substitutions

It’s flash fiction time again, but I’m making a departure from the norm. This week I’m not using a prompt.

Several of the sites I cruise for prompts weren’t updated when I sat down this morning, and the prompts over at the 500 Club, while good, were simply too much like the prompt I wrote on last week (‘of the essense‘) to draw me in. So I just started writing. 

What follows is a weird, dark story that fell onto the page for me. I’ve been reading Clive Barker this past week, a master of horror and poetry, and perhaps (ambitiously) this is my attempt to capture just a little of his graceful madness. I’m no Clive Barker, though, so toggle your expectations down several notches and try to enjoy the admittedly strange ride.

substitutions

When Hendrix sold her the trinket, he said very little about it. Only that it was old and, he believed, powerful. She pressed him but he would not explain his meaning. Lips pursed, he only closed his eyes and shook his ancient head. His hair, what was left of it, was thin and white. As he stood there slowing moving his head from one side to the other and back, thin tufts of hair caught in the breeze and lifted up around his face, framing him in gossamer whiteness, giving the appearance that he was underwater. And dead. He looked disturbingly dead.

Fine, she thought. Keep your damn secrets. I’m not Faust. This is not Pandora’s box. But if you sleep better at night playing the part, fine.

She left Hendrix’s shop, his creepy little occult hidey-hole, and made her way home. The trinket felt heavy in her coat pocket. Even so, she kept her hand wrapped around it, the palm clammy with sweat, all the way back to her place. She would have made Gollum proud in that moment, weaving in and out of the sidewalk traffic gently caressing the precious as she walked.

Once home, she wasted no time bringing it out into the light. It was an old thing, the edges smooth and polished by so many years, so many pockets, so many palms. The silver was dull and in bad need of a cleaning. The artistry of the design was primitive–a crudely crafted scarab that might have been a broach or even a large, gaudy locket of some kind, but was, in fact, neither. It was, she believed, a door, and it was hers. She wrapped her fingers around it and smiled, humming with delight.

In the days that followed, she reread all of her research. She had but one chance if she was to believe half the warnings she had read. It was all so melodramatic, talk of brimstone and the wrath of gods, but it left her with the impression that caution was a wise course of action. She didn’t actually expect to conjure up anything, truth be told. She only hoped that living out the ritual, speaking the words and spilling the blood, might connect her to those who had done the same before her. She believed in a subtler witchcraft. Maybe the same spirit that had made Cleopatra beautiful and powerful, made Joan of Arc strong and courageous, made Amelia Earhart fearless and bold, would descend on her. She did not, however, expect a laser light show, smoke and mirrors, husky voices from the deep places of the world rolling forth offering immeasurable power in exchange for what? Her soul? Her service? She expected none of that.

Perhaps she should have.

On the evening of the fifth day, she made preparations to proceed. Her circle of protection was drawn. The candles were set and burning. Her hair was pinned back behind her ears, out of her face, and she wore a simple cotton gown. Something comfortable and generic. Something humble. She was, after all, calling out to deities this night.

Shortly after sunset, thunder boomed in the distance. It felt right, the storm rolling. She’d moved all her furniture out of the living room leaving a hallowed place in the middle of her house. During the day it had felt empty to her, even as she drew the circle with chalk along the hardwoods. But now, at night, the lightening sent shadows running through the house in all directions. They leapt across the floor, bounding around the empty space. They dashed to the corners, from the kitchen to the dining room. They danced around her in tight circles, there and then gone and then back again, and the room felt alive to her. Full. It was a good night for summoning.

She had made only one adjustment to the ritual. It called for human blood. Her blood. Four fingers of it. Using a standard brewing cup, the same that witches and warlocks had used for centuries, that was nearly a pint. She was squeamish about the sight of blood in general, and her own blood more so. She could not bring herself to draw a pint of it from her veins, and she would not steal from a blood bank or take it from another person. In her experience, when spells called for blood, the type of blood rarely played a pivotal role. Some called for dove’s blood, but the blood of any pigeon would do. Once, in haste, she had concocted a beauty spell using the blood drained off a steak in the refrigerator when the ingredients clearly called for ox’s blood. (She’d had a date that night and no time to even find an ox, let along drain it.)

Blood is simply life force. When a spell or ritual calls for it, it is calling for sacrifice. For life. For something substantial to bind the magic and bring it into the world.

In this case, she decided that pig’s blood would do, and it had been easy enough to acquire that from a butcher. Yes, the man thought she was a beautiful lunatic, asking for a pint of pig’s blood instead of a porterhouse or ribs, but he’d sold it to her and she had happily paid what she firmly believed was too much. There’s no competition in blood sales. They drive the price up just because the request is weird.

She had the blood now, four fingers worth, in her cup along with the other implements: a cat’s tail, 4 large, rotten tomatoes, a locket of her own hair, a palmful of fingernail clippings from an unknowing contributor (those had been fun to get), a small measure of wine, 13 cockroach legs and, of course, the scarab. As ingredients went, it was small stuff. Granted, the cat’s tail was dark, and some of the items unsavory in nature, but the spell called for none of the things she feared it would. No venom. No dead animals. No piss or menstrual blood. On the whole, it was a fairly tame collection of oddities.

