It’s that time of year again, boils and ghouls! Here is my lone entry for this year’s cook-off:
And the whole blessed archive:
Records place the first outbreak of Scutt’s island-bound illness at around 1875. Scutt lies just off the coast of Washington and boasted a population of around 300 at the time, not counting the cattle that suddenly displayed Scrapie-like symptoms. Though advised to cull the herd, there was no evidence of the islanders even moving to quarantine the sick cattle, due to the belief of the time that Scrapie was not transmittable to human beings. Instead, we see the outbreak of what came to be called Scutt’s palsy in the spring of of 1881. Victims displayed loss of motor control and speech, trembling, drooling, spasms, and finally death. One surviving brain sample taken from an autopsy (labeled H. Raglin, 24) shows spongiform encephalopathy similar to that of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. While the study of infection and disease was only in its infancy at the time, the similarities between human sufferers and the diseased cattle could not be overlooked. Islanders resisted the ordered extermination of their native livestock to the point that the national guard was dispatched to oversee the cattle’s liquidation. Losing the herd struck a blow to the islander’s pride in their self-sufficiency; too poor to import more cattle, they now had to make do with pricier imported meat or go without.
The Scutt’s palsy sufferers were exported to mainland sanitariums where they lived out the brief remainder of their lives. Scutt’s palsy passed out of vogue; with no cure or cause forthcoming the study was halted and the manpower rerouted elsewhere. Life settled down to something much like it had before the cattle’s illness.
Then, in 1907, it returned.
The fact that the resurgence even made it out to public eyes is owed to one woman: Bess Finch. Bess’s correspondence with her Scutt-dwelling sister, one Hedda Martin, ceased suddenly and unceremoniously. Bess became concerned with her wellbeing, doubly so when Hedda’s husband Edmund sent word that her sister had suddenly passed and the funeral had been held already. Despite repeated missives, Edmund refused to clarify whether Hedda had been cremated or buried, or if she had willed anything to her sister. This reticence had become common on Scutt since since the cattle cull. One anonymous source noted their funerals: “...mean and sparse, even for poor folk. The casket is always closed, the service brief to the point of blasphemy.”
Bess Finch refused to accept the widower’s explanation and created such agitation that mainland officers were dispatched to the island to investigate foul play. They found a number of doors closed tightly to their inquiry, and a grave for Hedda Martin that held an empty coffin. The island’s resident doctor had died in 1895 without replacement, so they had only the widower’s word that Hedda had died from illness alone. What seemed to lend credence to his story were the state of the islanders, many of whom displayed symptoms of Scutt’s mysterious disease. While the initial outbreak had an infection index of around 15%, now the palsy struck closer to 45% of the population. While in 1881 it had plagued mostly the elderly and sick, now it spread equally across generations and genders.
More manpower was issued from the mainland. What had begun as a murder investigation turned into a mass arrest as newer and stranger evidence came to light. Investigators found Scutt’s slaughterhouse was in good repair despite the deficit of red meat on the island. It was only when they dismantled the building and its equipment that they found evidence of Scutt’s replacement protein wedged beneath a bin in the hide storage room.
It was a human femur.
The bin itself sat upon a trap door, once opened they found the door serviced a massive pit of bones bearing cut marks and “pot polish.” Scutt’s graveyard was subject to a mass exhumation, where they found that only one in five caskets held a body. The island’s priest who presided over the brief funerals was found to be a lay preacher unaffiliated with any church.
How, when, and why the islanders turned to cannibalism is a mystery lost to time. Perhaps a combination of bruised pride, medical ignorance, and lack of spiritual leadership worked together with the isolation of the island. Scutt dwellers remained tight-lipped, even as they were brought to trial on the mainland. Physical evidence tells us that all funerals, barring virulent illnesses such as cholera, stood as a source of nutrition. Marrow and brains were highly prized, all but ensuring the spread of the encephalopathy.
By the time he stood trial for his part in his wife’s death, Edmund Martin already showed signs of the disease that would kill him and many others in prison. The last islander died in 1910 at 13 years of age, taking with him perhaps the last of the encephalopathy. Scutt island was evacuated after the trial and remains uninhabited to this day.
