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“Weeping Willikers” by Aaron Michael Ritchey

Hiram Woolley didn’t need his bloodstone or his Saturn ring or any sort of help to know that he didn’t want to answer the door. That knock sounded angry. It was only a matter of time before the neighbors, especially one neighbor, came calling. He’d hoped to get away with his bit of charity unnoticed. That wasn’t meant to be.

He swung open the door. Mavis Keaner stood on his front porch, hands clenched. Mrs. Keaner liked her rose water and cold cream. She’d missed a line of white under her left eye, a glaring eye, nearly closed with an infected stye. Her mouth was small, tight, and wrinkled. Her blue dress was as faded as it was loose on her slim, spare frame. The lace was nice, though.

“Mr. Woolley, I know your property is your property, and I know living with your wild, troubled son must not be easy, and I know that in these trying times, it is our Christian duty to give comfort, but . . . ” A blush rose in her cheeks.

Michael, his son, was out at the creek with some of his friends. However, Mrs. Keaner hadn’t come to his beet farm to talk about Hiram’s questionable parenting. She had to include the remark in preparation for future tirades.

“You know a lot,” Hiram said quietly.

Mrs. Keaner leaned in and glanced around. The furniture might be dusty, but the floor was just swept. And he hoped the doilies covered up most of the grime. Hiram was a lean widower, wind-beaten and balding. It was easy for her to inspect his equally questionable housekeeping.

She leaned in as he leaned out to get a glimpse of his fields, greening, though the spring was coming in cold.

Mrs. Keaner straightened and brushed a hand down her blue dress. “Let me get right to the point. While offering those hobos a place to stay on your land is charitable, it threatens the stability and safety of your neighbors, surely you can see . . . ” And then she rattled on and on like an automobile that had to idle hard or stop for good.

Hiram scratched the back of his neck and let her go on and on. He nodded. He agreed with most everything she said. And when she finally found a place to pause, he kept it short.

“The Eggers are a family, not just men,” Hiram said. “They’ve had a rough go of it. The dust bowl, you know. Come in from their farm in southern Colorado. A lot of misfortunes.”

Too much bad luck for it to be luck. Hiram knew that sooner or later he’d need to use the knowledge to help them. Something was eating away at the family, worrying them, like how a dog will worry and chew at a bad leg. They were on their way to work a relative’s apple orchard in Washington. That was the hope, at any rate.

If Mrs. Keaner heard him, she didn’t show it. “And the baby! I do have good ears, or so my husband says, and I hear that baby’s crying both day and night. I have never seen, well, heard, such a bad case of colic. You know how you fix that?” Again, she glanced into his house, and then waited, expecting him to invite her in or do some other sort of mannerly gesture.

Or to answer her question. Hiram knew dozens of cures for a colicky baby. And he could cure her stye without too much fuss. However, Mrs. Keaner didn’t want a word from him. It was what Michael would’ve called a rhetorical question.

Good thing Michael wasn’t around. He had a way of baiting people, and Mrs. Keaner was already on the hook.

“Why, you rub a little honey on the gums,” she said. “But in such a severe case as the Eggers baby—”

Cecil, Hiram thought. The baby’s name is Cecil, and he knows things aren’t right. He knows, and that’s why he cries and cries.

Hiram thumbed the Saturn ring on his finger. He’d been having bad dreams that put needles in his gut.

The woman rattled on. “I’d make my gripe water, which of course, involves crushed fennel seeds and strong spirits, whiskey or rye. While that is against our religion, Mr. Woolley, one can never . . . ”

Hiram needed to get out of the conversation. If only he had a charm to make a polite exit.

He’d have to lie, but only a little, for truth was his shield, his sword his sober and chaste mind. Hiram touched his stomach. “Mrs. Keaner. I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling well. If you’ll excuse me, I do believe I need to make a visit to the johnny house out back.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie.

When Mrs. Keaner wound herself up to offer still more advice, he was forced to shut the door.

Still she pounded. “And if you have the dime for it, Mr. Woolley, there is castor oil.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Keaner!” He stomped his feet, so she’d hear him march through his spare home and out the back door. He managed to get wiring for electricity, but he’d not made the jump to indoor plumbing yet. Michael was forever threatening to leave if they didn’t get a water closet, yet it didn’t seem right to reach for comforts when the rest of the nation struggled under the Depression.

