Hear the witch as she wails like a bean sídhe, throwing her anger upon the barren steppes and scattered buildings with their yellow-paned windows that glare back at you like weary eyes…
The man walks this night, keeping shoulder with a dogged blood bay that pulls a hay wain. Mud rises to meet his boots, sucking and grabbing, and he sees the stretched face of that mad sky-crone in the black shine of it all. He came from the salt plains, carrying the minerals on his pants and duster and into the sloping prairies where he first met the witch and her spittle washed him clean again.
The town sleeps save for the mongrel on his loping circuit and the midnight prophet outside the gin mill. Wiping water from his eyes, the man veers the cart for the squat church rising distal from the muck like some dreary savior before the rows of brown houses and barns and black elm. The doors open for him, revealing the pastor with his billowing cassock and spectacles perched to return the glare of a stifled moon.
“They leave or you hide them?”
The pastor beholds the cart, the horse. The sky. “They hidin’ themselves.”
“The chancel. They scared,” and then, “you brought the Devil with ya.”
“Ain’t the Devil.”
“Sure sounds like it. Givin’ his lady a good lashin’, too.”
“If you say so.”
“You comin’ in or should I get them?”
“Just tell them I’m here.”
A nod and the pastor turns, leaving the doors wide, and the man is confronted with the glass eyes of a mosaic Christ in the circular window above the apse. Voices carry in the darkness, hushed and hurried. He turns his head from the leadlight in favor of listening. To avoid the brand of glass eyes. A low groan echoes from within the church, rising to a theremin warble before tapering like a leak. There’s always a few reluctant to leave. Even if they’ve already paid.
When the cleric does not return after a while, the man leaves his horse and ascends the church steps to the yawning dark. The holy dark. The air here is still. If the witch knew how unmoved this air sat she’d peel the roof back in spite. Just might. He passes twelve pews, six on either side, bibles lining their backs, flags below worn smooth by the repetitive scuffle of feet. A candle burns upon the altar and does not flicker. The only beacon in the bleak house save the moonlight from the window above. The voices have stopped.
“One ‘ems draggin’ his heels,” the pastor says upon emerging from around the altar and then, over his shoulder, “c’mon, son. Fare’s been paid and you’ll only make things harder.” Three solemn figures emerge from the apse. Two women and a man. The pastor guides them with his hands but doesn’t touch.
The solemn three gather around their dark shepherd and pass a coin each from their hands to his, and he lets the payment fall into a leather purse at his hip with a muted clink, and the youngest of the women shudders. He stands with them while they shiver in obedient silence and wait for the pastor to coax their reluctant member from behind the altar. The witch keens with impatience and rends the thin-spun sky with the glinting white of her abhorred shears, and the flock fall unto themselves with a collective groan.
“Havin’ a time, ferryman,” calls the pastor above the hysterical climb of the cowering fourth.
Another screech from the sky-crone before the man turns heel and makes for his waiting horse and wain. “Stay,” he instructs when the shivering three raise their heads, “you’ll be leaving soon enough.” Once outside, he chances a glance at the sky and earns a flash of white for his hubris. He collects the horsewhip and returns to the sacred dark with more mud and water and less patience. The pastor rises from his stoop beside the altar and gives the man room to unfurl his whip. There are several crouched forms behind the altar. The crying man––a boy––sits separate from the others, and he lifts his wretched face to the whip and the man who wields it and begins wailing anew.
“G’on, son,” says the pastor with a grim face. His holy hands tremble. The boy covers his face and weeps above the chuckling crone, muttering oh God, please, Jesus God.
“God won’t wait for you. Neither will I.” The whip twists like a leather snake. Creaks and coils. “Get up.” The boy resists and the whip snaps the air. Another sob but no movement and whip bites across the boy’s ankles. A yelp and the boy is crawling to standing, sending pleading looks to his fellow apse dwellers. They look on with hollow eyes.
“You better off than them is, son.” The pastor hovers a hand above the youth’s shoulder but doesn’t touch. “Better off than them.”
Flock assembled, the man extends a hand to the cowering boy who regards it like one would a rattling massasauga. There’s courage left in him yet, and he fishes in his dirty trouser pocket for his coin and drops it into the waiting hand. The coin joins the others in the man’s purse, and then he tucks the whip beneath his armpit and walks with the knowledge that they’ll follow. The church doors waver ahead in the night’s madness, milky moonlight waiting at the threshold, like some open-armed redeemer waiting to receive them. The four slip on the shining wheels and planks of the cart as they clamber onto its sodden hay. The man assesses the sky again but is spared a second blinding. She’s settling some. He jerks his chin at the pastor lingering at the door. “Wait until we’re well in the fields before you let the others go.”
“They don’t pay, they don’t ride. Let them go when we get enough distance.”
The holy man reels and gazes heavenward, and this time the witch does clap a flare. He shields his eyes and mutters, “they’ll drown in this.”
“Dead men don’t drown.”
“They didn’t pay.”
A grumble reverberates across the sky. The man takes his seat and his reins and clicks the horse to move. The pastor crosses himself, mumbles the Lord’s prayer, the words fading beneath the groan of wagon wheels and pattering water. Not a soul moves about the town as they pass through; the mutt is missing from his rounds and the drunk has either returned to his cups or gone home.
The cart cuts through mud and sludge and then over the flattened shoots of dry bluegrass. A clattering sound separates itself from the rhythmic jangle of the wheels. The man turns in his seat to see the youngest woman shivering. It was her teeth. She trembled and her teeth clattered. He takes a coin from his purse that he knew to be her very own and instructs her to bite. The metal juts against her cheek. She fixes him with her limpid gaze and doesn’t look away even when he does, and when the cart clears the roughstalk and meets the dusty beginnings of the salt pan he can still feel their brand upon his skull. He’s borne heavier gazes, some grave and wild, and will carry many more. And he’ll remember them all just as he knows his way upon this road of which he’d been made to helm.
And the witch: she’s restless but weary from rage, and rustles the trees with her spent breath as she ponders the traveling tableau of the man and his burden moving through the dark. The holy dark.
Originally posted on the Reedsy blog using the prompt “Set your story in a place with extreme weather, but don’t use any weather-related words to describe it.”