They called the place Hillport, because it was exactly that. It was a port built on a hill, a cityship that clung to the sea-rock like an ugly whelk. Save for one gravel causeway that was the city’s only lifeline to the shore, the city was an island unto itself, building up layers of architecture over the generations. At one point it had been a seafaring city, but their fishing practices left much to be desired and now the bay around them lay as bare as the face of the moon. Struck by such ugly serendipity, they sidestepped the obvious conclusion and invested themselves elsewhere: tallow. The city rendered the tallow from butcher’s blocks for miles around, with such skill and industry the smoke from their fires painted the sky black at times.
They called the place Hillport, but that was not the proper name. The given name to the rock on which the city was built was Swallow’s Crouch, owing to the little birds that flitted in and out of the seaside caves on the far side of the island. The birds were the only thing left uneaten within arm’s reach of the city, owing to their nests being build on sheer cliff-sides (and sometimes on the ceilings of sea caves) that no man-made ladder or crook could reach. What they ate was anyone’s guess. The cityfolk hated the chattering they made and set out poisoned bait, perpetually untouched.
What makes the swallows remarkable is the very thing that kept the city alive. Tallow. The fat from animals does not entirely burn up in a fire, you see, and year-round tallow frosted the roofs and windows of the town. The swallows daubed the fat into nests and by some unknown alchemy the fat became hard as stone in the sea air.
The city of Hillport grew rich, because tallow was quite valuable. The rosy fat from a bull, the white bounty of a whale’s skin, the delicate oils necessary for perfume making, Hillport traded in them all. They grew wary of hubris, because they had grown so skilled at dodging consequence. So when a stranger came along at low tide, picking his way along the sharp rocks, they knew they looked at no mere man. They hauled him up in chains, scraping him against the sheer cliffside until his scholarly glasses broke. The city’s Autarch was unamused at the sight.
“I suppose you’re here to warn us of some great calamity,” he said, “or to beg us to mend our ways.”
“I am not.” The young man reeked of sea mud and his features were raw from scraping against rock. He proffered one of his books. “I am a man of the sciences. I’m taking stock of this countryside. I heard about your swallows from another town.”
The Autarch snorted. “Do you think me a swaddling babe? You’re here on some divine errand, here to hold a mirror up to our city.”
“No, no!” the man protested, throwing a few books at the Autarch’s feet. Pen-and-ink sketches of seabirds and snails spilled out. “I only want to see and to know! Your city is entirely your business, I care only about the swallows.”
The Autarch put a hand to the ripple of flesh at his chin. He prodded a book with his toe. “The swallows?”
“Yes.” the man smiled in relief. “I only care about observing them. So unique are they, I’ve never found a bird like them.”
The Autarch nodded. “That sorts it, then. You’re here to find the true nature of the swallows, and once this purpose is fulfilled they’ll depart. And once they’ve departed on their own terms, some calamity will befall the city.” He nodded to a guard. “See to it that he meets an unglamorous end.”
The protesting young man was pulled from the Autarch’s chambers and to the city square, where a vat of tallow had been heated to the smoking point. In he went, and afterwards they strained him out in bits. No reason to waste good tallow.
The Autarch waited for some sudden, symbolic comeuppance, but none came. The young man did not appear in the smoke of the rendering fires, his bones were tossed unceremoniously into the sea and that was that. That year they rendered five times the fat they normally did, and every inhabitant of the city grew rich with tallow.
It was not that year or even the next, but a brief enough interval of time that certain folk could make the divine connection if they wished, that the weight of the swallow’s nests pulled Hillport in half. The city cracked and slid into the waters, the sea hissing as it was deluged with hot fat. The rock lies bare today, even the swallow’s caves are now deserted, but globules of fat still roll on the tide, some say. Impacted and magicked by sea, they are hard as ice.
It’s hard to sleep.
I have chronic migraines. The slightest hint of a glow sets off this piercing tone in my head, which makes my eyeballs throb in their sockets, which makes my jaw clench until it aches, which makes my scalp pucker and bristle, on and on in a domino effect. You can imagine the work I had to do to eliminate light from my room. No electronics. Blackout curtains. I even wear a sleep mask for good measure. It worked.
Until the street light.
