Back | Next

Anyone who has spent some time studying the topography of Utah has undoubtedly noticed that seven of the mountain peaks in that state share a most unusual and, some would say, risqué name: Molly’s Nipple. But what if the naming convention was less prurient than it seems at first blush—and more sinister? Cunning Man Hiram Woolley thinks there might be more to the seven nipples, that the names on the map might be a map in and of themselves, one that will lead him to a dark secret at the bottom of an abandoned mine.

* * *

(Note: Readers who want more of Hiram Woolley’s adventures are in luck. Hiram returns November 2019 in the novel The Cunning Man by D.J. Butler and Aaron Michael Ritchey.)

The Seven Nipples
of Molly Kitchen

D.J. Butler

“There are seven, scattered all over the state,” Hiram Woolley said. His voice echoed in the mineshaft.

Looking over his shoulder, he saw the last light of the day splash pink over his Ford Model AA truck, which sat on the shoulder of the mountain. Below, the lights of Payson would be winking into life, though Hiram couldn’t see them. Payson was a small enough town that many of those lights came from kerosene lanterns, though the beet processing plant and the city buildings were all electric.

Then the shaft turned, and his truck disappeared from view.

No breeze brushed Hiram’s face; this was a mine with only one way out.

“Seven nipples?” Rose Callaghan asked.

“Seven mountain peaks named for her nipples. There’s also a butte, but that strikes me as a stretch. There’s a well, too. Some say eleven features in total, but on the maps I trust, I count seven.”

“You gotta pick your maps real careful, in this life.”

“Yes,” Hiram agreed. “And be willing to switch maps when you find you’ve been following a bad one.”

“This Molly Kitchen must have been a strange woman.”


Hiram followed Rose down into the mine, listening for footfalls other than hers and his. She was large, though he would have said she was bulky rather than fat, and her step was light. The sound of sand and pebbles grinding under the soles of his Red Wing Harvesters was gigantic by contrast. The denim of his overalls, crusted with dust from the road and from the farm, scraped together as he walked with a noise like the sound of a crosscut saw.

The shaft’s supports were rough-hewn logs rather than regular timbers or so-called cribs, railroad ties cut short and stacked in pairs lying in alternating directions to form columns. This was the work of a solitary miner or a small crew. The tunnel walls were irregular and the ceiling low, which suggested the same thing: no one would be driving a mule-cart of coal through these tunnels. Given the valley’s history, it had most likely been one man, solitary and half-crazed, during the silver boom.

They passed one side tunnel after another, and Hiram reached into the bib pocket of his overalls at each, scattering a small handful of the pocket’s contents in every opening. From time to time, he touched the chi-rho amulet hanging around his neck.

“Who was she, then?” Rose asked.

“There’s not much about her in the record,” Hiram said. “She’s not alone in that; records were a bit sketchy around here, seventy years ago.”

“You went up to Salt Lake and poked around in their cupboards, did you? They were the only ones writing anything down, back then. The Shoshone just remembered things, or told them to each other in songs.”

While she spoke, Hiram reached a hand into his pocket to cradle the heliotropius he carried. The green stone, streaked with blood-red stripes, warned him of deception.

“I have a friend at BY High,” he said. “He’s a librarian, and I find there’s little he can’t ferret out for me, in the way of facts on the record.”

“And facts off the record?”

“John Kitchen shows up clearly enough. Frontiersman type, like your John D. Lees and your Orrin Porter Rockwells. Led an early expedition, back before the Shoshones and the Utes had cleared out of the valleys and left them to the white settlers. And everywhere he went, he named a mountain peak after Molly.”

“After her nipple.”

“I guess he found that her most memorable feature.”

“Ain’t that just like a man?”

Hiram heard rustling at his feet. Shining the light of his electric torch deliberately ahead of him to keep his hands in obscurity, he threw grains down into the shadow. With a hiss and a scuffling sound, something unseen retreated, and then fell silent.

Rose stopped. Had she heard?

“I reckon that might be it,” Hiram admitted. “Men can be pretty predictable, especially that way. Though there’s another possibility, too.”

He kept walking. After a moment’s hesitation, Rose joined him. In the darkness of the mine, her bulk appeared to shift and twist underneath her calico dress.

“The missing children,” Hiram said. “What do you make of them?”

“Well, you know how it is,” Rose answered slowly. “Anytime anything happens that folk can’t explain, it must have been a witch. And if it was a witch, then all the widows have to keep their heads down.”

“Oh, it wasn’t a witch,” Hiram agreed.

“I suppose you’ve known your share of witches?” Rose asked slyly.

“As many as the next fellow,” Hiram admitted.

“More, I heard.”

Hiram felt a shiver in his spine. “What did you hear, then?”

Rose Callaghan purred with satisfaction. “You were sent down from Salt Lake, but you ain’t exactly a Salt Lake man, are you?”

