Boils sprout along my arms during the night. I try to pop them over the fire in the darkness; they spurt puss into the flames. My arm hair sheds itself over the fire. Heath and Mitchell remain asleep within our salt circle. For now, we are protected. I pop another blister and let the fluid course down my arm until it drips from the knot of my elbow into the heat. The forest around us is filled with oaks and older things. America—this is a new world slowly polluted by weaker faiths.
Cold embraces me as I lie down to sleep again. In my dreams, all I find are children with wet voices asking me why they couldn’t swim.
We filled your pockets with rocks, I tell them. We dropped you off the docks and waited until no bubbles broke the surface. We waited until the water was still.
You did not have a chance.
They ask me why we left them there to drown. They ask me what we wanted from their mothers. They ask for fathers who we locked up in churches and siblings we dragged behind our horses until they all confessed. Each village was the same. The wet children ask me why.
I tell them it’s a silly question before they drag me under once again.
“Dennis, do you want to eat?”
The sky above us is purple. Heath is shaking me with his scaly hands. Each of us has been afflicted in one way or another. Mitchell hides a tiny tail beneath his cloak. He won’t let us cut it off, afraid it will only grow back twice as large. Breakfast is usually just hard biscuits and salted pork. Each meal preserves our insides a little longer. We live off salts and preserves. I am being embalmed alive.
“No, I think I’m still trying to undo last night’s supper.”
Mitchell straps a pack onto his back. His pistol is tucked into a holster on his leg. The salt around us glows violet in this new light. He kicks at the circle.
Heath swallows a biscuit whole and spits a raisin out into the dying fire. We leave the coals to burn; our spoiled circle remains behind as a warning. We bring the fury of this new inquisition with us. We wear the broken crosses around our necks and rub salt into our fresh wounds. We lap up our mistakes.
My hands are wrapped in rags to hide the ravaged holes. Our craft is not one of half-measures. We are raised to remove the weed and all its roots. Every plant has its defense mechanisms—poisoned leaves and hidden thorns. These are the risks we take under the banner of the broken cross, of the hanged man’s tree.
We believe in the resurrection and the harrowing. We bring it to bear across new and old lands alike. We spare only the soil—only the dirt.
The first village had been under the sway of a woman they called Altera Henderson, according to those who fled before her brief reign began. Their church was tilted and sinking into the wet ground when we arrived. No one emerged to greet the three of us. The town square and its pillories were empty. Only pigs and dogs lingered around its dirt roads. You can trust a pig. As we approached the well our horses whined and tried to pull away. The water down below shimmered with some unnatural tint. It blinked at us and we stared back down. We expected it to rise, but there was no response from below.
“All of it’s polluted with her craft,” Heath said. He wore gloves over his scaled hands. The gray scales came from some catacomb in Italy, some hidden hole beneath a church that had been corrupted. After three days of exorcism, Heath had emerged from below with one partially blinded eye and those dry, dry hands. They whisper whenever he rubs them together. He was selected by the older priests to bring about this new wave of reckoning. We followed his words.
“All of it must go.”
House by house, we broke down doors. We found them in cellars and under beds. We found them in sheds and in piles of hay. Some chanted curses under their breath, the words half-formed and benign. Novices and failures. Their faces were pale and their flesh sagged from the bones. We bound their hands—small children, fathers, siblings, grandparents.
All of them were polluted.
She had poisoned the well against them; she had spread her tainted water through their bodies and into their stomachs. They were all bile and piss now. None could be saved. This was a new and deep infection. The wound must be rinsed, Heath said.
He had us herd the children toward the lake. A few small fishing boats bobbed on its ebbing tide. We dropped them off the dock one by one and waited. There was no resistance. A few malformed words hurled in our direction. We were protected by the broken crosses around our necks.
Through the stained glass, Heath spotted Altera sequestered in the swaybacked church. He did not bother drawing her out. He told us of her suckling a youngster at her breast, of the seeds she had planted in this town. The child’s mouth was a sieve. It was a wound. Heath spread his salt around the church and herded the men inside. There were only twelve. The women would burn individually. We would listen to their skulls pop and their fat sputter in the dark later that night. We would not eat.
