Mule and Eel

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: November 14, 2017

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Submitted: November 14, 2017

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Mule and Eel

 

Two things happened that afternoon at the farm.

First, the twins decided they had to kill someone.

Second, but before that, Uncle Temp Toomie swore everlasting vengeance on the Morrisons.

The Farm Families were…uneasy. The Harvest Dinner, plus the weird dream, complicated everything. If Uncle Temp had ever heard about the word vendetta, he would have appreciated it very much, all blood and poison for generations. And the Harvest Dinner was just in time for a bloodfeud.

Mule and Eel knew about the dream – Uncle Toomie’s dream about his failing crops. That itself wasn’t such a thing. Crops failed sometimes. You pulled them up and dealt with it, all the Families knew that. It was tough. No one was gonna look twice if you broke down crying or drank a firkin of sherry or banged your head against the lucky head-banging oak by the Cormon’s house. But you didn’t go around blaming other people.

Until, that is, Uncle Toomie had his dream that the Morrisons were going out at night and casting magics on his fields to make them turn to gray waste. Nevermind that everyone knew the Morrisons couldn’t cast magic to save their right hands. Toomie had dreamed it, so it was true, and he was not the sort of man to listen to other people about that. In his mind (and so the minds of younger Toomies) the Morrisons had stolen from him, plain and field. It didn’t help that he had done walk-around at harvest and found the place where Papa Toomie had been quietly dumping old scrap waste over the fence for years now. A lot of shouting had followed.

The Morrison’s house – and so the twins’ attic – was well-centered by the Main Road, just up their three fields by the narrow trail, set on an open hillock. It was a “walk” from the Cormons and a “long walk” from the Toomies and “a bit of a step” from the Grants. The Families believed that long distances made good neighbors.

The twins sat on their attic beds, crossways, aligned. They already knew the problem. You didn’t go after someone’s crops. It didn’t matter if the dream was just a dream. You didn’t do it. That got everyone hot-blooded, and the twins knew blood was only briefly hot, once on the outside.

 “It will all be fine,” Mother Morrison had said. “None of the Families have killed each other in years. Oh, months then. But don’t you worry.”

“The Harvest Dinner is a good tradition,” Papa had said. Leaving a few things unsaid in the dark corners of his eyes.

“Silly, no one in the Families wants to hurt each other,” their older sister had said, before she vanished down the road to a barn dance.

The twins knew everyone was wrong.  The Families had always been good at hurting each other. Sometimes badly. Plus, they were falling on hard times. No one needed a war, but like drought and storms, some things came together. And now Uncle Temp wanted to start a fight over the harvest, over his due. Of course it was going to happen. Maybe it would even keep happening. So, as the bedroom krickled with old sitting-straw, the twins wondered: How do you stop it?

“Welp, he could die first,” one of them said aloud. That was their first idea.

Killing him seemed sweet and simple. Uncle Toomie had never paid much attention to any Morrison kids anyhow. If he died, the whole thing died with him. That was just smart, wasn’t it? After kicking at the cot legs for a minute, they couldn’t come up with any second idea, so they decided on that one.

The problem was, they couldn’t agree on a plan.

~~~

Up above Mule and Eel’s attic, a nest of goldfinches warbled. The birds had been rebuilding the nest all summer, even after the twins got bored throwing sticks at it. They must have been jealous of the hungry crows in the fields – where the boys had orders to pluck weeds and chase seed-eaters – who had kept their nests whole all season. Unsurprisingly, the boys decided to skip work today. There was always something more important.

Back and forth, the twins stared. They were two flame-headed tallow candles, perched each on a straw-shaped bed.

“Okay,” Mule leaned forward with reedy elbows. “…How do you kill someone?”

“Uh. Jus’ kill ‘em, I guess,” Eel was drawing on the boards with a nest-stick. “I mean, don’t people do it all’a time?”

Mule was named Samuel, but with his brother that hadn’t lasted long. Eel was sort of called Nathaniel, so that had been easy. Both had shaggy red hair sketching their ears, and sharp faces like looking in mirrors. The Families confused them at least every other day.

“We could ask Great Crazy Super Old Aunt Lydia,” Mule said.

“Don’t be stupid, she and Uncle Temp are related. We’re gonna ask Jimmy!” Eel said. Mule made a face, and Eel punched him, at brother-strength. They rolled across the floor for a moment before Mule growled back,

“Jimmy’s dumb as a rock! She knows how it’s done, anyhow.”

And that was hard to argue with.

