The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head

Issue #172 - Special Weird Western Issue

They’d preserved his brother’s head in grain alcohol and floated it in a dirty glass jar. Leo peered through the glass and his own face looked back at him, slack-jawed and cloudy-eyed.

“Don’t know him,” Leo said.

“He has your face,” said Colonel Klee. Rumors tilted on a daily basis as to the origins of the man’s military title. Some said he was cast out of the Army for some misdeed. Most said he invented the rank for the showman’s sound of it, the clack of hard ks in the back of the throat.

“Doesn’t mean I know him.” Leo backed off from the jar. His jaw hurt from clenching it. “Somewhere there’s probably some man looks like you, Colonel.”

The Colonel smiled and said, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

“Yeah, well, this guy’s not looking so good, himself.”

The Colonel had an easy laugh, low and kind. The sort of laugh that made people think they were his friends right off. He patted the jar with the back of his hand and his knuckles pinged off the glass and left smudges in the dust. “I like you, kid,” he said. “You’ve got nerve.”

“I don’t know about that,” Leo said. “I suppose it’s never been tested.” He didn’t think that was true—he’d been tested plenty. But it was the right thing to say.

The Colonel clapped him on the shoulder and turned to leave the tent. “Give it time. When you get to be as old as me, you’ll have been tested more than you think you can bear.”

He walked with heavy steps, pausing once in the square of light streaming in at the open tent flap.

“Some people say that thing talks at night,” he said. “Haven’t heard it, myself.”

Leo said nothing.

“Bet they’d pay a pretty sum to hear a dead man speak,” the Colonel said, and chuckled to himself. He vanished through the doorway, into the heat and the searing sunlight and the chatter of a new crowd of suckers looking for cheap entertainment. Leaving Leo alone with his brother’s head.

Leo stepped closer to the jar. Cary’s white-blond hair floated up from his skull, the tips waving slightly. It looked like strands of spiderweb, or exposed nerves.

“You still telling people things they don’t want to hear?” He tapped on the glass. As if he might rouse it to speech.

The head blinked, eyelids slipping and slow over eyes that didn’t fit right anymore. Its mouth worked, and Cary spoke. “Someone’s got to say it, if you won’t.”

Leo was welcome wherever he went. People liked talking to him. He always knew just the right thing to say.

He hadn’t worked at the medicine show very long, but he fit in there. He shilled the crowd during the shows, and he tended the mules and the horses and he liked doing it. He liked how sometimes the animals flattened their ears and snapped at him while he called them sons of bitches and the words came out of his mouth just like he’d formed them in his head.

At night he slept with a girl from Mexico who told fortunes. Her name was Sabina, and she had a little booth near the medicine wagon where she would take customer’s hands, palm up, and rattle off loud prophecies in Spanish while an old man from Kentucky pretended to interpret for her. Really he made up his own fortunes, and they got wilder and more ominous the more he tipped from his hip-flask.

Sabina spoke English fairly well, but she and Leo never used it together. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“Ciérrale que se mete el chiflón,” she said that night, when he slipped into her tent. “¿Pus ónde tabas?”

“Trabajando, mujer. Un caballo se enfermó,” he said, shucking off his boots. “Usté disculpe si la desperté.”

It still gave him a sick jump in his gut to hear the Spanish pouring from his mouth like water from a spring. He didn’t speak a lick of Spanish. He had no idea what he’d just said. But her face eased, and she shifted over to make a space for him. He understood that.

He told her: I’m sorry I was late. I was talking with my brother’s head. I put a knife in his throat six months ago because he told me something I couldn’t accept.

But what came out of his mouth was Spanish, and gentle, and made a blush spread across her face. She reached up for him, and he didn’t speak anymore.

The Colonel put Cary’s jar in a dark tent, squashed between a whale’s jawbone and a mummified cat. People paid a penny to enter the tent and see THE WORLD’S MOST DEPRAVED TREASURES—FROM ACROSS THE SEVEN SEAS! A little bit of cardstock in front of Cary’s jar billed him as head of a biblical prophet. But he did not speak to his visitors.

