My new novel Red Rabbit takes place on a frontier landscape that favors the existence of magic. Mostly bad magic. There are things there that are worse than rattlesnakes or bank robbers, and to live among them you have to abide by their rules.
After finishing Red Rabbit and its sequel I wasn’t ready to leave that world behind. And so Meg Twomby was born, along with whatever it is that’s come up the trail to visit her.
I suppose I’m primarily known for writing thrillers, but horror has always been just beneath the surface, if you scratched hard enough. For instance, my first published novel, The Yard, featured a man lying helpless as his eyes and mouth were sewn shut. In my novel The Saint of Wolves and Butchers a retired Nazi kept terrible secrets in his basement, and in One Eye Open, a girl discovered that her family farm depended on the existence of monsters. There have always been monsters in the dark corners of my work, sitting quietly, patiently waiting.
Fortunately, Meg Twomby understands the cost of living here. She knows the rules.
Alex Grecian’s genre-bending horror/western Red Rabbit is forthcoming September 19th from Nightfire. We’re thrilled to share “The Price of Rye,” a short story by the author, set in the same wild west world beset by demons and ghosts.
THE PRICE OF RYE
Meg saw the stranger coming from half a mile away, picking a careful path across the plowed field. She went inside and lifted the shotgun from its cradle above the mantel.
“What is it?” Jeremy said. He rose from the table, his eyes wide. It struck her, as it often did these days, how much he looked like his father.
“Nothing, bug,” she said. “Finish your numbers.”
She closed the front door behind her and sat in the porch rocker with the shotgun on her lap. She heard the floor creak in the house behind her, and knew Jeremy had come to the window.
The stranger took his time crossing the furrows that awaited seed. He wore a black cloak and leggings and high brown boots. His dark hair was long and streaked with silver. He stopped twenty feet from the porch and lit a cigarette. The sky behind him was beginning to turn purple; a bright pink ribbon marked the horizon. He smiled at Meg, ignoring the shotgun.
“Tell me I’ve found the home of Clay Twomby,” he said.
It wasn’t quite a question, so she said nothing.
“If it’s Meg I’m talking to, you’re every bit as pretty as he made me believe,” the stranger said. He blew a puff of smoke and watched it drift away, letting his gaze wander to the empty land surrounding the house. A lone scarecrow waited patiently for something to guard.
“You know my husband?”
“Fought alongside him at Mine Creek. Both of us ended that battle among the injured.” He patted his belly. “Got something nasty to show for it.”
Meg didn’t ask the obvious next question, the question that gnawed at her day and night. Jeremy was listening at the window.
“I must apologize,” the man said. “I got such a strong feeling, like we already knew each other, and I neglected to introduce myself. Reverend Nicholas Delong’s the name. I hope you’ll call me Nick.”
“You’re a priest?”
“A reverend, ma’am.”
“If you’ve come looking for work, I already have a man.”
Delong smoked in silence as the sun went down.
“Your farmhand,” he said at last. “That’d be old Seth? Where is he this fine evening?”
“He’ll be back any minute now,” Meg said. Her fingers tensed on the shotgun’s stock.
“My guess would be he’s gone to Wichita for rye seed.” Delong was a shape in the darkness. “I wonder, did he leave on the Friday, in which case he might indeed be on his way back, or did he head out this very morning, in which case you are alone here tonight, Mrs Twomby. A dangerous situation for a woman of your transcendent loveliness.”
She aimed the shotgun at the burning tip of his cigarette.
“You move on now, Reverend.”
“You misunderstand me, ma’am. When I sought out your farm I had no intention of alarming you or your son. That’s young Jeremy hiding behind the curtain, am I right?” Nick Delong waved his hand. “If I carried a flag of truce I would raise it. Your husband wished that I should look in on you and see to your needs in his absence.”
“Why would Clay ask that of you?”
