Raising Tad

First:
I love animals. I have always had pets, and never believed what I heard from others about how they don’t have the same emotions, or even the same ability to feel pain. Nonsense. Animals are more like us than not, but we have spent millennia trying to prove that we are better, finer, and superior. We have behaved accordingly, acting as though animals could not feel, or suffer. As if they didn’t matter.

So don’t read this piece if you are one of those individuals. You won’t like it.
* * * *

A few weeks ago, my daughter Kerry came home from her teaching job with a jar of water containing two tiny black commas of life: tadpoles. One of her middle-school students had given them to her so that Kerry’s two little girls could observe the miraculous transformation from tadpole to frog. The tadpoles were no bigger than my little fingernail.

Sadly, one of them did not survive. It was a rough journey from his home pond to middle school to our house. But one tiny scrap of life lived. We never named it, nor do we know its gender, but let’s call him Tad for convenience.

Tad took up residence in a plastic food container with purified water and two baby spinach leaves to eat. He swam around energetically enough for a few weeks, gorging on spinach. I marveled at him. He was so tiny that he couldn’t consume even one leaf before it started to go bad. I regularly changed his water and his spinach leaves as he worked on growing out his hind legs.

He became a bit sluggish and one morning, Kerry found him floating on his back on top of the water, apparently dead. But when she picked up the container, he flicked away, very much alive. Kerry consulted the oracle (the Internet) and found that once tadpoles get their hind legs, they also begin developing lungs, so he needed an easier way to breathe at the surface. I selected a rock for his container, one with gently sloping sides so he could almost swim right out of the water onto the top of the rock, which I left rising just a bit above the waterline. I added some sticks for good measure and topped it off with a couple of baby spinach leaves.

I swear he was way happier with the additions. (Go ahead and laugh. I don’t care.) Lethargy forgotten, he careened around his enclosure, now with far less water, dodging between twigs and hiding by the rock’s sloping sides. He did swim right up to the rock to rest in the water while he breathed. I was delighted, and I think that’s when I lost a little piece of my heart to him.

Tad’s forelegs seemed to pop out overnight, each the circumference of a thread. And one day, he climbed right out of the water and sat on top of the rock like a grown-up frog. The picture above is of this event. Terrible photo, but remember, he was teensy, and I was shooting through the plastic walls of a food container.

Tad sat on his rock the entire day without moving. My hypothesis is that he was allowing his lungs to practice breathing, and perhaps this was an energy-intensive exercise. I was smitten. He was just SO cute sitting there like a real frog, and yet—still the size of my little fingernail.

It was time to let Tad return to nature. His tail was nothing but a nubbin and his legs were fully developed. He would need to eat tiny insects now, as spinach would no longer appeal to him.

We live near a large tract of wild woodland. I thought I would let him go in the stream that winds through the woods. Lower downstream where it meanders into the ocean, there is always a crowd of ducks and seagulls, it’s polluted, and the water is brackish.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach the forest stream. Although there are places where you can reach the stream easily, they are not near the park road. My husband and I had taken our youngest granddaughter to witness the release and we were also carrying Tad’s container. Jessamyn, age four, is definitely not Nature Girl and objects to long and difficult walks. I had safety-proofed Tad’s container as best I could by removing the sticks, emptying most of the water and replacing the rock with a mound of sodden paper towels so he would have a safe place to sit out of the water if he needed it. But I could tell the movement and jouncing were frightening to him.

So we drove closer to where the creek empties into the ocean. The banks became much less precipitous. I found a spot upstream from where the ducks and seabirds hang out, far enough from the sea that the water wouldn’t be brackish. It was a shallow stretch of streambed with a golden, sandy bottom. I clambered as far down the bank as I could and let Tad out of his container.

With a burst of speed that surprised us, Tad leaped downhill toward the water and disappeared into the weeds matting the stream bank. We lost sight of him within a second. He was such an infinitesimal scrap of a creature that any shadow, any shelter disguised him entirely. It made me wonder how many little animals I have unwittingly walked upon without ever knowing it.

I absolutely would be lying if I told you that were the end of it. No, I worried. Did he make it to the water? Did he live through his first day as a free frog? Did he become a light snack for a garter snake or a sparrow?

Was this silly of me? Yes. Tadpoles are spawned in the hundreds of thousands, and they are ready food for many animals. Frogs, too, are the prey of birds, toads, foxes, raccoons, fish…and so on. Hakuna matata, the great circle of life and all that.