Leo snuck in late at night, after the showmen had gone to bed or retired with their bottles of mezcal and chosen company. Sometimes he spoke. Sometimes he just watched his brother’s head resting at the bottom of the jar.

“I’m sorry I killed you,” Leo said, though what he meant to say was I wish they’d never found you.

But for Cary, it never mattered what someone said aloud. His mouth curved into a smile and it was ghastly on that dead face. “Don’t you ever miss me?”

Leo hesitated. “Yes,” he said, and didn’t know what he’d meant to say. It had just spilled out.

“I see.” Cary’s smile faded away.

Leo turned away and busied himself with the other exhibits, turning the whale’s jawbone over in his fingers and counting the vampire’s teeth. The mummified cat was leaking sawdust all over the table.

“Do you want to know what I saw when I died?”

“No,” Leo said.

“It was dark, all over dark, and a voice was talking to me. And I couldn’t understand what it meant.” His tone full of wonder. When had Cary ever failed to know what someone meant, in their heart of hearts?

I said I didn’t want to know, Leo said. Only it came out, “Were you afraid?”

“I don’t give a shit what you want.” Cary’s dead eyes rolled in their sockets. “And I was afraid. Yes. If you even care to know.”

You’re such a goddamned woman, Leo said. But what split across the darkness of the tent was: “Of course I do. I’m your brother.”

They both stayed silent for a long while.

“I don’t know what you thought you were gonna do on your own,” Cary said eventually. “You can’t talk honestly with anyone but me.”

“Honesty never got a person anywhere.”

There were things he wouldn’t tell Cary but he thought Cary already knew. About how whenever he was alone in his tent, or with the animals, he would just talk and talk to himself to make sure he could still form words that were his own. That he wasn’t just some empty glass that filled up with whatever people wanted to hear.

“What I said before,” Cary said. “It’s still true.”

Leo whirled around and knocked the mummified cat off the table, and it landed on the floor in a plume of musty sawdust. He seized his brother’s jar with both hands and hefted him up. The weight of the jar and the head was more than he had expected.

He shook the jar twice, like he would shake someone by the shoulders. Cary’s forehead thunked off the glass.

Don’t say that to me. I don’t want to hear it. Of course, out loud he said, “You’re right. I’ll change.”

“Fuck,” Leo spat, and he slammed the jar down to the table. He thought it might break, but it didn’t. The glass was thicker than that.

Cary looked back at him, and Leo couldn’t read his expression.

Leo spun on his heel and left the tent.

On the stage, the Colonel was dazzling. The midday sun slammed down on him, limned him in white light—but he didn’t so much as blink. He turned this way and that, a brown glass bottle in his hand. “Who here has an ache that just won’t quit you? Who has a pain that troubles you day and night?”

He paused to let the crowd think. Someone shouted, “I do, Colonel.”

He nodded solemnly. “I hear you, brother. Who here isn’t troubled by an aching back or swollen joints? Isn’t that what we reap here, working ourselves to the bone at the very frontiers of decent society?”

Leo lingered on the fringes of the crowd, scanning faces. He had to be careful about who he approached. It was important to find someone who truly wanted the medicine to work. Wanted it with all their heart.

He saw a few that looked likely. A lady in the front row with a worried face. A man in the back leaning on a cane. Another man with his foot in bandages, shading his face with his hand.

Leo relaxed when he saw her—just the perfect one. She stood near the front of the crowd, but not at the very front. She had a deep, furrowed scar that ran from her jawline down her neck and disappeared into the front of her dress, and she stood off-kilter, with a hunched shoulder that spoke to an uneven gait. Even more than that, though, was the look on her face.

Like she was afraid to believe but couldn’t stop herself.

He threaded his way over to the woman, moving slowly and casually through the crowd.

“But I have here in my hands a true panacea,” the Colonel was saying. “I know because I’ve used it myself. When I was traveling overseas—”

Johnson stood there in the middle of the crowd, his hand on his hip. He was the shill. In a minute or two, the Colonel would call him up on stage as a volunteer. Johnson would tell the crowd about the crippling pain in his knee, and then the Colonel’s elixir would cure him.

Johnson did all right. Leo could do it better. But it was too hard to hold on to a target, up there on stage with the sun shining in his eyes.

