Roland dreamed of darkness. A thick, inky, pregnant black. It filled his throat and ears with silence and it ached with hunger.
The well, he thought. I'm in the well.
He jolted awake and found himself lying fetal style--muscles tight, spine tingling. He tried to relax.
Just a dream, he told himself, but he knew it wasn’t--he never merely dreamed anymore.
He heard his brother’s voice at his back.
“What did you see?”
Roland opened his eyes to a grey light.
“What did I see?” he said, darkly. To his brother, Roland’s dreams were just movies that played in his head--he would never understand what it was truly like, how thoroughly he inhabited the minds of other dreamers.
“Was it the well?”
Roland rolled over. “I was talking in my sleep again, wasn’t I.”
“No,” said his brother.
Roland sat up. “How did you know? What’s going on?”
Ben was sitting in the easy chair, dressed in the clothes he had been wearing the night before. He held his fingertips pressed together under his nose in his “thinking pose.”
“In a second. After you tell me what you saw.”
“Nothing!” Roland exclaimed in exasperation. “I saw nothing, Ben. I was inside it’s mind. Whatever is out there in the well that you are not talking about, I was inside its mind. Do you understand?”
“You’re sure of that?”
“Why did you take the flask last night?”
“Focus, Rolly. This is serious.”
“I keep telling you, you don’t know what it’s like.”
“But you’re sure there is some sort of entity in the well?”
Roland stabbed his brother with a cold look. “It’s a Daemon, Ben.”
“It’s very old and very powerful. It’s some sort of primal god, or daemon or old one or whatever the hell, Ben. It’s big.”
The brother’s said nothing for a moment. Roland pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on them.
“What do we do?” he said.
“We have to stop it,” said Ben, as if it were simple.
Roland furrowed his brow. “Stop it from doing what?”
“You didn’t ask me how my date was.”
Roland looked at his brother for several seconds before replying in a dull voice, “how was your date?”
Ben crossed his legs, affecting an ironically casual tone. “It was very informative, Roland. Did you know that Reverend Wallis is insane? Also, that he is using his gift to control the people in this town? No surprise there. Oh yeah, and he’s serving that demon sleeping in the well.”
Roland squinted at his brother. “What are you talking about? How do you know all this?”
“Sarah told me,” Ben said. “You know how you’ve never ‘dream-walked’ into Dad’s head? Or mine? Don’t you find that strange, by the way? Well, it seems Sarah is immune to her father’s preaching in the same way that Dad and I are immune to your intrusions. It doesn’t control her. But pretty much everyone else in this town is his unreserved thrall.”
Roland exhaled slowly. “I was afraid of that.”
“Yeah, well it gets worse. It appears this thing in the well is demanding sacrifice or whatever. So Wallis has the town ready to drink the kool aid--so to speak.”
“It’s a daemon, Ben. Maybe it’s controlling him.”
“Or maybe he’s just plain crazy. I don’t care. He’s orchestrating a mass sacrifice to a demon god. That’s bad; we’re going to stop it.”
“Okay fine,” Roland said. “But what about--wait, is there even a witch?”
“I don’t know. Sarah says the story her dad told is true but, according to her, it’s mostly exaggeration.”
“So she doesn’t believe in the witch?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But the important thing is what’s happening today. Wallis wants us out of town.”
“What do you mean?”
“The sacrifice is planned for tonight. This afternoon, the good shepherd is having a lottery at the church. The whole town is going to be there. It’s going to be like bingo night, but if you win, the prize is death.”
“So the witch hunt is a distraction?”
“I think so.”
“You think so?”
“Well, there could be a real witch out there. I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should call Dad.”
Ben looked startled by Roland’s suggestion. “What? No. Roland, we can handle this. We agreed that we were going to do this on our own now.”
Roland balled his fists, stared at them and squeezed them so hard he shook; his voice shook, too. “Together, Ben. We’re doing this together. That was the deal. But you just sent me into the mind of that... demon. Alone. That wasn’t the deal. The deal was ‘together.’”
When he looked up, he saw the expression he knew would be on his brother’s face; it was his father’s face, transposed.
“One night, man,” Ben said, in their father’s voice. “One fucking night you have to go to sleep without your sweet oblivion. If we were back home, the council would take that flask away from you for good. So stop being a fucking baby. There are much bigger things at stake here than your nightmares.”
The brothers looked at each other, wordless for a long moment. Finally, Ben threw his hands in the air.
“Alright,” He said. “I’m sorry. I push you, Roland, because I know you can handle it. Maybe you don’t believe in yourself, but I do. Just... try to trust me. We are in this together.”
Roland realized he had been holding his breath. He exhaled; there was nothing else to do.
“Okay. Okay. What--what do we do?”
Ben’s lips curled in a wry smile.
“We split up.”
The brothers stood in the graduating morning heat, each with a duffel bag on his shoulder. They watched Reverend Wallis pat the hood of his ‘78 Ford F-150 pickup.
“Hope you can handle a stick,” the old preacher said.
