Chapter Nine—The Calm Before
“Popular tradition also bears testimony to the former widespread belief in the magical powers of the Badb. In most parts of Ireland the Royston-crow, or fennóg liath na gragarnaith (“the chattering grey fennóg”), as she is called by the Irish speaking people, is regarded at the present day with feelings of mingled dislike and curiosity by the peasantry, who remember the many tales of depredation and slaughter in which the cunning crow is represented as exercising a sinister influence.”
--W.M. Hennessay, The Ancient Irish Goddess of War
Linda fell back to sleep when her father left, a dreamless sleep this time. When she woke up, she could see the sun beginning to set below the western hills. She could also see a giant raven with red eyes perched on her headboard and staring down at her. A gold necklace with a tiny sword hanging from it was clutched in its beak. It dropped the necklace onto Linda’s pillow and flitted over to one of the bedposts.
“Hey, you,” said Linda with a smile.
The raven cocked its head to one side and cawed.
“Do you have a name?”, Linda asked.
Linda rolled her eyes. The raven flew off of the bedpost and perched on top of Linda’s bookshelf.
“You saved my life back there in my dream, didn’t you?”, she asked.
The raven nodded.
There was a knock on the door. It opened, and Frank walked in. As he ambled over to Linda’s bed and sat down, the raven—sitting sight unseen atop the bookshelf—glared at him with a look of distrust.
Linda grinned and punched him playfully on the shoulder. “Did you do it, Ace?”
Frank nodded. “Yeah.”
Linda threw her arms around his neck and collapsed against him. “Thanks, Frank. Thanks so much.”
Frank pecked her on the lips. She ran her fingers through his scruffy brown hair and said, “Y’know, Frank, I think my parents are gone. We’re probably going to be alone until midnight.”
“You mean . . .”
She started to take off her pajama shirt and said, “Yeah, Frank. I mean.”
Ol’ Scratch smiled as he watched the fisherman squirm.
The fisherman had already been lost for a week and on the verge of death when Ol’ Scratch had happened upon him, and now the howling unseen beasts, the pelting freezing rain, and the hurricane-force wind that seemed to be speaking to him had nearly broken his mind. He ran and ran until his boots sloughed their soles and his feet felt like they would burn away.
He ran into a clearing and saw a tall man wearing long black robes and a big conical hat. The tall man gestured urgently, yelled, “Follow me! I’ll lead you to safety!”, and darted off into the woods.
The tall man ran, and the fisherman followed. The tall man, was fast, but the fisherman was desperate enough to pick up the pace in spite of his ruined shoes and hurt feet. When the tall man disappeared into the mouth of one of the caves that honeycombed the mountains, the fisherman kept following
Ol’ Scratch sat on the pile of bones in his cave, holding one of the fisherman’s femurs in his hands.
He had been very, very hungry after his long imprisonment, and had spent the past few hours indulging himself. His hunger reduced to a dull ache, he was going to get some well-deserved rest just as soon as he snapped all of the fisherman’s bones for their marrow. Then he remembered something that he had done many times before his imprisonment, something that all of the truly powerful of his race knew how to do.
He tossed the femur, unbroken, onto the pile of bones and mouthed a few powerful words. The fisherman’s bones came together, one against another, until a full-articulated skeleton stood at the foot of the pile.
Ol’ Scratch smiled. Maybe if his power of old bones and the wind hadn’t diminished, he could do other things as well. He said to the skeleton, “Start tidying this place up. I’ve business to attend to.”
The mindless amalgamation of bones grabbed up a few scattered bones and tossed them onto the pile. Ol’ Scratch walked down the passage, out of the cave, and into the forest. He stopped at a clump of wild roses at the foot of an ancient, twisted oak tree. With a few more words, he thrust his hand into the gnarled old rosebush and pulled it out holding a little man, about four inches tall, wearing blue pants, a blue waistcoat, and a conical red hat. He reached into his robes, pulled out a dime that he’d taken from one of his victims, waved it under the little man’s nose, and said, “Do you want this?”
The little man nodded.
“Would you like a lot of them?”
The little man nodded.
Ol’ Scratch handed him the dime. “If you go out and rouse up some of your folk—I know that there are plenty of you about; this is your sort of country—I will give you more of these trinkets than you could possibly carry. I want you and your folk to find someone for me, to tell me where she is and if possible bring her to me.
“Her name is Linda Kilgore.”
It was long after sunset when Frank finally made it, tired and bedraggled, to his house. The front door was open. All was dark inside save for a flickering television screen that Erwin sat in front of. Upon hearing the front door open, Erwin stood up, swaggered slightly, and loped over to Frank, holding a jug of clear liquid in one hand. He belted him on the shoulder and said, “’bout time you got home, little buddy. Where ya been?”
“At Linda’s,” Frank replied.
“I’ll bet you were. Have you tapped that shit yet?”
“I did, actually. On Friday. And again tonight.”
“Well, alright! My little buddy got him some pussy! How was it?”
