There are a million little stories on the road, and a few big ones too. Heading down that endless highway the stories rush past, flickering like baseball cards stuck in the wheels of a kid’s bicycle as he rolls downhill, with his hands and feet dangling wildly in the air. These wild and feral threads of life move into local folk law. Stories are passed around by loose tongued local gossips on street corners and inside the fire stations, in the parking lots, by local dumps while watching the bears scavenge, and in hushed tones on hard pews on Sundays at church.
They tell each other of the time Old Riley was found naked in his front yard after drinking too much at the local sawdust-on-the-floor bar joint on St Patrick’s Day 1989. They tell about those kids that went missing back in ’76. They went out for the day to go fishing by Desolation Falls on the outskirts of town and just never came home again. No bodies. Nothing: no children either. They gleefully gossip about the time that the Bakery on Main burnt down because Tabitha was getting down and dirty with the preacher’s wife and forgot she had a few trays of cinnamon rolls in the oven. They wouldn’t mind, but the small town was left without a bakery or a café and Tabitha made wonderful pumpkin pies, despite the scandal.
Tales are told every day about who is sober, who was drunk, who was high, who got lost, who was found doing something they should not have been doing with someone they should not have been doing it with. These stories sometimes rise above the ordinary and mundane to take on lives of their own. They coalesce into a shadowy form, and start walking down out of town looking for some peace of mind, or at least a hospitable place to roost.
On that long drive through towns that people get born in but never leave, passing by improbably named places like Beach, North Dakota, that had no beach, no water that I could see, and that was lifetimes away from the sea or any kind of possible success or happiness. Yet I got the feeling, as I passed through, that stopping there might be potentially life changing. There is not just an uncanny valley in these nowhere towns: sometimes there is an entire canyon of the curious. All those static lives continue from cradle to the grave, repeating and circling around, generations staring out blankly in tattered dresses and egg-stained singlets with birds-nest hair and dirty faces, bloated by poverty or thin with their mother’s drugs in pill-mill bottles dangling by their wasted sides. These stories are born with a bottle of Crown Royal in one hand, and the other held open, hoping for something at least interesting to break the boredom that lays between the cradle and the small-town grave. Yes, there are stories here, some small and squashed and mundane that fail before the day turns into the next night; but some of them take root and sprout several poisonous feathers. Very occasionally one blossoms into something beloved, but that is too rare to raise up any passing readers’ hopes of a fairytale ending.
I am the Story Collector. I am always passing through this town or that. I move from state to state, like a plot-line that has not yet found a place to nest. My story carries on long after I have left and moved on. A day here, two nights there, a week in a forest campground, just long enough to steal some history before I go to the next town. I am a hunter. I find these lost tales and trap them, then pin them in my
book, spearing them through the center and preserving them forever. These schmetterling stories can change lifetimes by the way their wings beat and alter the course of the wind as it blows through town. For good or for ill, it is what I do. Sometimes I open my book and pluck out a squirming live wriggling story to tell to whatever beast or monster has made its way to my campsite and decided to warm its bones beside my fire.
You can tell a lot about a town from its grocery store. It is where the entire town meets. Everybody has to eat. Serial killers need their cheerios as much as the local pastor does. Betty Sue, who lives in a trailer on the outskirts of town with a naugahyde sofa that houses its own community of fleas and rats runs out of milk in the same way as some Comedy Club tycoon who has bought up almost the entire landscape so that he doesn’t have to look out at poor people in trailers from his bedroom window.
Some places are full of round-faced families buying fresh vegetables and bags full of scotch bonnets and plump over ripe tomatoes. Other places are food deserts where a lone gas station stocks elderly cans of Campbell’s soup that sell for at least six times the price that they do in Walmart alongside jerky that is only fit for those with all their teeth and a very determined personality. Sometimes, if the town is big enough and there is enough through traffic to warrant stocking hot and perishable food, they might have an outpost of some highly dubious fried chicken joint that always advertises their wares as ‘crispy’ or at the very least ‘crunchy’, but instead is at hazardous to artery health, and at the worst is teeming with the kind of killer organisms that make whey-faced health and safety inspectors blanch at the prospect of a serious public health hazard.
