(reading time: 50 minutes)
The Tangent of Sara’s Sewing Spiders
I told you about my mother’s dress shop. I didn’t tell you it were driven out of business by the peculiarest of competitors. My mother, bless her glorious soul in Heaven, were even kind enough to bring the woman who owned the venture a pie as a welcoming gift. Sure it were blackberry pie, not her finest pie by miles, but you can’t expect saintly behavior from a shrewd businesswoman such as her.
She came back in tears, her gift refused. I were nineteen at the time, just old enough to think I had the right to astorm into other people’s places of business and give them a tongue-lashing. When I found her sobbing in her rocking chair and staring at a half-finished dress in her lap I asked what were wrong.
“Oh my little Lion,” she addressed me affectionately. “My days of stitching are done. The woman across the way… She’s made friends with the best sewers in the West. The designs are so complex. There’s nothing these wrinkly stubby fingers can do to compete.” I choked on the piece of blackberry pie I’d helped myself to. If you ever see your mother like that it will break your heart. That’s why I waited until the Laudgod had taken her before I began my descent into shameful behavior. What I did in them two dress shops were only a touch shameful.
Filled with righteous fury, unaware of the black stains round my lips, I astormed over to the other shop and burst inside. The best sewers in the West… were spiders. Thousands of them hung from the ceiling in drooping dyed webs in all the colors of the rainbow and the moonbow. The dresses on display, hanging from invisible threads of silk like fancy specters, were as ornate as two stained glass windows laid over top of one another. It were no wonder my mother were so down.
To make a short tangent even more compressed, the woman who owned the shop were simply rude. She took joy in watching my mother come in and try to make friends, said her effort were ‘comical’. I’ve never punched a woman who hadn’t been proper raised in a barn, and I barely managed to restrain myself that time. The only thing that kept my fist in my pocket were the sight of the woman’s daughter: Sara.
She were beautiful, especially with all them big-eyed spiders weaving in and out of her hair braiding it up for her. She smiled at me and touched the side of her lip. I thought she were asking for a kiss, but when I got close enough she dabbed at the blackberry stains with a silk handkerchief so smooth that it rubbed the rough edges off my spirit and I asked her to marry me right then and there. Her mother threw me out.
Sara were an angel, something I think she got from the spiders rather than her mother. She came to our house later and offered an apology to my mother. She brought with her a few spiders she’d trained herself as a gift. They could help my mother make enough dresses to wind down the shop’s finances and let her retire with no debts. She regretted not being able to help more, but her mother were intensely suspicious when any of their bugs went missing.
Then there were a long, fruitful, and passionate relationship twixt her and me. In fact, it were only when she left me that I were forced to look inward and see the rot there. Sara always wanted to teach all of the spiders of the West to make friends with people, so there’d be no more stomping or swatting twixt friends. The lofty goal were surely impossible in an infinite West, but I’ll be damned if she didn’t get so close that I came across some of her efforts in that forest after Galloposa, less than a mile from the smoke trails that hopefully meant civilization.
The smoke were acoming from a mountain… or tiny holes in it rather. It weren’t hard to find an entrance that looked like a mineshaft. There were a set of tracks out front with a rusty old cart and some sort of fancy braking mechanism. Before I investigated I took a well-deserved break under the nearest tree; you can’t expect a man who has lost everything, including his hat, to jump from one death-defying feat to another without enjoying the serenities of nature can you?
My nap were interrupted by tiny little feet skittering across my forehead. I opened my eyes and looked up to see a yellow and black spider setting up her threads twixt a few cowlicks. I were about to snatch her off my noggin and squish her, but then I saw one of her little pointy hands wave at me.
One of the buttons popped off my shirt. Another spider emerged from twixt the two sides and kicked it away to the ground. Another one investigated my socks, which were probably more sweat than sock at that point. The wealth of train tickets were still on me, but I’d never found the time to get a decent set of clothes; I were still wearing the rags I’d planned on wearing to my infernal inauguration. These descendants of Sara’s spiders, or perhaps just of her kindness, wouldn’t let me go down that hole in such a state. They wanted me to shine in the darkness so much that I didn’t even need a lantern.
More and more spiders appearified. They literally crawled out of the wood by the hundreds; it must’ve been some sort of critter commune. I imagine if they’d had lips they would’ve whistled a little tune while they worked. They pulled at loose threads until they unraveled, carted them away, took careful measurements, and replaced every piece of clothing they broke down one by one. I sure am pleased no passerby stumbled on the scene and saw me half-undressed up against a tree with a bunch of crawly things tickling at the sensitive patches of skin and making me giggle like a child rolling in goose down.
When I stood I were restored to a state more than respectable if you could overlook my hollow cheeks and dreadful posture. My new shirt were fabulous shining yellow silk, loose in all the right places. The threads in my cowlicks had become a beautiful matching hat, soft and light as a halo. The pants they built tougher, perfect for rolling round in the dirt and then brushing it off. The last spider crawled out of my pocket, where she had just finished a handkerchief with my initials on it. O Sara…
End of tangent how do you even end a oh never mind THE END back to Licorishka
There were no signs saying where that mine cart went, but it had to go somewhere on account of it still working. I leaned over the side and found some strange coins littering the bottom. I picked them up and bit one: wood. Nothing good ever involves wood coins, just like a glass of milk when there’s no goats or cows round or a piece of wax fruit. There were a little face on them of a bearded man, no elected leader I could recognize and I could recognize most twixt Lake Chippywhinny and Eighth Carolina.