I rolled over one night and found a new needle of agony driven into me. Bright, halogen-white light leaking through my blackout curtains no matter how I adjusted them. Even turned to my other side with my sleep mask firmly tamped down, I could still see it or imagined I could. The glow shuttered shortly after sunrise, and I managed to catch a few winks out of sheer desperation.
After too much morning coffee, I walked up and down my street, trying to determine the position of the usurper. If I could find the culprit, I could call the city service number on its base. Hours later, I despaired of any solution. None of the street lamps were positioned closely to my house (and this had been a selling point for me) or at such an angle that I could easily see it from my window. It looked like another night of agony for me, and it was.
I didn’t even try to sleep, but it didn’t lessen the pain. I tried pushing the curtain aside, but the deluge of light shot through me like a bullet and I had to fall back. I had seen flood lights with less wattage. What possible bulb could the city be using in the lamp?
I admit, I must have sounded like a raving madman on that service line. I was out days of sleep, and my already fragile nerves were shot. I think I begged them to come and take the bulb out because the light was too sharp. I sat on the porch sipping endless rounds of coffee until the city worker came out. He looked sideways at my disheveled appearance, but walked me through the plan nonetheless.
There were six lamps in my neighborhood block, he said, three on my street, three on the street behind my house. He brought out the block blueprint and talked about light pollution, power saving, and many other topics I was too exhausted to untangle. It was nearing sundown and he held up a hand.
“Now watch,” he said, “and see if you can tell me which one shines in your window.”
One by one, the bulbs flickered on. Orange. The same dull sodium orange that shone from every other lamp in the city.
I thanked the worker for his time and walked home. The second I closed my bedroom door behind me, the light returned. Of course.
Even with my prescription sunglasses, I could not determine the source. It was as if the light was a solid block against my window. What’s more, I found something else as I pushed the curtains aside. Despite the harsh power of the rays, I noticed the vase on my desk did not cast even a thin shadow. Nothing did.
So now I sit here, sleepless. In the diffusion around my blackout curtains, I can see the light staring into me relentless as an x-ray. The source, purpose, and means of it are all mysteries I have given up on. I no longer fear that it will keep me from sleep.
I fear the day I will be able to sleep, and what will happen then.
The old man sat on a barrel of salt pork with his head bowed as if in prayer. A checkerboard with a game half-played sat on the pickle vat in front of him. Dust cemented the pieces in place, not one of the men filling the general store had posessed the courage to challenge him to a game in years.
The old man was known as Murphy. No one alive could tell you if it was surname or given, as it was preferable to know as little about the man as possible. Though each man who owed livelihood to the sea relied on him, they crossed the street when they saw him shamble by.
Murphy was a master of knots. Age had tightened the muscles and chords in his hands until they were knots themselves. His shoulders were stiff as stone in a monkey’s-fist formation. His hair was a tangled mass no brush could brave. His mouth was a blood knot puckered in the worn fabric of his face. He alone brokered a seat in the store, which was packed to standing-room only by fishermen. They gave him a healthy berth.
Murphy opened eyes as sharp and grey as the sky outside. “You be wanting something?”
Which was a considerable outburst from the man.
“Tide’s going out,” one man ventured. He hid among his fellows when Murphy’s piercing gaze combed the crowd.
“Tide’s going out,” another man said. Paddy Keane, a meaty giant of a man who had sired a healthily crowded family. He commanded a crew of six men and did not flinch at Murphy’s gaze. “Time for leaving is past gone. What do you say?”
Murphy grunted and swallowed a load of phlegm. “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”
The men grumbled. Paddy crossed arms sinewed as steel cable.
“Seven days, we been waitin’. Seven days the market’s asked for fish, and we’ve said no. Seven days we have hungerin’ babes and you say an eighth?” He stepped up to the barrel and set his hands down hard in the fossilized checker game. “We’ve had it, old man. I’ve had it.”
Murphy eyed the new contender. “Piss off, Keane. I knew your father when he were in short pants. You don’t frighten me.”
Paddy stood, retrieving a billhook from his belt. As the men made another empty space around him, he pulled an oilcloth from his pocket and set to cleaning it.