“This man’s a miracle worker,” he said to the woman with the scar.

Only reluctantly did she turn her face away from the stage. “Excuse me?”

“I said, a miracle worker,” Leo said again. “I never thought I would walk straight again. I got crippled when I was just a kid.”

The woman blinked, and she looked him up and down. She snagged her lower lip in her teeth. “You seem fine to me.”

“I am now,” Leo said. He smiled and let himself relax. He’d judged her true. It would be easy.

The Colonel was motioning to Johnson to come onstage. “If you don’t believe me, how about a demonstration—”

“You really tried it?” she whispered as she turned back to the stage, watching the Colonel splash his elixir into a dosing spoon. “It works?”

“Oh, ma’am,” Leo said. “Works like a charm.”

Onstage, Johnson shook out the leg he’d been limping on. “By God!” he said. “I feel like a new man!”

The Colonel beamed, bright in the light of the sun.

On their last night in town, Leo stood at the fenceline talking to Johnson the shill when he heard the crunch of heavy footsteps behind him and saw Johnson’s face school into a pleasant smile.

“Sorry, sir, we’re closed up for the day,” Johnson said.

A hand closed on Leo’s shoulder.

“That medicine my wife bought from you folks.” A man’s low voice, the reek of liquor and sweat. “It doesn’t work, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Leo said, before he could stop himself. It was what the man wanted to hear, after all.

Before the man pulled him around, Leo had a perfect view of the way the color drained out of Johnson’s face, how his jaw dropped. You poor stupid bastard, Johnson seemed to be saying. But Leo never pretended to know or care what people really said.

Then he was whirling around through the dry night air, and the man’s fist met his cheekbone alongside his nose and he was falling, he was down on the ground staring up at the man and blood was running through his nose and into the back of his throat and behind the man’s head he could see the purple-black sky covered in stars, just completely blanketed with stars.

The man held him down and punched him again, across the jaw. A flash of light, a rush of blood in his mouth. “How can you live with yourself,” the man said. Johnson was at the man’s shoulder trying to pull him away but the man shrugged him off. “Giving people false hope like that. Watching them suffer.”

Words bubbled to Leo’s lips, but this time he held them back. He spat blood and said nothing.

“How can you live with yourself,” the man said again, and he let Johnson drag him up and away.

Leo lay back on the ground watching the sky and probing his teeth with his tongue. He hadn’t lost any. After a time, Johnson came back and stared down at him.

“You’re a goddamned fool,” he said, his voice mild. “You trying to ruin us?”

Leo tilted his head to the side and spat more blood on the ground. “I wasn’t thinking, I suppose,” he said. “It’s good we’re leaving town tomorrow.”

“You’re right there,” Johnson agreed, and he stooped down and pulled Leo to his feet. “Steady,” he said, when Leo wobbled.

“I’m all right.”

He didn’t really feel all right. He felt raw and hurt and burned-down, a fire set to embers and white ash. But no one would want to hear something like that.

He shrugged off Johnson’s offer of help and went on his own slow, careful way through the ghost territory of a caravan that was nearly packed to leave. Everything nestled in crates and tied down in wagons and covered up with canvas like a shroud, to keep off the sand and the wind and the curious eye.

Sabina was asleep when he ducked into her tent. She cracked one eye and then sprang to her feet with a cry on her lips.

“Soy yo,” he said.

She came very close and touched his face in the dark. He hissed as her fingers found a tender spot. She said, “¿Que pasó?”

“Naa, naa. Nomas una discusión que se puso juerte.”

She clucked her tongue. “Eres un menso. Siéntate.”

Her fingers on his shoulders, drawing him down to sit on the floor of her tent. He sat, and then looked straight ahead at the dark silhouette of her face, at her gentle fingers coming up to trace the corners of his mouth.

“Ni sé porque carajos sigo contigo. ¡Mijor que me encuentre machos cabrones qui mi dejen menos canas, pues!”

Her fingers were so soft on his face. He wondered what she was saying. If maybe she said that she loved him, that she forgave him for always being false with her.

So he spoke, then, and told her everything that was in his heart. About his brother and his brother’s head in the glass jar; about their strange afflictions.