“I’m from Lehi,” Hiram said. “I farm beets over there.”

Rose hissed. “That ain’t what I mean. I mean, you ain’t the regular Sunday School type.”

“I guess you better speak clearly, Mrs. Callaghan.” Sweat dripped into his eyes, and Hiram badly wanted to lift his fedora and mop the sweat with a handkerchief. Instead, he reached into the hip pocket of his overalls and put his hand on the cold butt of his pistol. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Where were the rest of the creatures?

Were they behind him, about to pounce?

Rose didn’t stop walking. “Your grandma was a witch. Payson ain’t so far away from Lehi that there ain’t a few around here who’d heard of her, in her day. Especially once the beet plant got built and Payson started taking all of Lehi’s beets.”

“She was a cunning woman.” Hiram blinked, sweat stinging his eyes. “She knew herbs, and some German prayers, and she could read the almanac.”

“And I heard tell you’re a cunning man, yourself.”

Hiram grunted without commitment. Who had she been talking to? “I’m willing to try whatever does the job.”

“Stone-peeping? Rod-work? A heavenly letter?”

“Whatever gets the task done,” Hiram repeated. “And doesn’t compromise my soul.”

It was Rose’s turn to grunt, a contented sound that might have come from a sow. “We’re almost there.”

“What were you doing so far down the mine, that you found the body?” Hiram asked knowing the answer would be a lie.

“Lost one of my dogs,” she said. “Followed it down here, and the poor creature came across the dead child.”

The heliotropius stung Hiram’s thigh, a sensation like being pinched by someone with strong fingers.

They walked a few steps in silence.

“If it ain’t a witch,” Rose said, “what do you think killed those children? You don’t agree with the fellow from the Star-Courier, the one who thinks it was an accident.”

“No accident drains the body entirely of blood like that.”

“A vampire, then?”

Hiram forced himself to chuckle. “Have you read Stoker’s novel? Do you imagine there might be a Transylvanian nobleman wandering around in Utah Valley, looking for sanatorium patients to enslave?”

Rose laughed lightly. “Then what? An illness? That would be a horrible abomination of an illness to drain so much blood out of a child.”

“It would be an abomination,” Hiram agreed. “I think something drank the blood from those children. But not a vampire. A monster. Something awful, something without a name.”

“You ain’t much of a wizard, if you can’t name your foe.”

“I didn’t say I was a wizard.” Hiram had a name to give his foe, but he wasn’t quite ready to share it. “I’m just a cunning man. More of a beet farmer than anything else, and I deliver groceries to people who have lost their jobs. I dig out collapsed ditches, settle fights over irrigation times, things like that.”

“You help the poor.”

“I try to help them.”

“Widows and orphans. Pure religion and undefiled.”

“You’ve read your Bible.”

“Ain’t everyone? And you try to solve the mysterious deaths of children in a small farming town.”

“The way I see it,” Hiram said, “those children were poor in life, but they’re even poorer now. They have no one to hear their story, no one who would even believe how they died. If nothing else, I can do them this last service. Even if I never really figure out what killed them. Even if I can’t stop the monster from killing again. I can do them the service of believing, and of trying to help.”

“Sad.” Rose Callaghan didn’t sound the slightest bit troubled.

“We almost there?”

“Almost. Bear with this fat old woman a little longer, Salt Lake City man.”

“Another possibility,” Hiram said, “is that John Kitchen was trying to give a warning.”

“What’s that?”

“By naming those mountain peaks the way he did.”

“What kind of warning does a man give by naming mountains after his wife’s breasts?”

“Some say it wasn’t his wife,” Hiram said. “No record, as such. Some remember it was his betrothed. But Molly Kitchen left no birth certificate and no death certificate. No record of baptism or marriage, nothing.”

“Maybe they never married.”

“Maybe not,” Hiram allowed.

“Maybe they were just poor. Records are especially bad where poor folk are concerned.”

“True,” Hiram said. “Or maybe she ate him.”

Rose laughed, a sharp edge that shaded into a cackle. “That’s a dark joke, cunning man.”

The heliotropius didn’t pinch Hiram, but it trembled anxiously.

“I see it like this,” Hiram said. “This very mountain was the first. It was where John started, and somehow he got the right to put a name on the map for it. Then as he traveled, he left a string of ‘Molly’s Nipples’ behind him. Seven of them all told, just counting the mountains, but it started here. He was warning us about something, and we missed it. We missed it for seventy years and more.”

Rose Callaghan snorted. “Warning us his bride was deformed? Maybe that’s why he ran off and joined Brigham’s expedition.”

“Maybe he was trying to get away,” Hiram agreed. “His end in the record is a bit mysterious, too, but folks around Payson agree he came back, and he died here. Of sickness, some say, or accident. Some remember that the death was a surprise, and a bit mysterious.”