“Because we got to be so close, he and I. Our division moved on without us, and it took some time for us to catch up. We spent those days and nights getting better acquainted. I learned about you and your son and this farm. Like I say, your husband and I became very close and since I’m mustered out now and free to travel I thought I ought to reassure myself you were doing all right out here.”
“We’re fine, sir.”
“That’s good to know.”
The end of his cigarette glowed brighter, and a moment later she heard him exhale.
“Is there something else?” she said. She kept the shotgun level, the stock nested comfortably in the hollow of her right shoulder.
“Well, since you mention it,” Delong said. “I’ve come a fair bit out of my way and it’s getting late…”
“I’m sure there are rooms to be had in Wichita.”
“I’m sure you’re right, but I’m on foot and I doubt I’d get to Wichita before daylight, if I got there at all. Meanwhile, I can see old Seth’s shack there behind your house, and since he’s not here at present, I do wonder…”
His voice trailed off and he took another puff of his cigarette before continuing.
“I wouldn’t be under your own roof,” he continued. “And I know you’ve got a solid lock on your door, Mrs Twomby. You’d be in no danger from me, but you’d be doing a kindness for an injured veteran and a good friend of your family.”
“I only have your word that you knew my… that you even know Clay.”
“What can I say to convince you? That your husband stuttered when he was nervous? That he had three gold teeth from the time a rock flew up from the plow and struck him in the mouth? He was slightly hard of hearing, but only in his left ear, and he cocked his head to the side when he listened to a person talk. Shall I continue?”
“That only proves you met him, not that you were friends.”
And yet, Nick Delong knew her name, he knew about Jeremy and Seth. He even knew where Seth slept. She thought it over while the reverend quietly smoked, allowing her to work through it in her mind. At last she lowered the shotgun and stood. The rocker tipped back and banged against the wall, and she heard Jeremy yelp.
“You can stay in Seth’s house tonight,” she said. “We’re having stew for supper, and I didn’t count on a third at the table, but there’s enough to go around if you fill up on bread. I’ll feed you in the morning, too, but then you ought to move on.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “You’re a good Christian.”
“I’m neither of those,” she said. “But you’re welcome.”
In the morning she brought him a plate with two fried eggs, a rasher of bacon, and a biscuit left over from the previous evening. Reverend Delong was already awake, standing in the yard of Seth’s one room home, watching as a hawk circled something in the distance. When he saw her coming up the path Delong smiled and tipped his hat.
“Looks like it’ll be a warm one today,” he said.
He was much younger than she’d initially thought, with heavy-lidded blue eyes, and a prominent jaw. His shirtsleeves were rolled up past his thick forearms. A dog’s head was tattooed high on his left wrist. He saw her notice it.
“It’s a jackal,” he said. “A relic of my wayward past. I spent two years in Africa before I found my calling. I did things there I would regret if I gave them thought.”
He took the plate of food from her and carried it inside the shack. She didn’t follow. A moment later he came out holding a piece of bacon like a cigarette; his sleeves were rolled down past his wrists.
“Thank you again,” he said. “I haven’t slept so well in weeks.”
“I’m glad,” Meg said.
He bit into the bacon and chewed, watching the distant hawk. It dipped its wings and dropped down into the tall grass.
“Found itself some breakfast, too,” Delong said. “And you, ma’am?”
“I’m not partial to breakfast. Makes me sluggish.”
“I mean how did you sleep? And your boy? A child needs his rest.”
“We’re fine, thank you. Where will you be going now?”
“After you’ve eaten,” Meg said. “Where will you go next?”
“Oh,” Delong said. “I expect I’ll keep on down this road, see if I can pick up work somewhere.”
“Aren’t you a priest? Won’t you look for a church?”
“A reverend, but I’m afraid my title is as much a relic as this.” He touched his wrist, the jackal’s head concealed now beneath the cuff of his shirt. “Excuse me a second.” He stepped inside and came back out with two more slices of bacon. He offered a piece to Meg, but she shook her head.
“Meat’s good for you,” he said. “Helps a person think clearly.”