And she spoke back to him. Conversation between them had always been easy. And her tone was light and she laughed and patted his cheek and he knew that whatever secrets he might confess, he said them only to himself.

Leo did not sleep. He tried, but sleep wouldn’t come. So he went back out into the night, where the moon was just coming up and he had to take a lamp to be sure of his way.

Most of the WORLD’S MOST DEPRAVED TREASURES—FROM ACROSS THE SEVEN SEAS! had been packed away in crates. Cary’s head hadn’t, though. His jar sat on top of a sealed crate, his forehead tilted at a strange angle against the glass. His eyes were open.

He smiled when he saw Leo. “Do you have something to say to me, before we move on?”

I want you to stay behind, Leo said, while his lips formed the words “I’m sorry I killed you.” That’s all Cary ever wanted to hear. I’m sorry I killed you.

“You don’t want to see me anymore. You think you’ll be able to start over fresh if I’m not around,” Cary said. “If there’s not someone constantly reminding you that everything you say is false.”

Leo said nothing. It was true; of course it was true.

“Well I don’t give a shit.” Cary’s voice sounded so strange, muffled through the alcohol and the thick glass. “I want to still be alive. Tough luck for the both of us.”

I just want to forget about it, Leo said, while aloud he said, “You are alive. Look at you.”

Cary laughed. The force of it shook his head and he flopped backwards so the back of his skull hit the glass but he didn’t stop laughing. He screwed up his eyes and his laughing was a lot like crying.

Leo tried to snap, Shut up, someone’ll hear you—but instead it was quiet and almost kind. “Are you all right?”

Cary hitched and hiccupped and finally sat still. He cracked one eye open to look at Leo. “Do you think we ever really cared about each other?”

Leo hesitated. Only Cary asked him these questions, the kind he couldn’t answer because he didn’t know the answer and he never had. So he said, What do you want me to say?, and it came out, “Of course we did.”

“I knew you would think so,” Cary said, his face canted in an ugly slantways smile.

God only knew what he’d heard. They were not the same in this—their gifts were not equal. To some the Spirit has given diverse tongues. He’d heard it once in a sermon and felt the words shiver in his ribs. And to others the interpretation of tongues. Only this was not fair, not fair, because why should one man speak and not understand his own words?

He remembered being a child with Cary, remembered being the same in everything except that he always spoke too much and Cary always listened, always knew what he’d meant no matter what he said. But he didn’t remember if they’d cared about each other. It was all overshadowed with six months ago, with the memory of Cary’s blood slipping hot over his hands.

“What did you hear?” he said. “What did I mean?”

“You don’t know your own heart?”

I do. Which sounded like, “You’ve always known it better.”

“I know,” Cary said. “You don’t even know when you’re lying.”

That’s enough, Leo said, and he grabbed Cary’s jar by the neck and tucked it under his arm.

“Where are you taking me,” Cary said, and Leo stayed quiet.

He left the camp on foot and snuffed out his lamp. He could barely see in the darkness and he kept stepping badly, ramming his toes into brush and rocks. “You’re gonna get snakebit,” Cary said, but Leo ignored him and kept walking on.

The sky was an arc of stars. Off to the west, a coyote yipped and another one answered it.

When the lights of the town and the medicine show caravan fell out of sight behind him, Leo dropped to his knees and set Cary aside. A flat spot, near a stand of palo verde. The soil was grainy and loose. He dug with his hands.

“No.” Cary bared his teeth. “You can’t do this to me.”

Leo kept digging. It didn’t need to be a very big hole. Just deep enough to keep the coyotes from bringing him up again.

“Leo,” Cary said.

Leo dug and dug and little rocks wedged up under his fingernails and he ripped his knuckles bloody and kept on digging. The knot of resolve in his gut grew thicker and heavier until he felt like he’d swallowed a stone. His brother’s voice was a dull whine at the edge of his hearing. He didn’t let himself listen.

He stopped when his fingers scraped rock, and he pulled back on his haunches to look at the hole. It was big enough. Deep enough for his arm a bit past his elbow. Not too wide, but wide enough to hold Cary’s head without the jar.

