Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Gravitas

Custer, South Dakota

The wind sang through the Ponderosa Pines, a barely discernable voice beneath the thrum that seemed to serve as commentary on the events it witnessed. To Dave it sounded like Paha Sapa. Of course it would. He knew what it meant; it was Lakota Sioux for “Black Hills.” But he refused to acknowledge it. Instead, he stared bleary-eyed at the broken glass studding the land. This was his crop, seeded over the span of four weeks, irrigated from the residue of Napa Valley grapes, sun-kissed until it glistened like dew. It was the bounty of his desperation, and now was the time to harvest.

But as he took a deep breath of the fresh Black Hills air, bile slipped up his throat. He tasted the wine from last night, the night before, and a hundred before that. So sour to have once been so good. He’d moved too fast. A wave of vertigo hit him. He reached out and gripped the door jamb. He won the battle not to fall, but lost the war. He bent and emptied the contents of his stomach onto the ground near the back tire. Hacking, arching his back like a hair-balled cat. Heaving until nothing was left.

Paha Sapa, the world whispered.

When he finally stood, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He stared down at his bare feet resting on the bottom step of the metal stairs. All he had to do was step down and begin walking. There would be pain. There would be blood. But sometime during the red screams he’d find that core of humanity he’d once had, before the divorce, before her death, before the trial. At least he hoped so. Because if it didn’t work, he didn’t know what else he could do. There was nothing else.

His stomach threatened once more. A slave to what he’d become, he waited for it. But it never came. Instead, a crunch of gravel drew his attention. He shifted his bare feet as he turned. The sound of flesh against metal sounded like a sigh.

A green SUV with a black metal grill rolled up the dirt drive, past the pond on the other side of the RV, and pulled to the edge of Dave’s man-made field. A Custer State Park Ranger took his time getting out. Through the tinted windows, Dave could make out a gun rack behind the front seat filled with high-powered weapons.

“I heard you were out here.” The lanky ranger approached by making a wide berth of the glistening ground. He examined it as he passed, his thumbs hooked in his utility belt. The brim of his smoky hat kept his eyes in shadow. “What have you done to the ground?”

I seeded it, Dave tried to say, but his mouth was a cracked and vile desert. “Broke a few bottles.”

“A few?” The ranger tilted up the brim of his hat. When he did, Dave recognized him. “Looks like you emptied the contents of a liquor store here.”

Dave nodded but didn’t respond. The last time he’d seen Lamont Cranston was at prom. Dave had been on the ground with Lamont straddling him, fists raining like hammers on his face. And it was all over a girl from Rapid City. The same girl Dave had eventually married. The same girl who’d . . .

Dave turned and went back into his trailer. He closed the door, found a seat and stared at the calendars on the wall.

He felt the shift of the camper as Lamont put his weight on the steps. Instead of knocking, Lamont opened the door and stepped inside.

“You don’t have a warrant,” Dave mumbled.

“Don’t need one. Ain’t here to arrest you.”

Dave felt the intrusion of the ranger’s eyes as they counted the cases of wine, the walls covered with dozens of calendars all turned to the same year and month, blood splattered fingerprints marking the same day on each one. Then he felt the eyes on him, measuring, evaluating, judging.

“It’s my land. I can do with it what I want.”

“As long as your aunt is alive it is. But the buffalo don’t know anything about property ownership nor what it is to feel sorry for yourself, if that’s what this is. All the buffalo know is that this is the way they go when they need to cut through the Gap into the Great Plains. If they come now, they’ll leave a trail of blood a mile wide. Might as well be Bill Cody with a Gatling gun for all the good you’d do them. I doubt if any of the beasts would survive.”

Dave closed his eyes as he heard the words again. Paha Sapa.

“A little overdramatic, aren’t we, Lamont?”

Dave felt the heat of the ranger’s stare. He ignored it as best he could and stared at a yard full of happy boys, playing with a Golden Retriever beneath an azure sky. They could have been his kids. His dog. But the bloody mark beneath the calendar’s picture was an indelible notation that this would never happen. Fucking Hallmark and their ever-loving happiness.

Lamont finally spoke. “You don’t want those deaths on your hands too, do you?”