“Mr Delong, what happened to my husband?”
“I’m sorry?” Delong folded a piece of bacon into his mouth and chewed.
“How was he injured?”
He swallowed and yawned. The distant hawk took flight, a limp squirrel dangling from its talons. “It was a bloody fight we were in,” Delong said. “And loud. The man in front of your husband panicked, and when he turned his horse to run he knocked Clay down. The horse stepped on his chest. It happened very quickly.”
“So he’s dead.” Meg felt as if she had been dunked in ice water.
“He passed in the night.”
“But you said you traveled with him,” Meg said. “You said it took days to catch up to your division.”
“Your boy was listening at the window.”
“I see,” Meg said. “Thank you.”
She turned and her toe caught in a rut. She stumbled forward, windmilling her arms, but Reverend Delong stepped forward and grabbed her shoulders before she could fall. He lifted her up and set her back on her feet as easily as if she were a child.
“One more night,” Meg said.
“You may stay here another night, provided Seth doesn’t return and need his bed. If you want to earn your supper there’s a pile of kindling behind the shed that needs chopped.”
A battered black pot hung in the fireplace, steaming and bubbling, and the smell of stew drifted through the house. Clay had built the two-room home himself, nocking the ends of the timbers to fit them tight, using mud to daub the cracks, and tucking a loft under the roof for Jeremy. The house was strong and solid enough to resist the winter ice and the summer dust.
Meg plucked five shiny black leaves from one of the dozens of plants that lined the sideboard beneath the kitchen window, and dropped the leaves into her mortar atop a small selection of dried herbs. She stood at the window and ground them to a fine powder, and watched Nick Delong stack wood beside the house. He had removed his shirt and the muscles in his back rippled as he worked. She counted at least five tattoos besides the one on his wrist, but he was too far away for her to see what they depicted. It took her a moment to recognize the tune he was singing.
We shall meet, but we shall miss him
There will be one vacant chair
We shall linger to caress him—
Jeremy’s voice startled her. “Are you making supper?” he said.
He had brought a bucket of water for the washbasin and he set it on the floor against the wall. He came closer and squinted at the crushed herbs in the mortar.
“This isn’t for your supper, bug.”
“What is it?”
“It’s like a spice, but not for seasoning,” she said. “It’s for loosening a person’s tongue.”
“Does their tongue fall out?”
“No, but they talk more than they mean to, and they tell the truth, even if they would rather lie.”
“Have I eaten it before?” There was a hint of suspicion in his voice.
“No, bug, because you always tell me the truth, don’t you?”
“Go on and wash up.”
“When I get bigger will you show me what to do with all the plants and flowers?” He slid his hand along the edge of the sideboard, nudging the terra-cotta pots with his index finger.
“Maybe,” Meg said. “Now go.”
She watched him pick up the bucket of water and shuffle from the room, then she went to the cupboard and took down three deep bowls that she had chiseled from the trunk of a cherry tree and had polished until they shone. She emptied the mortar into one of them and set it at the head of the table.
“Jeremy,” she said.
He poked his head around the doorjamb.
“When you’ve washed your hands and face, please tell Reverend Delong to join us for supper.”
Reverend Delong stabbed a cube of beef and picked it off the end of the knife with his teeth. He looked around the room as he chewed; he looked up at the high roof beam, and across at the hand-hewn window frames, and down at the closely fitted floorboards.
“It’s all just as I imagined it,” Delong said. “I almost feel as if I’ve come home.”
Meg sipped from her water glass and watched him skewer another cube of beef. His eyes were set far apart, his cheekbones high and sharp, like a lion wearing a man’s skin. Or, Meg thought, like a jackal.
“You’re not supposed to eat the meat out of your stew,” Jeremy said. “Vegetables are good for you.”
“Hush, bug” Meg said.
“Is that so?” Delong dipped his spoon into the bowl and touched it to his tongue. “What is this flavor I detect? It’s oddly familiar.”
“It might be the rosemary,” Meg said.
