Bunch woke up. He was at his place, under the bridge, down where Papoose Crick fed the Rolling River. Snow was falling.
He sat up and yesterday oozed into his head.
Oh cripes! He was pretty sure the Eelmans, the fat lady, that other stuff from last night, whatever it was, whenever it had been, hadn’t been a dream. Was not his kind of dream.
Bunch sniffed. Okay. The air didn’t stink anymore. He sniffed himself. He didn’t stink so much. The mud under his bridge had frozen. Yesterday, it was soft beneath the crust. Today it took his weight. The river dribbled by like always, early winters. Morning air was pearly, color of the streak in Cristobel Chiaravino’s hair when she combed it just right.
The ashy bole, the one had come blasting off the tree across the Rolling River last night, lay snow-dusted at the foot of his sack.
Nope. No dream. The cold white ash of the burnt-up pinewood bole, showed that all right. Damned thing had come right for him, blasted from the tree across the river. Damn tree; tree had stood forever across the Rolling from where Bunch lived, and there it was, gone, and the bole lay there at his feet. Putting a couple things together to make another one, he was pretty sure the dry thunderstorm part of yesterday hadn’t been a dream. Nope.
The darkness had started rumbling early, before he’d put his head down. By and by, a full-out dry thunderstorm was rolling up the valley. Real son-of-a-bitch.
Bunch was used to odd. This time of year, lightning was a little odd. Thunder without rain? Odd anytime. A full-blown all-out bang down rip-roar flash-crash and explode-a-tree kind of storm—dry as a bone, no rain, no snow AND this time of year? That was Goddamned whatchacall, peculiar. Anytime. Time to time, it happened. It must, or it wouldn’t have happened last night. And last night it happened. There was the damn bole.
In bluff country, thunder mostly stayed in the flatlands, above, like people say. Night before though, the storm must have slipped and gotten itself stuck down in the valley of the Rolling. Goddamned thing had come bouncing like a dam-busted creek along the rocky walls of the valley, a flood-front of thunder rushing, gathering, rising like a wave until it flat-out rammed him stupid with noise and light.
Without thinking, Bunch had sat bolt upright. Bunch didn’t sit up, middle of the night, for just anything. But this storm? Tore the fog to tatters and played across the bluffs, made the whole river smell like old cast iron. He hugged his legs and for a long time the blind lightning and the spine-cracking thunder came one on top the other.
Then the tree across the river exploded. Pine cones popped like balloons, steam spat at the sky and the tree vanished into pieces. Pieces rained everywhere and the bole—that bole—came tumbling across the still running water of the near frozen river and rolled like a chicken head up the bank. Stopped just shy of Bunch’s sleepy sack. For a second, it seemed eyes glared at Bunch in the crackling glow of the knotty trunk. Then not.
From then on, the sharp end of the thunder gave way to deep down boomers that dwindled as the lightning crawled upriver, deeper into the Driftless.
Bunch relaxed. When the damn thing was a distant flicker beyond the bends of the river above the town and the thunder was just deep vibrations in his head, when the fog thickened around him, and that bole stopped looking at him, he slept.
That had been last night. He was pretty sure it had been real. The rest of the night? He didn’t know, didn’t want to think about. He wasn’t at his best, thinking. Wasn’t whatchacall his suit.
One thing Bunch did know: it was morning and he was hungry. Two things.
After yesterday, he had a right to be hungry, walking half-way to the bottom of the world and his stomach sucked dry…
Okay, three things: his stomach had been sucked dry by them ghost critters. No, he didn’t want to think about it. Thinking got him in trouble, slowed him down just when he needed to quicken-up and move like/that.
Bunch snapped his fingers in the morning air. Cracked good in the cold.
He pulled on the decent clothes, pants, shirt, wooly jacket—even shoes—and headed toward town.
Morning snow was pretty and quiet. He liked that. Passing the stock pens, top of the town, the slaughterhouse cows stood chewing, breath and butts steamed in the cold. Damn, he was hungry.
Down the way, smoke curled from Cristobel’s chimney. Good, he figured, the Woman’s safe, up, moving ‘round.
By her place, he slowed to consider: He ought, maybe, to go ask. Even if it was all a dream—which it was not—Cristobel Chiaravino knew about the places that lived in people’s heads, knew the ways magics worked when you said the right words and drank down the rotten-tasting stuff she made. Must’ve been rotten-tasting, he’d smelled the stuff coming out her windows, summers.
That was on one hand.
The other hand figured he ought not bother Miss Chiaravino.
Couple days ago, she’d gone griping to Vinnie Erickson, the town cop, snoozing in the town prowler. She’d gone waving her arms, banging on his windshield, yelling that Bunch was peeping her, peeping when she was nude and Vinnie ought to do something about it, town cop, fat bastard public servant like he was.
Bunch couldn’t figure her. It wasn’t like she’d hidden anything; Cristobel being the most regularly nude person he’d ever known.
Some out of town female Eye-talian complains—a woman—and Vinnie comes down here, climbs all over me.
Bunch was still walking now, but he was slower. “She complains and Vinnie comes to me! Peeking?” And Bunch’s thinking had become talking.