And there Lamont was, now a ranger, sitting astride his ego, raining down truths like hammers unrelenting and unabashed. For a moment, Dave wondered if he was talking about the kids on the calendar, but that was just him trying to defer the moment. They both knew he was talking about his wife.

***

Hazel and Horace were actually his third cousins on his mother’s side. But because they were so much older, calling them cousin just seemed wrong, so, like his mother, Dave called Hazel “Aunt” and Horace “Uncle.” He was nine that first summer in Custer, and the ground glistened like it had rained diamonds. Mica, they’d called it. Scientists called it a philosilicate mineral—muscovite, actually. It was used in toothpaste, Geiger counters, makeup, and water filters, among other things. It came in books, thick like the bible. He sometimes sat and peeled away piece after piece, as if he were eviscerating Leviticus, until there was nothing left but a single sheet. Then he’d let the sheets catch the wind to float away like the gossamer wings of tortured fairies.

The Black Hills, or the Paha Sapa as the Lakota Sioux called them, had been Indian land for as far back as anyone could remember. But when the pioneers discovered gold, everything changed. General Custer had led the then-modern day crusade to wrest the land from the Indians. He’d been killed for his efforts, but that hadn’t stopped the irreversible flood of miners and pioneers, who set about taking what they could, killing whoever and whatever they wanted, and recreating their European heritage in microcosm wherever they settled. Part of this need was a desire to bring civilization to the savage lands. The other part was to have things recognizable when the night came and the land murmured promises of violence and retaliation. So they brought the old ways with them. Traditions practiced for a thousand years opened the doors to the secret realms, allowing legends to crawl, walk and fly through, in answer to the susurrations of terrified European immigrants in the land of buffalo, Eagle-feathered Sioux and thunderheads the size of castles. It was to these legends Dave now spoke, asking for help, asking for someone to stop his uncle from beating his aunt and touching him with long-lingering looks.

And something had come. Tentative at first, then later with fervor, lured by the mica and their inherent need to please. He privately referred to this disparate population as the Mica People. The substance transfixed them. They could at once see through the mineral and observe their own reflections. They seemed incapable of treading this strange new land without it, so he built highways for them to tread upon. He created temporary homes for them to live in, easily destroyed by the softest breath, but breathtaking in their immaculately prismed-light construction. Finally he made a cloak for himself, crafted from duct tape and mica, one that caused them to kneel and genuflect before him. He glowed in the sun like a rare diamond-made boy. He’d become King of the Black Hills. They couldn’t take the Mica with them. It was only available to them here. So as King, Dave gifted them the land and everything upon it. Free to come and go as they pleased, they brought more of their kind until there were as many of the creatures as there was Mica. They frolicked. They held court. They told him stories of the Lost Ages. Then, one morning, he’d sent them to kill his uncle.

He’d thought nothing of it.

Eventually, as tourists made souvenirs of the mica carpeting the Black Hills, their population diminished. Finally there came a day when Mica was as rare as the gold beneath the ground and he saw them no more.

Then part of him forgot about them.

For a while.

***

“I came around because I could use your help,” Lamont admitted, removing his hat.

Dave stared hard at his former friend-turned-adversary as he waited for the punch line. When it never came, he answered, “Not much help to anyone nowadays.”

“This I think you can help with. It’s about your uncle.”

Dave blinked, and with each opening and closing of his eyes, he remembered the towering man who’d so terrified him. Fear gripped him, fear he’d thought forever banished in that long hot summer of the Mica People. Fear he’d kept hidden until it had become a cancer that had eaten away everything of worth.

“Did you hear me?”

“I heard. I just never thought I’d talk about him again.” He got up and paused for a moment, then went to the mini-fridge and grabbed a pitcher of water. He poured himself a glass and drank carefully, lest his stomach discover it wasn’t wine. When he was finished, he took his time replacing the pitcher, then returned to his seat. “So what about him?”

“Remember old Mudo Jurgovich?”

“He still around?” They used to make fun of the old Russian. Last time Dave had seen him he was panning for gold in Nemo. He said as much.