~~~

“…Hello?” called the twins, from a very safe distance.

No one approached the Wood House too fast. You were never sure what you’d find. Of course, everyone’s house was made of wood (“’Cept that one summer old Grandmammy Cormon tried to live in a cave,” mentioned Eel), but the Wood House was somehow much more so. Mossy timber rose up and out of the loam, into walls and eaves and the saggly roof, until it was very less timber and mostly the moss. Odd little sprouts and berms grew out of it, and gathered in growth like the strange tales of the Toomies.

They said Aunt Lydia was a child of reeds and pools – that the Toomies had found her floating in a wet spring pond, stuck in the cattails, born from the wet soil itself. No one really knew what to do with that tale, because the Toomies in themselves were an odd tale. They called themselves miners but with so little to mine in the Oklahoma groves, they mostly snuck in the hills, digging small quarries and building charcoal-cookers to make a little money. Believing in dreams all the while.

People whispered that old reedy Lydia had left her first husband down in the dug-out pantry when he…died. No parting with him. Lying out in his smell and his worms until he rotted into small mushrooms, with which Lydia took to making strange teas. The stories said his body was still there somewhere, and on the occasion that old Aunty Lydia offered anyone her “sun tea” children tended to vanish.

They found her quickly. Great Crazy Super Old Aunt Lydia was sweeping spiders from leafy eaves outside, waving a tangled broom that nearly matched her hair. Seeing them, she stopped in mid curse and pulled herself down in a hurry.

“Oh, children,” she said, in that tone of people who didn’t talk to children – despite having six grandkiddies herself. “What are you doing out here so far? Come in, have some tea, why not?”

No, thank you, Aunty,” the brothers said, at high speed and in one voice.

It was strange, then, that shortly later both Mule and Eel found themselves across a wobbly pine-hewn table drinking cups of tea that tasted like fiery mold. After a push-pull of eyes, Eel said,

“Great..Auntie Lydia, we wanna to kill somebody. Can you help us?”

“We thought maybe…doing poison or something,” Mule added, dumping the tea softly into the floorboards between his knees.

GCSOA Lydia blinked at them. “Ah, lovelies,” she said, reaching to try and take their (vanishing) hands. “Are you scared of the Harvest Dinner? Little sprouts, someone always wants to kill someone else at Dinner. But mostly no one ever needs to. We all just eat and drink and live with each other.”

The brothers nodded, still entirely unconvinced. All around them odd-end bottles peeked from the slatted shelves, grimy, glinting, and filled with floating things that almost – but not entirely – looked like potatos and beets. A musty smell rose from the bumpy floorboards, and it wasn’t entirely tea. Mule and Eel had a very rapid conversation in their silent tongue, then moved.

Crack.

“Oops!”

They stared at Mule’s broken mug on the floor.

“Well, better be goin’!” Eel said loudly. They kicked back their chairs at the same time.

~~~

“Okay, what did you – “

“I got this,” Eel unwrapped his hands. “It’s gotta be poison.”

He held aloft an algaed jar filled with…shapes. Mule stared at it, then pushed Eel down into the thick forest needles.

“That’s not poison, dummy! That’s….potatos and beets.”

“They look weird! They’re poison, too!”

The two brothers tried to push each other, carefully, without breaking the jar.

“It’s not!”

“Is too!”

“Is not!”

“Let’s go! My turn!”

“Fine! But I keep the jar!”

~~~

Jimmy Cormon wasn’t a friend. At all. They just got roped into digging and repairing gates and feeding pigs. They just sort of did things together.

Jimmy was a pale, sniffing boy with a mound of sloshy, paler hair. They met on a deep slosh of leaves by the main Farms road, where pine turned into beech – and where Jimmy climbed out of the ditch with loam on his boots. He glanced at the brothers, then stared at the jar Eel was hiding behind his leg.

“What’s in the jar?” he asked, because Jimmy wasn’t totally dumb in the head.

“Poison,” said Mule.

Maybe,” said Eel.

“Looks like rottin vejatibbles,” decided Jimmy, scratching his scalp. “Why?”

The brothers shifted, crackling leaves. They hemmed and ummed.  We wanna stop Uncle Toomie from being stupid, they said, more or less. We want you to help. You know, with your stuff, they added. The magic sign stuff.