Heaven was kind. Mrs. Keaner didn’t follow him around back.

Yet Hiram wasn’t done for the evening. Another chore awaited him.

Standing in the field was Tom Eggers. He was weeping, holding his hat, a strong man brought low.

Hiram didn’t hear the baby.

In his dreams, he always heard the baby.

* * *

At the Eggers camp on the corner of Hiram’s property, the family had set up a tent and a lean-to tied to the homemade trailer they pulled with their Model A. The canvas was staked to the ground. A big hutch had been lashed to the top of a pile of furniture in the trailer. Chicken nesting boxes were stacked around the truck, full of dish towels and some china.

The children stood under the lean-to. They had clean faces, but the dirt of their journey marked their necks and ears. The boys wore patched britches of rough cloth. The girls wore flower sack dresses which couldn’t have been soft. They all smelled of the old smoke of their morning campfire. Hiram had given them bundles of beets, and they’d eaten them, greens and all, fried in pork fat.

The mother of the bunch, Helen Eggers, stood in front of them, her arms crossed. A yellow dress covered long underwear as if she couldn’t shake the morning chill. A lean woman, she fought to keep warm. Hiram’s late wife, Elmina, had been similar.

Helen chewed something, maybe a bit of tobacco. “Cecil is gone, Mr. Woolley. Just gone.”

Addie Beth was twenty but seemed younger. She was a twitchy, jittery creature. A red splotch marked her left hand where she had but a thick thumb and two fingers grown together. The defect left her left hand a crimson crayfish’s claw. Her pale right hand would strike out in intervals when she wasn’t scratching at her wild blonde hair.

Her eyes, though, were blue, with thick lashes, and there was a cleverness that belied her twitches and chatter. The young woman’s face was clean of tears, and she’d washed behind her ears. It seemed all the weeping was to be done by her father, who kept blowing his nose into his handkerchief, yellowed from snot and use.

“Ma’s right,” Addie Beth said. “I’s was washing my face in a tub down the way. I set Cecil down. With the water in my eyes, I couldn’t see a lick. I turned and Cecil was gone.”

Twitching wasn’t enough for Addie Beth. A nervousness filled her, and it could only come out in nonsense songs. She couldn’t help it. Her condition was going to make finding a husband for her a bit difficult, yet those eyes just might do the trick.

Addie Beth tried to keep her song in, but she couldn’t. “Willikers, Willikers, no one’s seen Willikers, because Willikers can’t be seen.”

A shiver went through Hiram. Growing up, when his mother and grandmother were as upright in their speech as they were in their dress and their religion, while other kids could say “Jeeze,” or “Jeezum Crow,” or “Gee Whillikens,” Hiram’s mother would blanch and correct Hiram because “Jeezum” was close enough to blasphemy to count. Even “Gee Willikers” was too much for the Woolleys.

After Hiram’s father left for Mexico with his other family, and his mother disappeared years later, Grandma Hettie hadn’t relaxed. She’d tell him that the cunning folk’s power lay in their speech, and their words should come out carefully. “Keep a prayer on your lips, Hiram, and goodness in your heart. In the end, every word you say is a spell.”

Hiram stood with his right hand in his pocket, gripping his heliotropus, the bloodstone he kept with him always. Around his neck, hidden by work shirt and overalls, hung the chi-roh amulet, with the words IN HOC SIGNO VINCES etched into the iron. On his finger, where his wedding band should be, he wore a Saturn ring.

Addie Beth sighed. “Sorry, Ma. Sorry, Pa. I can’t keep my songs quiet sometimes. I feel bad.”

Gripping the stone, he waited to see if he felt a tinge. No, Addie Beth was telling the truth.

Tom let out a fresh sob. He couldn’t stop weeping. After losing a kid to pneumonia and then their precious baby to something else, Hiram couldn’t blame the man for his tears.

Yet Hiram found the man troubling, as troubling as the Willikers chant that had burst from Addie Beth.

Helen Eggers fought her despair with plain old hate. “You find him, Tom. You find him, or you’ll be burying me on this goddamn beet field ‘cause I won’t lose another child. I’d rather cut my own goddamn throat then live another goddamn day being tortured by our goddamn bad luck.”

Hiram frowned at her blasphemy. That wouldn’t help them any nor would her despair. His dreams came back to him—a baby in the forest, wailing. Cecil. And something was in the woods with him.