But I still think a lot about that minute froglet, sitting so quietly and proudly on top of his rock. Although Tad’s chances of survival were slim, at least I gave him a safe and predator-free tadpolehood. That is probably the best we can do for our own children before we release them into the wild.

Free Sneak Peek! Chapter 1 of “Fire in the Ocean”

Sierra glanced up from her inflight magazine and stared at her companion with concern. Chaco’s face, normally a warm, glowing brown, was a sickly gray with green undertones. Sierra scrabbled hastily in her seat pocket for the barf bag and handed it to him.

“If you feel like you’re going to be sick, use this,” she said. “I didn’t know you get motion sickness.” They had just taken off from San Jose International Airport—how could he be sick already?

Chaco waved away the bag with a weary gesture. “I don’t have motion sickness.”

“What’s the matter, then?” she asked. She hoped he would recover soon—and that he wasn’t contagious. But then she remembered; Chaco couldn’t get sick. He was an Avatar. He was thousands of years old, and had literally never been sick a day in his long life. If Chaco was sick, something was seriously awry.

“I dunno,” Chaco replied, closing his eyes. “Do you … do you suppose you could just leave me alone for a while?”

Sierra returned to her magazine, glancing at his tense, gray face every so often. When the stewards came by with trays of lunch, Chaco shook his head without opening his eyes.

When the screaming began, Sierra nearly jumped out of her skin, and she wasn’t the only one. A female flight attendant was shrieking incoherently in the rear of the plane, where the galley and restrooms were located for economy class passengers. Other attendants crowded around her, and her shrieks stopped abruptly. But not before Sierra heard, “Green! Monster! I saw it…!”

“Oh, no,” Sierra moaned. “Oh, no, no, that’s just what we needed…!”

People were still craning in their seats, trying to see what was going on. The curtain had been drawn across the galley space, so there was nothing to be seen. Chaco had been roused from his lethargy by the commotion.

“What was that all that about?”

“It’s Fred,” Sierra whispered grimly. “It has to be Fred. The flight attendant was screaming about a green monster. Sound familiar?”

Chaco closed his eyes again. “Figures.” Sierra waited for more, but he remained silent.

“What are we going to do? Fred will be a disaster on this trip, which is why I told him—firmly!—that he couldn’t come with us.”

“I don’t know.”

“We have to do something.”

Chaco shifted his long body slightly to face her and opened his eyes. “Look, Sierra. I have no more idea than you do. In fact, I think I’m in real trouble here.”

Sierra looked at his pale face and anguished eyes. “Are you sick?”

“It’s worse than that,” he responded miserably. “I’m mortal.”

“Mortal? Mortally ill, you mean?”

“No. Mortal. As in not magic. As in, I’m just like you, now. I’m not an Avatar anymore. I can get sick. I can die.”

All thoughts of Fred forgotten, Sierra said, “How do you know? How is that even possible?”

Chaco shook his head. “Wouldn’t you know if all your blood left your body? I mean, just for an instant before you died? I’ve been severed from the numinous, the sphere in which we Avatars exist. The power source has been unplugged, if that makes more sense.”

Sierra absorbed this in silence. Finally, she said, “But you’re still alive. So cutting you off from the, um, numinous doesn’t kill you?”

Chaco rolled his eyes. “Apparently not. This is all new to me, too, you understand.”

“Okay. Why don’t you try to turn into a coyote? If you can do that, it proves you’re okay.” In addition to being an outwardly young and indisputably handsome young man, Chaco was Coyotl the Trickster, demi-god and culture hero of many Native American traditions. Sierra was so rattled that she didn’t consider what her fellow passengers’ response might be to a coyote lounging in a nearby window seat.

Chaco looked at her, his golden-amber eyes now dulled to hazel. Dark circles beneath his eyes made them appear sunken. “What do you think I’ve been trying to do for the past hour?”

“Oh.” Sierra sat quietly for a long time, thinking. Eventually, she asked, “How did you get separated from the, um, numinous, anyway? How could something like that happen?”

Chaco roused himself from his lethargy. “I don’t know. It’s never happened before. I could make an educated guess, though. I think it’s because I’m no longer connected to my land, the land that created me. I think my land is the source of my power. I’ve never been on an airplane before, so I didn’t know this would happen.”