I pocketed the suspect currency and scrunched my legs up to climb inside the cart. Then I pulled the lever. The gentle downhill slope inched the bucket forward, its rusty wheels squeaking as it picked up speed. Ten seconds later I were in darkness. Ten seconds after that the slope became a cliff; I could barely hold onto the sides of the cart as it plummeted down the tracks. I heard rushing water go by at least three or four times. The tracks spun in a tight circle for just as many go-rounds. When it finally stopped I were thrown forward and out like a spattering of pig slop into the trough. I landed face down in a pile of dirt; I had to rub it out of my eyes before they could even begin adjusting to the lights of the place.
The lanterns hanging on the wall were sparse, the light so weak that… We’ll have to skip confound it Look, I only have so much space available to me to write this account. I thought we were on a decent pace, but then I counted the backs of the pages I have left and now my paragraphinating is looking bloated. I’m going to have to shave some hair off this legend if I’m going to hit all the important ones. I’m sure you understand. Telling you about all them cactus were a big waste of time, but it’s too late now.
What’s important from that cave? Licorishka. It’s where we got our first legend. I suppose the first crucial detail is the kind of place that cave were, and the second is the kind of people stuck down there.
It were a mining town. The company had gone so deep that all the houses and buildings were now in one of the earlier chambers. This cut them off from the outside West and allowed all sorts of nefarious things to happen on behalf of the company. Them coins my tongue nearily got a splinter on were company money, only to be used at the company store. The workers were paid in it, so there were only one place they could buy what they needed. Where I come from that’s been outlawed, but the law’s the slowest moving thing on the frontier.
Mining is work for the strong, or the gigantic. I saw one such gigantic in the town square. She were fifteen feet tall, young, pretty, and blue-gray in hue. That happens sometimes, especially to giants, when there’s too much silver in the diet. I’m sure you can guess what they were digging up down there. This woman had so much in her systems that her sweat glinted even in the dim light like a vein of pure silver.
Her skirt were cast of iron. She moved her hips back and forth in the middle of town, swinging the pendulum built into her undergarments until it struck the side of the bell-skirt and rang loud enough for all to hear. Then she used them big lungs of hers to make pronouncements: changes in work hours and the availability of goods and other such drudgeries. I heard her say a very interesting name: Licorishka. Upon checking the Manifest all my doubt were gone; it were my luck that I’d found a legend after all. I asked the lovely silver-sweating giant about my new target.
“She’s meaner than a rabid dog,” she said in her deep voice, a voice I would say were more like lead than silver. “She works for the company that keeps us down. Uses all the money to buy sweets for herself.”
“Is that why they call her that?” I asked. “I don’t know too many mothers who’d name their precious daughters after the bitterest candy there is.”
“It’s not the ones she eats, it’s the ones she beats you with,” the big woman explained. “She carries a whip of black licorice thick as your arm. She knows how to use it too. On top of that you can barely see it out here in the dim. You never know when it’s about to crack and split you open.” She snapped her fingers, a gesture that at her size had enough force to knock me on my bottom. If a woman that size were afraid of Licorishka, she sure were something to fear.
“Do you know where I could find her?” I asked. She got down on one knee, ringing her bell skirt as she went, and looked at me real close. I could see the sparkling sweat at the base of every eyelash.
“I’m here to stop her. Take her down a… make sure… I’ve just got something she needs to sign is all. Little legal documentation.”
“You’re wanting to fight her?”
“Yes Miss,” I admitted.
“Good,” she said. Then she surprised me by picking me up under the arms and hoisting me into the dank air. “It’s about time somebody put her in her place. Say hello for me.” Before I could ask what she meant she stomped over to the nearest building, some sort of company lounge, stepped up on the porch, pulled back a mighty fist, and punched straight through one of the windows of the second floor. I think that glass shattering were loud enough to give all the drillers in town a pause.
The big woman pushed me in through the hole and set me down on my feet. Stunned, I tried to get some bearings on my surroundings. There were a bar with a few people too surprised to drink. One of them were a woman dressed mostly in black with a coil of something dark round one shoulder. She arched an eyebrow my way.
“My apologies for the disturbance,” I stammered, “and for your window there… but you wouldn’t happen to be Miss Licorishka would you?” She smiled. Teeth black as coal, lacquered in a syrup of spit and softened licorice.
“I am,” she said. You could hear it coating her throat. “You a gentleman caller?” She stood and put one hand on her ample hip.
“I’m no gentleman Miss.” I brought out the Manifest and held it up like the commandments. She didn’t react much. If you didn’t see the stripped angel that came with, it really weren’t too impressive. “I need you to sign your name on this here document.”
“What for?” she challenged. You don’t need to hear about my particular failings at the artistics of conversation, especially since we’re cramming the rest of this tale in the bottom of the jar, but I did not manage to convince her my purpose were divine. I weren’t within ten feet of her before she cracked that whip faster than I could put the Manifest aside and go for my guns.
Her strike knocked me back into a stool and left a bleeding black gash on the side of my neck. She laughed madly and then took a big bite out of the end of the licorice, the end she weren’t beating me with of course. I pulled one gun while the other hand were getting me back to my feet, but she were too fast. The whip came in again and cracked it right out of my hand. Thick black gunk covered my hand, asticking all my fingers together.