“Folks will repeat all kinds of nonsense.”

“Seventy years isn’t all that long. There’s old folks in the valley who were alive then. Even old folks who were adults when John Kitchen came back from his journey.”

“And you think Molly Kitchen killed him?”

“No.” He meant it. She was toying with him now, trying to draw out what he’d learned. Perhaps she wanted to find out who else knew, and whether she should strike at his son Michael, in the boarding house back in town.

He could try to take her now.

Only he hadn’t accounted for them all. If she wanted to draw him deeper into the mine, there might be more of the beasts.

“No,” he said again, “I don’t think Molly Kitchen killed her husband. And I don’t think she killed any of the other people who have died in these hills since, missing without trace or found drained of blood.”

“Then what do you think it was?”

“Monsters,” Hiram said. “Things beyond human ken. Things that have no name. Things about which nothing is written in any of our books.”

“That sounds terrifying.” Her voice was cold and remote.

And lonely.

Hiram felt a pang in his heart and swallowed it. What had her life been like, all these years with such a dark secret? All these years, with no one to tell it to?

And had she told John Kitchen, before he died?

Did she mourn his death still, the death of her last companion?

He heard a slithering in the darkness. He almost missed it, distracted by his strangled feelings of compassion for Molly Kitchen, but he was alert enough to shine the light on ahead and throw a handful of crystals into the crack from whence the slithering sound emanated.

“We’re here,” Rose Callaghan said.

The tunnel had ended in a sudden wall, no chamber as such, but just a termination of the mine shaft.

“There’s no body, Molly,” Hiram said.

If she noticed his use of her name, she showed no sign. “There will be.”

Hiram shone the light on the calico that sheathed Molly Kitchen’s torso and shuffled his feet as if uneasy. The silver beam hid the action of his other hand, scattering crystals on the dirt, and his Red Wings masked the sound.

“What’s it like?” he asked.

“I don’t kill them,” she said.

“I guessed that. I believe you, and I don’t mean what’s it like to kill. I mean, what’s it like to be alone? With . . . them?”

“They don’t talk,” she said, after a brief pause. “And who would I tell about them? Who would believe it, other than you? Who could bear the knowledge?”

Hiram’s shoulders felt heavy. He nodded.

“Do you want to see them?” she offered.

He didn’t. He felt ill. He wanted to flood the entire shaft with gasoline and drop a match.

He nodded.

She undid the buttons down the front of her dress. Responding to the touch of her fingers, the fabric moved as if it were itself a living thing.

Or as if there were other creatures moving beneath it.

She opened her dress.

“I count two,” Hiram said. They clung to her body, jaws clamped fiercely onto her flesh, long and red, like serpents with a single powerful pair of legs, just behind their skulls. The skulls were disturbingly human in shape, like the skulls of newborn children. If the creatures had skin, Hiram couldn’t see it—they seemed to be composed entirely of blood, not clotted blood, but red, living blood, holding itself together in this shape by some sorcery so foul, Hiram could scarcely imagine it.

And he could not countenance its survival.

“You destroyed two,” Molly said. She wasn’t, after all, a fat woman. Her face was swollen and puffy, but in this light it looked like the swelling of rot and corruption. Her body was skeletal. “With fire.”

“It wasn’t just me,” Hiram said, and then regretted it. It had been Michael who had sloshed gasoline on the two feeding monsters and ignited them. Still trying to protect his son, Hiram had told the boy he had killed a couple of large reptiles. Gila monsters, perhaps, or some desert lizard that had not yet been added to the catalog.

“But you didn’t bring your gas can down here, did you, Salt Lake City man?”

“No.” Hiram felt a deep sense of sorrow and pity. He must not let it stay his hand. “Were they actual nipples, once?”

Molly Kitchen nodded. “I was born with them. Mere nubs of flesh, no use to me any more than yours serve you. I never had a natural child. Just these queer body-memories of an ancient time and a more ancient pact.”

“What pact?” Hiram asked.

“My family.” Molly didn’t volunteer any more.

“What family is that?” Hiram pressed. Were these same monsters killing elsewhere, clinging to the grotesque form of some cousin of Molly’s? And where would that be? Hiram had no idea where Molly came from, or who her kin were.

Molly said nothing.

Hiram tried another approach. “And you renewed that pact?”

“They came to me,” Molly said. “It was before I knew John. And I had two of them before he and I were engaged to be married, and seven by the time of our wedding night. I tried to keep them from him. I . . . I thought I had.”

“Until he published his warning to the whole world.”

“I had to kill him. They had to kill him. My only other choice was to flee into the wilderness, and live the life of a monster. Can you understand that, cunning man?”

Hiram sighed. “You . . . nurse them.”

“It isn’t milk.”

“It’s blood,” Hiram said.