“Me!” he yelled toward her house. “Peeking what, I’m asking? You got something to peek at? And when do I peek? I ask you. When she’s readying herself for those baths of hers? Oh, yeah! There she is, getting ready for bed? Arising up in the morning, I guess, or walking ‘round, nights, in the flicker of them candles she carries and keeps lit everywhere, walking barefoot in that thin pale blue whatchacallit, slip thing, of hers, the one has that little rip down under her right arm, there?” He pointed on himself where the rip in Cristobel’s nightgown showed bare flesh even in candlelight. He was talking like Vinnie the Cop was there.
By then he was thinking about that flesh, brown like a nut. And as he gave consideration to those things, Bunch concentrated more on talking and less to walking and in a short while there he was, dead in the road, staring at sky, looking at nothing, nothing at all.
The thought concluded with one that suggested it might be a bad idea for him to come knocking now. Too bad, he calculated. Cristobel knew stuff.
Then he started remembering: he remembered falling asleep after the storm. He remembered early morning, still dark. Then noise. First, he’d thought the thunder had come back. A rumble had bubbled up from the hard muddy ground his ear had lain upon. The rumble pounded his sleeping head bone. By the time he’d crawled awake, the world was shaking.
A couple seconds and he realized: it was trucks. Heavy stuff, bigger, he reckoned, than the trucks as hauled meat animals in and out of the stockyards, the place Doc Mouth called, “Cowschwitz,” whatever that meant.
When the first of the Eelman Brothers’ semis came bumping across Papoose Crick bridge, the bridge’s half ton of sheath ice, chattered to piece. Ice shards rained over Bunch, his camp and home, and whatever was underneath whatever the bridge went over.
In a second, Bunch was not among those things. He jumped, ran, dodged sliver ice, and finally stood barefoot, sinking in the cold mud. Yes. He remembered the muck and mud of the banks squeezing between his toes. Big tires made wicked hums as the damn truck overhead, sounding like organ pipes from up at the Lutheran hitting too many notes at once. Damn thing crossed the bridge and growled along County H, down-shifting into Bluffton.
The second semi came a hundred yards later; a rush of black, burning eyes bouncing in the mist. Crossing the bridge, the thing howled like Injuns warring. The whole span heaved up and down like a too-fat bird on a too-thin branch.
About then Bunch decided this entire night was a sun-dry cocklebur up his ass-pipe. Without thinking, he hauled tail up the bank to the road.
Bunch was at his best not thinking. A thinking man wouldn’t have been under the bridge in the middle of the night in the middle of winter in the first place. A thinking man probably wouldn’t have jumped to, all pissy, like Bunch had in the second place but he felt he owed the town something. Don’t ask what, that was just the way he felt and he didn’t think about it. Barefoot, shirtless, he hit asphalt in three steps and a couple snatches of turf. He reached the road in time for the third and fourth trucks to suck air by him like a rolling thunder.
Now, in the THIRD place, a man using his head most likely wouldn’t have run out into the middle of the roadway to shake fists at a caravan of dusty black and streaming light-sprayed thunder that was rumbling the earth, middle of that winter night.
Bunch did. He shook his fist and cussed a streak until he felt stupid. Then he started thinking. That was when the fifth black truck snuck up, behind in a whisper and a sigh. The horn shot hot diesel electric howls up his spine, a thousand steel-cutting saws tearing down a tin roof about his ears.
Before he thought about it, he’d back-peddled off the road and onto the gravel where he whomped flat on his ass and the black thing passed. Passing, it wrapped Bunch in a swift-flowing moonshadow, deeper than any black of night, darker than any of the bluff caves Bunch had ever crawled into. The damned whispery thing froze him dead-still, a Bunch-sized slab of pissed-offedness, lying like a road turtle, legs-up and spinning in the breeze.
Bunch sat up. A snowstorm of lights—red, green, amber, all those, others, colors he didn’t know to name, colors he’d never seen—they all surrounded the truck’s black tail-end as it disappeared down the way. In its center was a picture, what you call a symbol.
Bunch could read, of course he could. He’d read lots of things. He just wasn’t much for it. Beside, what was spread in black-green-gray (and colors he didn’t know what), across the back of the dwindling truck wasn’t reading, it was a swirly thing, a spinning 4th of July pinwheel picture, a grinning mouth with two curly horns.
The picture dwindled slower than the truck. Then they were both gone.
Despite what just happened, and without thinking, Bunch climbed back up onto the roadway. All Bunch knew, he wanted to see more of that damned picture thing. And, the damned picture thing was gone.
A third thing he knew: the world stank like high summer at the deep end of Olympia Fields campground’s cesspool. That was one bad stink, all the gone-off milk and curdled mackyoni and ‘tato salad of summer. This stink left a lot of itself hang but it went to ground quick. With the stench, the rumbles in the earth faded as that last trailer rounded the curve in the treelined corridor toward town. Night was quiet again, but like thunder’s echo, a word settled in Bunch’s head. The word rolled inside along with the urges of that picture thing. The word said: “Eelman,” or somesuch like it.
“What the hell,” he said to the distance. “What the hell’s an Eelman?” he yelled.
A thin layer of mist had re-gathered above the roadway after the trucks’ passage, a fine mist, a surety of night’s calm stillness.
Then it moved. One second it hung knee-high. The next, it had drawn itself up to Bunch’s gut, then, just as quick, it shoved to his ankles, dissolved in a swirl. The cold downwash of air made his ears pop.
Overhead, the stars shone prettier than Bunch had ever seen. His ears popped again and something passed between him and heaven, a thing darker than space that ate the familiar stars as it swam. The darkness followed the curve of County H as it banked toward Bluffton. Bunch had no idea how high the thing was, but it took a time to pass.