“No, I know what this is. It’s literally on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t remember what it’s called. You fed this to Clay after he proposed to you. You made him tell you his secrets before you married him.”
“How could you—”
“Please, don’t misunderstand,” Delong said. “He was happy to do it if he could win your hand, but you didn’t warn him just how vulnerable your concoction would make him. He never entirely forgave you for it.”
“He told you that?”
“Not in so many words.”
“Jeremy, please go up to your room and pull the curtain.”
“I haven’t finished.”
The boy pushed his chair back and let his spoon drop with a clatter. He stomped to the ladder and climbed, yanking the curtain shut behind him when he reached the loft.
“Too bad,” Delong said. “I was looking forward to spending some time with the boy.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” Meg said. “You are not welcome here.”
“Did I say something?”
“I want you off my land.”
“There are coyotes out there in the dark.”
“I don’t think you’re afraid of coyotes.”
Delong set down his knife and rested his elbows on the table. He tented his fingers under his chin and stared at her, his eyes bright under their heavy lids. “Your farmhand, Seth, is still in Wichita. That’s more than a day’s ride, and last year he had a hard time finding quality seed within your price range. Unless his luck is better this season, he might be gone for another week.”
“Clay never told you that,” Meg said. “He wouldn’t have told you what we pay for seed.”
“I worry, though.” Delong shook his head. “An attractive woman and a young child, and not a neighbor within earshot. Clay would have wanted me to look after you until old Seth gets back.”
“What really happened to my husband? I don’t believe anything you’ve said. What did you do to him?”
Delong raised his hands in mock surrender. “My goodness,” he said. “I’ve said all the wrong things, haven’t I? Something must have loosened my tongue.”
Delong slammed his palms on the table. Silverware rattled and his drinking glass tipped over. “Don’t ask me questions you don’t want me to answer!” He leaned forward. “How many of those herbs did I eat?”
Meg stood and went to the cupboard. She brought back a folded towel and used it to soak up the spreading puddle of water. She carried the sopping towel to the open window and wrung it out, then draped it over the sill to dry. She watched the empty moonlit fields as she spoke.
“I believe I know what you are, Mr Delong. And I believe I know what happened to Clay.”
“Is that a question, Mrs Twomby?”
“Why did you really come here?”
“To see you,” he said. “Your husband’s feelings for you were very strong.”
“Please go somewhere else now. Please leave us alone.”
She listened as he stood, and pushed his chair against the table, and walked to the door.
“Good night, Mrs Twomby,” he said.
When she heard the door close behind him, she began to cry.
Meg was up before dawn, but she let her son sleep. She scrubbed the floor in the front room and patched a rip in the knee of Jeremy’s best trousers. She weeded her small garden at the side of the house and brought in a basket of the kindling Reverend Delong had chopped. When the morning chore were complete, she clamped her cast-iron meat grinder to the lip of the dining table and fed cuts of beef and pork fat into it, cranking the handle until her shoulders ached. As she worked she watched out the kitchen window for signs of movement around the farmhand’s shack.
At half past eight the chickadees stopped singing, and the crows screamed a warning, and Meg stepped out onto her porch. A rider was on the trail, and she recognized him as Billy Mather, son of her neighbors Matthew and Sarah. He was barefoot and there was a hole in the brim of his hat, but his horse was well fed and shod. He pulled even with her and brought the horse to a halt.
“Cable for you, Mrs Twomby,” he said.
“Not…” Meg’s breath caught in her throat. “Is it from the army?”
“It’s from Wichita, ma’am.”
He leaned down and handed her a yellow slip of paper. She gave him a penny and he thanked her, then turned his horse and rode back down the trail. She watched him until he was safely off her property, then she unfolded the telegram and read it.
broke wagon wheel stop two days to fix stop will leave me less for seed stop seth
The door of the shack opened and Delong stepped outside. He stretched and smiled at her.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got more of that good bacon?” he said.