There is never any fruit. No vegetables to be found. Just overpriced chips and candy bars that fuel the truckers and speed freaks of this country alike. These gas stations are always full of people selling powders and potions that will make sure that food is the last thing on the mind of the desperate, doomed and hungry shoppers. In these vast spaces of nothingness it is the same sad story of overpriced victuals and lack of anything truly sustaining of human life. It is a testament to the strength of the human spirits that some of these towns sustain human life at all. I suppose that is what draws me to them.
It is no wonder that in these vast swathes of sparsely populated and provided for land, that those who embrace death get drawn to the emptiness and unseen expanses. Lots of places to hide a habit for making bodies out there in the lonesome and unloved small towns of the Mid-West.
I was only passing through on my way to do some fishing and watch some summer sunsets in Leech Lake, Minnesota, just stopping for long enough to recover for the next days’ worth of empty-horizon driving, just long enough to sleep and eat a granola bar, grab a can of soda and dream about sunfish and northern bass. If there was a late spring lightning storm or a swarm of blue purple martins picking the mosquitos off by a lake, so much the better, but I was in travelling not stopping mode. Besides, no one ever stops in Beach, not if they are sensible, that is.
Looking at the map there was a campground a little way up the road, and a small grocery store in town. It is expensive to live in a cheap place in the middle of nowhere. Not a big box store in sight, not a large chain of grocery stores for at least 50 miles in any direction, the town store had a monopoly on survival and charged accordingly for it. I parked up the truck on the road and pushed the heavy old glass-windowed door open. It triggered a loud bell that announced someone was entering the shop. Everyone stared at me. Not too many people stop here, clearly, they don’t care as much about the stories that
breed in these inhospitable environs, they simply pass on through and never look back…that is unless a soul get trapped in small town hell , coming out into the world screaming for relief and ending up a name on a stone in the local cemetery.
Grabbing a basket and heading off round the crowded aisles with individual stickers on the vastly overpriced products, I started to look for something to eat and drink other than chips and soda, or frozen pizza that I couldn’t cook on a camp fire, and instant coffee, that worked out as expensive per cup as a coffee house latte in one of the big cities that generally have bigger and badder predators than places like Beach, North Dakota. I say generally. I have found some of the most evil things exist in the wildest most remote areas, and some of the most pissant of wanna-be monsters in the cities. Good weaves through it all, but people are rarely interested in the good, and kind unless it is triumphing over the evil in some way or other.
I collect stories that exist in that space between bone and skin, slip into that space that lays between flesh and thought and harvest the tales that lay there ripe for the picking. I don’t need long, a few moments to pluck the little ‘uns, longer if I want the full deal, the more intricate and precious tales. They don’t miss ‘em much. Sometimes they lose a little bit of time, a few details here and there, other times, if the story is too sad, too painful, too scary to bear, I just take it away with me. My book is full of wiggling tales that struggle to get free from their pages, unpinned and back to roost in the unsettled heads that once gave them free rein. I haven’t lost one yet. It is not my main occupation, but the one I most enjoy not delegating.
A blonde young man in a Carhartt baseball cap and filthy work clothes stood contemplating the chips. He held a jar of highly processed queso dip in one hand and seemed to be stuck in choosing between plain salted tortilla chips or a bag of beefy flavored kettle chips. He weighed his options up looking for all intents and purposes like a man whose life depended on making the right choice. I smiled at him as I brushed past. He didn’t have much to tell me. He liked a girl, but she was dating a friend. He once ran over a deer down the 94, over the Montana side of the border, and didn’t stop to pull it out of the road, and felt very guilty about it. His friends asked him to buy chips on his way over to Trey’s Grammy’s place. They were going to play Call of Duty and shoot the breeze. He didn’t want them to drag him over his inferior chip choice. Not much of a story there. I pulled a bag of cheap tortilla chips into my basket and smiled at him. He did the same and went on his way.
It was slim and expensive pickings in the store. A gallon of bottled water, some chips, a pint of milk, a bag of ice for my cooler and a box of off brand granola bars was about all there was. Not even a bag of potatoes or hunk of non-shredded cheese that was not some grotesque kind of processed ‘cheeze’ substitute. Not another soul in there. The town was clearly not very hungry, or else everyone went off once a week down to Walmart 61 miles away in Dickinson in a feast or famine kind of situation.