People didn’t talk about the Cormons. But when they did, they talked about how the Family was…strange. The old story went that Great Grandfather Cormon was descended from black bears, or had at least married one (“filching the bear” was still an expression for a Cormon doing something stupid, and was said regularly). They lived rougher and wilder lives. They seeped out into the forest at odd hours and tended a clan of dogs using dark words. They talked to orchards and sowed crops at odd times – crops that bloomed in a fortnight. Their eyes lit up on certain twilights. They said.

The twins blinked at Jimmy. Jimmy blinked back with sticky eyelids.

“You mean, like letters?” he asked. “Sure. Ayah, Beyah, Seeya – “

“No!” Eel gripped his shoulders and squeezed. “The real magic. You know, the thing you can use to…make things happen.”

Jimmy shrugged him off into a sappy sapling. The Cormons were always stronger than you thought. “Oh,” he sniffed, unconcerned. “You mean the Old Craft. Nah, that’s no good. You need blood n’ things if you wanna really kill someone.”

“Blood?” said Mule.

“Things?” said Eel.

The three boys sniffed at each other a minute. They all tried making sure everyone was serious. That took some staring. Then, suddenly, Jimmy turned and slid down the dirty leaves back into the ditch. His spotted pants turned a solid brown.

“First I gotta feed the dogs ‘case they get hungry,” he called back.

The twins lingered up top as long as they could. “Filching a bear,” muttered Mule, to no one much. Then they jumped down.

~~~

The three trailed back to the Cormon house, winding a path between interesting sticks. They swatted at the few falling beech leaves, occasionally hitting each other.

“So, you need to kill someone, to kill someone?” Mule checked, just to be sure. It sounded about right, as far as he knew. But Eel had got a good swat at his head, and he was feeling miffed.

“Yeah, gotta do the whole thing. Like with a newborn baby or summin’. An’a right signs and words and whatnot. That’s the Old Craft. It jus’ ain’t always easy.”

The twins twirled their sticks in unison, carefully avoiding each other.

“And…you know all the right ways?” Mule asked.

Jimmy drew his arm across his face, and looked at the streaks of dirt that came up all over. “Sure,” he said.

They parted with the grove and drew close to the Cormon’s, which was huge, but only because it was also two barns sort of slapped together with old thatch and new nails. It didn’t have many rooms but a lot of lofts, which the twins had seen Jimmy leap effortlessly between like a squirrel. All of it smelled like dog. Not just the kennel (a Cormon dog was worth something in mid-country), but the whole home, like it got into the straw and dirt.

“Okay,” Jimmy sniffed. “Got the bucket.” He lifted the slop-crusted pail. “…What were we doin’?”

“Does it have to be a baby?” asked Eel. “Cuz we don’t know any babies.”

“’Cept for the girl’s from Tellock Farm, but nobody is talking about that,” added Mule.

“An’ babies is really noisy,” Eel also added.

They all nodded. After kicking the bucket around a bit, one of them – and they never could agree on who it was – wondered, “What about a chicken? We got lotsa chickens. And they’re easy to catch.”

“So are babies,” someone pointed out.

“Blood is the ‘portant thing,” said Jimmy.

Someone else shook the bucket off his toe. “Jimmy’s got the bloody words, okay. So where can we kill a chicken where no one’d look.?”

~~~

The Grant girls stood in their own attic bedroom, and hissed.

People…liked the Grants. They talked very politely about how much they liked the Grant. There were three things everyone knew.

  1. The Grants were book learned. Not just the old crop books, but real books with the long words all lined out over and over.
  2. Their house was white. Not just limed up with whitewash, but a steadily painted white with trim and everything. The Families had started calling it “The Church” for the way it sat there by the road so proud. It was a good place to hide chickens.
  3. The Grants had seen motorcars. Not just the old haulers, but real cars up in the city. They were the only family that had really been up to the “streets and buildin’s” for years. Their stories of the city quickly became old-sheened and common. Underneath was a veiled barb – the Grants had somehow come back a bit…different. The Grants accounted. The Grants went to the schoolhouse all the time.