Meg woke Jeremy and dressed him, then took him to the barn, watching the yard and the door of the shack. She saddled their mule Princess, and lifted Jeremy onto her. His feet didn’t reach the stirrups. Meg slung a leather bag over her shoulder and holstered the shotgun in the saddle. She took the mule’s reins and led her from the barn. Meg saw no sign of Reverend Delong.
The solid little pack animal handled the plowed fields well and Meg allowed her mind to wander as she walked between the rows.
If she was correct about Nicholas Delong, it meant she was already a widow, and Jeremy would grow up without a father. There would be no telegram from the army; there would be no grave to visit. Meg felt grief welling up in her, closing her throat and blurring her vision, but she knew there was no time to dwell on the loss of her husband.
She had to keep her son alive another day.
Half an hour after leaving the house they reached the grassland at the farm’s border. Jeremy woke up and complained, but Meg hushed him and walked on, leading Princess through the tall grass. It was a year for cicadas and she listened to their song. She watched pale green grasshoppers bound away. She felt the sun on her face, and she smelled its heat on the pasture.
When they reached the tree line they stopped and she lifted Jeremy down from the mule’s back. She tied Princess to a sapling and left her there to graze. Meg took her son’s hand and led him into the cool shade beneath the trees, where the sounds of locusts and flies were silenced.
She spent the morning searching the woods. She gathered Dead Man’s Fingers from rotted stumps and she dug for shingle oak acorns. She plucked tiny blue juniper berries, pinching them from their cones into a pouch, and she snipped azalea blooms from their bushes. She showed Jeremy how to hold a silver coin against a mushroom to see if it was poisonous. He clapped in delight when a cluster of amanita blackened a three-cent piece, then watched attentively as his mother harvested the toadstools.
At noon they stopped and rested against the base of a shumard oak, and ate watercress sandwiches from Meg’s bag. She uncorked a canteen and watched him drink from it, then put the canteen back in her bag without drinking from it herself. She waited. His eyelids grew heavy and he yawned. He stretched and slumped against her shoulder, and a moment later he began to softly snore.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
She took his unfinished sandwich from his hand and tossed it into the woods. She laid him gently on a bed of spruce boughs. She pricked her finger with a pine needle and smeared her son’s forehead with blood, then drew a circle around him with the toe of her boot and spat against the trunk of the shumard.
She left him there and hiked back out of the woods. She untied Princess, mounted the mule, and turned her toward home. She rode back across the pasture and across the land she and her husband had bought in the second year of their marriage. She remembered him then: the way he hid his thinning hair under a hat, even at the table; the way he smiled at her when he was troubled so she wouldn’t worry; the way he lifted heavy things when he thought she might be looking his way.
When she drew near her house she reached into the bag, found the blackened three-cent piece, and put it under her tongue.
Matthew Mather was waiting for her on the porch rocker. He waved at Meg. She spat the silver coin into her palm and cursed under her breath.
“Billy said he saw a man out here this morning,” Matthew said. “Saw him come out of Seth’s place. Sarah told me to come by and check on you.”
Meg tied up the mule. She crossed the porch and held the door open, and Matthew scraped his boots on the threshold before entering. He limped inside, his wooden foot heavier than the other. He looked around the room, up at the empty loft where the curtain was open.
“Where’s Jeremy?” he said.
“Seth took him to Wichita,” Meg said, and the quickness of the lie surprised her. She set her bag on a chair and laid the shotgun on the table. “I thought it was time he learned how to haggle.”
Matthew nodded. He glanced at the mound of ground meat on the table.
“Sarah made a couple peach pies this morning, but they were still cooling when I left. I imagine she’ll bring you one tomorrow.”
“Well, that’ll give me something to look forward to,” Meg said.
She took a glass down from the cabinet, poured water from a pitcher, and handed the glass to Matthew. He drank half of it in a single gulp.
“Thanks,” he said. “So, who did Billy see here this morning?”