“We’re thousands of feet in the air. When we get to Hawai‘i, we’ll be on land again—maybe you’ll get it back. Hawai‘i is part of the United States, after all.”

Chaco brightened a little at this, but his enthusiasm flickered and died. “I don’t know as much as I should about things like history and geography, but wasn’t Hawai‘i built by volcanoes in the middle of the ocean?”

Sierra nodded.

“And when did Hawai‘i become part of the United States?”

Sierra’s dark brows knit together as she tried to remember. She gave up. “I’m not sure, but it was probably about 60 years ago.”

Chaco groaned, almost inaudibly. “So Hawai‘i isn’t part of my land at all. It’s something different, not connected to my land. The people there are probably not even Native Americans.”

This Sierra did know. “They’re Polynesians. They came from Tahiti, I think. But we won’t even know until we land. Once you get your feet on the ground, maybe you’ll feel better.”

“Maybe,” was all that he said, directing a morose gaze out of the little window at the clouds. It was the last thing he said until they landed in Honolulu.

* * * *

It had started as a fun vacation with her fiancée, Clancy. At least, Sierra thought it would be fun, but as Clancy pointed out, his idea of an island vacation had more to do with drinking fruity tropical drinks on the beach than with counting albatross chicks. Nonetheless, he had gone along with her plans for a one-month stint on Midway Island. It was an eco-tourism gig that allowed some 20 volunteers at a time onto Midway to help biologists monitor the bird life. The island was a national wildlife refuge that provided breeding grounds for millions of sea birds, including several endangered species. The volunteers lived on Midway for a month, counting chicks and cleaning up plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch so that adult birds wouldn’t mistake the colorful bits of plastic for food and feed it to their nestlings—thereby killing them.

But Clancy’s boss had asked (demanded) that he cancel this scheduled vacation. Sierra was upset by this, but she understood. Clancy was head of security at a high tech Silicon Valley firm. The President of the United States scheduled a visit to the plant to highlight her support of American technology—and Clancy’s vacation was sacrificed amid promises of more vacation time in the future.

“I’m going anyway,” she had told Clancy. At his look of surprise, she added, “Remember? My employer is paying for it. I have to go so I can report on the wildlife conservation work on Midway.” Sierra worked for Clear Days Foundation as a communications executive.

“Oh. Well, sure. I just thought …”

“I’d like to ask Chaco to go with me,” Sierra said. “That okay with you?”

There was a long silence. Clancy finally spoke. “Chaco? Isn’t he with Kaylee? Wouldn’t that be kind of awkward?”

“I thought you knew. Kaylee is dating someone named Guy now. She’s moved on. Kaylee always moves on.”

“Oh. Well, what about taking Kaylee with you? Or Rose? Or Mama Labadie?” Clancy listed off Sierra’s three closest female friends.

“All three of them are going to some animal spirit guide workshop in Sedona, so they’re not available. Look, please don’t worry about this. Chaco and I are just friends. We’ve never been anything else. And I’m going to be on a remote island in the middle of nowhere for a month with a bunch of people I don’t know. I’d like to have a friend with me.”

“I’m not worried. Well, maybe I am, a little. Just tell me you’re sorry that it won’t be me.”

“I’m really, really sorry that it won’t be you!”

He would have to be content with that.

* * * *

Discovering that Fred had decided to stow away on the airplane was unwelcome news. There could be no other explanation for the commotion among the flight attendants and that telling shriek of “Green! Monster!”

Fred was a mannegishi. When he was visible, Fred looked like a green melon with pipe-cleaner arms and legs, six flexible digits on each paw, and swiveling orange eyes that resembled traffic reflectors. He had the ability to disappear at will, which had been handy in Sierra’s earlier adventures, but he was a mischievous creature with little or no impulse control and an enormous appetite. In short, Fred was not Sierra’s first choice of companion for a visit to a delicate ecosystem populated by endangered birds.

Now she had to deal with an errant mannegishi as well as a mortal and extremely miserable Chaco. As they walked through the loading tunnel to the gate, Sierra whispered, “How are we going to find Fred?”

Chaco shrugged. “My guess is that Fred will find us. Don’t worry about him—he’s been around the block a few times in the past few thousand years.” He was still drawn and tired-looking, with none of his usual sexy saunter. Sierra guessed that returning to the earth had not restored his supernatural powers or immortality.