The woman at the checkout was not just thin she was emaciated. Her hands wrinkled with lack of fat under the skin, her eyes yellowed and empty, her chest looked concave leading up to a neck that hung in folds of unused skin and a skull with skin stretched thin over fragile bone, the blood so close to the surface I could trace the blue lines of her veins below the surface. A few costume jewelry rings adorned her hands. She wore a scarf rakishly over her head to cover the thinning strands on her scalp. “52. 57, she announced angrily. I pushed three twenties towards her and brushed her hand as she recoiled. A rush of anger filled my head as I searched for a gap in her psyche but all that was there was pure fury and a black hole soul waiting to try and suck my bookish heart in and consume it like a bodice ripping
blockbuster on a Floridan beach in the hands of an ancient but still game aunty.
“You just passin’ thru?” She asked with an attempt at a grin on her face which came off more like a bad case of rictus.
“I’m driving onto Medora. I’ll be camping at Teddy Roosevelt National Park for a few nights before I get back on the road. I travel a lot for work.” I tried to smile reassuringly, but it always unnerved me when my initial attempts at breaking and entering into people’s memories failed to work.
“You would do just as well to keep on driving until you get outta the state. Nothing here for you,
Mister.” Her tongue escaped from her mouth and licked her parched and shriveled gums. I heard somewhere in the distance a faint cry from her soul, crying hunger and screaming for blood. I swear she sniffed me as her hungry eyes regarded me coldly and I gathered my things and headed for the door with the bell. “I don’t know for whom the bell tolls,” I muttered to myself, “but I do know this, it is not for me!”
The truck was sitting where I had left it. The engine started up thankfully easily, as I threw the small bag of expensive purchases on the backseat. A small pretty white clapboard church with a sweet red tile steeple sat alone and desolate as I passed by. The town felt as if something bad, something rotten had happened just under the surface. The water tower slouched in my rear view mirror, declaring “Beach” in determined letters that insisted this dry and sandless place, barely a small town on the map, existed and was here to stay. The local pamphlets explained how the town was named for Captain Beach of the US army in 1900, but that story was lost in the ether, waiting to be re-found. Nothing explained why the hairs on the back of my neck prickled, or the lonesome silent church that stood quietly on the corner, without a hint of life within it looked so scared of itself. Nothing explained the story-less cashier who was starving to death in front of my eyes with a soul so devoid of memory and past, and so purely full of fury, that she did not seem fully human. She seemed to be perhaps not human at all.
I had heard tell of skinwalkers in wild desolate areas, but not usually this far north. There were the usual suspects – Strega, Witches, vampiric entities, cannibals whose diet led to certain changes in their physiology, demons little and small, and all those varied damned and damnable aberrations that exist in the corners and holes of this world, waiting for a victim, or at least a chance to shine in the shadows. They were all subject to Death in the end. None of these little ones were able to dodge the scissors and scythe and that final reaping of their clouded and bloodied souls. That was not to say that they were not capable of causing trouble in the interim. It did not mean that they could not bring Death to the doors of the innocent, and that was not something I was comfortable letting happen without putting up a fight. Stories sometimes have to wait while I make sure a few more of them can happen.
I live for those sweet tales of painting fences, splashing in swimming holes, catching a gigantic northern bass in the bluest deepest Minnesotan lake. Fisherman always have the best tall tales. Sometimes the fish really are that big. The words ‘how lucky can one man get!’ are the most beautiful in the world. Weddings and births, fishing trips and grand slams. One of my favorite tales was taken from an old
woman who ran away from her own nuptials, heading off down a tiny mainstreet that only locals will ever care about or hear of, her dress gathered around her thighs, heading off into the sunset alone and free and laughing, shedding lace and high heel shoes, blue handkerchiefs leaving la set and sad possible future behind her. She lived to have many more beautiful and sweet memories, just not with Jed.
It is these small triumphs of humanity that are the prettiest in my book. They sit between the pages, barely pulling against the pin, the sturdiest and brightly colored butterflies of all. I keep them safe now their owners have gone. I keep these stories in the world, circulating and living. These memories live on regardless. So, when one of these aberrations, these mistakes come across my path there is nothing else for it apart from breaking cover and acting, even if it did mean delaying that fishing trip a while. Plenty of fish in the lake, I guess. I’ll hear about the big ones anyway.