I tried to dive over the bar, but her licorice whip wrapped round one ankle; she pulled me back so far I flew into another window and shattered it. Then I slid down the awning, chin bouncing all the way, and wound up dangling by my tangled ankle. All I could do were bend myself in half and bite through the whip. It tasted foul. Mind you I don’t mind the taste of licorice, but this stuff were aged… like it had a year’s worth of dust and clothes lint gumming up its surface.
The ground greeted me with its usual enthusiasm. When I looked up Licorishka were there on the edge of the roof scrutinizing the bit end of her whip. She looked none too happy; the woman reversed the candy in her hand so she could hit me yet again with the neater end, but I had a plan this time. She brought it down like a rain of buffalo, all fury and hubris, and I caught it in my open hand.
It stung like belly flopping into a pond of hornets… but I held on. With my other hand I flipped the Manifest open to a blank page. I rolled the end of the whip across that paper as delicate as I could with her tugging on the other end. That piece were what she’d been holding not a minute ago, and the mushy candy took a perfect impression of several of her fingers. Three black smudges adorned the page, not so smudged as to be unrecognizable. Tahizote didn’t say anything about the swirls of a legend’s finger, but I know they’re all different. Them impressions were an identifying mark of Licorishka. The magic blessing were quick to take effect.
All the lamps round us increased in strength. The ground shook, not something anybody is happy to feel underground. The silver-sweating giant braced herself against a building, her skirt ringing and banging like there were no tomorrow. This were my first time transformicating a fellow human being and I had no clue what to expect. The prints of her fingers smudged themselves and astretched out, turning into a signature. Her signature to be exact. The Manifest shook in my hands, like a novel literally itching to be read, as I aimed its open face toward Licorishka.
The shaking knocked her loose from the roof, but she didn’t fall far; she hung there above the Manifest, floating like the moon. She spat and cursed and tried to whip me again. The tip of the licorice veered off course and attached to her signature on the Manifest. The document sucked it down like spaghetti, spinning her in the air and making her howl even louder. A drop of sweat later and it were gone.
A powder the color of skin flew off her fingertips and down into her signature, like sand in an invisible funnel. Turns out the powder were her fingers. The palms went after that. She howled and howled and the whole establishment watched from their doorframes. It weren’t bloody or nothing; the process were invigorating to watch. She just became dust and the dust became tiny flourishes in the letters of her name. When the last of Licorishka were siphoned from mortality the Manifest folded itself shut and ceased its tremors.
Suddenly memories appearified in the back of my mind, like sensing a light flashing behind you. I recalled all the stories I’d heard about the deadly woman Licorishka: a mercenary who’d kill you for a stick of rock candy. She’d been used to frighten me into being a good little boy who ate his dandelion greens instead of begging for honey chews. Except she hadn’t… Except she had… It were truly done. Licorishka were legend. I made her that way.
People emerged from their homes, clapping for me. They whistled. The bell twixt the big’un’s legs rang out in celebration for what I assume were the first time ever. They hoisted me up on their shoulders and told me the entire lounge were mine if I wanted to stay. They said they would build a statue of me out of wooden coins.
A home were not something I deserved… and it weren’t part of my arrangement with Tahizote and the Laudgod. The only appreciation I could carry with me were supplies, directions, and a little silver for further expenses.
Now that you understand the routine this account should go a little quicker. Every legend is a story worth hearing, but I don’t have the room for that. Besides, you already know the exploits of every one of them that I caught. I guess that really does make the rest of this about me. It’s more about me than I’ve ever let anything else be. It’s been making my fingers tingle, even while the rest of me is numb with fear.
The Legend of Nelly from Dam Nation
I’m rejoining the tale much later, with a lot more of them pesky legends under my belt and fully dried out on the page. In fact it were downright routine, like cracking eggs in your mouth and letting the desert heat cook them while you walk. (I stand by that as the greatest breakfast in the West not made by my sweet, well-dressed, departed mother. You need a quick meal like that if you’re going to keep up with the tumblewheats.)
This time I were in a forest full of redwoods, taller than Bunyan on stilts. It were raining, making it much easier to track my target as I could hear him stomping through all them puddles on his overgrown peg leg. I were still a little wobbly as I hadn’t transitioned fully away from my sea legs river legs. Let me explain that:
In reaching that forest I had to book passage on a nice boat. It weren’t too big… room for maybe fifteen other passengers. On the deck of this boat I noticed the water were moving awful fast. I were under the impression I were crossing one of the West’s countless oceans, but the only time I’d seen water move like that were in the rapids. So I went back in the boat, down to the dinner table where a few people were nursing drinks, and asked them which kind of water we rode.
“It’s a river,” a woman said.
“What? Your mind’s done gone and salted over,” an old man said. “This here’s a sea.”
“You feel the current don’t you? It’s a river!”
“Seas have currents too you balmy wench!”
“Sea!” And so the argument went on, for the rest of the trip. I were sorry I asked. I heard the two of them going at it even as I stepped off the ramp and hit the shore. The trees were close and the stones rounded, which suggested river to me, a man who has seen more of the West than most, but I didn’t bother to say anything.
Shortly after that I tracked my prey to the old lumberyard I were standing in when I heard him stomping through them woods. Nobody had worked it in a long while; it were probably why old Roger felt so safe there. You’ll remember him as Timbershin Roger the giganticest of pirates. He were even bigger than the silver giants down the mines, making thieving pretty easy for the man as it mostly amounted to bending over. One of his legs were missing; he’d replaced it with a young tree, roots and all.