I never saw Althea Henderson. No child from the docks recognized her name as we questioned them. Even so, Mitchell claimed she cursed him from inside the flames when he peered through the broken stained glass window—an angel bent at right angles. All the men were bent in supplication, according to his eyes. All were huddled in their pews and moaning as the flames rose around them all. Their faces were running wax. Altera caught Mitchell’s eye and spat some fluid through the air. He said it turned to steam as the fire rose inside the church, but flecks still reached his cheek. They burned their way deep down inside his open pores.
Mitchell still blames her for his tail.
“Someone called this place New Amsterdam—this is what happens when the Dutch arrive first, you know. They breed broken things in the dark. They deny a trinity and put forth some empty cross,” Heath said. You cannot trust a people who consider eel a staple of their diet. Snakes of the sea—would you eat a snake Mitchell? Would you swallow it whole?”
Mitchell does not answer.
Heath suggested removing his tail again today. He offered to cauterize the wound with a silver blade.
Mitchell declined. He claims he will grow used to it—a badge of honor in our order.
The halls of our cathedral back on the island are filled with old men damaged by their calling. Twisted hands or furry pelts instead of skin. Some have lost their tongues. Others, their spines severed by curses we could not prepare for, roll about in wooden chairs. Nature is always evolving against the order, always seeking an advantage so it can swallow and infect us all. Mitchell will be the first with a tail. Heath claims there is a Spaniard with a set of horns who left the order after a brush with some warlock in his youth. He lives in the hills outside Barcelona and has probably never heard of Pennsylvania.
“We do not want any amateur business this time around,” Heath says. His horse flicks its tail at the flies which seem to follow us wherever we travel. They gather above us like a warning cloud and buzz without pause. Our horses ignore them. We try and do the same. “No Salem business, do you understand? No trials or tests. It makes a mockery of everything. They know what they are. We do not need to record it for posterity. We are tossing rocks into the water. We are burning deadfall. We are clearing out the underbrush. We are making the way for something.”
We landed in Philadelphia a month ago. The seeds of corruption were deep. In our first week here, Mitchell and I watched a man battering his horse with a whip outside the inn where we were sheltered. His face was soon splattered with its blood, but his hands remained dedicated to their task. He shrieked and moaned in the animal’s direction, calling out for some woman barricaded on the third floor behind a wooden door. He called the horse Jessica, bleating it out into the dark. The whip cracked at the end of every shriek.
From this window, we watched the man’s whip rise again and the back hoof of the mare collide with his thin throat in the same instant. The man crumpled down into the festering street as gouts of blood spouted from his neck. No one came to claim his body. Below us in the alley, rats and dogs or rat-sized dogs emerged slowly. They began to sip at the red puddles around him. This city could sustain itself for now. It would regenerate according to its own laws.
The mare went back to eating its hay.
“Remember,” Mitchell said, “if you see a cat, crush its skull. Don’t let it keep you trapped behind its eyes.”
Heath told us we were not seeking out the darker hovels of this city. We were looking for the stagnant places, the ones barely placed upon the map. This is where the darker arts still reside, he told us. We sat alone with candles in his room. He pointed to half-finished maps and leylines leading off into unknown realms. He warned us about the villages we could not put into order, ones with no true leaders, no representatives. It was in these stagnant places that the baser bits of magic could reside. They fed off the isolation and the unnamed nature around them. They fed off doubt and a lack of explanation. They would feed on us if we weren’t careful.
“When we get to the next village, remember to wear your gloves, Dennis.”
The day is growing colder. We have no end point for this journey. Mitchell and Heath ride ahead. I have fallen behind. I lash my horse with its reins and try not to think about Philadelphia.
The second village was where they burned my hands.
We arrived to find the road strewn with cats and kittens—black, white and orange. They followed us like a herd through the single intersection. There was no sign to name this village. Only five families resided along its beaten path. The chapel they had constructed decades ago was bent by the wind. Its spire tilted toward the ground. Heath said nothing. A lone well stood at the center of the intersection. Old trees and tangled roots groped at the stunted buildings around us. They were made of thatch and manure and stone. The water in the well below was clear. Heath only nodded at us before climbing down from his horse. There were no birds in the trees.
“Cats killed everything,” Mitchell said. “They’ll probably start feeding on each other.”
Heath strutted toward the well. His gloved hands were full of malformed kittens. Bent ears and ruptured eyes. Skin grew over some of their blank sockets. They licked and pawed at each other in his hands. He raised them up above his head before dropping them down inside the well. The splashes took a while to register. More followed. Blind and ruptured kittens tumbled down into the wet and the cold. They could not see the darkness. They could not see us above them.
