Countless Haints

Countless Haints, Pt. 6

She ran.

She didn’t know what else to do, and she didn’t have much time to think about it.  Even as she pulled herself away from the window, she saw the congregation of torchbearers disbanding.  They scattered in every direction, the light of their fires snapping in the night’s gusts, shadows shrinking away from them as if afraid.  The thing crouching in the tree watched them with baleful, glimmering eyes.  Pa—at least she assumed it was her father—loped towards the farmhouse, his steps hesitant and labored.

He’s going to kill me, Madi thought.

Maybe she was letting her imagination get the best of her, but she didn’t plan on waiting around to find out.  She grabbed a musty duffel bag from under her bed.  With a snap of her wrist, she sent the dust-bunnies that had been nesting on the bag flying.  Throwing open the dresser drawers, Madi packed several untidy handfuls of clothes.

“You’re coming with me, too,” she said as she bunched up the boy’s skin and shoved it into the satchel along with the garments.

Madi took one last look around.  She didn’t know if she’d ever see her room—let alone the house or the farm or her father—again.  She drew in a shuddering breath to steel her courage.  She wasn’t afraid Pa might catch her.  She knew she could duck out into the night before he so much as suspected she was gone.  But she was afraid of what else might be waiting for her … out there in the dark.  More than that, she feared leaving the only home she had ever known behind.

It dawned on her that the boy’s skin might have been lying.  It might have been trying to trick her into leaving the safety of her house and rushing into danger, like fool’s fire dancing over a bog.  The raw flesh and bloody bones of the boy’s body might have been waiting in the darkness to pounce on her and eat her alive.

And maybe Pa was on his way to choke the breath from her lungs right this very moment.

She couldn’t trust anything or anyone except herself, and she didn’t put much faith in her own mind any more.  The dark thoughts surfacing in her head didn’t feel right.  It felt as though she was losing touch with the person she had always been.

Old Man ‘Riah said something about me changing, she thought.  Maybe he was right.  Maybe this is what he was talking about.  Maybe whoever it is I’m becoming doesn’t deserve to live.

But it didn’t matter what she deserved.  She didn’t want to die.  At least, not tonight.  Not by her father’s hand.

She barely remembered racing through the house, crashing out the front door and jumping from the porch without so much as touching a single step.  Once second, she stood trembling in her room.  The next, the night air was whipping past her.  She dashed through the yard, past the animal pens, and into the wood.  She stopped and crouched in the brush, watching the house.

Pa rounded the corner.  He tossed the torch to the ground and stomped upon it until it went out.  Wisps of smoke rose around him in tangles.  His eyes scanned the woods, and Madi flinched and hunkered down, even though there was no way his old eyes could have picked her out in the darkness.  He climbed the steps and went inside.

If he stays inside, Madi thought, that means he didn’t mean me any harm.  It means he went straight to bed without so much as looking in on me.  But if he comes back out—

The front door couldn’t have been closed more than a minute before it swung open again.  Pa strode onto the porch.  He leaned against the railing.  His hands were clenched into fists.  His knuckles were pale white.

“Madi!” he called.  “Where are you, girl?”  

Madi crept backwards, trying not to make a sound.  When the branches obscured her view of her father, she turned and scrambled through the thickets.

Posted by cullenbunn on August 16, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

Countless Haints, Pt. 5

Pa opened the door just a crack.  The creaking hinges, the light spilling into the darkened room, roused Madi.  Her eyes fluttered open, but she didn’t move.  She didn’t speak.

“You awake?” Pa asked.  His voice, barely a whisper, trembled.

Madi’s back was to the doorway, but she imagined Pa standing there, watching silently, chewing the inside of his mouth the way he did when nagging thoughts worried him.  Madi pretended to sleep, and after several minutes Pa pushed the door closed and retreated down the hall.  Still, Madi didn’t move a muscle until she heard the whine and snap of the screen door, the heavy tread of Pa’s boots on the front porch steps.  Only then did she sit up in bed.

She couldn’t be sure what time it was, but she guessed it was late, maybe close to midnight or later.  The house was still and quiet, and the darkness was deep and thick, not the tentative shadows of the early hours, but a rich blackness that only came as evening matured into night.