They made their way to baggage pickup. When Chaco hefted his suitcase, he nearly dropped it, then frowned.

“I think Fred found us,” he reported.

Sierra looked at him, puzzled.

“My suitcase.” He hefted it again. “It’s a lot heavier than it was when I dropped it off in San Jose. It’s either Fred or someone stuffed a bowling ball in here.”

Sierra was horrified. “Well, let him out! He must be smothered in there.”

“Not likely,” scoffed Chaco. He gave the suitcase a good shake. “Serves him right.”

“What if he’s lost his powers like you have?” she hissed, not wanting to be overheard.

“I don’t think so. He disappeared on the plane fast enough when the flight attendant started screaming. Otherwise, there would have been a lot more commotion.”

Acknowledging that Chaco was probably right, Sierra turned her attention to finding transportation to their hotel. It was located right on Waikiki Beach and wasn’t far from the airport.

On the bus ride to the hotel, Sierra took in the tropical plants, caught glimpses of turquoise ocean, and, cracking the window a trifle, breathed in the scent of many flowers—and the usual smells of any big city. The people walking on the streets all looked like tourists to her. Many were wearing shorts, flip-flops, and Hawai‘ian print shirts. Surely not everyone in the city could be a tourist, she thought. At one point, Chaco’s suitcase began to squirm, but he kicked it sharply and unobtrusively, and the suitcase subsided.

Their hotel was an enormous complex of tall buildings, and they had a room on the 17th floor overlooking the ocean. Sliding glass doors on a balcony opened to let in breezes, and the afternoon air smelled soft and sweet with an underlying sharper tang of salt. They dumped their suitcases on the floor—in Chaco’s case, none too gently. Chaco unzipped the bag and Fred rolled out onto the carpet.

“Ow ow ow ow,” he complained, rubbing his fat bottom and staring at them reproachfully.

“It’s your own fault,” Chaco said coldly. “I’m going to bed.” He commandeered one of the two queen-size beds and pulled the covers over his head.

“What’s his problem?” the little mannegishi asked. “He didn’t spend hours balled up in a suitcase.”

“He’s lost his powers,” Sierra explained. “He’s a mortal now, and it disagrees with him. Anyway, why’d you do it, Fred? I asked you not to come. Now I don’t know what to do.”

She felt as weary as Chaco. The trip had started with Clancy dropping out. Now Chaco had lost his powers and become mortal—and who knew what that would mean? She supposed it would be like a human losing the ability to see, or walk. And she had to deal with Fred, too. As fond as she was of him, Fred was a nuisance at the best of times.

“Lost his powers? How does that happen?” asked Fred, looking worried. He disappeared briefly then reappeared. He looked relieved but puzzled. “I haven’t lost my abilities. Why did Chaco lose his?”

“He thinks it’s because he’s no longer in contact with his birth land. He says he’s cut off from the numinous, whatever that is.”

“I dunno from numinous, but I’m still okay.”

“How nice for you!” came an irritated growl from under the humped covers on Chaco’s bed.

“Look, Fred, I could really use a drink right now. Disappear yourself and we can talk somewhere. There’s got to be a bar in this hotel somewhere.”

As it turned out, the hotel had many, many bars. Sierra picked one with an outdoor seating area on the beach and ordered something unfamiliar with rum in it. The drink arrived, bedecked with chunks of fresh fruit, small umbrellas, and plastic hula girls and accompanied by a bowl of peanuts. She cleared away the ornamentation, ate the fruit and began working slowly on the remaining fluid. It was cold, tart, and sweet. She still felt grubby from the trip, but at least she was near a beach—she could see surfers from where she was sitting—with a fruity tropical drink. And an invisible mannegishi. She could see the imprint of Fred’s bottom on the chair cushion next to hers, and the peanuts were disappearing at a rapid pace. She picked up her phone and pretended to tap in a number, then said, “Hi, Fred. We can talk now.” Anyone observing would see a trim woman with tanned skin and long, dark hair, sitting alone and talking on the phone.

“So what happened to Chaco?” Fred asked.

“As soon as the plane took off, he started to look kind of green around the gills. Then he slumped down and acted like he was sick. He says he’s mortal now. He can die.”

“That’s not good,” Fred observed.