“Some things never change,” Lamont admitted. “He has a placer mine this side of Hilly City. He was blasting the other day and found something. As odd as it sounds, he thinks it’s your uncle.”

Dave let a five count go before he asked, “You know what happened to my uncle, right?”

Lamont nodded. “I read the report.”

“So why would he think that it involves my uncle?”

“Money clip engraved with his name, for one.”

“Could have been someone stole it.”

“There’s more. Come on. I’ll tell you about it on the way.”

***

It had amazed Dave that his aunt wouldn’t stop crying. She missed him, the man who’d slug her as quickly as he’d look at her. Dave didn’t dare tell her what he’d done, but he couldn’t help but ask her why she was so sad. He’d thought he’d helped her.

“I loved him so much.”

“But he hit you.”

“No he didn’t. Why would you think that?”

It was obvious from her bruises. Sometimes Dave would catch his uncle staring at his aunt and he could see the guilt in his eyes.

But as he got older he learned a new truth.

One that was far different from reality.

“Maybe he’s coming back,” he’d offered, knowing the value of the empty words before he even said them.

“Do you think? It’s been three weeks.”

“Sure. He might have just needed a vacation. Something long. Something alone.” He’d said it with such authority, as if a nine-year-old was so smart. Then she’d cupped his cheek, called him a good nephew, and asked him to bring her an iced tea.

She’d stopped crying after that. Mostly. Sometimes he’d see her hunched over her flowers in the garden, her shoulders quivering as if the constant wind was able to move them as easily as it did the grass. Or late at night, coming from her room at the end of the hall, mostly muffled by the door, a sound so low that it could have been mistaken for the canned laughter of Johnny Carson if Dave hadn’t known better.

Then eventually his aunt didn’t cry about it ever again. Especially when it came out that Evelyn, her old hair dresser in Rapid City, had been seeing his uncle on the side. Sometimes they’d met in Hill City. Sometimes they rendezvoused in the alley behind the beauty parlor. While his aunt Hazel kept her head inside the dome of the dryer, Evelyn kept her head between his uncle Horace’s legs.

And with that image dialed up whenever he thought of his uncle, Dave discovered he didn’t feel so guilty about his disappearance. Especially when he discovered that the bruising hadn’t stopped. In fact, it was becoming worse.

***

“How is this possible?” Dave asked.

He stood inside a small cavern. No longer than a 1978 Chevrolet Impala and no wider than a body length, there was only a single entrance and exit to the cavern—the one created by Mudo’s blasting. The one they’d just crawled through.

“How’d it get in here?” Dave stared at the mummified body in the front seat of the perfectly preserved car. He wanted a drink.

“Damned if I know. Checked the walls. It’s solid granite all the way around. Only way in is that hole Mudo blasted following the quartz trail. But instead of gold, he found this. Ain’t that right, Mudo?”

The wizened old mountain man stepped into the lantern light. He wore a baseball cap with the word Homestake across the front, a pair of jeans so threadbare they were almost white, an American Legion t-shirt, and cowboy boots. He had a Hockey player’s nose. “I get a finder’s fee on the Impala.”

“I bet Dave would let you have it. Ain’t that right, Dave?”

“Sure. Keep it.”

“Don’t know how I’m gonna get it out of there.”

“Piece by piece, I imagine. But let us remove the body first, okay? Strange as it may seem, this is a murder scene.”

Dave ran his hand over his face. Although he didn’t know how this had happened, he had no doubt who’d done it. The Mica People. His Mica People. Personal thumb-sized ninja assassins launched to do murder by order of a nine-year-old boy.

***

“So what brought you back?” Lamont asked. He dredged a French fry through a sea of ketchup and ate it.

“Needed some time.” Dave stared at his own burger and fries. Although he was hungry, the smell of the grease from the fries and the fat from the meat curdled his stomach.

“I heard about Amy.”

Dave looked up from his food at Lamont, searching for any hidden meaning. But he didn’t see one. “They thought I did it for a while.”

There was no question who they was. “Did they have any evidence?”

“Not really. Circumstantial, they said.”

“Even the best of us can get a little too eager. That’s why I believe it’s always best to work from fact rather than opinion.”

If Lamont wanted the facts, Dave could sure provide them.