Madi’s eyes burned and the skin of her cheeks felt stiff from dried tears.  She still felt sleepy, but she didn’t want to close her eyes again.  When she had awakened, the most awful thought had popped into her head—that her father and Old Man ‘Riah and a half dozen faceless men were stealing into her room to spirit her away.  Her heart still raced, and she drew the sheets up and squeezed the blankets in her fists.  Her stomach flipped and turned.  She felt weak and lightheaded, and she thought she might throw up.

“What’s the point of that?” she muttered.  “Ain’t nothing in my belly anyway.”

The bottom drawer of her dresser rattled.

“You have something to say?” Madi asked.

The drawer shook as if unseen hands were struggling to yank it open.

Madi hopped out of bed.  A wave of dizziness swept over her.  She closed her eyes and took in a couple of gulps of air to steady herself, then crossed the room.  Kneeling, she pulled the drawer open.

“What do you want?” she asked.

Within the drawer, the boy’s skin squirmed and crawled, like an enourmous, fleshy flatworm.  She reached in—the skin was warm to the touch once more—and pulled the haint out.  The skin unrolled before her, and she laid it out across her chair.  It looked almost as if the boy sat across from her now, only he was flat as a board, and the eyes that stared back at her were gaping holes.  A tremor passed over the boy’s lips.

Window,” he hissed. Read More

Posted by cullenbunn on August 09, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

Countless Haints, Pt. 3

A pair of tire tracks wound around the edge of the forest, leading in one direction towards the highway, and in the other towards the farm.  Wiry grass grew tall and wild between the ruts, and a half-dozen grasshoppers sprang through the brush, leaping ahead of Madi as she made her way home.

The bottoms of her feet felt swollen from briar sticks, and tiny cuts covered her ankles and calves, like a swarm of angry wasps knitted into a pair of stinging socks.  She’d stopped at the creek to clean up as best she could, but her now-tattered dress was covered in mud … and tiny splashes of blood where the thorns had stabbed through the fabric and into her flesh.  She didn’t like the way the sodden cloth stuck to her legs.  Her face was hot, and sweat burned her eyes and dribbled down the bridge of her nose.  She mopped damp hair from her face with the back of her left forearm.  Under her right arm, she carried the boy’s skin, folded up neat as Sunday wash.

“Be still,” she hissed.

The skin felt feverish.  Madi could have sworn it was sweating, too.  It squirmed under the crook of her arm as if trying to shimmy free.

“I said be still, or I swear I’ll wrap you round a stone and chuck you in the creek.”

The boy’s hide stopped moving and, within seconds, grew cool as old leather. Read More

Posted by cullenbunn on July 26, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

Countless Haints, Pt. 2

The woods stretched away from the farm and into forever.

Madi grabbed a crooked switch from the ground and swatted at weeds and spider webs as she followed the pine straw-carpeted trail.  Trees—mostly pines, but oaks and black walnut and white ash, too—loomed on either side of the path, taller even than the silent, lightning-scarred sentinel upon the hill.  She wondered if the blighted oak had once been part of the forest, separated from its ilk when the farm was raised.  If the oak had not been struck by lightning, would it have grown as large and strong as the rest of the woods?  The trees here were healthy and proud, not twisted and mean-spirited and cruel.  They needed not whisper secrets and were silent save for the rush of breeze through the leaves.

Soon, she heard the gurgling of the creek, and she quickened her pace.  The worn footpath cut towards the cold, rushing creek and a rickety wooden bridge from which she sometimes fished or tossed skipping stones.  For as long as she could remember, Pa promised he was going to repair the old, rotting bridge.  “Sooner or later,” he said, “someone’s gonna fall straight through, down into the creek, I don’t take hammer and nail to that bridge soon.”  But the creek water was so shallow in places that Madi imagined it could be crossed on foot without worry, and few people ever crossed the bridge, anyway, except maybe the grizzled trader man who brought canned food and tools and clothing loaded onto his mule-drawn wagon.

‘Riah.

Pa didn’t like the old man much, even though he bartered with him from time to time when he came ‘round.  It was a way of doing business most folk didn’t believe in any more, Pa said, especially when they could just hop in the truck and drive to Wal-Mart for the supplies they needed.  Pa said ‘Riah followed other old customs—old beliefs–and he didn’t want the trader man talking to Madi.  On more than one occasion, Pa had run ‘Riah off when he tried to share a few whispered words with the girl, but the old man always returned a few weeks later, leading his hobbled wagon out of the woods.