“Tell me about it,” said Sierra. “I’ve been mortal my whole life.”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”

“It’s all right. I’m used to it. Chaco isn’t. Do you know if he can ever regain his connection to the numinous? Whatever that is?”

“Dunno.”

“And why didn’t you lose your powers?” Sierra demanded. The mannegishi was quiet for a few minutes.

“Chaco and I aren’t exactly the same sort of thing, you know,” he said finally.

“How do you mean?”

“Chaco is—was—an Avatar. Much more powerful than a mannegishi. I’m just a, ah, kind of an … well, I don’t know exactly. I have certain powers, but what I can do is born inside me. Like bees can make honey? I can do what I do. That’s all I know.” Sierra could tell by the sounds next to her that the mannegishi was sucking his digits—a nervous habit.

“Stop that!” The sucking sounds ceased and the peanuts began to disappear again. Sierra flagged a passing waiter and asked for more peanuts and another round of whatever she was drinking.

She couldn’t do anything about the situation today. Right now, she was sitting in the Hawai‘ian sun on a Hawai‘ian beach, drinking a Hawai‘ian drink, and watching the Hawai‘ian waves. Almost against her will, she began to relax. The waiter brought her a fresh drink and another bowl of peanuts. She thanked him, took a long swallow, and closed her eyes. She began to think about Clancy and Chaco and Fred. Not relaxing. She opened them again, only to find the rest of her drink gone as well as all the fruit.

“Fred!!!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: “The Book of Lost Things”

 

“The Book of Lost Things,” by John Connolly, is a fairy story about fairy stories—and not the kind that necessarily turn out happily ever after. More the Grimm kind, where virtue isn’t always rewarded, but evil is always savagely punished. It shows again that fairy stories are primordial, ancient, bred in the bone.

David, our protagonist, is a 10-year-old English boy who loses his beloved mother in the opening days of WWII. His father and he do as well as they can together, but then David’s father marries Rose and they have a baby boy, Georgie. None of this goes down well with David, who is grieving, angry, jealous, resentful and lonely. He also starts seeing strange things like a crooked old man lurking in his brother’s room, and begins having fits.

The one solace David finds in his new situation is the books in his room. They are fairy stories, but different from the ones he has read before—darker and more disturbing. He asks Rose about them, and she tells him they belonged to a great uncle who had loved the books, but he and a young female relative had disappeared one day and were never seen again.

One night David is awakened by his mother’s voice calling him. He knows his mother is dead, but his desire that this not be true is so powerful that he wanders into a neglected sunken garden. The voice seems to be issuing from a hole beneath a great tree there. As David hesitates, he hears the screaming of a bomber overhead, disabled, on fire, and heading right for him. He dives into the hole beneath the tree and discovers himself in a strange land as the bomber crashes through and David’s escape route is blocked. Just to let you know that the story to come will not be about sweet little creatures with butterfly wings, the pilot’s head bounces by David after the crash, blackened and bloody.

David soon discovers that a great evil is growing in this new land. A wolf army is gathering, led by the Loup, half man, half wolf. The Crooked Man is here as well, and seems to want something from David. The dangers here are genuine and they are deadly. The author doesn’t flinch at detailed descriptions of some truly grotesque and bloody deaths.

Amid the growing darkness, David also meets some good people who help him. One of them tells him to seek out the king of this land because he has “The Book of Lost Things” that will help David to return home. “The Book of Lost Things” doesn’t help him to find his home, but it does clear up the central mysteries of the story, pointing David to the truth of the Crooked Man and his agenda.

David proves he is brave, loyal, and resourceful. He discovers that not everything is what it seems, and learns to be discriminating about whom he trusts—a single misstep could be fatal. In the process, he solves the mystery of what happened to Rose’s great-uncle and his young relative, and of course realizes his mistake in rejecting Rose and Georgie. By the time David finds the way home, we feel he has earned his return many times over.

The book follows David’s life after this event. It was not a life free from pain or unhappiness, but he finds love, comfort and a purpose in life. At the end—I’ll let you read the book to find out what happens at the very end. Like a good fairy story, the end wraps everything up in a most satisfactory way.