The two monsters on Molly’s body unlatched their mouths from their hostess and glared at Hiram, gripping Molly’s thigh and her upper arm. Hiram saw nothing that any longer resembled a human nipple, but seven oozing bloody sores. Two of them rested on Molly’s chest where an ordinary woman’s nipples would have been.

He stepped back, scattered more of the crystals on the ground.

They only had forelegs, but was it possible that the monsters could jump? Or worse, fly?

“They’re made of blood.” He hoped fervently he was right.

“Are they?” Molly furrowed her thinning eyebrows and glared at Hiram.

“We’ll find out,” he said.

The creatures leaped from Molly’s body toward Hiram. They landed on the dry dirt, where Hiram had scattered the two handfuls of rock salt.

The monsters shrieked in pain. Their forward momentum died, and they flopped on the salt and sand like caught fish on the bank of a lake.

“No!” Molly’s face curled into a fist as she wailed.

Was she dangerous? Hiram had to worry about her later. He shot a hand into his other hip pocket and grabbed the large glass bottle of Vi-Jon Hospital Brand Solution of Hydrogen Peroxide. Fumbling, he lost the cap.

Molly leaped at him over her foul offspring—

he sloshed peroxide on both the monsters, spilling too much in his efforts but hitting both of them—

they erupted into bubbles and pink fizz, spattering blood in all directions. Tiny bloody jaws opened and tiny claws clenched and unclenched as they sank into the pink foam and disappeared.

Molly crashed into Hiram.

He fell down under the surprising force of her charge. She was much heavier than she looked, as if her bones were plated with lead. He dropped the Vi-Jon solution and lost sight of it. He kicked, the flashlight spinning away into darkness, and the bottom of the tunnel became a funhouse nightmare of flashing light, shrieking, spittle, and nails clawing into his forearm.

“Don’t!” he bellowed.

She didn’t slow down, and then the same weight that had knocked him prone grabbed Hiram around the throat and squeezed. She bore down on top of him, howling and reeking of blood. In the darkness, he couldn’t see her face.

But he found the pistol in his pocket.

“You murdered my children, cunning man!”

He jerked the weapon out and squeezed the trigger.


Of course, the hammer had been on an empty chamber for safety.

“Molly!” he shouted, one last time.

Molly Kitchen sank her teeth into his neck.

He squeezed again, and this time was rewarded with a kick and a bang, and the infernal stink of gunpowder.

Molly slumped onto him, still.

Hiram’s ears rang. He stood and found the light. Checking, he found the bloody puddles that were all that remained of Molly Kitchen’s two monster-children. He clapped a hand to his neck and it came away red as well, but not so much so that he had to worry about bleeding to death on the spot.

He checked Molly. Her body sagged like a waterskin with a bullet hole in it, blood pouring out into the sand. He stared as the last of the gore exited, leaving behind a slack husk with facial features, rucked about a distorted skeleton. Dead, she appeared to have no muscles or viscera. Skin, bones, and blood, that was all that had remained of Molly Kitchen.

Had she been a bright young child once? Had she been quiet and watchful, like Michael?

He could still see the seven nipples, like seven wounds.

“I’m sorry.”

Hiram tried not to think of what he was feeling. He found the peroxide bottle on its side, with some solution still in it. Slowly, he trudged back up the mineshaft. At each side passage or hollow where he’d heard movement and responded by throwing down salt, he found another of the blood-beasts, trembling in pain on the bed of white crystal.

He poured down a little Vi-Jon on each monster, bursting each in turn. He patiently watched them dissolve into nothing under the firm light of his electric torch, to be certain nothing survived.

At the mouth of the mine, a cool breeze blew over his Double-A. He brought the gas can down into the shaft, along with a box of kitchen matches and a long-handled shovel.

How must it have felt to be Molly Kitchen? Separated by her gruesome nature, by the realization in her body of what she had called the “ancient pact,” and severed from her husband by the same. A lonely woman would talk to herself. Eventually, she would talk to the monsters clinging to her flesh, and decide they were her children.

When had Molly Kitchen become a monster herself?

He dug a shallow trench in the ground at the bottom of the shaft and laid Molly in it. Staring down at the distorted sack of skin, he tried to think of words to say. At the end, all he could do was touch the Saturn ring on his finger, the dream-provoking charm that had brought him to Molly, and repeat: “I’m sorry.”

He doused her with gasoline, then burned her, then covered the ashes with dirt.

He burned the bloodstains that had once been her monstrous children, for good measure.

Then he stood in the night breeze, leaning against the Double-A, and staring down at the lights of Payson.

He would tell Michael nothing, of course. They would drive together back to Lehi in the morning, and they would talk only of the irrigation ditch they’d dug out together. This was knowledge of the sort one kept from the young.

The sky was pale blue over the eastern mountains before he finally started the car to drive back.

Back | Next