The Eggers weren’t unlucky. Something foul thing clung to them like a goathead thorn pushed into the bottom of a boot.

“I’ll need something of Cecil’s,” Hiram muttered. “Something personal. We’ll find him. We’ll fix it . . . if the Lord Divine is kind this day.”

Helen’s laugh was sharp and humorless. At least she didn’t curse.

* * *

Down the way, by an old tin tub collecting rainwater, neither Tom, nor Addie Beth, nor Hiram found any trace of footprints. It was like an eagle had swooped down to steal the baby away.

Hiram missed the cries of the babe. At least he’d been alive and squawking. Now, he was simply gone. In Hiram’s dreams, that cry was never silenced. He’d have faith Cecil still lived until the world showed him differently.

Hiram had retrieved his toolbox and carried it over his shoulder with a wide leather strap. He’d removed screwdrivers, wrenches, and other more mundane implements and added his revolver, a big flashlight, and a Y-shaped rod of witch hazel. At the same time, he’d left a note for Michael, letting his son know he’d be home late. Hiram was hopeful that meant by sunset, midnight at the latest.

Tom sniffed. “Whatcha got there, Mr. Woolley?”

The beet farmer shrugged. “Just some things.” He thought of warning them that they might not understand everything he said and did. Instead, he figured their grief would make the next few hours hazy. As long as they found the baby, there probably wouldn’t be a lot of questions.

“He’s gonna fix it, Pa. He’s gonna use his toolkit to fix things. We’s gonna find Cecil. Hiram is a righteous man, a Christian man, who let us squat on his property while his neighbors fussed at him. Why, that Mrs. Keaner gave him an earful.” Addie Beth waved her claw around until she used her other hand to grab it and settle it down. Then she scratched at herself. At least one louse in her mess of hair surely lost its life to her itching. “Willikers!”

The sun was being a little too quick crossing the sky. They didn’t have much time.

“Cecil is gonna be hungry! Willikers!” Addie Beth shouted. Then she shushed herself. “I’ll be quiet, Mr. Woolley. While you work. You’re gonna work it, I know’d it.”

Hiram nodded and took the witch hazel rod from the toolbox, closing it quickly to hide his gun. After the second night of listening to Cecil cry in his dreams, Hiram had taken the rod, peeled it, and soaked it in nightshade. Now it was dry and discolored.

“Did Cecil have any special nicknames?” Hiram asked.

Tom’s face crumbled into more weeping.

Addie Beth again had to quiet her crayfish hand. “Nope. Just Cecil.”

Using his clasp knife, Hiram carved three crosses, then the name CECIL EGGERS, then three more crosses. “Thanks, Addie. This rod should lead us to your brother.”

“Gosh,” Tom murmured. “When I was a boy, a man down the road had a rod like that. He said he could find water, and gee willikers, did it work. He found a well for the parson when he moved in.”

Willikers. There was that word again.

“Water. Treasure. But other things.” Hiram closed his eyes and gripped the rod. He said a long prayer. He’d skipped lunch. That was good. His hunger would sharpen his senses. A fasting man was a righteous man, and he would need all his righteousness to find the lost babe.

Wasn’t a baby the greatest of treasures? Even when the gravy went thin, and every child’s mouth seemed forever empty, a baby made things all right.

“Am I Hiram Woolley?” Hiram felt the rod jerk in his hand.

“Did Herbert Hoover win the 1932 election?” The rod remained still.

“Is Cecil Eggers still alive?” Again, the rod moved as if touched.

Tom choked out a sob.

Hiram held out a hand. “Addie Beth, if you please.”

She gave him a frayed piece of cloth, blue, as soft as puppy fur. A crust of the baby’s spit-up stiffened one corner.

Hiram wrapped the cloth around his rod. He whispered Psalm 67, asking for God’s mercy. He didn’t need to say Cecil’s name again. The rod was primed and wanting to find him.

Hiram had walked ten paces toward the Wasatch Mountains when he realized Tom and Addie Beth weren’t behind him. “Follow me and keep close,” Hiram said.

They marched out from Hiram’s fields. He held the barbed wire marking his property to let Tom and Addie Beth slip through. Tom had turned off his tears, for now, and yet his handkerchief was in his hand.