Then it was gone. Gone to feed. Somehow he knew that.
Bunch leaned on the bridge’s guardrail—just making sure it was still there.
Doggone steel was hot.
Bunch still stood in the morning light, staring at Cristobel’s place. Then a diesel horn nearly kicked his spine through the back of his head. For a half-second he flashed on last night, but this was morning and there he was, a doofus in the middle of Slaughterhouse Way, thinking. Him.
A pissed-off Andre Trois-Coeur LeMais, at the wheel of his stock truck, shook a hamhock-fist and hung a line of Frog-Injun cusses at Bunch.
Bunch backpedaled and LeMais’ truck growled by, gears grinding, brakes hissing, engine farting with the effort. Even the cows—with nothing better for them to do today but die—hollered at Bunch for holding things up.
Then, in morning’s swirling snowdust, Andre Trois-Coeur LeMais, a life-long citizen of the Driftless, gave Bunch the finger.
Bunch, also a life-long citizen, had been fingered, like a citizen might do to a terrorist at down at Olympia Fields.
When the truck had passed and the little whirlywinds of snow it had raised had settled at Bunch’s feet, there was Cristobel Chiaravino. She stood on her stoop, just across the road. She had a broom in hand. She was full-dressed plus a down parka, had her hair tucked under the hood so Bunch couldn’t see the pretty white streak that started above her left eye and ran down with the mahogany brown to her waist. Even with her eyes like shotgun holes, Bunch figured he’d better go ask. A man could take just so much of this thinking.
“Morning.” he said.
She nodded. The eyes stayed trained.
“Pretty morning,” he said, looking at it.
“Funny old storm last night,” he said.
“Dry thunder ‘n all?”
She cocked her head.
“Thunder. No rain. No snow.”
She didn’t move.
He said, “You see anything last night?”
She cocked her head another inch.
She turned toward Cowshwitz and Andre’s rig.
“Naw. Bigger. Black.”
Her eyes returned to him.
“And maybe a big black flying thing.” He showed with his hands.
Her eyes widened.
“Lots of sparkles, like stars live down inside?”
She blinked. “Come in.” She said.
Over hot coffee Bunch told the tale.
His bare feet made floppy slaps on cold asphalt. He’d gone off at a trot, coatless, shirtless, tracking the spoor of the caravan and star-eating critter down the silver corridor of frost-rimmed trees toward town. The five trailers had left a stinkhole in the night; easy tracking for hound or man. Like a hound, Bunch had no idea what he was chasing, but things he didn’t like were coming to his town.
Somewhere a dog barked three times, then was still. The empty stockyards looked cold, each shed whispering sad bellows from cattle who had waited there to die. The sounds were in his head, but Bunch shivered anyway. He’d never thought of ghost cow. Well too bad for them, he loved a good burger.
“I just remembered that part,” he said, sucking boiling coffee in a slurp, “not important, I guess.”
Cristobel’s kitchen was warm. She sipped her tea. Pretty smile, Bunch thought. Even if she ain’t naked. He didn’t say that.
After the stockyards it was a hundred running paces to Cristobel’s house. That night, a single light flickered in the top floor. He remembered hoping her safe in bed. He didn’t tell her that, either.
“Yes,” she said, shaking her hair. The pretty streak slipped over her cheek. She pushed it over her ear. “Tell me more.”
Another suck of coffee and he jumped back in.
He followed the stink down Slaughterhouse Way, turned onto Commonwealth and trotted the center of the main street. He passed the Wurst Haus, the Wagon Wheel. At the Consolidated School, the yellow caution lights hanging ‘cross the roadway blinked on – off, on – off, as always. No wind, but the lights swung back and forth, back and forth.
Past the school the town thinned. Near the edge, the Sons of Norway Lodge bounced back the roar of falling water from the spillway at the old electric dam. The stony gray block stood solid against the dark trees of the deep woods, far side of Olympia Park.
Ought to go back someday soon and finish that roofing job, Sons of Norway, he said to himself, running by…
“Maybe I’ll do that, Spring, huh?” he said to Cristobel in her kitchen
“What?” she said.
“Thinking on somethin I ought do,” he said.
She nodded quickly, licked her lip.
“Yep. I’ll do her. This Spring.” he said. Then he was back in the tale.
The dam’s roar filled the dark. The cool push of air from the spilling water stirred the dead-fish and something-more stink left by the trucks. The smell mixed with the cold thin winter breath of the Rolling River. An owl swooped low over the roadway. It arrowed toward the meadow, far end of the trees across the river. Seconds later Bunch heard the dying-baby scream of a rabbit torn aloft beneath the bird’s talons.
Bunch just remembered that, there in Cristobel’s kitchen.
He passed Doc Mouth’s place, Einar’s Good Service (Formerly Amoco). Then the town was behind him. Not much to Bluffton when you think about it.
Ahead, the road curved up and cut through a rocky spur. There the night glowed. Around the bend was Karl’s Bad Kabins. A joke everyone said.
“I never got it.”
“A play on words. On the place, Carlsbad Caverns.”
At her sink, Cristobel poured another coffee. “A tourist place somewhere else, go on.”
He was getting there. As he told, he remembered. As he remembered, he shuddered. Cristobel cocked her head at his shudder.