Madi stepped upon the bridge and crossed to mid-point.  The feel of the splintered wood beneath her bare feet was comforting in a way.  Familiar.  Between the planks of the bridge she saw the water below.  She leaned upon the rail and looked over the edge.  The creek wound past heavy stones and the roots of trees exposed by the washing away of soil.  The water was so clear she could see a few skinny fish darting back and forth, and if she had set her mind on the task she could have counted the smooth creek bed pebbles.  Water striders sliced lines across the surface, and dragonflies danced in the air.

Dragonflies—snake doctors, Pa called them.  Whenever you saw one, you could be sure a copperhead or water moccasin lurked nearby.

But she didn’t see a snake as she peered over the edge of the bridge.

Instead, she saw a boy.

“Hey, down there,” Madi called.

Was he ever handsome!  Madi gasped at the sight of him and felt both ashamed and excited by the feeling.  The boy looked to be around her age, maybe a year older or younger, but no more than that.  His jeans and tee shirt were wash worn and faded and threadbare, but he had refined, delicate features—the unkempt blonde hair and large blue eyes like a fairytale prince.

He stood just inside the treeline, and shadow dappled his smooth, pale skin like shifting bruises.  He watched the creek water run past, staring intently, as if he expected to see something of great value sweep through the cold current at any moment.

“Hey, down there,” Madi called again.  Her cheeks and the back of her neck felt warm, and she felt the corners of her mouth raise into a smile she just couldn’t help.  “Didn’t you hear me?”

The boy looked up, squinting and raising a hand to shade his eyes from the sun.  A smile played upon his lips for just a moment, then slipped away, as if washed away by the rushing of the water.  He took a step back, letting the shadows fold around him.

“What’s your name?” Madi asked.  “I’m—”

He whirled around and scurried into the woods.

“Wait!” Madi shouted.  “Where you going?”

She rushed to the other side of the bridge and down the sloping bank.

“Why are you running?  Please wait.”

She slipped in the damp earth and skidded down the muddy bank, her feet slipping into the creek.  The water felt cold as ice.  She scrambled in the mud, clawing her way up the bank.  Dark mud spattered the hem and painted an outline of her legs and behind on the dress.  Pa would tan her hide for sure when she got back home, but it was too late to worry about that now.

She reached the top of the bank, and saw the boy duck beneath a tangle of brush.  He didn’t follow the path, and branches slapped at him as he pushed through.

“Wait!” she cried.  “You ruined my dress.  Least you can do is talk to me.”

If he heard her, he didn’t react.  Twigs and brush crunched beneath his feet.  He dipped his head and vanished into a wall of tangled thorns.

“Careful!”  Madi raised her voice.  She no longer saw him, but could hear him struggling through the thickets up ahead.  She didn’t know why he was running, and she didn’t reckon she’d ever see him again to ask. “That ways overrun with thorn bushes.”

Dozens of thick, thorny vines crisscrossed before her.  Not impassable, but growing thicker every inch of the way.  She’d never follow the boy’s path without at least a few cuts and scrapes.

Old Man ‘Riah once told her a tale of a young boy who had been chased through the briars by a pack of wild dogs.  Nearly scared to death by the ravenous, nipping animals, the boy had plunged into the briars, ignoring the pain of hundreds of needle-sharp stabs.  The dogs didn’t dare follow, but by the time he emerged on the other side, he was nearly ripped to shreds, blood oozing from hundreds–if not thousands–of tiny cuts over his hands, neck, and face.  He collapsed to the ground, weeping, his tears burning in his open wounds.  And then he heard something padding up through the brush ahead of him.  Weak from losing so much blood, he looked up to see the dogs loping through the brush.  They’d circled around the briar patch and tracked the scent of his blood.  He was too weak to run, and as they fell upon him, he couldn’t even muster a scream.

Madi didn’t believe the old man’s story, of course.  ‘Riah was always spinning one story or another, almost all with gruesome ends.  But she couldn’t help but think of the frightened boy racing through the vines as they ripped and tore into his flesh.