Tom couldn’t hold his eyes steady when he looked at Hiram. The man would glance away. Was that a man ashamed of his poverty and his desperation? Or was there guilt in that gaze?

Addie Beth couldn’t stop herself from her chatter. “I feel plumb awful for losing Cecil. I was responsible, but a girl can’t always be watching. I turned a second. Ma says that. When Ollie or Randal gets away from her, she says that. I say it too. But it’s our luck, ain’t it, Pa? It’s our luck.”

“I reckon it is, Addie Beth. I reckon it is.” He sniffled, hawked, and spat.

Hiram followed the witch hazel wand across Lyman Johnson’s fields. An hour later, three miles at least, they found the trail that switched-backed up the bald face of the Wasatch Mountains. There used to be pine forests there, but early settlers had taken every stick. Now, scrub oak created a tangle. The path cut through it, up and around, until the trail dropped them down into a little crack of a valley. A stream swollen with the snowmelt burbled down over rocks. Here, pines perfumed the crack.

Evening was upon them. There wasn’t a doubt in Hiram’s mind he’d be using the flashlight in his toolbox. The cool air made the pines even sweeter, and the dampness of the water felt good after the dry miles. He hoped it wasn’t going to be a dry spring. If it was, he’d have to do a little rain magic, but it never felt so honest casting that charm, since the rain had a way of wetting his fields and ignoring the Keaners and the Johnsons.

A shudder ran through Addie Beth’s arms. “First the farm goes. It was a shame. And then, Willikers, on the road, we lose little Bart. Not even two. We buried him. Afore that, we had bad blood with Uncle William. He took his family and left us. Maybe it was good. He wouldn’t have wanted to wait for a funeral. In Rock Springs, that’s in Wyoming, the preacher said the words for free. We got a little luck there, but then he said awful things to Pa.”

“Don’t.” Tom warned.

Hiram wondered what the preacher had said.

Addie Beth walked up the trail, her boots churning up dirt. She let out a strangled yell, then, “Willikers, the truck breaks in the Rockies. Pa spent the night working on her. Had to walk to town. Willikers. Gone a long time. Back at it. We thought our mis-mis-misfortunes were behind us. I won’t miss our misfortunes. When we wail in our sorrow, who is there to hear? Willikers! Washington is a long ways away.”

“Enough, now,” Tom said. His eyes were red, and his face was pale, and those eyes, so furtive. “We ain’t got bad luck. God is testing us. But we’ll pass it. We’re good . . . you and I are good people.”

Hiram felt the bloodstone in his pocket pinch his thigh. He paused, sweating. Hunger and bad feelings knotted his gut. The heliotropus protected him from venom and trickery. It felt the treachery—the Eggers family were good people.

Holding the rod wrapped in the blue cloth with his left hand, he gripped the bloodstone in his right. He prayed silently. God in Heaven, if there is treachery in the Eggers family, show me the culprit. Help me to win them back into your love.

The bloodstone stayed quiet in his hand. It even cooled a bit.

Who was the problem? The girl hadn’t wept, but neither did the mother. The man was out of his wits, all right. Was Addie Beth any less crazy?

“What’s the problem, Mr. Woolley?” Addie Beth asked.

“Don’t know yet,” Hiram whispered.

He withdrew his hand to grip the Mosaical rod. They continued their trek up the path. Every time he tried to quiet his mind, the girl would break out in a nonsense song.

And the sun was getting low—the day folding itself into the night. The evening star appeared in the sky, a powerful astral entity.

They had a moment of quiet.

Addie Beth choked, grunted, but couldn’t keep her song in. “Willikers, Willikers, someone loves Willikers, but Willikers loves no one!”

Another shiver tickled his neck. The bloodstone felt like an ember in the pocket of his overalls.

They topped a ridge and stopped in the bloody light of the sunset. A crag jutted into the air above them on their right. To the left lay the stream and pines. Down from them, fifty feet away, stood a ramshackle building of gray wood, an old mining shack, fifty years old at least. Trees clustered around the building. Some ragged bit of cloth flapped on the door. It was neither canvas nor oilcloth—it didn’t have that stiffness to it. A tight roll of the cloth was stuffed in the top of the shack’s door to keep it closed.

A baby’s squall drifted on the last breezes of the day.

Gooseflesh broke out over Hiram’s arms. The rod jerked itself out of his hands. It and the blue cloth fell to the dirt.

