The children stumbled in from the west, through the rough sedges by the wild corn where the dogs are not allowed to wander after dark, their faces streaked with sweatdirt and fieldcake; black and brown topsoil across their bodies. The tallest boy carried the smaller, his brother we supposed, and he said not a word, both of their mouths were slack Os. The taller, looked vacant, broken. He had already uttered his first word before I reached the village square.
“Black smoke.” That’s what the elders claim he spoke, and after what happened later who is to say otherwise?
Old Hafner had last worked the west woods as the logging companies called for more swamp oak, the dense wood in dire need in those days. He had been speaking in his booming low carry when I slipped the back of the elders and worked my way through the crooks and nooks of elbows and hips to the edge of the circle of village folk who stood around the boys.
“The wood that burns black is half a day away, if the boys were there it is likely they have been gone from their home for days.”
The old maid called Mary Mary put her black finger to her lips and hushed. “Don’t say any more. You have brought bad luck already.”
Someone shouted for the Doctor.
“The wood that burns black….”
“Hush Haffy,” Old Gilly said, her cane bowing from her weight.
Mary Mary had her potion and offered it, kneeling to pour a dribble into the mouth of the oldest boy, no more than sixteen, the other a child of perhaps twelve. The older one had passed out, the younger appeared to be dead, or close to it. The sweet liquor had been known to revive many a sick man, but the children gave no response.
“I do not recognize them.” Hafner gruffed. “They are from the west edge, I think.”
“Hush, Hafner. They look like Kellams, the high cheek bones. Like Libby’s children.” Vic squinted, pushed her glasses back up on her narrow face.
“Libby’s children are in the east fields, with Spicer’s boys and girls, all of them. Gathering flowers and roots.”
Someone pushed against me. “I don’t recognize them.”
“They’re from Barkstown then!” Old Nell shouted, dark as a berry and wrinkled.
“No, Nell. I don’t think so.”
Of their clothes? Who is to say? So ripped were the shirts, and so torn the pants, and so filthy were they, the boys could have been princes or paupers. They were barefoot, though, and too dirty to ascertain if they were callused like a poor field child, or soft like a merchant’s boy. They did look as if they could have come from around the village environs. But who’s to say? No one could agree.
The doctor came half-running, his shoulders and arms puffed out, his hands full of leather bags and cases. His dirty suit already ringed with sweat from the morning’s heat.
“Move away, move away.” His funny moustache was bushy with humidity. The crowd scampered back, and I moved behind Old Gilly’s broad and wide body. Mary Mary was the last to break away, laying the youngest child flat on his back, her potion a fresh glaze on the children’s lips.
“Shock, I think, good sir.” Hafner said. He always wanted the first word. Everyone knew it. “Exposure. Dehydration. Likely haven’t eaten.”
“Yes, yes.” The doctor’s voice had a way of starting high and growing deeper and lower the longer he spoke. “We shall see. We shall see.” The older boy he checked first. He mumbled and murmured. “What else?” The doctor asked.
“They said they came…”
“Don’t say it Haffy!” Gilly cried.
“Likely to be from near where the wood…”
“I can say what I want!” The crowd bickered, from behind me someone threatened to shut Hafner up for good.
Then the doc gasped suddenly. He yanked his hands back away from the children as if he had been bitten. His eyes popped behind his glasses.
A stuffy silence gripped our throats. The sun beat down hot.
I could barely see them, pale white things on the ground, and the crowd pushed forward, and I leaned in as well, pushing against Old Gilly’s softness. We wanted to see what the doctor had seen.
The doctor’s face steeled, locked up, as if he summoned all of his strength and courage. He reached for the small boy’s throat and held it tight.
We gasped and leaned further in, as crowd’s are apt to do.
The boy stiffened at the doctor’s grip, but made no sound, and then the doctor used his free hand to pry open the boy’s mouth.
The doctor screwed his face back, twisting his head and bring his shoulder up to shield his nose.
His eyes sharpened and he stuck his fingers into the boy’s mouth and began to pull.
In the heated silence, our pressed bodies began to stink.
From the older boy, a low whine, air thrusting through his windpipe and then out of his clenched teeth.
But from the smaller boy, the boy that had been a brother…the black end of what the doc held began to stretch.
We gasped together, and held our breath. Old Gilly in front of me tensed up so hard it was as if I pressed against a large field boulder.
Air panged with copper. The smack of death rot on the air.