I would have to say that ‘The Book of Lost Things” is not for the faint of heart. Although the protagonist is a child and the source material is fairy stories, it is definitely not a children’s tale. I might even hesitate to recommend it to a teenager, particularly if they were going through a Goth phase. There is a lot of violence, a pervasive sense of creeping evil, and many adult themes. I would have to say that it cleaves to the original tenor of the ancient stories, though. The old fairy tales are dark and primeval. They have nothing to do with living happily ever after or marrying the prince. They teach us to beware the evil in the dark and the forces we do not comprehend. “The Book of Lost Things” is that kind of fairy tale.

Review: “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”

I like fairy tales. I also like fairy tales re-imagined, but not all of them. For instance, I hated Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked.” I thought it disrespected Baum’s innocent vision of Oz, though obviously I am in the minority, and Gregory McGuire is now a rich man. On the other hand, I loved McGuire’s “Lost,” which skillfully weaves together Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shades of Jack the Ripper, and some other goodies into a gripping ghost story.

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” by Fredrik Backman, is a rare jewel. It is a fairy story that combines several related fairy stories and reveals the truth behind them. And it’s completely original, in that it doesn’t rehash older source material. (Not that I’m saying it’s wrong to rehash source material. What would we do without it?)

Elsa, our protagonist, is seven years old and precocious, but I am happy to say she is precocious in a believable, seven-year-old way. Her grandmother is a character, to put it mildly. Among other things, Elsa’s grandmother has taught her a secret language and told her stories of the several kingdoms of the Land of Almost-Awake. Her grandmother is her super-hero, and Elsa adores her. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend, because Elsa doesn’t think much of the kids at school who don’t understand great literature. Like “Harry Potter.” And Marvel Comics.

Elsa, her mother, her grandmother, and her stepfather live in a kind of a boarding house. Some of the tenants are very much in full view, like Britt-Marie, who bosses everyone around about signs in the laundry room and strollers in the stairwell. Others are never seen, including the mysterious “Our Friend,” as Granny refers to him. Elsa’s mother works all the time, her remarried father is not a strong presence, and she resents her stepfather. Her grandmother is her rock.

And then Granny dies. But before she does, she asks Elsa to deliver a letter. Elsa does, and sets off a chain of events that reveal the true nature both of Granny’s stories and of the people in Elsa’s life. Bit by bit, she comes to understand who these people are and how they came to be who they are. She also discovers her grandmother’s hidden connection to every soul in the boarding house.

Elsa eventually discovers a mother who loves her unconditionally, a stepfather who’s actually okay, and a father who turns out to be important after all. She even makes a friend. She learns some things about adults that in the end, she knows she just has to forgive.

While the protagonist of “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” is a child, this is not a children’s story. The heartache and sadness are all-too-poignant, and the adults’ stories are, well, adult. The story is about a child finding her way through the complexities of life by relying on herself and her memories of her grandmother. She learns the truth behind the tales, and adult truth is sometimes difficult and scary.

Fortunately, there is enough humor in Elsa’s take on things that the book never becomes dreary—and I was pleased that the humor never condescended, even though the lead character is a child.

I had a hard time deciding whether to categorize “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” as a fantasy or mainstream, even though the only fantasy elements in the story are Granny’s stories. It’s a fairy tale, but although it has a happy ending, it is a realistic ending. Granny doesn’t come back to life. Britt-Marie was never a princess. “Our Friend” is not really a wurse from the Land of Almost-Awake. And yet, the fantasy carries the story. Read it and decide for yourself.

 

My Christmas Gift to You. (Sorry About the Vampires.)

The following short story is my Christmas gift to you. We’ve all had a tough year, and I hope this little parody will make you laugh and forget for a brief time the troubles of our mixed-up world. It’s not exactly a Christmas story, but it’s what I’ve got. Sorry about the zombies, too.

The Lady Sheriff of Gristle Creak

The first thing I noticed about Lili Darkling was that she was alive. Now, no woman, be she ever so homely, rides through the Territory all by her lonesome. Apart from it not being proper behavior for a woman, she’d wind up raped and dead within the day even if she weighed 400 pounds and had bearded warts all over. Not only did Lili ride into town alone, she rode a shiny black horse almost as pretty as she was. If I’m any judge of horseflesh—and I am—that steed of hers was a purebred Arabian, about as common as diamonds in these parts.

To be honest, I would have noticed her anyhow, being a man in the prime of life and kind of hankering after a wife. Lili was a mighty striking woman. Tall and slender, with that whippy look. Black hair, done up under a hat that was more suited to a cowhand than a woman. And blue, blazing blue eyes. A sweet sight, for all she was dressed a bit mannish.