Karl’s Bad Kabins was years gone, the Kampground, just a wide muddy spot by the side of the road. Summers, the place filled with terrorists, Bunch called them, folks from the cities in their vans, r.v.s with names painted on, people with red and yellow tents, electric lights and little teevees looking for a bathroom in the woods. The overflow from Olympia.
This time of year, the place should have been empty. But as Bunch topped the rise, there were the trucks, nose to nose in a circle, lamps blazing across the freezing mud of the Kampground. In the space where their lights crossed, the dark flying thing hunkered, folded on itself, breathing like a couple dozen of winter bear. The headlamps seemed not quite to touch it, the light slipping off the black flesh. Tiny stars flickered inside it like a million sick goldfish in a sack of ink.
The run still throbbed Bunch’s ears and the macadam pounded like a ghost through his body. He was breathing heavy like the black thing.
“Figured I was getting old,” Bunch figured aloud to Cristobel.
She leaned toward him across the wooden table. The kitchen windows sweated. Her eyes blazed. Her lower teeth nibbled her upper lip.
“Now, them trucks, they weren’t trucks,” he said. “I was looking on them, now they were lighting each other up.” He struggled for a word. “I know trucks, for cripes’ sake, now, and these weren’t trucks.”
His eyes met Cristobel’s. They spoke at the same time: “Vaults,” they said together.
“…is what they were,” He said. “Yeah. That’s it,” he said.
“…is that what they were,” she asked, “‘Vaults?’“
“Damn,” he said. “Just like the word ‘Eelman,’ that’s the word, ‘Vaults.’ Word popped right into my head meaning what those trucks were. And this,” he dipped his finger in coffee and traced a few lines on the dry wood of the table. “This was on the sides, the back…”
He drew the sign that had drawn him toward the Vaults and the Eelmans in the night.
“For a moment Cristobel stared and said nothing. Then she shrieked like a girly fire siren.
“The Sign of Koth,” she breathed. Her breath smelled of tea and pine trees. “The sign drew you. It is a very old thing, a potent. It tasks dreamers with a quest. Dreamers…” She looked at Bunch with something new in her eyes. Something Bunch had never seen there.
“Yes, yes,” she said, leaning closer, so close, Bunch could smell sleep on her, feel the heat of her. “Tell the rest. In the Vaults, there were ghasts? Yes? Tell me, quickly. There were ghasts in the Vaults?”
“Yeah, yeah, they said that. Them Eelmans. One in each.” He cocked his head at her. “Ghasts or ghosts.”
She sat back, her mouth open. “Ghasts. You have seen ghasts? The Devourers, the Eaters of Dreams? You…”
Bunch was getting itchy. “I wasn’t to look on them, them Eelmans said. I was to ‘lead, not look.’” He smiled at Cristobel. “I peeked. Later. Big rat-things. Legs going all the wrong ways. About like…” He tried to show the size of the critters that had bunny-hopped, flopping after him along the way. “Maybe, the size of a garage? Yeah.” He didn’t want to say the damn things looked more like a barn-sized cow stomach with bad teeth. Women didn’t like knowing about that stuff.
“You have seen a ghast?” Cristobel was shaking her head. “And yet you live.”
“Pretty sure,” he said. “Yeah. Yeah…I saw, but lemme tell her in her own time, woman. Damn it.” Bunch was cranky when hungry. “And I seen FOUR of them.”
She sat back, hand on her chest.
“Same time I came over the hill and seen them…them Vault things, I start hearing, just like that!” He snapped his fingers.
The light that oozed from the Vaults felt greasy. It soaked Bunch. The same time, the flying darkness that squatting at the center of old Karl’s land flapped upward, hovered a second, then settled by the edge of the forest. As it flew, voices filled the air like Lutherans and Catholics singing at once, the stars inside the thing twirled like snow in a ball, and the stink of dead critter nearly blew Bunch over.
“Why the hell,” Bunch near shouted to Cristobel, “Why the hell, these guys have to stink so much?” It was not really a question.
She answered. “They are from elsewhere,” she said, eyes half shut.
Milwaukee, Bunch figured. He’d never been there, but he figured it might be Eelman territory.
“They are not of this world, of this time, perhaps…” She leaned forward, “Perhaps the Great Old Ones are not of this Creation. In the presence of the Old Great Ones, we feel…” Her lip curled. “…a natural revulsion.”
“They stink,” Bunch said, not looking where Cristobel’s flannel shirt had opened on soft nut-brown skin.
“Continue,” she said.
A blackness remained where the thing had squatted. “Like it let a huge turd.” Bunch said.
Two men waited on the far side of the hole. They were taller than most, stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Their suits, whiter than anything Bunch had ever seen, kicked so much light he had to squint between fingers to see their faces.
“Eelmans,” Bunch said.
They looked at him.
“We wait,” one said, maybe the one on the right. Bunch couldn’t tell. It was three- four-hundred feet to the clearing, and the voice had come, cripes, from inside his damn head.
“A nice old voice, though,” Bunch told Cristobel. “Smooth. Sounded like Doc Mouth, you know?”
“Come. Quick, quickly.” Whoever talked first, this was the other. The voice of the one on the left howled like a saw blade biting metal. It blasted over the rumbling trucks. Vaults. “Time is wasting, time is!” it shrieked, and kept waving at him to hurry.
“Like Einar when he gets to yelling at customers? You know?”
“Come quickly,” Doc’s voice said inside his head. “Quickly. The god waits.”
