl in the yard and the lights are all burning. It only makes the shadows longer, thinner, hungrier. I turn to the classifieds scanning the adverts that promise to dispel curses, drive away evil spirits, bring you good luck, make your lovers faithful. I cannot bring myself to call on any of them. Not even those who promise no payment unless the muti* works. Black magic, dark magic. I know I am still under her spell. The bitch is dead. It doesn’t matter.
   Then I go to bed and I dream. How do I know she is dead? I just do. I know that I must go to her grave and watch them put her in the ground. I know I must stand on her grave and so I do. And I remember drinking her hot brew that leaves the taste of ashes and iron in my mouth and sends fire through my brain. I remember her toothless smile, her yellow eyes. I remember the owl. I remember the hyenas laughing in the dark.
   I wake and morning is still so fragile and young that the night is still in the air and it is dark. Too dark. I should sleep more. I should dream more. But I don’t. I get out of bed and I wonder about the house, unsettled. Afraid. Why did I go to the witch? Why did I drink her dark muti? Why is she in my thoughts? Why does she haunt my dreams? I don’t think I know. I don’t think I ever did. I walk to the door and throw it open. The owl in the thorn tree watches me. It drinks my soul. It doesn’t call my name. Sunlight chases it away. I don’t think I can last another night. I think soon the owl will call my name.
The day is long and hard and hot. I can’t concentrate. My mind wanders. My work is shoddy. My colleagues complain. I say I am sick. I say I should go home and then I leave. I go to the witch’s grave and I stand on it, staring down at the wooden cross, burning in the hot sun. I don’t care. I don’t move. Then the sun sinks and I’m free to go home.
   The thorn tree is empty as I open the rusted gate and walk under the pale green arms. The night air is cool against my burnt and fevered skin. I feel worn out, faded like a mote in the air. I could float away, I think. I walk to the door and as I open it I hear the beat of wings and the owl slips into the tree, talons rasping at the smooth green bark. I turn back and face its amber glare. Unblinking, the owl watches me. I feel lighter already. I escape into the house and close the door. It’s not long now, I know. The owl is going to call my name.
   I make supper. The yellow butter melts and colours my potatoes like the witch’s eyes. I don’t eat. I go to bed after switching aimlessly from channel to channel. After scouring the paper for adverts I know I’ll never use. I go to bed hot from the heat trapped in my skin, the sunlight that I’ve allowed to seep into my pores. It’s not enough light to keep the dark at bay.
   I dream of the witch. I tell myself that the bitch is dead. She says she knows. She says that is why. She doesn’t tell me why. She doesn’t tell me more. She just smiles. Her toothless smile is dark and gapping. Even under the spell of the hot potion, of the wicked brew, I shiver.
   When I wake it’s midnight. I don’t have to look at my watch to tell. I know. I get up out of the bed, turning damp sheets aside. I move quickly through the house to the door and out into the garden. I stand under the thorn tree, the moonlight full and bone white on the branches, on the owl. I think I see the witch. A shadow beside the tree. A shadow with yellow eyes. The owl blinks. The owl opens its beak. The witch shadow rushes forward. The owl calls my name.

* Muti is a term for traditional medicine in Southern Africa as far north as Lake Tanganyika. The word muti is derived from the Zulu word for tree, of which the root is -thi. In Southern Africa, the word muti is in widespread use in most indigenous African languages, as well as in South African English and Afrikaans where it is sometimes used as a slang word for medicine in general. (Wikipedia)


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