They went to the passenger side and threw the bags on the floor of the cab as Sarah came out of the house.
“I’m headed to Barb’s, Daddy. See how that new hip’s holding up for her.”
The preacher waved at his daughter over the hood.
“Alright, Darlin’. Tell her ‘hi’ for me.”
She set out down the road on foot. The preacher turned back to Ben and Roland.
“Talked to my mechanic friend this morning. Says he’ll bring his rig over later and pick up your car.”
Ben got behind the wheel of the truck. “Thank you, Reverend.”
“Good luck to you boys.”
Roland got in on the other side. “Good luck?” he muttered to his brother.
Ben gave him a look and fired up the engine.
They pulled onto the main road headed out of town. Roland opened the bags. Inside were the “tools of their trade,” meager as they were. The main thing their father taught them was to have some means of making fire as quickly as possible. To this end the boys carried a Zippo lighter, replacement flints and wick, a small bottle of lighter fluid, several roadside flares and a box of wooden matches. They kept all these items in one bag--the wisdom of which they often debated. Ben always made Roland carry the fire bag--which was also a subject of debate between the brothers. Ben would argue that his bag was heavier; he carried the guns after all. But now the plan was to split up; Roland pondered how to divide the items.
“What do you want in yours?” he said.
“You take the .38. There are some extra rounds in there, too.”
Roland spread open his brother’s bag, reached in and drew out the revolver. In search of a box of 9mm ammunition, he rummaged through the other items: the sawed-off, single-shot, breech-loaded 12 gauge shotgun, a box of shells, a tire iron and a six-inch stiletto his father had given Ben for his eleventh birthday. In one corner of the bag he found the brown medicine flask, partially wrapped in a grease-stained terry cloth rag. He shook his head, but he didn’t want another fight so he left it and found the bullets.
Outside town, Ben pulled onto the shoulder. He took a second to look in his bag before getting out. Roland slid over to the driver’s seat.
“You know where you’re going?” Ben said through the open window.
“Yeah,” said Roland. “But, hey. Where do I meet up with you?”
“Just come back to the house.”
“Won't that look suspicious if I arrive without you?”
“Nah. Just say you dropped me off in town or something.”
“And what do I say happened out there?”
“Tell the truth.”
“And if there actually is a witch?”
“Tell the truth.”
Roland drove for almost twenty minutes, mowing down brittle stalks of grass protruding from cracks in the weathered asphalt; the house appeared from around a bend sitting atop a small hill crest. The truck rattled and shook as Roland climbed the drive. He studied the house, looming ever larger against his approach.
General disrepair lent a strange geometry to the structure, unnaturally hiding and revealing portions of the house. The porch sagged. A screen door hung on one hinge. Layers of dust had turned the window panes a translucent hazel color. The same dust coating the windows also transformed the house into a perfidious brown. To one side, a grove of almond trees defied the orderly manner in which they were planted. Brush and star thistle had long ago overtaken any other cultivated plants in the yard.
Roland parked the truck a few yards from the front porch. He set the brake and squinted at the windows. By the look of it, this house was not occupied, yet it seemed the building itself peered out at him.
He examined the periphery. The almond orchard was on the left; a black oak curled and towered to the right. A gust of hot, summer wind swept the hilltop; something whipped around in the breeze on the other side of the oak, a dirty-gray blur.
There’s nothing here, he told himself and turned the key.
He backed up in a dusty “J” and glanced one more time at the object wavering on the other side of the oak tree; at the bottom of the drive, it dawned on him what it could be. His chest clenched at the realization. He stopped the truck and sat, thinking.
“Goddamn it,” he said aloud, and sat a minute longer.
He cursed again then turned the truck around to climb back up the drive. His hand went to the duffel bag on the seat, drew out the .38 and set it on his lap.
He parked in front of the oak and got out, pistol leveled at his waist. Embedded in the bark on the other side of the tree was a rusty nail, but the object that had hung there was missing. He turned in a circle searching the brush.
“Damn it,” he hissed.
There had been an animal pelt hanging from the tree--of that he was sure. Most likely a wolf, he reasoned. But where was it now?
Roland looked up at the house. It glared back at him.
The screen door. Was it in a different position than it had been? He wiped his brow with the back of his hand and cursed.
The thought occurred to him that he could just light the house on fire and walk away. He took mental inventory of what was in his bag--not enough to ensure the whole place would burn. And what if it did burn? With this wind, the whole countryside could go up. Besides, his brother would ask questions. Ben would want details; Roland needed to be certain.
He retrieved the bag from the truck cab.
The wind came up, hot and dry, making his eyes itch. He gripped the gun, shouldered the duffle bag, took a breath, stuffed down the hesitation swimming in his gut, and stepped onto the porch.
The doorknob felt warm and brittle. It turned with a rusty squeak and the door creaked inward.
Roland waited several seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dim, brown ink of the house’s interior. Some curtains appeared out of the haze to his right and in two steps he tore them open. Sunlight streamed in--the fool’s antidote to fear, his father always called it.