I drove past neatly dilapidated houses, the evidence of the poor doing the best they can, then scruffier places with broken down walls and burnt out cars on bricks outside, with porch swings that lay forlornly lopsided, to swing no more, half broken down homes for half broken down stories of half broken down lives. I was going to head out of town after all, after all I am the Collector, I am not some scythe-swinging action hero, but in the garden of a small overgrown yard, I saw a small boy, about seven years old or so, teaching a small mutt how to play fetch. The formation of a perfect memory made him shine like the sunlight over the Caribbean, he glowed so perfectly and so blissfully that I knew I had to turn back. His mother stood in the doorway, so sweetly innocent, so raggedly happy at the sight of this scruffy puppy and the little dog playing together, that I had no choice. Whatever that thing was in the grocery store, with fury in place of stories, I knew I could not let it prey on the innocent of this town. I swung the truck over, nose first, into the gravel on the side of the road, hauled on the mainsail and spun the wheel round tightly forming a perfect U in the road, and headed back into town.
There was only one motel. It was trying far too hard for the area it was in. No one in the history of the world has ever actually wanted to vacation in Beach. I suppose travelling bible sellers need to stop somewhere in this State of flat empty nothingness.
I parked the truck up within eyeshot of the front of the building, grabbed my large and ancient gladstone bag from the back seat, the small bag of snacks from the little store down the road, and my empty travel mug from the cupholder, climbed out into the rapidly cooling brutal North Dakota spring air and locked the doors and walked towards the large glass reception doors. I don’t like glass. It takes way too much effort to conceal how I might appear in reflection. The sight disturbs those who are close to giving up their tales, and no amount of consoling can calm the story-owner’s fears. A single bored young man sat behind the front desk, playing a mindless game on his telephone. Bing bing bing went the screen, and his face, motionless, showed no joy, only the absence of interest. Dully absorbing. The new opiate of the masses, I thought to myself. Still, who was I to judge. That was not my job at all. I have always just been the messenger boy, and the Gatherer. I rang the bell. He ignored me, holding up one nicotined stained finger and making a strained noise. “I knew he was sus! I knew it! He finally shouted, punching the air in glee. Yeah, baby! I got him! Sussie!” I brushed his hand. His little tales of triumph and a life of mundanity spilled out like water. He really wanted to be a detective, but had spent his entire life either at the dead-end school or else this nowhereville motel on a road that never seemed to give up its freedom promises to him. I was not going to see him again for an entire lifetime and left a tiny thought behind that perhaps he might want to move to Bozeman and become a cop. Maybe go to a bar and talk to some women. Have a real life. I liked the kid. He had a dog once when he was a little boy, and he and Scout played their games together in the front yard while a tired woman watched with love in her heart.
“Hello!” I said breezily. “I was going to be driving onto Medora, but I am way too tired to keep on driving. You wouldn’t believe how many miles I put down today! I just need one night, I think. Might be two, but I’ll just pay for one for now if that is ok?” He looked back at me with total disinterest.
“Single? You got triple A? Senior?” His eyes twitched back to the phone which was asking him if he wanted to join the lobby to go another round of his game. He clearly did, but a customer was a customer. Didn’t stop him wishing I was not there, but then people tend to feel that way about me a lot.
“No. Nothing like that. Just a single room, please. How much will that be?” I tried another smile. He didn’t see. He was staring longingly at another game of ‘spot the Sussie’ or whatever he had called it. A bucket of fried chicken and a half eaten pizza that was stale three days ago when he first baked it from frozen, sat sadly next to a liter of Dewie and a plugged in vape pen.
“Hun’nert twenny, plus tax…..his voice trailed off….” I passed him a hundred dollar bill and added another twenty to the pile. His hand shot out, pulled the money back in one motion and shoved a key card towards me with the other. “Room 404. Second floor.”
“Will I be able to see the truck from there?” I asked politely.
“Ain’t no one gonna be stealing yer truck in this town.” He responded. “I would rather be able to see my truck. Can you put me in a room at the front of the motel where that is possible?” He didn’t move or respond, so I simply stared at him, past his eyes right into the center of his brain. The center of his squirming worm of a soul, brushing the wings of the butterfly that fluttered its delicate wings and made the wind sing. The color drained from his face, he held onto the sides of his chair for dear life. He looked as if he had just stared Death in the face and survived. “103. You will be able to see your truck from 103, Sir.” He pulled back the card and passed me a key. “103 doesn’t have a card lock. We haven’t changed all of them over yet. You have to wriggle it a bit to get it open. Room 103. 404 would not be suitable for you at all, I see now.”
“Thanks, Kid!” I threw him a smile and pulled a piece of candy from my vest pocket. “Caramel?” He took it, shaking his head as if trying to throw off the idea that he had got about me. Beads of sweat formed on his brow. He put the cell phone back into his pocket.