Later I heard she was applying for sheriff. We’d never had a female sheriff before—nobody had—but there wasn’t any real doubt about hiring Lili. We desperately needed a sheriff, and if some woman wanted the job, I guess that made her about the only human being that did. The town council voted before Lili said a single word, and it was unanimous.

But I have been forgetting my manners and have not introduced myself. I am Doctor William Cantrell. Call me Doc. I am the only physician here in Gristle Creak. (That’s pronounced “Grizzly Creek.” Our founder was a great man, but he could neither spell nor abide any criticism.) Despite the town’s small size and our remote and undesirable location here in the Territory, there is more than enough work for a sawbones, alas. More than ever lately, what with the vampires and zombies.

Which is why we needed a sheriff. We went through about one sheriff per month for a while. But I guess the word got out, and the stream of applicants dried up like spit on a griddle. It turns out the techniques that succeed pretty regularly with bandits and bar brawlers aren’t near as effective when dealing with the undead. Townspeople had taken to betting how many days it would take for each new sheriff to wind up either drained of blood or missing his brains. The one before Lili held the record, I think. Fifty-eight days before they found him hanging from a meat hook down at Hanson’s Butchery.

The trouble started about three years back. I was riding back from Jed Holstrup’s place outside of town. Jed didn’t live out there, but he had some cowpokes running cattle on his land, and one of them had turned up dead. Brainless, in fact. I’d been called out there to certify the death, but I was stumped, never having seen a man without his brains before. In the normal way of things when a man’s brainpan gets opened up, the brains might spill out, but they don’t disappear. In this case, the man’s skull was smashed open and the inside of his head was as innocent of gray matter as my pipe was of tobacco, me having run out some time before and Smith’s General Emporium not expecting any for another fortnight.

So I was ambling back to town on my old horse, puzzling over the brainless cowboy, when I saw the zombie. At first, I thought it was Jake, the town drunk—one of them, anyway. He was a real skinny man, staggering along like Jake on a Saturday night after he’d caged a few drinks down at the Gristle Creak Saloon. I rode up to him, intending to say howdy and make sure he was all right out there on his own, drunk as I thought he was. But I got a little closer and saw the gray-green, peeling flesh, the bones showing through, and the lipless mouth exposing brown, broken teeth. Jake ain’t the prettiest thing you ever saw, but he’s a sight better than the thing that was stumbling along the dusty road into town. I wheeled my mount around and lit out for town as fast as poor Jupiter could gallop.

That’s when we lost the first sheriff to the zombies. All it took was one. I thundered into town and swung down in front of the sheriff’s office, screaming my head off. Sheriff Yurnameer must’ve thought I’d gone off the rails, but he mounted his horse and went down the road to investigate.

When the zombie finally slouched into town, he had fresh sheriff all over him. A bunch of us surrounded the zombie and tried to kill it, but it wasn’t easy. He was perfectly comfortable losing a few limbs or his innards so long as he could smell human flesh. It was Miss Prinkett from the upstairs part of the saloon—you know what I mean—who brought a bucket of kerosene, doused the zombie, and set him on fire with someone’s stogie. That seemed to solve the problem, and we all went to the saloon to toast Miss Prinkett and congratulate her on her quick thinking. The congratulations went on all night as I recall.

But the zombies kept turning up. We could handle the singles pretty effectively—we started calling it the “Prinkett Fix”—but if someone encountered a zombie on their own, or if there were more than a couple of them, we were in deep trouble. We soon ran dangerously low on kerosene.

We could’ve held our own, though, if it hadn’t been for the vampires. It started on a fine spring day so bright and sweet I almost didn’t mind that that the mud in the main street was halfway up my shins. I was talking with Jed Holstrup, the ranch owner whose cowpoke started the whole thing. Jed was doing awfully well for a rancher, and we were all proud of him, because everyone else was pretty much scrabbling just to get by. But Jed—he was our golden boy. He’d acquired some mighty pretty suits all the way from San Francisco and I heard tell he was planning to build a big new house now that he and his pretty bride—she that had been Annie Whitethorn—had produced one beautiful little girl, with another on the way.