“I don’t frighten you? You don’t frighten I, either.” The metal sounded like a finger rubbing the rim of a wine glass as he polished it. The surface was dulled from years of beating pollock and flounder into submission. “You haven’t been out on a boat in years. You’re an old wive’s tail, you are. I’ll kill a black hen at sunrise before I ever believe in you.”
The store had fallen achingly silent. Outside, the wind made the wooden shingles creak. Murphy scanned the store and found a crowd of faces turned to the ground.
“You set your hat with him?” No answer. “Who taught ye the knots every sailor needs to know? The hitch that stoppered your backstays? The secret fishermen’s bend that calls truce with Neptune?”
“I’ve not seen a new sailor in a hen’s age,” one man timidly spoke up. He did not shrink before Murphy’s gaze either. “I’ve seen you sit here and run up credit with the store, but I haven’t seen you school anyone.”
“Your son. Or his son, maybe.”
“I’ll teach him.”
The crowd began muttering assent, reeling out their own anecdotes in defiance of the old man.
Murphy stood from his barrel, and the talk fell away.
“It doesn’t take a sailor to read the wind,” he said, “and it doesn’t take a brave man to start a brawl. I say no-one sails.”
Paddy broke out in a rolling guffaw. “How will you stop us, eh? Will you knot the air?”
Murphy, faced by a wall of derisive faces, sat on his salt-pork throne. “Watch me,” he said.
His swollen hands suddenly became like water, years melting away as he moved his hands in a graceful dance. The men could practically see the bight in his hands being twisted and looped this way and that. The sky outside darkened as the old man muttered and sweated and worked his fingers on empty air. Finally, he let his arms fall on the checkerboard and pushed his breath out in a long sigh.
It was a long while before one of the men said, “he’s not moving.”
Murphy sat, sharp upright as he ever had, dead at the pickle barrel with his eyes staring straight forward at nothing. Paddy grimaced and rolled his lids down with the palm of one hand. They sprang open again.
“Ghastly. Get the sawbones.”
The men piled out of the store on their way to the town’s doctor/coroner. It was only then that they realized the wind had sucked in like a heavy held breath. Above the cove where their boats lay on pebbled sand, helpless as fish without the tide, above the tarpaper shacks where their families burned fires to keep away the sea-chill, above their very heads was a maelstrom that roiled in a thick knot of clouds that spanned the width of the sky.
“Check the closet,” the young boy said.
His mother rattled the knob and flapped the door open and shut. “Clear.”
“And the chest.”
She lifted the heavy cedar lid and led it slam down on its own. “Clear.”
Mother twitched aside the floor-to-ceiling drapes, revealing only empty window panes.
“Now the bed.”
She approached her son, bent over, fingers curled into claws. She gave a little play-growl. The boy was not amused.
Down on her knees among the toys, she only found errant dust bunnies beneath her son’s mattress.
“Are you sure?” Which he said every night.
“Sweetheart, there’s nothing.” She kissed his forehead. “Lay down and go to sleep. Morning will be here before you know it.” Which she said every night.
She tousled his hair and hit the switch for his bedroom light and left the door to the hallway ajar. But this time her foot was stayed halfway down the hall by a piercing whistle-shriek of “mom!”
She broke land speed records to get back to her son’s doorway. “What?”
Silence. She could see by the hall light that the bedclothes still lumped in the same way, she could see a vague silhouette of a head (or was it another pillow?) if she let her eyes adjust a bit.
When her son finally spoke, it was not a attitude of panic. It was a flat, dead tone that sounded too adult for him. “You missed somewhere.”
“Where? I’ll start again.” She flipped the lightswitch, fruitlessly. The hall still shed its insufficient light through the doorway, so it wasn’t a power outage. The light in her son’s room had just decided to burn out.
“No. It’s too late.”
“Not for mommy.” Flick, flick. Her finger was getting tired. “Tell me where I missed. I checked in the closet.”
“I checked behind the drapes for nightmares, didn’t I?”
“I checked in that box for the pop-up monster.”
“Is it the bed?” she sighed. “I can check under the bed. Just let me get the flashlight.”
Her son’s “no!” stopped her in the doorway.
“It’s too late for that. Anyway, that’s not what you forgot.”
Mother looked to her son’s bed, where the bedclothes rose and shifted just beyond her range of sight. “What?”