“Can I help you bring your luggage to your room?” I shook my head, and unwrapped a piece of caramel
candy for myself.
“That’s alright, young man. I don’t have much to carry, I travel light.”
I headed back outside to the stairs that ran up to the upper floors and turned left. 101, 102….Here we go…103! I peered down over the railings, and sure enough I could see the truck well enough from here. The door opened with not too much trouble. The room was clean, smelled faintly of other people’s bodies and mildew. That unused space smell that rooms take on when they are not lived in and instead retain just the memory of other people’s habits. I picked up the remote that sat on the beside table, and turned on the lights up bright. I wanted everyone and everything outside to know I was in here and awake and moving around. I wanted them to see me. I wanted whatever was out there and evil, and no doubt as curious about me as I was about it, to be drawn closer. The television was playing some show about sword making. None of them were going to get close to producing a blade a sharp and perfect as mine, but it was fun to watch them dream.
After an hour or so I turned off all the lights, and pulled the plug on the television and sat waiting, occasionally peeking out at the truck to see what was sniffing around. I should have been sitting by a good fire in Medora, telling wild horses about their ancestors who carried brave men to fight battles against progress that they could never win, however hard that was to hear. Instead, I was waiting for something wicked to knock on my door.
The window rattled at 2am. I let it rattle and sat quietly on the side of the bed, my bag by my side. The lock started to shake and click softly. I felt that same rage drifting in on the wind, that same hunger I had seen earlier in the grocery store. I quietly got up and stood behind the bathroom door just before the lock gave up and the famined thing walked in, then rushed behind her, bolting the door and standing in her way. Her eyes spun in her head, pools of red, her fingers clicking dryly with rings of bone and tooth encircling each one of them. Her mouth opened and closed revealing rows of hungry little shark teeth, six or seven decreasing circles of them one behind the other, with a hundred snaky tongues licking their surface, raw and bloody, desperately looking for blood. Her lips pushed forwards as her hunger protruded desperately. Her body, clothed in rags and ribbons, wasted and dusty, belonged in the grave, and I intended to put her there.
She wordlessly lunged towards my neck, as I pulled my scythe from the depths of my long black coat and pinned her to the wall with the blunt end of it. She wriggled like a worm on the hook as I grabbed her wrist and plunged into the dark rage of her mind. It is rare that a soul puts up a fight. I am a gentle harvester of tales. It is a painless procedure. Someone fully human rarely is capable of putting up a fight.
“What are you!” She hissed. I was too busy picking the stories from the rooms that lay in that space between thought and action, life and flesh, soul and bone to respond to her.
There was once a little girl. When she was born her mother cried. The dusty land and harsh weather meant there was not enough food to feed her eight brothers and her mother and father. She was surplus to requirements, and worse than that, she was a girl, not another pair of strong arms to toil on the land and try and make it give up sustenance. Her mother had a mare in the days when the rains still came and the ground fed them all. It was a beautiful animal, with a dished face like the horses in the story books that dark skinned men from Arabia rode across endless sandy deserts. Her mother loved that mare more than her. She might even have loved it more than Jacob, the fairest and strongest of the entire raft of boys that suffered for the oats and corn, the beans and the sharp-shouldered cattle that they ran from north to south and east to west looking for sometimes buyers, and sometimes fresh grazing. She was the last one. The runt. Her mother’s menopause baby.
She was the baby born of famine, not plenty. A deep winter baby. The useless one. The unwanted child. The unkissed, undandled on her father’s knee. The unloved and unwanted. She was the girl who would take and not contribute. Her father was too drunk to indulge her. She ate last and bathed last. No one cared if she lived or died. She was constantly hungry and the more she cried with an empty belly, her mother’s empty breasts not providing any sustenance, the more she was hated. She had no name. She was merely, Baby, or The Girl. No one thought that she was enough of a scrap of existence to bother naming. She was not expected to live, just one more soul born into nothingness, that was expect to exit without even a name of her own.
In her head she had one name only. One thought drifted through her wasted brain and extended its tendrils to the very tips of her fingers: Hungry. Hungry was angry. Hungry was furious. Hungry did not get what Hungry desired. The only book in the house was a tattered and spat upon Bible. A bowl of greasy stew, an ear of corn. The smell of a pig slaughtered by the neighbors and cooking on a spit filled her nostrils. She read of loaves of bread and a man who could make fish appear even in Beach, North Dakota with its dry land and no lakes or puddles of water anywhere around to give them a place to live.