I heard another splash, finally pinpointed a direction, and took off arunning down the edge of the river-sea. Soon I were close enough to hear the branches on his leg scraping against his other pant leg. Normally he kept that leg of his better trimmed, but I’d been on his tail so long and so hard that he couldn’t spare a moment for pruning. He used to have a thick, black, scoundrely beard, but he shaved that to confuse me. At the moment he were disguised more like a giant lumberjack than an infamous buccaneer.
“Stop!” I yelled when I were in spotting distance. He were trying to run across the debris from a mudslide that had all sorts of partly chopped-up logs in it, a prospect proving difficult when one of his legs looked like the rest of the junk on the ground.
“You leave me be!” he shouted back. By that point I had quite a reputation of my own. Powerful men and women across the West lived in fear of the name Lionel Worthett. Some people called me the notary on account of my witnessing of so many ‘signatures’, but that were a lousy nickname. Anyway, Roger knew well I couldn’t just leave him be. When I got close he pulled a saber on me the size of a pig trough.
In his fear he lunged, stumbling on the logs and restarting the mudslide. Both of us got swept up in all the leaves and logs as it awashed us into the shallows. The current carried us back down stream towards the lumberyard’s facilities. The supports of a metal slide used to transport logs downriver caught the debris, bunched it all up together.
I were rolling on top of one of the logs, trying to keep my nice yellow hat dry. Sara’s spiders were generous, but one man could only expect so many hats out of such tiny critters. The log stopped when it slammed into Roger. He were backed into a corner, jammed twixt two dead trees under the slide, and half-submerged in the shallows. I had him. Most legends try to bargain with me at that point and he were no exception. The difference were I found his bargaining convincing. Not right away of course.
Hopping off my log as it collided with the rest of the debris, I landed with a splash flat on the big man’s chest. I took a big old handful of the chest hair asticking out of the top of his shirt and twisted; he barked like a puppy and swallowed some water. Before he could swat me off I stuck one of my guns up under his chin. Logs kept piling up round us and driving his body deeper into mud. When we finally started talking it were just our heads and my pistol above the flow.
“Go ahead and kill me,” he said.
“I’m not going to kill you,” I said back. “I need you to sign this here document.”
“I don’t want to turn into nothing but stories. Just shoot me.”
“If I do that you might find your way out of Hell and be back up here causing trouble in no time flat. You’re an impressive man Roger. Too impressive. Your choices are legend, myth, or legend again. Are you going to sign or am I going to cut you and let your blood do it?”
“We must get out of the water first,” he argued. “For both our sakes. This place is full of alligars.” If you’re from pike territory rather than gar, you might not know the fish; suffice it to say it’s big, snaky, and has teeth like needles. I knew he were lying. Back aboard the boat we were served some fresh caught fish for dinner. I found plenty of hair in mine, which meant the river-sea were full of furry trout… and if it were full of furry trout it weren’t full of alligar on account of the gar would eat them up in no time.
“What’s this then?” I asked as I spotted something white swimming by under us. I let go of his chest hair and plucked it out of the water. The fish were covered in thick white fur like snow bears, all except the head and tail. I might’ve lost my temper a little bit and slapped him with it until his beard were nearily restored with fish fur. “Furry trout means no alligars you liar.” I dropped the fish back in. “I guess you pick blood.”
“Wait! Wait!” he gurgled, hands in the air. “Let me make you an offer.”
“I don’t want nothing you’ve pilfered. I can do my own pilfering.” I pulled out the Manifest.
“It’s not something I stole, it’s just something I know. Twenty years on the high seas and you learn things. I have names. I got some locations for those names.”
“Meaning you let me go, temporarily, give me a chance to escape and hide, and I’ll give you the locations of two other people worthy of legend. Double your current value.”
“You’re a very big man Roger; you’re already double the value. It’d take at least three names.”
“Fine, three. I’ve got that many.”
“I said it would take at least three. I’d be happier with four. Five would make me ecstatic.”
“Five! Anything! I have five I promise.”
“Who are they and where are they?” I asked. I’d made deals like this in the past. These people were good at hiding, and if they told anybody it were people as powerful as them. One woman turned in seven leads to me, including ones on her own brother and uncle. I wish I had time to tell you about that family; when they got into feuds… I’ve seen actual wars less hair-raising than that.
“The first is Silvershot Mott,” Roger said, holding his index finger in front of his face. “He’s got a shop where he makes those special bullets he likes to use. It’s behind a black barn in Mokeyscoke; it’s got a weather vane on top of it shaped like a horny toad.”
“Then there’s Miss Irechoir. I’d love to see that golden buffalo strung up in the back of my head every night,” he half-chuckled and half-choked on the river-sea. Irechoir were a blonde buffalo woman arunning round making peace where by all rights there shouldn’t be any. I weren’t sure how that qualified her for the Manifest, but her name were there nonetheless. Sometimes impressive means good, though more often than not it don’t. I tried to remember when it were one of the good ones that I had a duty to fulfill, under the greatest authority in creation. “She lives in Leafpile City. Horse shoes over the front door.”
“Number three is Hamish Hogleather. He wears a hat with a pig snout on the front of it, never takes it off. I mean never. Just get to White Pumpkin Plantation and then follow the rancid pig smell.”
“Number four is Old Man Stormzacomin. Watch out for those trick knees of his. If you hear one crack then a massive typhoon is about to sweep in and bury you in water. He lives out by Zippacola, where the frogs sing in harmony.”
“Number four is… wait! We just did number four!”