The black thing flickered like it’d just been introduced.
“Cripes, I’m coming,” Bunch had said to himself. He took a step and the ground wrinkled, flickered through a whole mess of colors and…
…there he was: in the middle of the crossed lights, the Eelman brothers in front of him, the blackness, which he now realized was a gaping pit, behind. Without thinking, Bunch blurted out, “now that never happens. Not ever. What the hell you doing here?” The Eelmans pissed him off, coming to his town, stinking like who knew what, then hauling him around like that.
The Eelman on the left – the Einar-sounding one — reached out and gripped Bunch’s face. Cold damp fingertips pinched him shut.
“Do not fear us.” the one that sounded like Doc said.
“‘kay.” Bunch grunted, his teeth chewing his own cheeks.
“My brother has high sensibilities. Such as they are. They are easily assaulted.
“‘ahal’ed?” Bunch said.
“He believes you are attacking, you see, tormenting with your hounds.”
“Hnds?” Bunch said.
“Hounds. The creatures that play on the surface of your thoughts. Angry thoughts.”
Bunch tried to look at the Einar guy pinching his face. He was curling like a salted snail but still managed to hang on.
“‘Kay,” Bunch said.
The Doc said. “Would you mind?”
Bunch was truly pissed. Squeezed face or not, second this Eelman lets go, he figured to go for him, go for good. “Uh-hmm,” he said, pleasantly as he could while considering the wide and varied hurts he would unleash on the pinching Eelman, hell he’d get both of them.
With that thought, the guy pinching Bunch’s face let go and the two of them set up a howl that bounced around inside Bunch’s head. They twitched, turned and hopped. The buzzy-voiced Eelman tried running one way, the Doc-sounding one, the other.
“Then I realized,” Bunch told Cristobel, “there weren’t but one.” He felt smug. “Just most of two guys and one suit. Must’ve been hooked arm to hips.” Bunch was proud. “From there down, they were two guys again…maybe part of a third.” He was thinking slower, trying to remember. “Yeah. The suit seemed to have more legs than two guys and one suit would need.”
Who knew about suits? Besides, there were wiggles inside that white cloth that nobody, not Bunch anyway, wanted to—or should—know about and certainly not a lady.
“You are thinking so loud…?” Doc yelped.
“Like this…?” Bunch shot another murderous urge at them. The Eelmans danced some more.
“Then, I stopped,” he told Cristobel. He sat back and smiled.
She leaned close, her breath licked Bunch’s cheek. “You assaulted. They feared you as a master of the Hounds of Tindalos.”
“Uh-huh,” Bunch said.
“The Tind’losi Beasts, Hounds of foulness,” she said. “They lust after…”
“Yeah,” Bunch said.
“They are creatures of the distant past…” She thought for a moment. “Or a different dimension,” she added. “To the Eah’lachmani—the which is the proper way this ‘Eelman’ name is spoken—to them the hounds would have been visible; your anger, given tooth and claw. The Eah’lachmani would have seen your wrath as green dogs with blue tongues, their fangs of cold fire would have licked…”
“Sure.” he said.
“Continue,” she said. She licked both lips as she sat back.
“All that was about what Doc Eelman…how do you say that?”
“Eee-AHCH,” she began.
“Eee- Ah.” he said.
“Lach,” she continued.
“Lock,” he said.
“Mani” she finished up.
“Eelman. That’s what they said I had, dogs. Eventually I stopped worrying them with my thinking thoughts.
Bunch had looked past the Eelmans, to the circled vaults, at the dark star-filled critter flapping by the edge of the woods. He looked at the black pit behind him. “What the hay’s going on?” he’d said, “And who’s going to fill that damn hole?” he’d yelled.
“The Wailing Writher,” Doc Eelman said. He still seemed a little nervous.
The black thing rippled. For a second, a sound like a billion moths stirred.
“It better,” Bunch said.
The Einar-Eelman, leaned forward. “We are fishing,” he said. “You followed the sign of Koth. You are a dreamer. One who manifests dreams. You are our guide.”
Doc-Eelman’s arm unrolled like a carpet. His palm was flat and had three fingers.
“Didn’t have any lines like what you read on it,” Bunch told Cristobel.
“Yes, yes… What did he offer?”
“A bitty bug,” he said. “Funny critter, mostly bug, never seen one like it. Little guy kept winking like a sick firefly.”
“The Jab’achar…” she made that siren noise again. “Most are terrified by the Jab’achar. It brings waking dreams.”
“Uh-huh, Bunch said, “that’s about what that Doc-sounding fellow told me; seemed happy I wasn’t scared. ‘He is the hunter-fisher,’ one of ’em said, don’t remember which. Think they were talking about me.”
What had been said was, “Fishers are not thinking men. A scholar of high sensibility would at least faint at the sight. A touch of the Jab’achar would bring madness to a thinking man.'” That was what the Eah’lachmani who sounded like Doc had said.
“Then he hands it to me.”
“What? What was your task?” Cristobel damn near shouted.
“I was supposed to lead this bunch of Ghosts…”
“Yeah…on a fishin’ trip down that pit. Find the god they served, and that was that.”
“And they said the name of the god?”
“Yes they did.” Bunch was getting used to feeling proud in front of Cristobel. “It sounded like that stuff Karl sells over at the Wurst Haus?” He had to think. “Like spoiled milk in a little cup…”
“That. And that other stuff…peas, corn…?”