A shaft of light fell upon the wood floor, but darkened the shadows in the house’s recesses. Roland tried a light switch. Nothing. He struck a flare and held it aloft.
With the pistol in one hand and the flare in other, Roland paced the perimeter of the room, pulling down the thick, velvet curtains so that they piled on the floor against the wall. When sunlight filled the room, he found himself in a large living space. He took note of the fireplace and the staircase leading to the second floor. There was also a doorway to the kitchen and beyond that the sun room at the back of the house. The wood floors echoed each exploratory step.
In the sunroom, he caught the first hint of magic. Hazy, amber light shone through the dusty glass. Clay pots sat on the ground in neat rows. Herbs. He rubbed a peppermint leaf; it could be used in purification spells and sleeping potions. Roland had tried many of the other herbs, as well, to ward off his nightmares. Only the oblivion tonic worked and it’s contents he could not attest to--a problem he would have to solve one day if he intended to never return to his father’s aegis.
Roland remembered winding through narrow alleys in some ancient New England neighborhood; his father leading the way. An old wooden door and down some stairs to a cellar. There, they found a man--whiskery with frazzled, gray hair. He sat bent over a bunsen burner, bifocals upon his nose. The man looked up at them, father and son, and stood with an abrupt, clumsy motion.
“I have it here,” his voice croaked, as if from disuse. “It was very dear, Mr Carter. Very dear, indeed.”
Roland’s father snatched the glass from the old man as soon as he produced it.
“More dear than your degenerate life, sorcerer?”
The old man held up his hands, eyes wide like he expected a blow.
“All I meant is--is it will only take a drop. Just a drop. No payment necessary. Just want you to know how--how potent this is. It goes far beyond what you required of me. Far beyond.”
Roland’s father nodded, then turned toward the door.
“Are we--are we done, then, sir?” said the old man.
“As long as you live and practice your art, we will never be done,” said Roland’s father.
Then, with a severe look at the old man, he added, “This better work.”
“It will. It will. Very dear. Very potent, indeed.”
Outside, in the ancient alley, his father thrust the glass into Roland’s hand and gripped him by the shoulder.
“Because you are a coward,” he said. “Never tell anyone the gift has manifested in you. I’d rather see our line of hunters die with me than disgrace the family name with your failure.”
Roland shook the memory off like a slap, then turned back toward the interior of the house.
In the the kitchen, he found a door had escaped his notice. Over it hung elderberries and mistletoe. He pushed it open. Stairs leading down into darkness.
He found an oil lamp at the bottom of the stairs, lit it and carried it with him.
He felt around the basement’s perimeter. Dry, cool stone walls. The tingle and crack of spiderweb. The ring of his lamplight met the wooden leg of a piece of furniture. A workbench, like what a carpenter might use.
Roland set the lamp on the surface of the bench. It was cluttered, but no cobwebs here, no dust. Something reflected lamplight back at him. He picked it up. A bar of silver. One ounce. Several more lay in a pile. Another lay atop a stack of papers. Roland picked up the papers and held them to the light to reveal black-ink handwriting. He looked over his shoulder and began leafing through the letters.
The first letter was addressed merely to “My Dear.” The signature at the bottom read “Warmly, Emma Kezie-Goody.” The next letter was the same. And the next--an ongoing correspondence. The fourth letter was different. The handwriting. And it was addressed to “My Love.” He flipped the page over and found the signature, “B.S.C.”
Roland squinted at the signature, then flipped back to the front. That handwriting. Each word like a leaning shanty. So familiar. He looked back at the signature. It couldn’t be. “Benjamin Solomon Carter.” He looked over his shoulder again and stuffed the letters in his pocket. What did it mean?
He turned and walked toward the center of the room. His feet scuffed chalk lines on the stone floor. He held the lamp up to cast a broader ring of light. Concentric geometric shapes narrowed in on the center of the room; at the middle, he found the cask.
The cask was about the size and shape of a wine barrel, similarly made from wood staves bound by what appeared to be iron rings. Roland knelt beside it and ran his fingers along the woodgrains. There were at least three types of wood here. One was definitely oak. One ash. He thought the third might be Hawthorn wood--at least that would make the most sense under the circumstances. Roland knew what would come next: the silver bars would be melted down and poured into runic grooves carved on the panels.
It’s for the thing in the well, Roland realized.
With magic, it doesn’t matter how big a thing is; the entire population of Manhattan could fit in this wood cask, if the spell were constructed correctly. It would be a dear spell, indeed--this one, too. With an ancient one, a small god, the witch would have to know the monster’s true name. But it would be possible to capture the beast.
Roland studied the vessel for a little while longer. What would the witch do with an imprisoned god? And what did his brother know about all this? Who was he corresponding with? Sarah? It had to be Sarah. Was Sarah the witch? Had she sacrificed an infant in some dark ritual like Reverend Wallis said? What was Ben’s role in all this?
He needed to get back to town, to confront his brother, Sarah, Reverend Wallis. They all had secrets.
Next: The Witch Of Hamilcar, TX, Part Three 07.03.15