“You’re smarter than you look Roger. I thought maybe I could squeeze one more out of you. Don’t worry; I’m a man of my word. Give me number five and then you can start arunning. I’ll tell you though… You’re never going to be quick enough.”
“We’ll see about that. I saved the closest for last; I just figured it was common courtesy.”
“Much obliged,” I said. I would’ve tipped my hat but I didn’t want to get mud on it.
“Number five lives on this here water, just two miles down that way.” He pointed with his thumb, in the direction of the flow. “It’s Nelly from Dam Nation.”
“I think you mean you saved the most dangerous for last,” I snorted. Roger smiled and shrugged his big shoulders enough to shift all the logs round us.
“That’s just one of the Laudgod’s coincidences.”
“The Laudgod wants nothing to do with you,” I said and jammed the gun further up that stretchy skin under his jaw. “He wouldn’t touch you with a pole that reached all the way down from the cloud he’s lounging on.” Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. By all accounts the Laudgod isn’t capable of lounging. I think a little differently, but that’s for a different recounting. “That’s why I have to do it.”
“You won’t be doing it just yet,” he reminded. I pulled back the hammer to remind him to get on with it. “I can’t tell you much else about her. She’s in there. With this river belonging to her she’ll probably know you’re coming too. That furry trout was doubtless a spy of hers.”
It were clear what he meant by ‘she’s in there’. Nelly weren’t just from Dam Nation; she were the mayor of the whole dam place. She were the author of one of the most famous accords twixt man and nature that didn’t involve the buffalo or the cactus. She had a pact with the beavers of that part of the West. That pact meant the beavers were full legal citizens in her nation, down to paying taxes and receiving protection from her law. In return them buck-toothed swimming hats built her a nation to govern. They must’ve cleared out all the sticks and logs from three forests to do it. I’d seen an artist’s rendering once; it were dams stacked upon dams, all neater than anything the beavers would build for themselves. Dam Nation were a fortress, sovereign and imbreachable. Of course, it had never met me before.
“Okay Roger. You’ve earned yourself a reprieve. Don’t get too comfortable.”
“I can go?”
“Go on you big stump. Get.” I hopped off of him and straddled one of the bigger logs floating round. The pirate splashed like mad getting to his feet. I watched him limp away on that wooden leafy leg of his. He actually looked over his shoulder… as if he thought I could beat Nelly within seconds and immediately pick up his trail again. I admit I kind of liked people thinking I were that powerful.
With my head turned to new business, I pulled out the Manifest and used it as an oar to paddle that log downriver. It weren’t no disrespect; One of the Manifest’s divine qualities is that it’s immune to harm. The only thing that can leave a scratch on it is a pen. That’s why I haven’t given up hope that somebody will find this here account and let the truth be known.
My worry over the condition of the Manifest were at one point very potent. I must’ve dropped it a hundred times over my adventures and then praised my luck before realizing it were something a little more deliberate I should be praising. During my name-taking it’s been shot, blown up with dynamite, engulfed in seething geyser water and blown into the sky, chewed on by ten different critters and eleven different sets of teeth, tossed on a pyre to burn like a witch, and even cursed by a couple devils. Nothing sticks to it but the ink. I wondered why the Laudgod hadn’t been so kind as to bless me with the same resiliency.
The paddling didn’t last long before the first signs of Dam Nation appearified. Beavers scurried in the bushes along the shore-bank. Wooden posts stuck up out of the water, marking where gates meant to corral fish were put up whenever there were spawning going on. There were no human eyes to see my approach, so I started to think it would be easier than I thought. Mother Nature had a different plan. The first thing to stand in my way weren’t Nelly, beavers, or any other citizen of Dam Nation; it were a thunderbird.
They’re the mightiest thing on the wing; that’s why some of the buffalo worship them. They hatch out of eggs bigger than sea cows. Their mommas don’t feed the chicks worms; she feeds them rattlesnakes instead. By the time they’re full grown a single beat of their wings can topple trees with roots so deep that the devils in Hell use them as swings. The rain is their sweat, the thunder their cry, and the lightning their shed feathers.
The one that passed by over my head were no exception. The clouds came first, dark as the sap from oil trees. Even at its great size I could barely make it out against the sky. It finished a flap and its whole body flashed blinding yellow. Then the sky lit up with lightning, one bolt for every stone on the shore and log in the flow, including mine. I were forced to hold my breath and roll the log over so I weren’t the tallest object in the river. Anybody who walked by would’ve seen a log floating down the river with two tiny booted legs asticking up along its middle.
Under the water I had to ignore the striking of the lightning and the downpouring rain by looking at anything else. I saw another group of furry trout who seemed ignorant of the disaster above. They just swam lazily, occasionally moving through a sunken log to add a little excitement to their lives. That were when I spotted some crawfish traps that were full of the pinchy little devils. There were chains attached. They were fresh enough that there were no scum on them. I followed the chains with my eyes all the way up to a submerged dam. There were holes big enough for the trout to get through, but not for yours truly.
About that time my cheeks felt awful tight. Tough as I were I still couldn’t breathe the Laudgod’s water. A light tap on the side of my pants called out my pocket twister. I pointed to my chipmunk cheeks and then to the surface; the smart little fella got the message. (He’s extra adorable in the water by the way. He’s full of spinning bubbles like seltzer.) He swam up to the surface and grabbed a fresh batch of air for me. We’d done this little trick more than a few times, so he knew to bring them big bubbles right up to my lips so I could suck them down. I’m not even sure how long I could’ve stayed underwater with his help; we never bothered to test it.