“You forgot to check on top of the bed.”
Her hand went to the lightswitch, where it flicked up and down, up and down. The room remained dark, her son remained an ambiguous mass of shifting dark shapes, but still her hand flicked up and down, up and down. Surely if she kept trying, surely, surely—
For many decades, Solomon recording studio sat on Fuller street between a used bookstore and a storefront that was called Sal’s Fish Market long after the building became empty. The interior was no more than 600 square feet, not counting the recording space, almost all of it taken up by floor-to-ceiling shelves of plain wrapped records. The sign fell off the building facade about five years into its tenure, so for years the colloquial name for the store came from the errant graffiti sprayed in the cavity left by the sign: death records.
To truly understand the recording studio, one must understand the man first: Zachariah “Scratch” Solomon started his career as a recording technician for the city’s jazz and soul population. What made his fame was the day bebop singer Cal Benson came in to record what would have been his fifth full album. Benson, 43 years old, had a massive stroke and collapsed in the booth without singing one note. Solomon ran to call 911, leaving the recording equipment running untended. In the 25 minutes it took for emergency services to find the studio, Cal Benson lay dead in the booth. It was only when his body was removed that Solomon noticed his error. Curiosity led him to play back the recording of what would become the first of Solomon’s famed “death records”: a solid 25-minute track of what is undoubtedly Cal Benson scatting in his signature style, all recorded after he had ostensibly stopped breathing. Solomon smuggled the recording home and quit the studio by phone the next day.
The process starting at Cal Benson’s death leading up to the only posthumous recording studio in existence is a mystery known only to Solomon, but somehow he managed to scrape up enough capital to open the space on Fuller. He took out ads in Fortean Times and other similar publications, hoping to draw the occult crowd. What he got was a deluge of hate mail from people who found his idea tasteless. His first client came not from the believer side of things but from the private sector: Hyman Grande, a man of some means who owned a real estate block near the store, was dying of bone cancer. He amended his will so that Solomon would be present at his death bed…which he was, a mere seven months after the decree. The record, labeled H. Grande, contained eight minutes of an unidentified voice singing “You are my sunshine”, shuffling and repeating some verses, and inserting heretofore unknown verses in other places.
This was the event that made Solomon’s name. Long after the storefront sign was replaced by graffiti, the curious could check in and make death dates for the studio or, if they so wished, sample one of the many records under the listening bell. Not all records contained music. One labeled “E. Jones” contained a recitation of the opening sonnet of Love’s Labor Lost in the original middle English. Others contain a candid conversation between two unidentified individuals, a man with a stutter attempting a tongue twister, and an animal growling.
Solomon remained a cipher throughout the years. What few people counted themselves among his friends did not know much about him besides his name and profession. It was understood that his family emigrated from somewhere in Europe in the earlier part of the century, and that he had pursued music study until an injury cut his budding career short. Solomon was notoriously tight lipped about a scar that was usually hidden by long shirtsleeves, a burn in the shape of two saxophone keys. The closest anyone came to an answer of why he chose to pursue such an odd niche in the music industry was Norbert Cane, a local jazz pianist and drinking buddy. Norbert once overheard Solomon remark that he had picked up something in the way Cal Benson had breathed shortly before his stroke, and that his ears were “better than most.”
The recording studio struggled on for nearly seven decades. The rent was 12 months in arrears when Solomon died, quietly and suddenly, in the space above the storefront. There had been no sign of poor health. Solomon had not given any indication he was in pain. Yet in the interval between locking up for the night and the hour when his assistant came to open the store, Solomon had time to tidy his bed into a sort of funeral bower and dress in his only suit before dying of unknown causes. Clutched to his chest was an unmarked vinyl record. Interpreting the gesture as his final wish, the attendant brought the portable recording equipment up to Solomon’s death bed. At his poor and city-funded funeral, Solomon’s friends gathered to listen to the posthumous recording of the man who had provided the service to countless others.
From the point when the needle hit the outermost track to the point where it slid into the run-out groove, Solomon’s record was completely silent.
There are tattoo artists who are wizards of pigment, skin painters whose work is so beloved their subjects voluntarily tan their own skin after death. There are those who sculpt with white ink, transforming scars into masterworks of lace.