“I bet it was. Listen, your mom’s been kinda worried about you, spendin’ so much time away from home and all.”
“Yeah, I know.” He yawned. “I’m kinda tired; I think I’ll go to bed.”
Erwin thrust the jug into Frank’s hands. “Yeah, I’ll bet you’re tired. Want I nip?”
Frank shrugged and tossed back a mouthful of the liquid. It tasted like wood smoke and felt like liquid fire going down. He coughed and sputtered as he handed the jug back.
Erwin, nodding, spat on the floor. “Yee-up, it’s some pretty strong stuff. Brewed right here in God’s own mountains. Good night, anyway.”
Frank dreamed of Linda. He dreamed of her body, her hair, her breasts, the way she smelled, the way she tasted, and when the thumping and shouting from down the hall awakened him, he had his right hand down the front of his pants. He composed himself, got up, and went to investigate.
He walked down the hall to Erwin’s room. The big Swede was standing on his bed, holding a boot in one hand and a Colt Anaconda revolver in the other. When he saw Frank, he screamed, “Jesus fucking Christ! Frank, go get help!”
“Erwin, what are you doing?”
“Smurf! Fucking smurf, man! Go get help!”
“That don’t mean it ain’t real, man! I—Jesus!” he pointed the revolver at Frank, who noted with some dismay that the hammer was pulled all the way back over a full chamber, and said, “Listen, man, I need you to move over here real, real slow, and—Ha! Gotcha!”
He flung the shoe he was holding at the wall right by Frank’s head; it struck with a muffled squeak. It fell limply to the floor along with what looked like a little man, about four inches tall, wearing a blue waistcoat and a conical red hat. With a cry of triumph, he grabbed a coffee mug from his nightstand, leaped off of the bed, and slammed the mug down on the little man. He slid his hand underneath it to cover the top, held it up, and did a victory dance.
“Thought you had me, didn’tcha, Papa Smurf? Well, I’m just too damn quick for you! How d’ya like them apples, Bilbo?”
With a triumphant grin, he slid his hand off of the top of the coffee mug.
The little man was gone.
As Linda walked into school the next morning, she steeled herself for the gauntlet that she usually ran, but much to her great relief she saw that there were only two hobgoblins standing in their usual lurking-place, and these two shirked from her as she walked by: She’d very soundly taught them a lesson. She was about to say something to them, but she remembered the advice of Frederick the Great—in victory, magnanimity; in defeat, defiance—and kept walking.
The wolf-pack was next. She jogged to the right, ignored their jibes, but did not continue past them. She leaned against the wall and looked down the hall past them, as though they were invisible.
“She’s, like, totally staring at us,” said one of them.
“She probably, like, wants to ask one of us out or something,” said another.
“Like, don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
The wolf walked over to Linda, sneered, and said, “Listen, like, I know you like girls and all, but could you, like, quit staring at us? You’re creeping us out.”
Linda, feigning annoyance, leaned over so that she could see around the wolf. She said, “Don’t flatter yourself, Princess. I’m waiting on somebody.”
As if on cue, Frank came walking down the hallway, shouldering politely past the wolves to his place at Linda’s side. She threw her arms around his neck and planted a big, wet kiss on his lips.
“Like, whatever,” said the wolf. “You’re still a freak.”
Linda ran her fingers through Frank’s hair, smiled magnanimously, and said, “If it makes you feel better, princess, keep telling yourself that.”
At lunch, only Molly was sitting at the table that she and Linda usually shared with their friends. Molly Ruth Maguire was somewhat chubby around the waist—a corn-fed country girl—but overall looked something like a soldier of the Army of Iblis: She had sunken eyes and cheeks, skeletal hands, a nervous twitch, and eyes that communicated an earthly wisdom far beyond her years. Tiny black sores that looked a little like insect bites—passing reminders of a bygone era in her life—dotted her forearms. It made Linda think of a song that her father sang sometimes:
“Down the mines, no sunlight shines / Those pits are black as Hell / In mud and slime, they do their time / It’s Paddy’s prison cell . . .”
When she sat down, Molly leaned foreward and said, “So Linda, who was the lucky guy?”
Rat Stephens, who was a tall and lanky character with very short blonde hair, sat down next to Molly, put his arm across her shoulders, kissed her on the cheek, and said, “What are you two ladies talking about?”
Molly smiled knowingly and said, “I heard through the rumor mill that over the weekend, Miss Kilgore here finally got her cherry popped.” Rat reached across the table and clipped Linda on the shoulder in a gesture of congratulation. Molly continued, “So spill, girl. Who was the lucky guy? Who finally got to spread those virgin legs?”
Linda blushed as crimson as a king she had once read about and said, “You know him.”
“Linda, I know a lot of guys. Gimme a name.”
Molly chuckled. “I knew he had it in him. So you two are, like, a couple now?”
Linda grinned awkwardly. “Yeah . . .”
Leaning foreward so that Rat wouldn’t be able to listen in, Molly whispered to her, “So, you and Frank are doing the horizontal waltz . . . girl, tell me everything.”