The fact was that the love of his life became the hate of his life. Somewhere between the roaring twenties when they drank and ate and fucked in every corner of America and their tired thirties, the spark that had burned so bright dimmed and finally died.

The fact was that they had an amicable divorce, mainly because he hadn’t had the energy to even lift a finger when she walked away with the house and most of the bank account.

The fact was that she’d hooked up with a twenty-five-year-old Salvadoran who’d run his Corvette into the back of a parked semi-truck doing eighty miles an hour, decapitating them and rendering their bodies all but unrecognizable.

The fact was that the police had found a tool bag in the trunk of his Caprice with wire cutters and enough evidence that it could have been argued in a court of law that he’d done something to the car.

The fact was that he’d thought about it, that he’d actually bought the parts to do it, but he’d been too lazy and too scared to actually go through with it.

The fact was that he was a nine-year-old kid stuck in a thirty-something body.

“It just didn’t work out is all.”

“You seemed to be so in love,” Lamont persisted. “God knows I did enough to try and steal her away, but she wouldn’t have it. What happened to you two?”

“She got over me.”

***

Identifying the body had taken him farther back in time than he’d ever wanted to go. But now as he stood staring at the field of broken glass, he couldn’t help but compare it to the mica that had laced the ground when he was a child. Now he could hardly find evidence of the mineral outside of a roadside shop. With it gone, so was the magic of his youth. So were the avenues for the creatures of the Old World.

He poured himself a glass of wine and realized that he’d probably been trying to recreate the mica. After all, wasn’t that the reason he’d returned to the spot of his first crime—his murder, as it turned out? Wasn’t that why he’d come back to his aunt’s old home? Although he’d been here two weeks, he’d never once set foot inside. It was just too hard.

When President Calvin Coolidge established the summer white house in South Dakota, and ultimately designated the area Custer State Park, much of it was comprised from land owned by Dave’s family. Using Eminent Domain as the reason to seize it, they allowed the family to live in the homestead for as long as his aunt lived. Upon her death, the homestead would become government-owned. That he was there was testament to her longevity. She had a room in an assisted living center in Belle Fourche. He’d visit her if he had the courage, but whenever he did she begged him for help.

“Can’t you get me one bottle? I promise they’ll never know.”

He always said no. At the age of nine he’d never known about her alcoholism. The iced teas she made were vodka-based. She’d drink them throughout the day, then switch to tomato juice and vodka after sunset. When he was younger he used to go to bed so early that he’d never seen her stumbling around her home, bouncing off things, sometimes falling to the floor. But the older he got the more he saw, until there came a time when it was indisputable that her husband had never really beaten her.

Dave emptied the wine bottle and threw it high into the air. It came back to Earth in a shattering climax. He whispered for the Mica People to come as he drank what remained in his glass. When he was fairly certain they weren’t coming, he got out of his lawn chair, got another bottle from his stash, opened it, and returned to his vigil. The sun was just beginning to set and it turned the field to a glistening orange.

After his ex-wife’s funeral, he’d sold everything, bought the RV, and driven it across America. He found himself in Napa Valley, where he bought bottle after bottle of each estate’s best wine, until his insurance money dwindled to gas money. Now armed with the best grape California had to offer, he sought to find himself, becoming more and more eager as the stack of cases shrank toward the floor.

***

Lamont found him the next morning passed out drunk in his chair, urine dripping from his shorts, the half-empty bottle of Rubicon clutched precariously in his left hand.

“You’ve got to get over it.”

Dave sat up. Even amidst his misery, he was mortified that he’d lost control of his bladder. He stood unsteadily and held out the bottle, which Lamont took from him. Then Dave stripped and staggered to the pond. The chill hit him as he entered. When he was chest deep in the water, the first sob broke free with such force he screamed. Then it took him over. When the sobs finally evolved into uncontrollable shivers, he staggered from the water and walked, dripping, into the RV. He was just slipping on his least dirty pair of jeans when Lamont entered.

“I’ve seen this brand in the store. Costs about thirty bucks a bottle,” he said, placing the wine on one of the cluttered counters.

“Try a hundred and thirty. That was their best year for Malbec.”