Cristobel shrieked again and said a name.
“Yep,” Bunch said, “that’s the God I was supposed to take these Ghasts to meet.” He tried again, “Yogurt-Succotash was come, rising from the pit, they said.”
Cristobel sat back. She was wide-eyed at Bunch. Abhorrence, horror and mad disbelief played on her pretty face. There was, maybe, a little envy there too.
“He is a Great Old One,” she said, “the Spawn of the Nameless Mist.” She thought a second. “Others say he’s always been and shares the rule of the universe with…” Cristobel said another of those names filled with sounds that didn’t go together.
“Uh-huh,” Bunch said.
“And you said what?”
What Bunch had said to the Eah’lachmani was, “Uh-huh. Then you leave town, right?”
Both heads nodded and their smiles shone brightly in the dark of their mouths.
Bunch sat quiet in the kitchen.
“What?” Cristobel leaned to look at him. “You’ve gone dark,” she said.
Bunch didn’t like thinking about ghasts, the trip, especially about the fat woman. “Their daughter,” he said finally. His damn stomach was churning. He talked to drown out the squirts and gurgles. “Them Eelmans said their daughter would come with me. Us. Me and the ghosts.” He shivered at the memory.
The fat woman had stepped from behind the Eelmans. She was too of everything: Too short, too round, too bald, her breasts too large, her feet too small; her skin, too white, too pale, and a bit too blue in the veins, like dark spidery webs all over. Her eyes, mouth, her nose holes—every part of her face–were sewn shut. Big stitches, thick string. Too big, too thick. The too-thick string pulled her too-fat flesh, too much together. Bunch didn’t ask whether the rest of her was sewed. He didn’t have to. She was also too naked.
He didn’t say that, but he blushed.
“What is it?” Cristobel said. She covered his hand with hers. It was warm.
“She was fat, fatter’n Vinnie Erickson.”
That’s all he was going to say and he said it.
The fat woman’s face crinkled like a smile had stretched her stitches.
“Turn round,” Einar-Eelman said.
Bunch turned, faced the pit. First, he didn’t like knowing that fat woman was at his back. Then, her too fat fingers slid onto his right shoulder. Her touch tingled.
At that, the trucks—the vaults—began hissing a different song. They clanked, rumbled. Big doors opened, booming like distant thunder, the kind that makes you say, “is that thunder?”
When the fat woman put another hand on Bunch’s left shoulder his back muscles twitched with the touch. Didn’t look but he felt it, her fingers like roots growing into his flesh.
“Go forth,” both Eelmans said.
Without thinking, Bunch headed for the hole in the world, the Jabby bug clenched in his hand. Wet sounds, one, two, three, four, splashed the ground behind him.
“Sounded like what maybe a three-, four-hundred pound trout would make flopping on a flat rock.” Bunch said, happy to be off the subject of the fat woman. “Ain’t no four-hundred pound trout anywhere I know,” he said. “But I know how a good 14-inch rainbow sounds being slapped down for gutting. Those flops were that, just bigger.”
Without turning, he shouted back to the Eelmans. “And you’ll leave town, right?”
“Go,” both said. Go.”
“When I take these folk here,” he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, “down there fishing with your Yogurt god…” he pointed to the hole, “Then you’ll get out of town. Right?”
“Go, go,” the voices said. “Go forth.”
“And you’ll leave? Never come back? That right?” He shot them a little thought of snarly hounds and such.
“Yes,” they shouted, “Yes, yes, yes. We have promised. Go forth.”
Bunch went forth.
“When the god’s been served…” Einar added.
Sitting in Cristobel’s kitchen, Bunch didn’t mention his last thought to the Eelmans before the hole shut behind them. It was, “…and you’ll leave Cristobel Chiaravino up there on Slaughterhouse Way alone.” He never said that, not to Cristobel.
“You led the Ghasts?” she asked, “and the Daughter of the…” and she said that word again.
“The Eelmans girl? Yeah.”
“Bearing the Jab’achar?”
“Into the pit of…?”
“Yogurt, yeah,” he growled, “will you let me tell it?” He spoke louder than he needed, but his stomach… He hated sitting with the woman and it making noises like stomachs will.
They walked downward for hours. No idea where they were. Some guide. Followed his gut. When his gut strayed, the Jabby buzzed and nudged him until he got right, then went to sleep again. Dark as the cave was, he could see, sort of. Like a bad picture on the TV over to the Wagon Wheel, dim, but you knew what team had the field. Figured the Jabby was doing that. Don’t ask how, Bunch just figured.
First couple hours were boring. Stinky, too. The ghasts slurped along, sucking wet sounds coming from them like they did, and the fat woman, she probably added to the stink.
Bunch made a point of saying “ghast” not ghost.
First there were the usual critters–cave crickets, spiders, worms, zillion-leggers. In a while, the bugs sprouted lights, like light-up bugs above. Long-whiskered crickets hopped and glow-slugs wriggled in their own green light. It was pretty. He had no one to say that to, at the time but he told Cristobel in her kitchen.
She smiled. That was nice.
Soon, the little lights faded and it got dark again. They kept moving through that bad TV picture. Bunch was hearing. On the walls and floor, just out of reach, Bunch heard things creeping in the black, working at whatever it was they did.
Then even those noises went away. Either there were no critters this far down in the world, or what critters there were got quiet when Bunch, the fat woman and the train of ghasts came slopping down the path.