Then there was Juliet. Her mastery was not of the ink and tattoo-pen, but of her pets.
Juliet lived in a little village not too far from here. She was not an artist by trade, but an apiarist. Her hives were great house-sized mounds that only she dared approach. She sold no honey at the local market, the excess wax she burned without ceremony. They were unsalable because they were tainted with the byproduct of her real goal: the bees themselves.
By some unknown alchemy, Juliet had bred her bees to sting color. Her pets lacked the barbels that marked the death of other bees, so they could sting again and again with impunity.
The process for getting a tattoo was this: one made a reservation months to years in advance. Juliet would plant a special bed of flowers in the shape she wished to tattoo and train her bees to it again and again. One hive to one color, the next to another. When the time finally came she marked out a pattern on the customer’s body with a pheromone pen and trained the bees on the skin. Each session was spaced out by weeks so the subject would have time to recover from the venom.
Was it worth it? Juliet had her detractors, like any artist. They called her command of imagery clumsy, that she relied on novelty to make up for her lack of mastery. But she was popular enough to make a tidy enough living, right up until she died.
The first deduction of the scene judged her pets responsible for her death, for her corpse was swollen with stings and the scene reeked of pheromones. After a deeper examination, they found that someone had probably doused her in the concoction hoping the stings would disguise the knife wounds in her torso. 27 stabs in all. The motive of the killer was probably the deepest mystery. Juliet had her detractors, but no one who hated her enough to stab her 27 times.
Lacking closure, the case languished. Her cottage fell into disrepair. The bees thrived on, because no bear or badger wanted honey so tainted with pigments as theirs.
It was predictable that the bees would become a menace, unmanacled from their keeper as they were. But the shape this menace took was a surprise to all. The bees began clustering around a man who made salves and creams for the nearby market, a man who had always lived below suspicion.
It came trickling through the village’s gossip stream that he’d made overtures towards Juliet a time or two, though no one could decide if they were romantic or professional in nature. Perhaps he harbored a secret scorn that had led him to deprive the bees of their keeper. Perhaps the bees only smelled their own product, the wax he melted with various oils for his salves, and hated it. No one felt strongly enough to accuse him, or intercede when he became so plagued by the bees he was forced to wear beekeeper’s attire at all hours.
When he was found dead in a field a year after Juliet’s passing, no one could be sure if it was justice or mere happenstance. The only thing that was truly clear was when they rolled his sting-swollen corpse over, it revealed a perfect portrait of Juliet herself tattooed on his chest.
This is not how you get a happy ending.
First, you must cast aside every blessing given you. Slam the door on everyone who was present at your christening. Grind luck beneath your heels.
Fortune favors those who set off in search of nothing. So you must look for something. Make it unsavory. Vengeance, perhaps. Spite. Scorn everyone you meet on the road, every fairy in disguise. Steal from beggars. Trick innkeepers so you rest on feather beds while the seventh son of a seventh son slumbers in the barn outside.
Leave to a country where no one knows your face. Invent a life for yourself. Lie frequently and boldly. Care not who you hurt, this is the callous you must form on your soul.
Is there a wonder nearby? Perhaps a flaming bird comes to rest in the tallest tree in the forest. Or a giant buries the eye that can see through rock under a church every night. Or a prince lies wreathed in iron thorns, awaiting the gentle kiss of an understanding woman.
Take this marvel in your hands and warp it so that none can lay hand on it but you. This is power, now. You are feared, whispered about.
In every forest trail, take the most well-lit fork because the easiest path always leads downhill. Yield to temptation. If a fox bids you to bite from a wicked apple, bite. Shun mirrors, because they will tell you the truth. Covet finery. Grasp at debauchery. Pleasure is fleeting so you must dose yourself with increasing highs.
There will come a day when you find a path that does not split but rambles into the darkness. Follow it. Through the muck and the mud, through thickets and brambles and beasts, through all sorts of indescribable horrors…
Until you find a cottage. It will be empty.
Open the door and step inside. Light a fire in the fireplace. Seize the nicest chair for yourself and draw it close to the heat.
Notice how time has taken the flush of health from you, how you’ve bargained away the tautness of your skin.
You are the hag now. And the only fate you have is one you made with your own two hands.