These were some of the reasons it was so easy for Patsy and Petty to stare down the three boys – boys who were holding a very bloody and somewhat dislocated chicken – which had scattered crimson wet all on their bluebottle dresses. In their almost-tidy attic room, with real cots and real sheets now not entirely clean, things didn’t just get spilled around. (Patricia and Petunia)

Both girls loomed, arms akimbo. The boys carefully ignored this, except for Eel, who even more carefully said, “Thank you for lettin’ us, intol your rooms,” as if it was a magic phrase.

“We’re gonna tell daddy,” Patty said.

“He’s gonna kick you and tan your ass,” said Patsy, who wasn’t afraid of strong language.

Uggghhh,” groaned Mule, another magic phrase. “Look, we’re gonna make sure Uncle Toomie doesn’t kill anyone at the Harvest Dinner, so we’re gonna kills him first, it’s all hunky-dory.”

The sisters exchanged glances, somewhere beyond the world of disgust.

“And you’re doing that with….that?” Patsy looked at the mostly-chicken again.

The boys were busy fighting over the chalk, the chicken, and the chance to scrawl marks onto the bare floor, which was interesting because all of them had slick-blood fingers. It was a little while before they could answer.

“We’re usin’ the Old Craft to make him keel over,” confided Jimmy, who once again wiped his nose, and somehow made things even worse there. “ – But with a chicken!”

The three angled their heads hopefully at the scrawl-covered boards. “Looks kinda like map sign,” murmured Mule.

“Yeah, but it’s, you know, real old map sign,” said Jimmy.

“Huh. So, what’s next?”

“I don’t – you know, kill the chicken and call Uncle Toomie’s name out, like he’s suppos’ to die.”

“Okay. The first part’s kinda done,” announced Eel.

“OhhhHHO Uncle Toomie!” said Mule immediately.

There was a hurried, squeezing, spattering sound from Eel’s direction.

“No, like his real name.”

“The whole thing?”

“Ohhhh Uncle Temp!”

“Temp TOOOMIE!”

“His full name, duh!”

 “AHHHH TEMPERANCE!”

“Temperance Toooooooomie!”

“ - Uncle, tooooooo!”

“You are going to clean this up?” Petty said, in the right mother-tone to make the boys wince and remember they weren’t alone.

“It isn’t that bad,” muttered Jimmy. The other boys skittered slightly away.

“We’ll….clean it…up?” Mule offered, apprehensive. For the first time, they started noticing how very tidy the rest of the room looked. There were dolls in the corner, piled up in a careful watching tower. The beds looked frilly at the edges. It was weird in there.

 “ Wait, is this because of that stupid dream the Toomies had about you killing his crops?” asked Patsy.

“Because everyone knows that’s just a story,” Petty sniffed.

Eel eyed them. “The Toomies don’t,” he said. “We ain’t sure, neither.”

“Yeah, cuz you’re all crazy!” countered Patsy.

The boys considered this, briefly.

“Ayyyyyyohoooo!” came a voice rising across the vast downstairs distance. “YOU GIRLS FINISH UP AND COME THERE HERE TO HELP WITH THE PLATES!” It had the real mother tones in it. The girls flinched, and looked down at their matching dresses, which were slightly less matching now. They sighed, together.

“…You are going to clean this up,” Petty repeated, in a different tone. The Grants could look mad.

“Oh, yep!” Jimmy exclaimed certainly, and everyone nodded. Parts of the chicken dripped.

The girls were already tiptoeing downstairs. “You know we need a better story for our dresses,” Petty was saying. It was if the boys no longer existed. Everyone seemed happy about that.

Mule glanced over at the dolls, and coughed loudly. “Jim…is it a’nuff?”

“Well….” Jimmy looked down. “Prolly shoulda done it’n grave soil at a new moon, but it’ll do it, I bet.”

“’K.” said Eel, and nudged the mess on the floor. “We gonna go? We don’t show up for Dinner, Dad will tan our hides. Plus the other thing...”

“Yup.”

Almost absently, the boys began scraping their shoes clean against the sharper parts of the attic floor.

“Can’t go back down. Hey, anyone else know how to climb out the window?” asked Jimmy, in another rare moment of sense.

“Yeah,” murmured Eel, “Blanky Toomie taught us, jus’ in case, he said.”

“Good.”

~~~

It was shortly after the short Harvest Dinner. Cicadas were asleep for the fall and no one was letting the twins near the tables, so it was dead quiet besides the rustling grass, shuffling feet, and puffing breath of Father Morrison. Well, and the occasional retching.

“Do you….have ANY idea what you’ve done here?” he growled. A leather strap gleamed in his eyes.