A vision came to him. He was dizzy from hunger and from the stink of Tom and his daughter. Was it their strong odor? Or was it oozing out of the shack? Something was in that cluster of rotten wood, something old and poisoned. And powerful.

Hiram bent over, hands on his knees, breathing hard. His Saturn ring itched him. In his mind’s eye, he saw the witch inside the shack. The witch was naked; it had long, greasy hair covering a face far dirtier than anyone sane would allow. It clutched the baby to a chest, where one impossible misshapen breast hung, marked with an angry red nipple, a cyst of a nipple, as scum-ridden and foul as the rest of the witch’s skin. The other part of the thing’s chest was flat, muscled, and hairy.

Hiram closed his eyes. The witch radiated lust. It wanted the touch of the man or the girl—it had caressed one of them before. But which one?

Hiram opened his eyes and straightened.

Tom let out a strangled cry. “Cecil!” He went to run toward the shack.

Hiram kicked the man’s boots out from under him. Tom went sprawling into the dirt. His thick-knuckled hand clawed at the dirt. He didn’t get up angry. He laid face down into the dirt and wept. Addie Beth stood over her father, her crayfish hand and normal hand gesticulating.

Hiram’s eyes adjusted enough to see into the gloom. A blue dress hung on that shack. A blue dress with white lace that could’ve come off Mrs. Keaner’s body.

* * *

“Willikers, why’d you kick my pa, Mr. Woolley?” Addie Beth asked in a somber voice.

He turned to her. She raised those pretty blue eyes to Hiram. He’d seen eyes like that before. A memory broke through his sweat and hunger. He recalled a church social, held after a long day of God and fellowship. Irene Smith had been there, a girl his age. He’d tried to cross the room to talk to her—he was young, uncertain, and he couldn’t get his courage up. He watched her laugh with her friends, and every so often, she’d throw those blue eyes at him, and he’d look away.

Addie Beth took his hand. “The baby’s in that shack, Mr. Woolley. You might want to go down there.”

He could feel the heat off her. And her stink didn’t seem so bad. In fact, there was a sweetness there, a subtle perfume. Not soap but rose water. A faint ghost of how Mrs. Keaner smelled. It was the witch’s lust, affecting him, maybe getting to Addie Beth as well. Or was the girl herself the source?

The baby wasn’t crying now. Cecil was sucking on the witch’s unnatural teat. The baby wouldn’t get milk. What would he get?

Addie’s voice was quiet. “We done found Cecil, Mr. Woolley. You found him. So go on.”

Hiram didn’t want the baby harmed. However, he didn’t like Addie’s heat nor her prodding. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and shook the young woman’s hand out of his own. Tom continued to weep into the dirt.

Hiram found enough spit in his dry mouth, to ask “What did the preacher say to your pa?”

Tom tried to get to his feet. He failed, too weak it seemed, and sat down on his backside and cradled his arms. His eyes were on the shack.

Addie Beth grunted. She was trying to keep her secret. She raised her hands and shook them, then she wrapped her arms around herself. “Leviticus! He quoted Leviticus at Pa! Willikers! Willikers! Willikers!”

It wasn’t just a bastardized curse word.

She let out a strangled cry then sang her nonsense song one last time. “Willikers, Willikers, Daddy loves Willikers, but Willikers loves no one.”

Tom was rocking back and forth, moaning.

Hiram knew the truth of it all. His bloodstone burned in his pocket. It was good, but his chi-roh amulet was far more powerful. Hiram drew it out from his work shirt. The dark had fallen on the shack. It was like someone had switched off the sunset.

He set down his toolbox and grabbed his flashlight. He stuck his revolver in his pocket.

The door to the shack creaked open.

He clicked on the big flashlight and lit up the shack. Willikers, the witch’s name was Willikers, was pulling the blue dress over its head. It might’ve been a human being once, but now, it wasn’t anything close to a person. It was a creature of darkness and lust. Inhuman.

The baby squalled from inside the shack—those weren’t hungry cries. He had fed on whatever nastiness had oozed out of the witch’s breast. Cecil bawled out of fear.

Willikers floated toward up the trail toward them. Its toenails and fingernails were long, black, chitinous, like the backside of a beetle. The blue dress hung off its body, one side of its chest full, the other empty.