“God be-doggoned, woman!” he shouted suddenly.
“What?” Cristobel screamed. She twitched right out of Bunch’s story.
“I could eat a house,” he shouted. He was tired of shouting his gut down. “I have not eaten since… Well, I get to that any minute now.”
She jumped to her feet. “I shall feed you. Talk. Keep talking,” she shouted as she wrapped an apron around herself.
Knowing grub was coming, relaxed Bunch. The room was warm and already smelled good from Cristobel and the smell of the firewood he’d chopped and stacked for her in the pantry porch two weeks ago. The place soon sizzled and smelled like food.
That begun, he started on the tail’s end.
Something. A hair, a cobweb, tickled his face. Without thinking, he stopped. The stinky things behind him also stopped. They slurped against the stone path. The fat woman bumped against his back and for a second Bunch felt crawly where her gut and other parts pressed him. She backed off.
“Wait,” he said to her and them.
His hairs prickled, but he inched forward. Now, even his TV eyes were off. Every tiny move, small things touched him, tiny claws scrabbled over his feet, a spook breathed on his face, chest arms. He didn’t like the feel. When he felt them, he inched in another direction. Three, four steps and he couldn’t move, not a bit, no matter where he turned, little touches found his skin.
Without thinking, he opened his hand, the hand that held the Jabby. Pale cold fire lit out of the bug’s tail. At first, it made Bunch’s hand glow. A slender thread, like spider silk, lay across his palm. When the Jabby light caught it, a green brilliance filled the strand and squirted into the darkness. The tail-glow from the Jabby bug spread, riding the threads, streamed like bat-piss in a moony night. Where one glowing string crossed another, the light split and spread all ways. In a couple blinks, the dark world had filled with a glowing network, a rainfallen spider web in sunlight.
He saw where they were.
They had emerged from the long downward cave and now stood near the wall of a vast cavern. Behind him and his stinking train, the wall rose up and away until it closed, made a dome of black. That was forever above. The spreading web of light disappeared into a million tiny caves that dotted the inside of that vast honeyhive. All around, the air was shot through with the threads that sucked light from the tail of the Jabby-bug in Bunch’s hand.
They’d stopped when they should have. Bunch’s bare toes hung over the end of the world. Blackness, miles across and who knew how deep, stretched before and below them. None of the glowing threads plunged into it, no light brightened that hole…
…but from it something rose, a big breathing. Something was rising up to join them. Below, invisible lungs sucked, and all the world’s air drew past; the wind at his back shoved Bunch toward the pit, closer to the night that rose at his feet.
The slopping, farting mess behind, chirped and purred like wet kitties rolling in fish guts. The fat woman rooted deeper into one shoulder then the other.
The Jabby-Bug giggled. Then, it spoke. Bunch tore his eyes from the rising blackness. He saw the Jabby clearly now. Not a bug, the thing was covered in fine fur, its body white, soft, not shell-hard like a bug ought-to, damn thing was covered with flesh. It’s feelers reached out three, four feet. They felt for the wind.
Ugliest thing about the little bastard was its head. No bug face, its eyes were like a man’s, its lips looked as though they could smile, talk, scream. Worse, the mouth had a tongue. The tongue licked out, like it tasted light. Then it looked at Bunch.
“Your dream awakens,” the Jabby said, “now eat.”
Cristobel’s kitchen sizzled. Heat poured off the stove carrying good smells with it. “Yes,” she said, “and?”
“Then…” Bunch was hungrier by the minute. “Then them damn Ghost things…”
“The Four Ghasts? Yes?”
“They started hooting like a diesel.”
“Then that fat woman. She up and started flying. Flew straight up…”
Cristobel’s eyes were wide.
“…me attached. Dug into my arms…”
He pulled his shirt collar down. Cristobel leaned close to look at the ring of bruised-blue flesh that circled his shoulder and neck muscles. “Other side’s the same.”
She touched the mark.
He didn’t want to interrupt her touch, but he reckoned he’d have to finish the story to get fed. “The damn Jabby flew, too. Left my hand and buzzed up and up. Soon’s it did, them glowing threads started dying. The died slow. The fat lady took me…”
Bunch shut up for a second. He sniffed. A moment and he couldn’t stand it any more. “God, woman, that smells good. What’re we having.”
Cristobel, continued to feel the bruise. She was half in her kitchen, half in the story. She blinked a half dozen, a dozen, times.
“Eggs,” she said, “cheese, gorgonzola from the Amish. And fish. Fresh. Fresh fish. Karl bought yesterday. From a truck from the east.”
“If it eats like it smells, I’ll be happy.”
“Finish,” she said. She continued rubbing his shoulder.
“I flew,” he said. “Damned fat lady dragged me in the air over that pit. Pissed me off at the time.” Bunch felt heat rise into his temples. “Sorry, that fat woman made me mad. I was kicking and yelling and we were dodging and wiggling between them glowing threads—fat lady, Jabby-bug and me—till finally we’re over the center, the center of everything, the big hole, the hole in the light.”
Below was a black place among the dying threads.
The thing rising was a thing Bunch had never seen. Bunch had seen a lot, but this, this was bigger than a house, bigger than the township building, bigger than the Lutheran Church or the Catholic, probably bigger than both, side-by-side and one atop the other. Bigger than, maybe, Bluffton its’ whole-self. The rising thing had arms. Sort-of arms, arms like shadows waving, too many arms for a good thing to have. The arms had no fingers and kept dissolving in the fading light. The thick shadow arms reached through the threads up, up into the air where Bunch was, reaching to his feet, to him…
“Then, I died, I reckon.”