I can make it if I’m careful, she thought.  She cautiously crawled beneath the first of the overhanging briars.

She saw no sign of the boy, but she heard him, moving up ahead, slowly now to avoid the briars as best he could.

“Can you hear me?” she called.

No answer.

“What’s wrong with you?  You got beans in your ears?”

She pressed forward–carefully–avoiding the slicing thorns.  The briars snagged her dress, ripping at the fabric.  Tears burned in her eyes as a jagged thorn drew a dotted line of red across the back of her hand.  She looked away.  More than anything, she hated the sight of—

Blood.

Everywhere.  Spattered across the thick carpet of pine straw and dead leaves.  Glistening upon a gray-barked tree trunk.  Dripping from a dozen or more thorns.

The boy left a spattered trail of his own blood through the briars.

“You all right?” Madi cried.

She followed, her eyes tracing the bloody track.  She moved even more slowly.  She no longer heard the boy, but something rustled up ahead.  She wondered if the thickets in this place were moving of their own accord and dark thoughts, like the old tree, whispering secrets in her dreams.

A half dozen thorns tore at her flesh, and tears ran freely down her cheeks.  She looked back the way she had come, and saw the path of blood behind her.  How much of it was the boy’s blood?  And how much of it was her own?  Her stomach turned.

A copper pot stink flooded her nostrils, and she covered her nose as she took another step.  The forest floor was wet and warm and sticky beneath her feet.

Another step.

So much blood.

Another, and a briar stabbed into her cheek.  She flinched away, and her hair became tangled in the grasp of one of the vines.  She winced free.

There, lying in a crumpled heap, was the boy’s threadbare clothes.  The cloth was stained glistening red.

Another step.

And she saw the boy again.

Except, it wasn’t him.

“Only the skin,” Madi whispered.

All that was left of the boy was strung up between several barbed vines like wet clothes from the wash.  His arms dangled loosely, the fingers flapping.  His legs and feet trailed the ground, stretched out and twisted like old socks.  His eyes and mouth sagged and gaped, empty.

Madi felt ashamed as her eyes strayed below the boy’s waist, where the skin was ripped and shredded.  Her face flushed, and she quickly looked away.

Her breath caught in her throat.

A trail of glistening, bloody footsteps continued through the forest, vanishing into the brush.

“Hhhhhh …”

Madi jumped and stepped away from the tattered skin dangling before her like a sheet phantom.

“Hhhhhh …”

The boy’s torn lips twitched and the empty mouth tried to form words.

His breath reeked like a slaughterhouse.

Posted by cullenbunn on July 19, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

Countless Haints, Pt. 1

Her earliest memories were of the taste of freshly turned earth and the bleating of goats.

* * *

“Pa?” Madrigal asked.  “You know what tomorrow is, don’t you?”

“Of course.”  Her father settled back in the creaking chair and placed his opened Bible upon his knee to hold his place.  He drew deep on his pipe, and the sweet-smelling smoke plumed around his bald, sun-spotted head.  “Can’t say as I’d rightly forget.”

Madi sat upon the hardwood floor, her legs drawn up close, her chin resting upon her knees.  The house was silent, except for their voices, the groan of Pa’s chair, and the ticking of the wall clock as it counted the seconds until …

“I’ll be almost a woman grown.”

“Almost.”  Pa’s eyes glittered in the lamplight.  “You in such a hurry to grow up and leave your old father alone?”

“I ain’t planning on leaving any time soon.  Where would I go?  You reckon I should march down to Ahmen’s Landing and marry me the first fisherman’s son I fancy?”

“Say you won’t.”

“Don’t fret.”  Madi smiled devilishly.  “I’ll go at least far as Nag’s Head before I find me a fella.”

“That’s good.”  Pa nodded and returned to his Bible.  “A girl ought to have standards.”

Madi rolled her eyes at him, but let the matter drop.

The quiet rushed in to flood the house.  The quiet.  Madi sometimes thought of it as a living, breathing thing.  And while the girl usually enjoyed being alone with her thoughts, tonight she felt as if the silence might smother her.  The room, the house, the entire farm seemed too small. Read More

Posted by cullenbunn on July 17, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Writing
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