She sprinkled the fingernail clippings into the blood and began to chant. She’d memorized the words. Experience had taught her that it was much easier to work any summoning that way. Trying to read from notes while rifts opened to the beyond was impractical, even if the rifts were subtle. It felt better to her, felt right, to know the words and evoke them from memory. It made her feel like a truer witch, not just some would-be sorceress.

Slowly, as she added the implements, the air in the room grew cooler. The shadows set to motion by the lightening seemed to move more freely, to linger even between flashes. Either her eyes were tricking her or the edges of the circle glowed. She hastened, the words falling out of her mouth as her throat tightened and her chest pounded. She finished with a flourish, the final cockroach legs dropped into the mix, and poured it on the floor in the middle of the circle. There it settled, this thick fluid, and began to move. It rose from the floor in queer pulses, each beat taking it a bit higher than the last. It looked like wet fabric covering a hole. Something was on the other side, she could see, trying to punch through.

But it did not punch through. No, it pushed it’s way into the mixture, causing the fluid to take shape and form. First a round, compact oval, then stumps that grew to be legs. A head emerged at one end and a tail at the other. A snout and ears. Floppy ears. Curly tail. Hooves. Pale pink skin and huge, round eyes.

She stared down into the circle at the most perfect pig she had ever laid eyes on. It spoke: “Daring,” it said, “but foolish.”

She had been ready to feel something within herself, to feel stronger or wiser or brave. She believed this working would lead to some inner change. She was ready for that, but not this. Not some bizarre incarnation of swine in the middle of her living room. She believed in subtle magic, for fuck’s sake. Subtle. Irrationally, she thought of Arnold from Green Acres. Arnold the pig. Thin memories from her childhood watching reruns during hot summer afternoons. She’d never even liked the show, it was so hokey and ridiculous, but still, the pig before her reminded her of Arnold.

She was clearly loosing her mind.

Arnold spoke again. “The craft is lost on amateurs and hacks,” it said.

“I, uh…” she took a step back and would have taken two more but for the look the pig gave her. It held her where she was. “I was…I thought…I didn’t expect to…uh…”

“Woman, speak plainly. Surely you haven’t called me here to spew stuttering nonsense at me all night.”

She fought for balance, for sanity, for a clear enough mind to remember the words. “I called you, great one, for a boon: the spirit of Kona.”

Inconceivably, the pig smiled. It was a perversion of the expression on its doughy face. “You wish to follow in the footsteps of Cleopatra,” it said.

“Yes,” she blurted, clutching the scarab trinket with both hands and holding it to her chest.

“But you did not use human blood.”

She stuttered again. “I, uh. I thought…just blood. Most magic just needs some kind of blood. I, um, I get…faint…at the sight of my own. I thought…I used…”

“A pig’s,” it finished for her. “You call on me to bestow the spirit of Kona on you, a spirit of divine feminine strength, but you use pig’s blood to perform the ritual?”

She wanted to run in that moment. She tried to lift her feet, to take steps, even small steps, backward toward the front door. She would never cast again, she vowed to herself. Dark stuff, she thought. Dark, evil, vile stuff. She wanted with all her heart, all her soul to leave that place, but her feet were held as firmly to the ground as if stakes been driven through them, nailing her to the hardwood floors.

“You have called on me, requesting the embodiment of a spirit, and a spirit you shall have,” the pig said. There was malice in its eyes. She found her feet moving now, but not toward the door. Toward the pig, instead. She strained against her own muscles, fighting the forward movement, but her body would not obey. Down to her knees, she fell. The scarab hit the floor and slid along the wood, crossing through the circle on both sides.

Crossing the circle. Breaking the circle.

Her body tipped forward and she was suddenly on all fours. The pig trotted to her. Its cold snout touched the tip of her nose. She could smell its milk-sweet breath. She could see infinity swimming in its eyes. It kissed her and she was lost.

*          *          *          *          *

The following morning, Catherine Fowler was seen outside her subburban home, rooting through the neighbor’s trash. The police were called. They tried to talk to her, to convince her to stand and leave the neighbors refuse be, but she persisted in pushing banana peals and coffee grounds and half eaten food around with her nose and face. Occasionally, she would find a morsel that appealed to her peculiar tastes and she would bite down, eating the filth as though it were the finest gourmet food.

One of the police men, an older man with a soothing voice, moved forward slowly and put an hand on her shoulder. He was trying to gently pull her back, away from the garbage pile. She bit his hand clean through to the bone, and that was when the other cop, the rookie, drew his gun and fired. Three shots.

She slumped forward into the waste, her face enveloped by slop.

Somewhere, in a house nearby, a neighbor was just putting bacon on the stove.

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About Ash Martin
Ash Martin writes dark fantasy and horror, has a thing for classic monster legends, Nordic mythology, coffee, and sarcasm, and is currently working on multiple books.

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