The log bumped into the top of the dam, leaving me trapped twixt lightning and a hard place. The furry trout slipped by in little holes, but I had no tool to expand them holes. I took another breath from my twister while I were thinking it over. Once again the storm made the decision for me. A great big pile of debris arrived, maybe from my scuffle with Roger or maybe from the lightning… either way the torrent caused by the rain made it into a battering ram for the battered dam.
It broke through that wall of wood and carried me with it. I tumbled round and round, losing track of which way were Heaven. The current pulled me deeper. Everything got darker and colder. Deeper. My head started to pound. Deeper. I felt the redness creeping up the paths of my eyes. When I could go no deeper without popping, my body were plunged into the gray mud of the bottom. A Y-shaped log landed round my waist, holding me down in such a way that I could not extricate myself from the sedimentation.
My twister found me and gave me another breath. It took most of what I had to keep that deep water from rushing in and taking over the place. I watched my twister head back to the surface, only there were no surface to see. Thirty feet above me were a ceiling of interlocked logs and mud mortar. I were inside and under the outer boundaries of Dam Nation. Gone were the flashing of the thunderbird’s storm.
I collected my wits as best as one can with only one dwindling breath at a time. The chamber were largely empty, perhaps a place to corral fish during a more lush season. A ways away I saw a few larger tunnels in the wood big enough for me to squeeze through, but no pockets of air. Where were my twister? He’d slipped through the cracks in the wood nearily thirty seconds ago by my panicked count. (So it were probably more like twenty-five.) With every borrowed breath the redness and the tightness came a little sooner. For the first time in my adventures I were completely at somebody else’s mercy. Much as I’d seen and done, I’d never been that stuck in that much of a Laudgod-forsaken place.
Something stirred round me, but it weren’t my breathing buddy. The mud in front of me slowly swelled, like some big worm were going to come out. The mound rose and the front part of it sharpened into something like a chin. A depression appearified under the chin and then sort of burst open. Hot bubbles streamed out and up to the wood ceiling. There were blocky shapes at the top and bottom of the open depression. It were just my luck. A Hellmouth. Down there, where the fish go to die. Of all places.
My twister still were not back with any air and I were panicking. I don’t know what crazy sorts of guns have been invented in that future of yours, but back then mine couldn’t fire underwater. I only had my fists to bang on the log keeping me down and claw at the mud. The crawfish pinching at my sides were no help neither.
One of the Hellmouth’s teeth were missing. The hole it poked its hideous rock tongue through were in a familiar place. I couldn’t even curse without losing precious air. It were the same Hellmouth I stole the gold tooth from, no doubt in my mind. That meant it weren’t no coincidence that it showed up there. It took the theft personally, a capacity I weren’t sure things like that had. So if you’re ever wondering, yes there is some kind of mind down under them things doing some kind of thinking.
To think it were following underneath me across every kind of terrain imaginable, just waiting for a moment where I couldn’t react. Its gaping gob started to suck in everything round it. It gobbled up the twigs, stones, and mud in front of it and swallowed them down. The mud started to fold like a napkin round it and pull everything closer. The suction from it pulled my hair its way. It were looking like it would be the end. I were going to get chewed up and grilled in Hellfire. It would belch and spit the indigestible Manifest back out.
Finally, with my lungs shriveling like raisins, sweet little twister came back to me. He gave me my air. I pointed frantically at the mouth, trying to tell him to escape its pull. There were no reason for both of us to go down with it.
That wispy little partner of mine weren’t hearing none of it. He backed up to a spot above my head and sped up his spinning fast as he could. The direction of my hair reversed. Twigs got chopped up in his tumultuous rotationing. With half the mud moving towards him and the other half moving toward the Hellmouth, I found it loose enough to start wriggling my legs free. Once I were extricated my twister swam away at high speed, pulling me behind him with his current. He took me through one of them tunnels and tossed me out on a bed of sticks in an air pocket. It were nothing but wood all round now and the Hellmouth could not follow; it would have to try to claim the morsel of my soul at another time.
I selfishly coughed and sputtered and thought about nothing but air until breathing felt like something other than swallowing hot shreds of iron. Then I turned to my twister. The poor little fella. His spinning were real slow. A show of force like that must’ve taken everything out of him. I thought his little invisible heart were going to stop beating any second. I thanked him profusely for his service and picked him up in my hands. I were going to put him back in my pocket so he could rest, but I thought the stale air in there might hurt more than being out in the open.
So I sat there, arocking back and forth in that dark twiggy bubble of Dam Nation, singing to my friend to make him better. When the songs didn’t seem to help much I decided to tell him a story. It seemed proper for him to know why he were helping me collect all these names. I told him the story of the soul I wanted back in the West, the soul whose freedom I would sign for with the thousand signatures of the mightiest in creation.
The Tangent of Knot-eye
Little Lionel Worthett were only nine years old. I were out playing with some of the other children of our town, Maysie Piecemeal and Anthony Sotelli, in the bald blue cactus patches. (The pieces that broke off made excellent balls for playing catch.)
My mother had to travel to the city to make some kind of big important fabric deal for her shop, so my pa were watching us. I never did tell you their names did I? Maybe I shouldn’t… They were wonderful people and they deserve to be remembered… but maybe not as the creators of the vicious man who plucked all the greatness from the West and flattened it in a book. There are lots of Worthetts out there; if you care that much you’ll just have to guess which tree I fell out of.