What the doctor tried to remove from the boy’s mouth had swelled up in the boy’s throat. It bulged and pressed against the throat walls, the end in the doctor’s hand, as big and round as as young man’s wrist.
It was then the older one started to jerk his head. He mumbled some awful scream that came out in spastic jerks, as if his throat would half close, or his lungs would choke mid note. His eyes fluttered like there was something wrong with his brain; gooseflesh crawled up my spine, and up the stone wall of Old Gilly’s leg.
The crowd began to back away, murmuring, humming with nerves.
The doctor continued to pull the black and grey thing out of the younger boy’s mouth.
It looked like a river eel, but it was no eel, nor was it a tapeworm like Hafner’s cows got sometimes when the drought forced the animals to drink staid water. I have had those monsters in my own belly, and this was different, bigger, thicker, and slithering; alive in the boy’s throat.
And then the rotting smell hit the crowd and the stink reeled the village folk back and away.
“The black!” Mary Mary hissed. She crossed herself and waved the eye at it. She spat and was the first to run off, her head forward and shoulders direct, her old legs deliberate and quick.
The smell, like scorched wood, burnt hair and fur floated out around us.
It took a second for the rest of the crowd in the square to react to Mary Mary, but when they did it was as if a curtain string pulled, for the farmers, and the merchants began to pull away on both sides, as the smell pushed its evil tattoo through. Skinny Mel became a black blur as he rushed back towards his home. Old Lewis and his husband, Isaac, moved away together, grasping hands in fear, before finally turning to run. I, too felt the push to run and hide in the straw bales at the edgewater farm. But I didn’t. Old Gilly knocked me back into the dirt and I laid there as I had done so many nights before. Only this time it was stench of the black smoke that made me ill in the street. As it grew stronger, and as the older boy’s seizures became more furious, I began to vomit, strong forceful wretches, emptying my body of nutrients.
At the corners of my eyes, other men and women grew sick as they ran, cupping their hands around their mouths, but the square emptied all the same. Save for me and the doc. My eyes bulged in my head, aching from the wretches that mossed the inside of my mouth with bile.
The doctor still pulled on the black and grey thing, over two feet of it now. It formed a U from where it hung down between the doc’s hands and the boys mouth. He did not pay attention to the older boy jerking to the side. His eyes steeled, his hands steady as it removed the black and grey mass. He focused all of his good intentions on the younger, and could spare no quarter to even look at the brother jerking at his side.
But I did, steadying myself to flee. The older boy’s skin had begun to pale and ashen, his thorax bulging and popping, his stomach pushing up and pulling down, as if hooked on the inside by some great tooth.
I knew it from back when the horses broke my LuLu’s back. You never forget a sound like that.
A sharp snap from the older boy’s body. As if his chest drew him up with no help from his legs or arms.
But then his legs cracked forward, his kneecaps breaking and crushing, bulging out. A sickening sound of bone and skin rearranging. That was when the doc fell back from the younger boy. And could you blame him? His one hand still on the black and grey thing, the other on the ground catching his fall.
Something inside of me snapped too, and I woke from my shock and ran to the doc and grabbed him up by the shoulders.
He let go of the thing and turned his head up to me.
He did not recognize me, so enthralled he was by what was happening. I’m sure if he were to smell my vices he would have shooed me away, as was his want to do. But he did not. Instead I helped him up.
The older boy, stiff and alert, stood across from us, his eyes dark with knowing.
He didn’t look like a boy anymore.
His body was a steel rod, only bent forward at the knees at an angle. The strength in it radiated outward, in cold clammy waves.
It was then Doc screamed and pushed past me without a look, and left me standing, my own limbs starting to shake and tremble. And I watched the black and grey thing, some four feet in length, pulse and slither back into the young boy’s mouth, the boy’s throat growing and bulging from where the thing pushed back inside.
Then I ran, through the smell of burning hair and fur past the streets towards edgewater farm, and as I ran, the sound of panic began to thrum and drum in the houses and streets of the village. The sound of tin and metal, the sound of hurried boots, a low murmur or crying. I heard it all as the hard packed dust rose in puffs around my running feet. The first sparks of fire rainbowed over the store in the center of town. When the crops caught fire and consumed the skyline with its black teeth, there was no place to hide, and what had become of the boys had nested its fat grey and black heart.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is a member of National Book Critics Circle, and the editor for The Broadkill Review. His poems have appeared in Oxford Poetry, Grub Street, and Anderbo, among other journals. His first full length book of poems, All My Rowdy Friends, was a finalist for the 13th annual USA Book awards.