“A salesman,” Meg said. She took the glass from him and refilled it from the pitcher, then handed it back. “Had some kind of irrigation system he wanted to talk to Seth about. I told him he must have passed right by him on the road.”
“Him and Jeremy, right?”
“Yes. Jeremy, too.”
“That salesman wouldn’t go by the name Howard Gilman, would he? Short fella, sandy hair?” Matthew sipped from his water glass and leaned against the sideboard.
“That sounds right,” Meg said. “I think he did say his name was Howard.”
“Funny.” Matthew moved a potted dittany to one side so he could set the glass down. He crossed his arms and sighed. “That don’t actually match the description of the man Billy saw here. Billy said he was a tall fellow, dark hair, wide shoulders.”
“That’s not right.”
“Meg, there’s no reason to think Clay won’t come home to you. From what I hear, the war’s gonna end any day. Your husband could be on his way home right now, for all we know.”
Meg didn’t understand his meaning at first, then she did and her cheeks flushed. She picked up her bag and dumped the contents out on the table, began sorting them: mushrooms, acorns, blossoms. She stopped a shiny black beetle and pushed it back toward the pile.
“I love my husband,” she said. The beetle crawled away from her collection again, and she reached up, drew a pin from her hair and stabbed it through the middle, sticking it to the table. Its threadlike legs continued to move, scrabbling against the polished oak. “You should go now, Matthew. I appreciate you and Sarah looking out for us while Clay’s gone, but it’s dangerous for you here.”
“I think I’ll take a look around, in case that salesman’s still prowling about.”
“There’s no need for that, Matthew,” she said. “You ought to head back before it gets late.”
He watched the beetle struggle for a moment, then he pushed himself away from the sideboard and limped to the door.
“A woman shouldn’t be alone out here.”
“Strange,” Meg said. “You’re the second one in as many days to say so.”
Meg spent the rest of the afternoon mincing the ingredients she had gathered in the woods, and kneading them into the warm ground meat. She added a few cuttings from the sideboard, and dried herbs from jars in the cabinet. Finally, she picked the tiny scab from her fingertip and squeezed three drops of blood into the mixture. She pushed the seasoned meat into casings and was pleased to see there was enough filling for thirty small sausages, nearly twice what she’d expected.
She heated a skillet and dropped in a spoonful of lard, then placed ten of the links in it, moving them around with the tip of a spatula as they sizzled and spat. Sweat dripped from her nose onto the potbelly stove and hissed as it steamed away.
When the sausages were browned, she removed them from the heat and scooped them out onto a clean piece of cheesecloth. She spooned more lard into the pan and turned to get another batch of sausages. Reverend Delong was standing in the open doorway.
“Whatever you’re cooking in here, it sure smells good,” he said. “Carries clear over to the barn.”
Meg glanced out the window and saw Matthew Mather’s horse still tethered beside the porch. She turned a link in the skillet, and noticed a spot of grease on the sleeve of her blouse.
“Help yourself,” she said, and jerked her chin in the direction of the dining table.
Delong came across the room and pulled out a chair. He sat and contemplated the cooling sausages.
“Not hungry just yet,” he said.
He watched her cook.
“Your boy,” he said after a time. “Where’s Jeremy?”
“He went to a neighbor’s house to play with their children.”
“Oh? Which neighbor is that?”
She glanced out the window again. Matthew’s horse pulled up a mouthful of clover and chewed.
“Gilman,” she said. “Howard Gilman.”
She placed another piece of cheesecloth over the first batch of sausages and rolled the second batch out of the pan. As she slid the last ten links into the sizzling lard, Reverend Delong stretched out a long arm and plucked a hot sausage from the pile. He sucked grease from his fingers, then reached out and took another sausage.
“I thought you weren’t hungry,” Meg said, and she shuddered involuntarily.
“It’s the smell,” he said. “Irresistible.”
He finished the second and reached for a third.
“Can’t seem to help myself.”
He was picking up a fourth sausage, his fingers dripping with grease, when he stopped and stared up at the loft, frowning.