My pa were a man unlike most. He didn’t mind letting my mother do most of the earning. He just liked to help people; he were paid in goodwill. A mended fence meant we got free butter from the family down the road for a week. When he helped a rancher pull a calf with a wounded leg out of a mire I got to go over there and ride his ponies whenever I wanted. I don’t recall what he would’ve gotten for watching us children that day, but he did get one thing: trouble.
“Hey Pa?” I asked.
“Yes son?” He were leaned up against a rock with his hat down over his eyes. You can’t blame him. You hardly ever need to do more than listening for a job like that.
“Where’s Lulu?” His eyes shot up. Lulu Jacklyn were supposed to be playing with us as well. She were a little older, twelve if memory serves. I only asked on account of she hadn’t caught the cactus ball in a while; I didn’t think anything were the matter. My pa rounded us up, put us inside, and told us to stay there until someone came for us. Then there were a lot of shouting. Eventually Anthony’s grandmother came into the room to watch us. Every time we tried to speak she just put her finger over her mouth and put that ‘I will spank you’ look in her eye.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Lulu Jacklyn were prone to arunning away. Some of the folks round called her ‘little rabbit feet’ on account of how quietly she could run. I were told later that she left a note out by where we were playing, one she had written more than a few nights before in case she found an opportunity like the one my pa’s downturned eyes presented. I read it once. It went something like this:
Lulu Jacklyn’s official emancipation document
Dear mother and father,
I have had enough of this life under your oppressive thumbs. I will be free. I don’t mean free like the time I ran at uncle Hargo’s orchard. I don’t mean free like the time I made it three-and-a-half miles from the schoolhouse before you caught up to me. I mean free like the painted horses and the dragonflies that call no particular stream home. I mean free like the clouds in the sky and the birds that cut through them.
The Laudgod made this West just for little girls like me. It’s the biggest world full of the biggest opportunities and your chains are forcing me to pass them by, so I’m leaving. I declare myself legally emancipated from your care and as an emancipated woman you have no authority to track me down and put me to bed anymore.
I’m going to the land of milk and honey, just past the echoing canyons. If you wish to visit me in a few years’ time and stay in my luxury homestead and be under my servants’ care, you may. I will probably be too busy to see you because I’ll be a prodigy of the traveling stages. I’ll be so good at acting that you won’t even recognize me if I don’t want you to.
I know I will be free this time, because I’m going through his land. He won’t let you follow me. I heard he likes runaways. I bet he used to be one himself.
My pa came in to see me. He took me into a corner, away from the other kids and Miss Sotelli. He squatted down so we were face to face and he rubbed my cheeks with his big dirty thumbs. There were near-tears in his eyes.
“Son,” he said to me, “I’ve made a grave error. So grave someone might be put in one.”
“What’s that mean Pa?” I asked.
“It means I have to leave with a couple others to go look for Lulu. It’s… It’ll be very dangerous… and I may not come back.” Such a statement as that were so foreign to my little mind that I didn’t know what he meant. Not come back? How can a pa not come back to his cub? I told him he couldn’t go. If he didn’t go, then he wouldn’t have to worry about acoming back; it were flawless logic. Maybe it were my red cheeks and teary eyes that made it less convincing than it should’ve been. He told me he loved me and my mother more than anything in the West and then he told me to be good. Then he were out the door with three other men from town, none of them carrying guns.
It were about ten minutes later I decided him not carrying his gun were a mistake. I figured every bullet he had were one less monster that could keep him from acoming home to his family. He needed his weapon and I needed to bring it to him. First I had to escape the watchful eye of grandma Sotelli; luckily, Anthony owed me a favor on account of that time I switched trousers with him so his mother wouldn’t notice the tumbleberry stains all over his. He pretended there were a scorpion scuttling round and threw a false fit good enough for any of the traveling stages Lulu aspired to. When grandma were screaming right along with him, she were afraid of scorpions too apparently, I quietly opened the door and let myself out.
I ran home and grabbed Pa’s rifle: the long deadly parent of my six guns. I were almost out the door before I remembered to grab the bullets for it. As for finding Pa, that weren’t too difficult. There were only one good road out of town, and I could spot fresh horse tracks easily. I borrowed one of them ponies I were allowed to ride, looked for four sets of hooves, and followed them out into the wilderness. I didn’t have a chance to read Lulu’s infamous note until I were in my adolescence, so I weren’t aware of the he she’d referred to, on whose land my Pa, and myself, would have to trespass.
Following that trail the pony and I passed through a little bit of forest and then hit scrubland. Dry twigs snapped under its hooves. The sun disappeared and let the bright moon, so bright in that part of the West that it could burn you, cast everything in blue. Coyotes yipped and howled.
A peculiar fence appearified. It weren’t a proper fence; it were just several sections of rope, knotted, frayed, and torn, laid out across the ground in a line. Something about it weren’t right. There were a wind ablowing that night, not enough to take your hat into the sky but definitely enough to make the bristles of torn rope wave about. They did not move. When the wind kicked up they did not tumble away or become disorganized; they stayed right where they were.
Another mile went by. Eventually we found the four horses tied under a tree. I let my pony socialize with them while I followed their footsteps to a stone outcropping, holding Pa’s heavy rifle in both my hands like I were going to present a ceremonial saber. I came upon all four of them, standing in a row, hands at their sides. They stared up at a rounded edge of rock, like the bow of a ship, and waited. I got the sense I were interrupting something, so I crouched down behind another boulder and waited. Pa could have his gun as soon as he were done.