“Leo, we’re a pair,” Cary said. His voice was raw and scraping, like he’d been talking for a long time. “Truth and lies. Without me, you’re not anything.”

Just because you hear the truth doesn’t mean you have to speak it, Leo said, and his mouth said, “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t kill you again.”

It made him laugh aloud to hear it.

“You won’t do it,” Cary said fiercely. “I know you don’t want to. I hear it when you’re talking. You don’t want to do this.”

Leo took Cary’s jar and unscrewed the lid. Alcohol fumes filled his eyes and made him blink. He poured off the alcohol and then carefully tipped Cary’s head onto the ground. The faint moonlight picked up the hollows in his brother’s dead face and chased light down his white-blond hair. Leo sat back for a moment, watching him. After all, he and Cary shared the same face. Maybe he would look the same, when he died.

But Cary coughed in the cold dry air and then he didn’t look so dead anymore. A little alcohol dribbled out his mouth.

“Even if you kill me again, it’s not gonna change what you are,” he said. “I told you before. And without me, you’re never going to be able to tell.”

Cary’s voice was much clearer and sharper in the open air. He’d always had that kind of voice, the kind that sounded like the word of God made manifest. Leo picked his brother up and held him aloft. His fingers wrapped under the corners of Cary’s jaw, by the stump of his neck. He thought, Don’t say it. I don’t want to hear it again.

He remembered the feel of the knife jammed through Cary’s windpipe, the rush of hot blood over his hands. It had been far too easy. Barely any resistance at all.

“Nothing about you is real,” Cary said, his voice low enough that Leo had to strain to hear it. “Because even when you talk to yourself, even when you think, you’re only telling yourself what you want to hear.”

I’m not going to listen to you any more, Leo meant to say, and his voice would be calm and almost tender. Instead, he said, “I love you, brother.”

He placed Cary’s head upright in the hole, and he began to fill it in again.

Cary stared up at him the whole time he was filling in the hole and said nothing. He seemed to know there was nothing more to say. He squeezed his eyes shut when the dirt rose up around his nose and made a noise like a hurt animal.

Leo couldn’t get the dirt to lie flat over Cary’s head. There was a little mound there, next to the palo verde, and it looked like what it was. A tiny grave. But he didn’t think many people would come looking out here. So he touched the loose dirt one last time, with the tips of his fingers, and then he got back to his feet.

Morning was coming. On its eastern edge, the sky started to tint a lighter grey, and the stars washed out one by one.

Leo straggled back to camp, covered in dirt and holding his brother’s empty jar in his hand. People stacking crates into the wagons stared at him with naked curiosity in their eyes, but no one stopped him. He walked back to where the artifacts from the DEPRAVED TREASURES tent had been kept and nestled the empty jar into a box filled with wood shavings.

“I wondered where that had gotten off to,” the Colonel said.

Leo turned to face him. He thought he should feel ashamed, maybe, or afraid. But he didn’t.

The Colonel looked at the empty jar, and then he looked back at Leo. Leo couldn’t read the expression on his face.

Finally, the Colonel said, “You know, it was spooky how much that thing looked like you. I don’t know if I could look at my own face like that, day in and day out. Not stuck in a jar for suckers to point and stare at.”

He stepped forward and clapped Leo on the shoulder and smiled.

Leo licked his lips. His mouth was so dry, filled with grit and the metal tang of grave dirt. The Colonel would want him to say something. But he couldn’t. Just couldn’t.

He looked up at the Colonel’s kind, easy, salesman’s smile. And for the first time, he couldn’t say anything at all.


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Shannon Peavey is a writer and horse trainer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in Apex, and Urban Fantasy Magazine, and The Masters Review and is forthcoming in Lightspeed.  She can be found online at shannonpeavey.com on Twitter @shannonpv.

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2 Comments on “The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet's Head”

2 Responses to “The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head”

  1. […] “The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head” by Shannon Peavey Leaving Leo alone, with his brother’s head. Leo stepped closer to the jar. Cary’s white-blond hair floated up from his skull, the tips waving slightly. It looked like strands of spiderweb, or exposed nerves. “You still telling people things they don’t want to hear?” He tapped on the glass. As if he might rouse it to speech. […]

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