Hiram let go of his amulet and pulled his revolver out of his pocket. The first fall of the hammer struck an empty chamber; it was an old trick he’d used for safety. The second trigger pull wasn’t any better. The weapon clicked uselessly in his hands. The witch must’ve jammed his gun. Hiram dropped the revolver.

Addie sucked in a breath. “Please, no, please. We just want our Cecil back. I’s sorry. I’s was scared, and my condition, it was my condition.”

Hiram doubted that. But he had no doubts about the accusations the preacher had hurled at Tom. The preacher must’ve seen the family man’s wandering eye during the funeral, or else perhaps the preacher had an eye for such men himself. Sometimes those who quoted Leviticus 18 and 20 the loudest, were the ones who struggled the most.

Shining his light on the thing, Hiram gripped his chi-roh amulet in a sweaty hand. If only he had time to start a fire, he might have been able to hurt Willikers with a witch bottle. That wasn’t going to happen.

The baby’s wail seemed to get louder and louder.

“Tell me the truth, Tom,” Hiram said in a choked voice. “I can hold it off. But you need to tell me the truth.”

“And my truth, too” Addie Beth sobbed. “When Bart died, it hurt me. Willikers knew it. It whispered to me, and I whispered back. At first, I thought Willikers wanted me. No, Willikers wanted Pa. And Pa wanted Willikers.”

Hiram jerked Addie to her father, so she stood over him. Hiram then jumped in front of them both. He raised the chi-roh amulet. His flashlight went out. He didn’t bother to shake it. If Willikers could disable his gun, it could extinguish his light source. Hiram could almost feel those beetle-back fingernails at his throat. He dropped the flashlight and clung to his faith.

“Tom, this is your doing,” Hiram said, trying to keep his voice strong. “Tell me.”

“I was lonely. My wife is fine, but I get lonely in other ways,” Tom said.

A rotten smell stifled them. Around and around them, the witch floated. The sky was moonless; midnight darkness covered the trail. The only lights were the twin glimmerings of Williker’s eyes. In front of them, behind them, on this side, then that.

Only the chi-roh amulet kept Williker’s nails out of their flesh. Hiram kept the amulet between Willikers and its prey. In his hand, the circle of iron was ice cold.

“I’m sorry for it,” Tom said in a hushed voice. “I tried to be strong, and I prayed to God for strength to fight it. I failed Him, myself, my family. Willikers was around, always around, whispering at us after Bart died. Like Addie said. When the truck broke down, and I had to walk to town. Willikers whispered to me. I went to it. It said it’d let us go in peace if I laid with it, but I know’d its promise was a lie. But it was a lie that I so wanted to believe.”

“I forgive you,” Hiram said. “I forgive you both. This world can be a sorrow, a bitter place, and sometimes the lies are just too sweet.”

Willikers floated in front of them. Its long hair was like the night itself. Its vile eyes gleamed like diamonds locked in rock.

“Go on, witch, git!” Hiram yelled. “Your hold on this family is over. They are righteous folk, and they are under my protection now.”

Willikers might’ve laughed, or it might’ve screamed, but Hiram was done with this beast. Hymns, psalms, prayers, a dozen passages from the Bible rose up in Hiram’s mind. Too much fire filled his glands for him to pick. He finally chose one that was tried and true and that both the man and his daughter would know. Hiram raised his voice in the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in Heaven!”

Tom staggered over to him. Hiram pulled him close. Addie Beth did as well. She clung to Hiram. She was strong, and her arms squeezed him. However, she was controlling her condition enough to join him in prayer. Her father followed along.

The three prayed the Our Father in the darkness, over and over, at least three times all the way through.

The flashlight on the ground winked on. The light fell on the blue dress, lying in the dirt, a pile of empty cloth. Willikers was gone.

* * *

Hiram found the baby lying on the dirt floor of the shack. Cecil was wrapped in a blue gingham blanket. He shrieked, sobbed, shrieked some more, as Hiram carried him back to Tom and Addie Beth. When the baby smelled Addie Beth, he reached out two chubby arms. She took him, and little Cecil hiccupped and shuddered himself quiet.

The three weren’t ready to make the journey back, not yet. It was a good couple of hours at a fast clip back to Hiram’s farm. Hiram hoped Helen would hold off on her suicide until they returned. The worst of their troubles were over, or so Hiram prayed. He’d send them on with a protection lamen he’d write up on virgin parchment. It was their faith, however, that would keep them safe.