“We’ve come for the girl,” one of the men with my Pa shouted up to the rock. “We know she’s here.” The wind kicked up again, but it were a cold wind through my soul more than a physical one. It shook the bushes, but didn’t pick up no leaves or dust. There, at the top of the rock in front of the blue brightness of the moon, a human form twisted into being out of strands of shadow. It weaved itself together like rope. It wore all black and its skin were paler than cold butter from the white cows of Hoonhorn.
Its face were something out of a nightmare: pale blue lips in a toothless wide sneer, a bony chin, cheeks like doorstops, and ears that looked like the desert sand had weathered them for a hundred of its most ornery years. Two pieces of rope crisscrossed over its face, with two big knots covering both of its eyes. I probably would’ve wet myself if I hadn’t suddenly felt like every bit of moisture in my body dried up. I were staring at Knot-eye.
Knot-eye were the ghost story you told to scare the ghosts away. Knot-eye were a taker of souls. He weren’t a man escaped from Hell and he weren’t a devil. He were an honest-to-Laudgod vengeful spirit. I understood what that rope I saw on the ground were; it were the boundaries of the land he’d settled to haunt. No human force were strong enough to oust him and if you wanted to cross you had to hope he didn’t notice you or… come with a tribute to pay him.
There were only one thing Knot-eye ever wanted. Souls to tie up and keep him company. He’d been fed prisoners and the diseased for ages, but none had satisfied his urges. Parties that had to cross his domain often brought a condemned individual with them to offer. His price were steep; one soul for every four people that wanted to pass in or out. That were when I noticed my Pa as part of the foursome standing under his tangled gaze.
“Show us Lulu. Show us she’s alright,” another of the men said. Knot-eye silently lifted a hand. Lulu stepped out from behind him; where she had come from I couldn’t even guess. I can tell you she weren’t carrying the confidence her note implied anymore. She were trembling, pale and tear-soaked. Whatever his fondness for runaways were, it weren’t what she’d hoped. Knot-eye dropped his hand onto her shoulder and squeezed tight enough to make her sob. Seems he were solid when he wanted to be.
“The girl can go, but one must stay. One must accept the bindings,” the ghost said without opening his mouth or dropping his sneer. His voice were like big hairy spiders crawling on my brain. It were like a lightning strike hitting a man buried in his coffin and still hurting him. Listing what he sounded like is probably what I would do in Hell to remind myself it could be worse. “Who will accept?” The first three men, my Pa were last in the row, answered the ghost one by one.
“You,” Knot-eye said and pointed to my Pa. “Do you accept the bonds?”
A chisel smashed my heart to pieces. His gun. Pa needed his gun. The ghost were solid; I saw it. If he could squeeze Lulu’s shoulder a bullet could squeeze its way through his knotted gray innards. We could make him remember what it were like to suffer so he wouldn’t have to stare at the agonized faces tied to his wall. I jumped out from the boulder and ran up to them. I tried to shove the rifle into Pa’s hands, but he just took my shoulders instead.
“Take it Pa!” I screamed. “Shoot him! He can’t take you if you shoot him!”
“You shouldn’t have come my little Lion,” Pa said. “You should not have come.” He kissed my forehead and tried to hug me tight but I pulled away. I’d shot squirrels and rabbits. Knot-eye were a much bigger target. I hefted the gun up and took a shot. It knocked me on my bottom, but I didn’t miss. The bullet tore through his black clothes and flew right out the other side. Then his clothes sealed back up. His sneer did not falter; nor did his grip on Lulu. One of the other men ripped the gun from my hands and tossed it aside. I bawled and went for it, but Pa grabbed me. That were when I gave up and grabbed him back. I don’t need to recount exactly what my sniveling sounded like; I’m sure you can imagine at this point. Pa gave me another kiss and ordered one of the others to take me.
“My terms are met,” Knot-eye said, his voice moving through us all as a chill. He pushed Lulu off the edge of the rock. She screamed as she fell, but one of the men caught her. I didn’t see if she managed to squeeze some guilt into her eyes over what she made my Pa do, on account of being too busy watching him go. He took three steps closer to the blackness of the cave under Knot-eye’s ridge. He turned and gave me a smile.
“Lionel, I love you son. Remember to be the kind of man that deserves the West.” Black ropes slithered out of the cave and wrapped round his wrists and ankles. They picked him up into the air and slowly spun him, wrapping him the way a spider does a fly. Them bonds left nothing exposed to the air. As quickly as they had come they pulled him into the cave and that were the last I ever saw of him except for the memories that get fuzzier all the time.
Knot-eye vanished. I tried to bite and claw my way free of the man who held me, but even if I had it wouldn’t have mattered. My Pa weren’t in that cave any more than there were a beating heart in Knot-eye’s chest. He’d been spirited off to whatever ghostly pocket of the West willing victims like him are kept in. I cried so hard that night I nearily suffocated three or four times. They had me breathing all kinds of herbal remedies so my chest wouldn’t cave in on itself. At least one of the men remembered to grab his rifle, so I could one day have it split and made into the weapons that would help me conquer the West.
Lulu did end up on a traveling stage, if that makes anyone reading this feel any better. I’ve seen one of her shows. Apparently she dedicates them all to my Pa. She isn’t half-bad. If she were I probably would’ve muscled my way backstage and told her to stop besmirching his good name. Or maybe I wouldn’t have… I were the marionette bandit at the time…
Continued in Part Three