Nothing here sustained fish. Nothing here sustained her, nor even her once burly but now wasted brothers, with their pinched faces.
The ox that pulled the plough died first. Bad blood, her father told mother. The ox got the bad blood. The mice and rats got into the grain silos and poisoned them. It was not even fit for the animals. The corn did not get enough water and withered where it grew, desiccated and dry husks with no meat on their bones. Her father got the shotgun, and the one single shell he had left. He would have had mercy but even mother’s mare had not eaten and was dying in her stall. She couldn’t be ridden to town, and besides once he got there, he had no money for bread or bullets. In the end he was a selfish man, and took care of himself, while he wife screamed and the Hunger wept, and the brothers made plans to go out west and try for their fortunes in the golden hills of California. None of them would take her with them.
It was the same sad story I had picked from hundred, no thousands of souls that I visited in those lean years. The rain did not come. The ground got hard. The crops failed. People starved of food and hope lined up to greet me. I still could not place this soul or her doomed family.
When Jacob finally decided to leave, promising Mother he would send money and a letter back as soon as he could, setting off on foot in the direction of gold, Mother gave up hope. She had been trying harder to feed that mare than she ever tried to feed me. My dresses were made out of the mare’s feed sacks.
There was nothing my mother would not do for her chestnut with the Arabian face, that made her look so stylish when she drove her into town, or rode her across the prairie. There was no more food, no more hope, no more chance to make something happen. Her boys all fled, her husband dead, and nothing left but me and the mare. She would not even give the mare to Jacob to try and ride west. Not even to her most precious son. She made even him go on foot away from her.
I watched from the barn door, hiding in the shadows as she kissed the mare goodbye. She stroked her bright brown forelock and smoothed the soft velvet of her nose. Her tears fell leaving streaks of clean on the dirt of her face and bathed the mare in her sorrow. “My dear girl. My beautiful dear girl. I cannot bear to watch you die. I will have to leave first. I am so sorry to leave you, but my darling girl, my perfect little sweetheart I must go. There is nothing left here. We should have stayed in Wisconsin. We should never have left on a promise of 40 acres somewhere they said was the land of milk and honey, but that took everything away from me. You would have liked it there. The woods are so big and dark, and the dark winters give way to summers that make food spring from the ground. It is easier living. I even had a wood floor, not a dirty one. Damn that man always looking for better until he just gave up and drank whiskey we could not afford.”
Then she took a length of rope and strung it from the rafters, fashioning a crude noose. It would not be quick, but it would work good enough. With the mare looking on, and me staring from the shadows, no farewell for me, no soft tears on my face, no kind words or affectionate wishes, Mother put on her new necklace and jumped from the hayloft, her feet swinging in the air, her body fighting the end with all it had left, while her mind screamed for Death to come take her.
I remembered the family. I had visited the father first, a sniveling little man with no good stories that
didn’t involve a bottle or a still, whose mind was in the moonshiners hollow and soul was in the gutter. The brothers all survived the journey. Jerimiah died in a barroom brawl in North Carolina a year later. Jacob made it out to California. He tried to send back money or help but found the farm deserted. There was not even a grave marked out. He presumed Baby had died too. He lived to be an old man, with stories to tell, but sadness in his heart. Jacob was not a bad man. The rest of the brothers were scattered to the four winds. They died in their times. There was a problem. I didn’t remember seeing a little girl in the barn. I had not gone to visit her. It was not impossible that one of my brethren had gone back for her later, but usually if we take on a job, we visit the entire family. Baby just did not exist. She was forgotten, barely human to start with. No one celebrated her birth. No one looked for her after her family’s death. No one even bothered to reap her once she should have been done with life. Her story continued to spill out of her, the only thing that she had a surplus of:
It was then that I saw the man in a hood. He had a big ole sickle and cut mother down, but she kept on hanging there, her legs dangling wretched-like. Her mare snickered and whinnied and cried. Then the man left, just disappeared like he was smoke and I was left standing in the shadows, hiding in the barn all by myself. I decided I was going to eat the mare. I was so hungry, you see. That mare led a charmed life, but mother gone, no one had a use for her and my belly was so empty, I was so hungry that I went up to that horse and bit her throat out, sucking all that rich gravy from her veins. It was so warm and sweet.