Lamont looked closer at the remaining cases of wine. “They all like this?”

“Some better. Some worse. But yeah.”

“Must have cost a fortune.”

“It did.”

Lamont seemed to be about to say something, then turned and headed out the door. “I’ll be waiting outside.”

Dave finished getting dressed. He took his vitamins, forced himself to eat a banana, then drank a glass of water. When that stayed down, he drank another.

He had to get his shit together. He’d come to Custer to figure things out, but he was so deep in the grape that he could barely think. Part of him wanted it that way. Thinking meant remembering, not only what he’d done, but what he’d lost. Glancing around at the calendars all marking the same day, he knew he wouldn’t have enough wine to make it there. Was that how it should be? Was he fated to embrace the end sober?

He grabbed a magazine and flipped through it. The cover had talked about celebrity divorces and, in some crazy spark of desperation, he’d thought it might have hidden some secret truth. But the tabloid’s promises were hollow, providing nothing more than a gallery of unhappy millionaires whose empty misery would be too soon replaced by lust and greed and envy—Hollywooderati playing hide the salami as therapy for a life too well lived.

He threw the magazine across the cabin. It landed face down on the floor, the pages splayed like the wings of a bird about to spring back.

He combed his blond hair with his fingers. Rubbing his hands over his face, he felt two days’ growth. He could take the time to cut it, or he could let it grow another day or two. He decided to let it grow.

He found Lamont waiting for him outside.

“What is it? Why don’t you leave me alone?”

“It’s Mudo. He disappeared.”

Dave couldn’t help the look of shock that played across his face. Last night he’d cursed the Paha Sapa and in a strangled diatribe had prayed that the old Russian wouldn’t find out what he’d done. In the light of day he knew that the old man never could have known about any of it, unless he could divine the idea of a child who could command a battalion of Mica creatures capable of orchestrating the disappearance—and recent reappearance—of his uncle.

“What do you know about it?”

“Nu—nothing,” Dave sputtered. He swallowed. “Are you sure he’s missing and not just laying up somewhere drunk?”

“Mudo stopped drinking ten years ago.”

“Listen, I really don’t—” Dave took a deep breath to calm himself. “Why are you coming to me with this?”

“I was hoping that you could bring me some insight. Your uncle. Mudo. Your parents.”

A hole the size of the Badlands opened in Dave’s chest. “What’s my parents got to do with anything?”

“Nothing, I’m sure. It’s just that you’re the only one I know who has known people who disappeared. I was just . . .” Lamont stared blankly at Dave for a long moment, then turned to look out over the field. “I don’t know what I wanted. Do you remember those kids that went missing when we were in junior high school?”

Dave remembered. Fourteen of them over three years. Unlike most everyone else, he hadn’t cared so much that they’d disappeared. They were the ones who’d rained down their animosity upon him. They’d made him feel low and little. They’d abused him with stories of his missing parents, pretending that they’d decided to leave their broken child whom they no longer wanted. They’d hated him and he’d hated them back. Then they were gone.

“You knew them too,” Dave said.

“What?”

“The kids who disappeared. You knew them too. You said I was the only one who knew someone who disappeared.”

“There is that,” Lamont said slowly. “Sorry to bring up your parents.” A while later, Lamont finally left him alone and drove away.

Dave had been visiting his aunt and uncle that summer because his parents had been having issues. Custer was a place where his mother had grown up, and she felt that the western hills and the Great Plains would be a blessed change for the little boy from New Jersey. They were supposed to have come for him in August, but they never made it. When Dave had turned eighteen, he’d used part of his inheritance to hire a private investigator. His parents had been traced to Nebraska. Somewhere near Chadron they’d disappeared. The authorities knew they’d made it that far because his father had gotten a speeding ticket there. But then nothing, as if a divine hand had come to pluck them from the Earth.

After that, his summer in Custer had turned into the rest of his life.