“Did you say Howard Gilman? Why do I know that name?”
Meg felt a thunderclap of fear, but said nothing. She concentrated on the third batch of links, turning each one with her spatula as it browned. She heard Delong shift in the chair behind her, felt his eyes on the back of her neck, on her shoulders, her waist. She turned another sausage in the pan.
“You know what would hit the spot right now?” Delong said at last. “A warm slice of peach pie.”
Meg turned and reached for the shotgun.
She was running across the field behind the house. She stole a backward look and saw Reverend Delong loping after her. Delong hunched forward as he ran, his knuckles touching the ground. He was gaining on her quickly, and Meg felt a flash of relief that Jeremy was safe and far away, where Delong might not find him.
She moved to her left, thinking she might circle back and find the place where she’d dropped the shotgun, but he moved, too, cutting her off.
“I smell your blood, Mrs Twomby!”
The toe of her boot caught on a heavy clod of dirt, but she kept her balance, kept moving. She knew if she tripped and went down he would be on her before she could get back up, but this was her field. She had helped plow this land and she knew every inch of it by heart. She would stay on her feet and she would stay ahead of him long enough. Just long enough.
She leapt over a ravine and feinted left again, then spun and sprinted south. Behind her, Delong slipped and fell into the ditch. He clambered up and coughed something out into the dirt. He shook his head, clearing it, and crawled forward.
She paused for a second to catch her breath and watch him. He got to his feet and staggered forward, then gained his footing and began to pick up speed. Meg turned and ran again.
Her chest hurt and her calves burned, and she thought about how it was too bad she wasn’t ten years younger. A decade earlier she could have left Nick Delong miles behind, could have sprinted to the next county and back on her skinny legs before the Reverend even passed the shadow of her barn.
She heard him cough again, and she risked another glance over her shoulder.
He had stopped and was leaning forward, his hands on his knees, shaking his head back and forth. He spat on the ground, then sank to his knees and began to howl.
“What have you done to me, Mrs Twomby?”
Meg stopped and turned. She stood still, breathing hard, watching him and waiting.
“It was the sausages, of course it was the damn sausages,” he muttered. “I’m a damn fool.”
He choked and spat again, then vomited down the front of his shirt. He flung himself forward and clutched at the ground, and delicate gray tendrils coiled out from under his fingernails, snaking into the earth, rooting him there. He retched again, and tried to speak, but gagged on the word “witch.”
The curved branch of a shingle oak shoved its way through the back of his neck, and Delong roared in pain and anger. His eyeballs exploded in a shower of tiny pink flowers. His skin heaved and split. Bright green moss flowed along his silvery hair, and a wave of shiny black beetles burst from every orifice. They tore through the Reverend’s clothing and through his tattooed flesh, polishing the blood from his exposed bones and scuttling away into the shadows of his crumbling ribcage.
Delong collapsed in a trembling mound of new life that cycled through the seasons as Meg watched, then rotted away.
Meg put Princess in her stall and fed her, then carried Jeremy up the ladder to his bed and left him there. She returned to the barn and shoveled Matthew Mather’s remains into a wheelbarrow. His skull had been cracked open and hollowed out; there were toothmarks on his wooden foot. Meg pushed the wheelbarrow out across her land to the place where Reverend Nicholas Delong had breathed his last.
She sifted through the warm soil and found three misshapen gold nuggets. She held them in her palm for a long time, watching the play of starlight on the precious metal.
At last she sighed and picked up her shovel.
She dug two small graves. She dumped the wheelbarrow into one of the graves and scooped dirt over her neighbor’s bones. In the other hole she placed the three gold teeth. She used her hands to shove dirt over them, then wiped her eyes, smearing mud across her cheeks.
At last she stood and laid the shovel in the wheelbarrow and walked across the fields to her home, where the windows sparkled with candlelight and her son slumbered in his loft.
“The Price of Rye” copyright © 2023 by Alex Grecian.