“This is what happens in isolation—when things are left to run their course. I want you and Mitchell to go through the houses. See if anyone is home. Someone’s been feeding these things.”
Most of the shanties appeared empty. Mitchell and I kicked through mattresses made from hay and straw. We upended stoves and tore through walls. Dead coals and dirty clothes were all we found. It was in the third house that we found the cellar door, locked tightly from within. Mitchell blew the lock open with his pistol. I left mine holstered at my waist. There was a moan from down below—a chorus speaking in one voice, hiding from the judgment of the sun. I clutched my broken cross against my chest, and warned myself about Cain’s children.
Without a torch, we were spared from seeing these people as they were. Bent and twisted, some slid across the floor toward us. Mitchell flattened a hand beneath his boot. He said it came apart like dough. The shadows covered rotting faces, but the smell embedded itself in our clothes and rooted its way deep inside our noses. It burrowed into our faces and filled our mouths with heavy froth. I coughed and swiped away cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. They were all leaking puss from eyes and mouths, whispering to each other. One small child lay on the floor—its tiny teeth penetrated its lips. It was biting back some larger pain. The leaking folk around us gestured toward the child. Mitchell fired his pistol again into the air to silence them. They began their moaning once again when the echo dissipated. Those that moved toward the light began to shrivel, their skin receding from red and spotted flesh. Mitchell turned to climb back up.
“Some disease spreading from the cats—something has worked its way into their blood,” he said. “They worshipped at the wrong altar. I’ve seen this before on the Isle of Man and in Malta. Lepers have lasted longer. Heath will want it to burn. Let’s go. There is nothing to save.”
I could see Mitchell’s tail pulse against his jacket as he climbed the ladder. It moved separately from his body, following its own path down the bottom of his spine. It beckoned toward me like a hand. I turned away. The child on the floor continued to bite through its lips. Its flesh was blackened, cracked and fissured along the joints. Slits in the skin wept some yellow oil. Younger than the ones we drowned, but its face still looked the same. Another face to ask me why in my sleep. I moved forward to relieve its unholy pain. I grabbed it with my hands to carry it up into the light and felt fluid burn my palms. Snaking lines of acid coursed down my forearms. I dropped the festering creature. Its skull split open like old fruit, but no fluid poured forth. The brain was blackened by its own cooked juices. The moans did not change.
I followed Mitchell up into house and tried to hide my hands. Blisters began to form along my thumbs. When I popped them, some thick yellow pus lingered on my palms. I wiped it on the thatched walls and tried to forget the twisted forms below. Mitchell only shook his head.
“Gloves, Dennis. Always gloves.”
Outside, Heath had encircled this fallen house with a heavy ring of salt. He only glanced at my rupturing hands. His own gray scales remained concealed beneath his gloves. A few healthy cats remained; their eyes were clear and open. Heath had removed all their feeble children.
“Now there is no one left to feed them.”
He did not bother to diagnose me; the ointment he rubbed into the wounds stank much like the living corpses in that basement. It pushed its way beneath my skin and I could feel its cold touch seep into my bones. Mitchell’s boot was still covered in doughy flesh. It refused to separate from the leather. We waited until it was dark before lighting the flame. No sounds came from the house, but the rising cloud of smoke was tinged with some deeper green. It hung above us without the wind. The remaining cats had vanished—we saw no winking eyes.
That night Mitchell claimed he could hear something shrieking from the newly poisoned well. I clutched my broken cross and dreamed of nothing but water and the blessing of an undertow. When I awoke sweating, I heard Mitchell’s tail rustling as he slept beside me.
The green cloud remained above us all until the sun arrived.
The third village lies ahead of us. Heath points to the desiccated trees fanning out from its center. The bare branches caress each other in the wind. Dust follows us in a cloud, hiding the flies that pursue us from one village to the next. My hands are still wrapped in rags. They are too swollen for my gloves. I am getting used to the pain. We were all designed as martyrs anyway.
“When no one is watching, that is when they strike,” Heath murmurs. Back on the island, we were warned of the evils we might find in the blandest places. It was not the ancient cemeteries or the sacred monuments we would have to defend. The old ones told us to follow one simple truth about evil’s seed—it does not look like anything. We find it, not in the sewers or the alleys, but in the desolate places. Places without timekeepers or bell towers. Places without signs or ledgers, without coins or recorded pasts. In these places, they claim, it is always the present.