Cecil slept, held by Addie Beth, who wasn’t as jittery now. She seemed able to control her outbursts, and when she did have to talk, she whispered nice things to her baby brother, and no more talk of Willikers.

They sat on the trail with the flashlight in the middle of them, balanced on Hiram’s toolbox.

Hiram had slaked his thirst from the stream. His hunger felt distant.

Tom wasn’t weeping. He sat staring off into the distance. “I’ll change in Washington. I won’t be a sinner no more. I swear it.”

Hiram was at a loss of what to say. Maybe he should hate the girl for whispering back to the witch, and maybe he should hate the man who had let himself be seduced. He couldn’t. Temptations were something he understood, and when times were tough, those temptations could turn overwhelming. He thought of his momentary weakness with Addie Beth and the memories of Irene Smith.

Hiram had to say something. He still clutched his amulet in his fist and prayed for the words. They came. “Be kind to yourself, Tom. Be kind to your family. Do what you can. We were not born sinners. We were born perfect. We were made in His image after all.”

Tom surprised Hiram by chuckling. “Made in His image? I have these feelings. And Addie Beth has her condition. What does that say about Him? What does that say about us?”

Hiram gazed up at the stars. The finer points of theology were lost on him. He kept it simple. “A cracked bucket can still carry water.”

“Only if it’s not cracked too much,” Tom said.

“And maybe you aren’t cracked at all.” Hiram knew a thing or two about being an outsider. “Maybe you’re just a dang human being.”

Hiram thought about quoting Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter thirteen, verse twelve to thirteen. Then thought better. He was a cunning man, not a preacher. He stood up. “Let’s get back to fix what we can.” He scooped up his toolbox.

When he got home in the middle of the night, Michael lay stretched out on the sofa. The boy had probably been waiting on him and fell asleep.

Hiram stood in front of the ice box and drank most of a bottle of butter milk. It was a bit greedy of him, but there were far harder things that other folks had to deal with.

* * *

Hiram saw Mrs. Keaner, after church, that Sunday. He was relieved to see that her blue dress was very different from the one Willikers had worn. Hiram had stuffed the witch’s dress in his toolbox and later burned it.

Mrs. Keaner knew some knowledge, certainly, but Hiram didn’t think her craft went beyond taking care of colicky babies and maybe a charm or too to keep away the darker spirits out there.

Michael was off with the other boys his age, tossing eager glances at the girls in their own conversations. The girls had eager looks of their own. So it went most of the time. When it didn’t, that seemed to Hiram like God’s plan as well.

Saturday it had rained all day, which meant the farmers were in good spirits.

Mrs. Keaner came over, stye still on her eye, and that cold cream smell to her. Her husband lingered behind her. While Hiram was taciturn, Mr. Joseph Keaner might as well have been from stone. He raised a hand.

Hiram raised one back.

“Those hobos are gone, and thank you, Mr. Woolley,” the woman said. “Strange, though, sometimes I can still hear that baby crying in the wind. The Lord can’t abide parents who don’t take care of their children.”

Hiram felt the sharp words on his lips. He thought of the letter he’d gotten. Written in Addie’s unsure penmanship, it told how the Eggers had made it to Washington, found work there, and that Cecil’s colic was better. The baby had a natural hunger and was growing just fine. They framed the lamen he’d given them and hung it on the wall.

Hiram didn’t snap at Mrs. Keaner. What good would that have done? Instead, he swept off his hat, smoothed the wisps of hair on his scalp, and raised his face to the sunshine. He sighed. “Nice spring we’re having . . . rain and then sunshine.”

Sometimes discussing the weather was far better than any charm a cunning man could cast.

After all, every word was a spell.

Copyright © 2019 Aaron Michael Ritchey

This story is set in the world of Depression-era historical fantasy novel The Cunning Man by D.J. Butler and Aaron Michael Ritchey, out in November. Aaron Michael Ritchey is the author of twenty-one novels and numerous pieces of short fiction. He was born on a cold and snowy September day in Denver, Colorado, and while he’s lived and traveled all over the world, he’s a child of the American West. Sagebrush makes him homesick. While he pines for the road, he still lives in Colorado with his cactus flower of a wife and two stormy daughters.