***

Dave fried some eggs and ate them between bread around noon. He cleaned up the inside of his RV and took a nap. When he awoke, the sun was beginning to descend. He was thirsty for wine, but vowed that tonight he’d pass. He decided to brew some coffee instead. It took a while to find the parts to the coffee maker. They’d been stuffed in odd places. By the time he’d assembled the machine, the inside of the RV looked like it had never been cleaned. When the aroma of the coffee filled the small space, he found himself staring in abject horror at the pot. If he was to drink that he’d stay awake all night, alone with nothing but himself and his memories. He couldn’t imagine anything worse.

He poured the coffee out the door and cracked open a bottle of 2001 Cupcake Cabernet. He filled a plastic tumbler with Jabba the Hutt painted on the side and took a small sip. Velvet cake, blackberries with a hint of cherry, and oak filled his mouth. He began to salivate as he gave in to the need. He refilled the tumbler and stepped outside. It was a clear evening. He soon added the bottle to the field of broken glass and got another.

When the moon rose an hour later, he was singing softly to himself in his chair. An hour after that, when the ground began to twinkle like a reverse Milky Way, the first of them popped into existence.

Dave went into the RV and retrieved a book of Mica he’d bought at a tourist shop. With a hopeful determination that kept his hands from shaking, he began to peel sheets free. He laid them on the ground in a path from the field of broken glass to his chair. He uncorked a bottle and drank directly from the neck.

It wasn’t long before a crack appeared in the night. Green light spilled forth and out of it dripped a jumble of Mica People. They laughed as they came, tripping happily along his highway. They came in all shapes and sizes. One-legged hoppers. Two-legged imps. Three-legged creatures that looked like tripedal centaurs. Four, five, six, and ten legs. One had over a hundred legs, each capped with alternating yellow and black shoes. Some had no legs at all as they slid and slithered across the Mica. Finally one came that was larger than all the rest. With the body of a toad and the still, perfect face of a blonde-haired Barbie doll, it hopped straight along, stopping right in front of him. A green velvet tongue dashed out to snag a mosquito, then rolled back into its mouth. It gathered itself up, and as it stared at him, Dave experienced a torrent of knowledge that suffused him. So much of what he’d done that summer had been forgotten, or hidden behind other memories. Now, with the little figure standing imperiously before him, it all came back in a sweeping remembrance.

He’d called them forth.

He’d named himself kin.

They’d done his bidding.

How could he now communicate to them that he’d been wrong?

He was jerked back to when he was nine. Lilliputian laughter filled the night air as a hundred Black Hills Micanese landed on his Mica-studded cloak. They laughed with him, the sound of their hilarity like tiny bells. He’d taught them the sign for good, just as he’d taught them the other that took only a single middle finger to convey.

What had he done? How could he have been so wrong? Now, with the Barbie-headed toad queen standing before him, a feeling of titanic dismay exploded from his soul. He shot to his feet and howled, only falling to his knees when he could howl no more.

The realization of it all. His uncle. His parents. The fourteen kids. A mailman. The cashier at the grocery store. Now Mudo.

He was not a murderer. He refused to be called such. Had he benefited from the deaths? Yes. But he wasn’t a murderer . . . he wasn’t even an accomplice.

He raised his head and beheld the Barbie Toad. He felt his hand tighten around the neck of the bottle. It burped and the Micanese cheered. The sound triggered him. He brought the bottle around in a mad arc, crashing it into the Barbie-toad’s head. It exploded into dust like a mushroom puff and the body slumped to one side. Dave felt a surge of joy and swung at those nearest him. They didn’t even try to move. He swung and swung, bashing, crushing, bludgeoning and smashing his way through the Mica People. Heads and bodies exploded as if they were made of puff balls, until all that was left was air glistening like it was loaded with dandelion cotton.

When he was done, he slumped to his knees. He’d ultimately done it for Cranston. Just as he’d known that the Paha Sapa had killed everyone that had ever stood in his way, he knew that the ranger would be next. The murders of the Mica People seemed small compared to that of a real human. These beings with whom he’d played with as a child had become ritual murderers, serial killer ombudsmen. No, he corrected himself. Not become. They had been all along.