There is no hierarchy. No direction. There is only now.
Heath says there is a coven in this village. He warns us we may not be able to undo its dark works ourselves. We are here to observe whatever we can. There are no pigs or dogs on these streets. There are no children I can see. No ponds or rivers. We will have to burn everything eventually. I always prefer the water treatment. It is quieter. There are only bubbles.
They saw our cloud coming from miles away. Our entrances are rarely subtle. The churches here still stand tall. There are no marks on their doors. There aren’t even any cats. They might not all be corrupted, but we have no use for trials. It will come down to Heath’s discretion.
“I want you two to examine the Quakers’ houses. There is no need to knock.”
I dismount and follow Mitchell down the road. There are no human voices. Even the flies refuse to follow us. No rats or manure in the streets. The stones seem too clean. No puddles of piss. Our horses huddle together in the main square behind us. They are the only living things around. Mitchell opens doors, but the kitchens and bedrooms remain empty. There are no cellars we can find and the glass in every window is clear. No dust settles on the sills.
There are no Quakers here.
We find hats and clothes in closets, but they appear new and unworn. The boots are still polished. Even our dusty feet leave no footprints behind. Our path seems to come undone behind us, but we continue forward into the streets.
Mitchell says all he can smell is my flesh.
I ask him to wave his tail at me.
It’s the horses we hear first. They are shrieking, shrieking like that mare in Philadelphia. We run towards them, but there are no people around. The horses’ hooves lash at one another. Their eyes are pure white. Mitchell and I circle them, but the hooves swing wildly in our direction. They pull at their reins tied to the fence posts. Mitchell’s tail twitches back and forth. Over the noise, the church doors open, beckoning us forward. Mitchell clutches the broken cross around his neck.
The pews are polished. Each window sends radiant, colored beams down toward the altar. The village folk sit with perfect posture. They line every pew in well-ordered families. They are all naked. Their flesh glows white in this light. They make no sound. No one seems to be breathing. Each body has been stripped of its hair. Eyelashes and eyebrows have disappeared. Everything hangs in this light. The dust is trapped above us. It spins, but does not descend.
There is a line of salt down the center aisle leading towards Heath’s crumpled form beside the altar. His gloves hide the gray scales of his fists. We inch toward him along the line of salt, averting our eyes from the families, their open eyes watching us and seeing nothing. The altar itself is empty. We can finally hear Heath’s breath, but when I roll his heavy body over, there is no light inside his eyes. The lids are peeled back, but the pupils do not respond. They are black holes drilled within his face. The broken cross around his neck has become undone from its chain. An empty cup lies beneath his body. There is no fluid within it. I don’t think there ever was. I realize there are no wells in this town. There is no water anywhere.
“Mitchell, grab his legs.”
We pull him down the aisle, along the line of salt, waiting for these hairless bodies to rise up around us. Fire will not swallow these stones. This place no longer wants us here.
The horses are still shrieking at one another when we exit. Mitchell has lost his patience. He leaves me to drag Heath’s husk and wades into the hooves, slapping the animals across their long and sweaty faces. Somehow, we strap Heath onto the back of his beast. We lead the terrified creature between us, our own animals following behind.
Mitchell will not speak. I stare ahead toward the woods and all the things waiting for us in the dark. Heath chose us to follow him here, to this new land. He never told us how to get home.
This place was prepared for our arrival. It was a test. An empty altar Heath could not resist, like a place set for him at the head of the table. He could rule over the inhabitants here, beyond any claim of time. There are no clocks on their towers. A space for a corrupted faith to begin. A new seed freshly planted. We refuse to turn when we hear the buildings begin to crumble.
I refuse to become another pillar of salt.
After the third village, I try to sleep. Our fresh salt circle holds at bay what horrors it can. Mitchell heaves about in his sleep. He refuses to discuss the village. He will not speak of the hairless bodies, all their hidden pieces displayed openly in that light. They will not linger for him. Mitchell’s tail grows while he dreams. Soon, it will reach his knees. It will become him.
Heath is gone. Nothing remains. Nothing remains but flesh. We carry his body with us, but it has already begun to smell. I remain unable to sleep. My hands drip. The wet children ask me why and I tell them I don’t know. They circle me and begin drifting down toward a bottom I can’t see. They hold out small hands I can’t hold. I ask if I can follow them. It is cold and empty down here. In this new dark, I am alone. As they sink past me, I ask where they are going.
They tell me I should know.