Cristobel twitched, her fingers closed on his arm. “Died? You died?”
“What I thought. I was wrong, I guess.”
Cristobel stroked his upper arm again, like you might rub a hurt puppy. For a little bit, Bunch thought he’d let it go, but then his stomach started eating his gut again.
“What she done, she dropped me,” he said. “About a hundred miles, I fell. I could hear the Jabby-bug, and her, and them rat-looking…”
“Ghasts,” she said.
“Yeah. All yelling,’Feed! Feed!’
From a thousand miles overhead, through the rock of earth, Bunch heard the Eelmans. They yelled “Feed” too, Doc and Einar Eelman, the black inksack god above… “Feed,” they all called.
Bunch fell. Through the dark, past the arms waving toward him, he fell. He and the rising god rushed to meet. As he fell the vast black god bellowed like a stuck bull. It screamed and screamed…
Summers, when you jump off a little cliff into a still pool of the river, and the water drives up your nose, bangs into your ears and the smack of falling slaps you, gut, face and legs, and drags your eyes open and you go plunging down forever into the green chill freshness of water, that’s what happened to Bunch.
Except he fell into a putrid mess: black, hot, like old pus, aged, if old pus was hot like bubbling roof tar, and if you could fall into it from a million miles up. The fall plain ripped open every hole Bunch had, filled every crack he owned with half shit, half piss, half dead guts and dump-stinking rotted juice. Yes, and like old, old hot, very hot pus. Falling into the god drove that god-awful stuff in and up and inside him till it filled him. Filled him with natural revulsion.
That was first. He kept going, sinking deeper into the inky dead rat and goose shit-smelling, snailslime bright and nose-snot slippery mess, the body of the Old god Yogurt-something. Bunch ate. He had no choice. He kept eating, sucking it down like there was no tomorrow, which, come to think—and Bunch wasn’t doing much thinking at just this point—there wasn’t any tomorrow. This was it, end of the line, game called, show’s over, that’s all folks, no more, not of anything, nothing, not a thing left, not a bit at all. The stuff was coming into him at all points of Bunch. He fed and fed. Every pore sucked in the god. He fed and fed. Bunch. Not the god. The god…
“Cripes, If that was god, then what’s that make me? I ate him till he was coming out my ears. Till he was dead, I guess.”
God screamed and screamed, Bunch ate and ate. Had to. Then it was over. Everyone died.
Cristobel stood behind him, her dark fingers played light circles on his shoulder.
“Guess not, though, huh?”
He sniffed. Food was ready. “As I figure it, what I was was their worm; their pole, string, lure and fisherman all in one. They dropped me into that Yog…
“Yes,” she said, kneading his shoulder, “Yes, yes.”
“Then, they hauled me up and out…”
“…Out of your waking dream. Yes. You, like a harpoon…”
“Then I think they took their god and carved him up.”
She warbled a soft version of that little siren sound of hers. “What a millennium,” she said. “Old gods killing the old gods.”
“They used me!” Bunch shouted. “Sucked me dry, left me empty. All in one night…”
“…for food,” she said and let go his arm.
“A night I will remember!”
Cristobel turned to serve up the grub. Her spatula scraped the pan. “Well, not one night,” she said. “That storm, the dry one? That was a week ago. Let me think.” She did. “A week. Maybe more.” Even the gods take time. She slid the plate under Bunch’s nose. “At least a week.”
A week, he thought. Cripes. The scent rose from the table: another steaming cup of Joe, eggs, toast, and a slab of meat. Bunch stared, sniffed. The meat was pure, white but marbled with dark, dark fat. In his head, Bunch heard the Great Old One scream. It screamed again. Yogurt-Whatever. He stopped thinking, took a bite. God screamed again, but far, far away now.
He ate. Today, god was good.
In 2001 Lawrence Santoro’s novella “God Screamed and Screamed, Then I Ate Him” was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award by the Horror Writers Association. In 2002, his adaptation and audio production of Gene Wolfe’s “The Tree Is My Hat,” was also Stoker nominated.
In 2003, his Stoker-recommended “Catching” received Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s 17th Annual “Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror” anthology. In 2004, “So Many Tiny Mouths,” was cited in that anthology’s 18th edition. In the 20th, his novella, “At Angels Sixteen,” from the anthology A DARK AND DEADLY VALLEY, was similarly honored.
Larry’s first novel, “Just North of Nowhere,” was published in 2007. A collection of his short fiction, DRINK FOR THE THIRST TO COME, was published in December, 2011.
Before all that, Larry spent thirty years as a director, producer and actor in theater and television.
Since its inaugural show in January, 2012, Larry has hosted the weekly horror podcast, “Tales to Terrify” (http://talestoterrify.com/), the sister show to the Hugo Award-winning StarShipSofa.
He lives in Chicago and is at work on two new novels, “Griffon and the Sky Warriors,” and “A Mississippi Traveler, or Sam Clemens Tries the Water”
Stop by his blog: http://blufftoninthedriftless.blogspot.com/
“God Screamed…” was first published in “Cthulhu and the Co-eds, Kids and Squids” from Twilight Tales Books.
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