He staggered to his feet and ran back to the RV. He tore off his clothes. He pulled the remaining boxes of wine out the door and threw them to the earth. Some broke, but he didn’t care. He shrugged off his clothes and began to break open the bottles, slamming the neck against the metal stair of the RV. As he broke them open, he poured them over himself. It was a heady baptism and he wailed like a child. When he had but a few bottles left, he drank it down in deep heaving gulps. Glass cracked between his teeth as the red grape waterfalled out the sides of his mouth. When he was done, he threw the bottles into the field, adding their substance to the melancholy he’d been seeding.

He needed peace. He’d come here not knowing exactly what he needed, but now he knew. Somewhere inside he’d always known—some spark of intellectual honesty which had tracked the actions and reactions and the events that had transpired to place him at this galactic juncture.

He downed one more bottle, alternately sobbing and laughing as the wine fell from his lips, down his naked body. He hurled this bottle after the others. Finally ready, he fell to his knees and prostrated himself. He began to recite everyone’s names and crawl. He could feel the glass digging first into his naked torso, then his groin, then his legs. The pain was immediate and exquisite. He crawled as fast as he could, continuing the litany of his dead. If the list finished, he’d start over. When he reached the middle of the field he stopped. He could go no more.

The pain, which had at first been overwhelming, had become an all-encompassing ache. He closed his eyes and sucked air. When he reopened them, sparks flew in his vision. He shook his head. Most of the sparks went away, but one remained. It dove and swooped, finally landing on a lone piece of mica.

It took shape quickly, reforming into something he hadn’t seen for decades. No taller than his thumb, it had the head of an ass, the ears of a bat, and the body of a three-inch tall man.

“Make me like you,” Dave whispered.

Slender and muscular, it held out a hand and touched Dave in the center of his forehead.

And his eyes snapped shut.

The next thing he knew he was free from his body looking down.

The ground rumbled, then rose, forming the shape of a massive animal. The new beast shook itself, flinging dirt and grass free until the sandpaper skin and wooly hair of the buffalo was revealed. Dave felt it all—the flash and bang of creation, the coming together of parts, and the instant evolution of dirt to flesh. Then, like a divine arrow, he shot into the center of the great beast, for he had become it, and it him, and both of them one.

A single moment of joy surged through the beast as it remembered its humanity. It felt the power of its new body and knew that the connection of beast and land and soul were far greater than anything man could define. Then the flash was gone, leaving him all beast. It snorted as the wheat tops tickled its nose then shuffled away, searching for a place where the sun beat down, the grass was greener, and the wind blew forever.

***

Days, weeks, or months later, unknown because the buffalo measures time by the passing of the seasons, it has become part of a herd. It grazes the plains east of the Paha Sapa where the marigolds are the sweetest, adding a special tang to the constant diet of rye.

They’ve moved farther and farther away from the Black Hills as the weather warms. But the sun is no longer so high and bright in the sky. The heat is lessening. It feels the draw to return. Looking back at the dark hills, the beast feels as if they know they are its master.

It bends its head to take another mouthful and feels no more.

The Earth doesn’t even tremble as it roughly falls.

The herd doesn’t understand what has happened until the sound of the shot reaches them. And then they know. The sound is a promise of the end. They’d heard it before. They’ll hear it again. Over and over until the last one would hear it not at all.

The wind tugs the soul free from the dead buffalo. It slips reluctantly away and becomes one with the wind. It is a forever murmur, the sound beneath the breeze, one that carries with it the guilt of man and the importance of the beast. It is the gravitas of the universe.

And Cranston, walking slowly forward with his rifle, hears a whisper on the edge of the wind—Paha Sapa. He pauses a moment, cranes his head to hear if there will be anything else. When the wind moves on, so does he, slowly ambling toward the universe he just destroyed

© 2013 Weston Ochse.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Weston Ochse

Weston OcheseWeston Ochse is the Bram Stoker-winning author of Scarecrow Gods. His most recent novel, SEAL Team 666 was called ‘required reading’ by the NY Post and USA Today. SEAL Team 666: Age of Blood is coming from St. Martin’s Press in the fall of 2013. His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and been featured in journals, magazines and anthologies, such as The Tampa Literary Review and Cemetery Dance Magazine. Weston was born just south of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and just west of the Black Hills. He currently lives in the Sonoran Desert where he keeps company with three Great Danes and his wife, and fellow author, Yvonne Navarro.