As far as sins go for Reapers like myself, not harvesting this forgotten child was certainly one of the more unforgivable ones. I was certainly going to hear about this at the next family gathering, I thought. I was meant to take the girl too, at least within a few days hunger would have got her. I missed her and no one else even saw she existed. It happened occasionally, but the mistakes were usually corrected pretty fast. This girl had lived lifetimes without being harvested. She had become less than human. More than a monster. She had turned into something…else. I reached back inside her and pulled out what was left of her story:
I was ok for a few days, but I got so hungry that I decided I needed to find another horse to eat. I knew they wouldn’t taste as good as mother’s spoilt mare, the baby girl she loved. That horse tasted like love. I saw the neighbor kid running through the woods. Their father kept pigs. They always had meat to eat, and their father bought grain from the store. He was playing in the yard with a puppy. I thought about taking a pig, or a dog, but love tastes so good you see. His mother baked him cookies with love hearts stamped on the top and covered with sugar. His mother made him jellies and sweetmeats. His mother kissed him on the head and sang him songs. I watched them from the trees. His clothes were made of good calico and linen. His mother loved him, and I thought about my brothers and how they were at least spoilt a little, and got the idea that perhaps this kid, this boy, Alonso, might taste….good. So I ate him. I dragged him off into the woods and I bit into his throat and sucked the marrow from his bones.
They said it was a wolf that did it, but it was me.
So I ate and I ate and I ate. I didn’t eat often, because the men would form hunting parties and the stories would start up all around town about what they thought was eating the livestock or the people. I started to get thin. I didn’t want to leave town. This was the only place I knew. I didn’t want to run away like my brothers, and besides, where was I going to eat? In the end I went away into the woods for twenty years, and then came back into town for twenty, and lived here making sure that I never got caught. These are my lean years, the years where I can’t hunt as often. I was going back to the woods next week. I’ve got too lean. I needed to taste love on my tongue again.
With that, I grabbed the root of her memories, and tugged on it like a carrot that doesn’t want to leave stony ground. She had become something other, something starved, something that had no concept of participating or giving, or letting live, or eating that which is not harvested out of corruption. She was irredeemable, and besides she had taken more than one round of three score and ten, and it was way past time for her to go to wherever the souls go after I set them out to dry and cure.
The butterfly peeled away from her brain with the sickening sound of wings unsticking themselves from flesh, the gooey moistness of the wormy body spilling blood and gore, like a strip of uncooked liver sitting in a hot pan. She looked up at me, desperate, her face shifting from the pinched features of a little girl who had never been wanted, to the hollow horror of the crone that needed to feed to live, to take human life to carry on her inhuman one. I raised the blade, and with one long sure stroke severed the threads that held her to the land of the living. She fell to the floor, a child once more, her parched and sad mouth forming one last word: “Mama”, and then she was gone into the dust from which she was formed. There was nothing to do but scatter her to the wind. The butterfly sat writhing on my shoulder, soaking both my overcoat and undershirt to the bone with blood. I unbuttoned my shirt at the breast and reached deep inside my ribcage, the mirror reflecting back the skeletal form hidden by clever padding and a good coat. From the endless cavern that lays within I pulled the book that sat closest to my heart, the one for the most tender and rare of tales, pulled a pin from my hat and speared the butterfly between the vertebrae, trapping it in place, pinning it to the page and letting it leave a bloody imprint on the parchment leaves it sat between. It sang a song of blood and love, hunger and fury, loss and longing. It sang the song of my mistakes and failures. It will not let me forget them. After all, I have my own stories too. I might tell them to you one day. Don’t try to run when you see me coming. It won’t do you no good any how.
There is a song that all souls sing when they give up their stories, it is called “Lay It To Thy Heart, and Farewell’. When I take that tiny mariposa quivering soul and pinning it through the center of its fragile wormy body, to live in the Book you won’t feel a thing, except perhaps regret. Most of you do. Don’t worry, you will live next to my heart forever. I am the Collector of Tales. I am the Harvester of Butterflies. I am Death.
After a short while I walked to the door, and pulled it open to the cold night air, leaving the bedclothes crumpled and a five dollar bill for housekeeping on the night stand. I could see the truck well from the stairwell. By the time I had walked over to it, it was no longer a black truck, and was now a bright red corvette with suicide doors. It is always better to go out in style, especially when you have some fishing to do.