~~~

Uncle Toomie had stood up and kicked back his chair five minutes into the Dinner, before everyone had even finished off their opening toast (Morrison’s good beer, usually one randomly picked barrel). His face was fire red.

Five tables had been set up on the scythed alfalfa green. Every seat fell mostly silent. The steaming corn and stews clinked softly on their platters. The Families were used to fights breaking out after everyone was drunk in the evening. But they didn’t have any experience with people fighting sober.

Someone might get killed.

Toomie’s sons hadn’t even bothered to sit down. They just stood on either side of their father, bristled, flushed. One held a shovel and one held a pickaxe, which of course could be used for digging (say treasure), but also for cracking hard objects. Uncle Toomie himself rose with only clenched hands – and a thick throat-cutter knife on his belt (although fair enough, that was always there). The handle clinked on the oak edge as he stood, heaving up: Toomie was a large man, in all direction, so when he brushed the platter-weighed table, it shuddered.

“It ‘pears SOMEONE been cursin’ my PROPERTY!” he said, suddenly. Some of the women jumped - it was before dinner prayers, after all. Everyone was shocked.

“Bahhh, it w’a dream Toomie, le’t die,” someone mumbled, apparently halfway through a blasphemous mouth of stew. Toomie swiveled, but it has been a small, old voice, and there were many small, older Family members who were ignoring him entirely. He turned a brighter shade of red.

On the other side of the field, the Morrisons were gathering out of their seats, and while they were a lean, long-armed people, they did not look less dangerous than Toomie and his sons. Except for two small, grubby figures, who were currently holding very tight to their chairs.

~~~

“And you lot tried to play – what, A JOKE!” Papa Morrison was yelling. Many of the Familymembers had disappeared to their own thresholds by now. Shards of chinaware glinted across the lawn.  

“Nuh-uh!” Eel spoke up. “We was – ow!”

Mule had kicked him in the leg, a wink-short shot.

Behind the sons and father, Father Cormon wandered, dragging Jimmy absently behind him. A dog collar danged from his other hand. “This was one was in on it, too,” he said, ringing Jimmy around and dropping him beside the boys with a thud. The boys glared. The Cormons weren’t nearly as sick as the other Families, even after the toast.

“You sure on that?” Morrison glanced up.

“Oh, yup,” Cormon said, without breaking his stride, heading toward the nearest treeline.

“Shut up,” muttered Mule.

“I didn’t say nothin’,” said Jimmy.

“Shut up,” muttered Eel.

~~~

It wasn’t the…potatoes….in the beer, exactly. It also wasn’t the chickens, exactly. Although the chickens did run through first, as well as they could. It had taken the twins several efforts to catch and sacrifice a chicken, and it hadn’t always been in that order.

Of course, bloody scared chickens were just the first thing. The second thing, well, that was all the dogs that Jimmy had forgotten to pen up or feed. It didn’t taken them long to realize there were disheveled chickens around. The Families probably could have rounded them up before much trouble, but that was around the time the jarred…vegetables…kicked in from the toast, so most people weren’t well prepared. After that, well.

Chickens, it turned out, ignored the dinner decorum entirely. They fluttered under legs, on top of plates, and over laps in equal disarray, making that one noise that always makes people say, “Chickens can sound like that?”

The Cormon hounds followed each chicken precisely, except they were a lot heavier and filled with teeth. By the time they got done with tables, platters, and laps, there wasn’t much left.

~~~

Papa Morrison had crossed his arms, a really bad sign. All beside his feet were dracks and dribbles of stew, bits of roast fowl (not much of this had survive the dogs), and the puddles he had managed to dodge. A few steps away, one of the overturned tables lay legs up, forlorn and slightly gnawed. In the distance – between the puking noises – you could still hear the wailing of Petty and Patsy, who were milking the chaos for everything they could get their hands on.

Mule, Eel, and Jimmy shuffled their feet. A rapid consideration of excuses passed between their glances. Blood and grime rimed their clothes, and not in the usual amount. This was a tricky one.

“Well, father…” Mule began.

“ – We were settin’ the chickens ready for dinner,” Eel said.

“Well, we wanted to. An’ then….”

They looked up, innocently, with cornflower blue eyes.


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