Anyhow, Jed and I were talking about the zombie problem. Jed was saying he thought they wandered in from the badlands. Nobody really knew what was out there, Jed pointed out. I was arguing that someone must bring them here a-purpose. Why anyone would do that was beyond me, but a man’s got to have a point of view, or there’s nothing to argue about. That was when Pearline came pelting down the street from the saloon, shrieking like the devil was snapping at her heels.

Pearline under full sail is a sight to behold. She is a woman of enormous and abundant charms, if I may say so, and most of those charms were fully evident now because Pearline had departed her place of employment without pausing to dress. She had a few filmy tatters streaming behind her like a wake, but that was all. Jed found a tarpaulin to cover her while she sobbed out her story.

“It’s Miss Prinkett!” she wailed. “She’s dead! Somebody musta kilt her!”

“Does she still have her brains?” I enquired, fearing another zombie attack.

“Yes! But, but, but …” and Pearline was off again like a siren and I couldn’t get one more sensible word from her. Nothing for it but to examine the body, so I trotted down to the Gristle Creak Saloon to take a look.

Sure enough, Miss Prinkett still had all of her quick-thinking brains. She wasn’t going to be using them anymore because she no longer possessed any blood. Cause of death was straightforward: complete exsanguination via two puncture wounds in the carotid artery. On the surface, it was a classic case of vampirism, but I was reluctant to note this on the death certificate. Adding vampires to zombies as the leading causes of death in Gristle Creak could completely discredit my reputation as a man of science. I noted cause of death as “vam-pyric attack,” hoping if the papers were ever audited this might be taken for some sort of systemic failure.

After the vampires started showing up, the town was under siege. Turns out a lot of the things we thought we knew about vampires and zombies just weren’t so. Garlic, for instance. Vampires appear to appreciate a good garlicky blood feed, judging by their preference for those who turned to the stinking rose for protection. Crosses and silver were useless—I told everybody that, but no one believed me until it was too late. You couldn’t shoot, stab or bludgeon a vampire or a zombie to death. We began to bury exsanguinated townspeople with stakes through their hearts, and that was wonderfully effective—I never saw another one of them again once they’d been planted. Of course, the brainless ones never posed a problem, but each new corpse meant one less person to help us fight against the forces of darkness.

So I was happy to see Lili Darkling step out of the sheriff’s office her first day on the job, six-shooter on each womanly hip, brass star twinkling in the sun. I walked over, stuck my hand out, and said, “Sheriff, we all wish you the best of luck. Let me know if there’s anything a-tall I can do to help.”

I was only trying to be polite—I was already up to my elbows in doctoring. But she fixed those mesmerizing blue eyes on me and said, “Why thanks, Doc. I could use your help, now you mention it. I deputize you in the name of the law.”

I spluttered a bit, but she paid me no mind. In the end, I saddled up Jupiter and drifted glumly over to the sheriff’s office. Turned out she wanted me to help her get the lay of the land. Maybe if we rode around outside town we’d see something useful. I had my doubts, but followed her obediently.

We had plenty of time to talk as we rode. Lili wanted to know how it got started, so I told her about the first victim, that cowpoke out at Holstrup’s place. She nodded and said, “Let’s start there.”

“Why? That was three years ago.”

“Just show me the way, Deputy,” she replied, so I did.

As we neared the Holstrup place, I asked, “Why’d you want to be sheriff of Gristle Creak?”

She was silent for a bit, head bowed and the creak of saddle leather and the clop of our horses’ hooves the only sounds. “I don’t rightly know,” she said at last. “I saw the advertisement in the paper. Gristle Creak sounded like my kind of place. I sort of felt I had to come.”

I was satisfied with that, and by now we had reached the little ranch house. We swung off the horses, tied them to the corral railing and hailed the house. Out here in the Territory—especially these days—you don’t just walk up to someone’s door and knock—not unless you want to get shot, that is. The polite and safe thing to do is to stand well away from the door in plain sight and halloo. That way they can take a moment to decide whether to shoot, so the odds of surviving your visit are a deal better.

A head poked cautiously out the door. It was Petey, one of Holstrup’s boys. I greeted him, and he said, “Hi, Doc. Who’s the little lady?”

“I’m Sheriff Lili Darkling,” Lili said, her face stern. “Doc here’s my deputy now. We’re investigating these … murders, and I understand the first one was right here.”

“That’s so,” Petey said. “C’mon in. We got some coffee going and it ain’t too burnt yet. What can we do for you?”

So we drank strong black coffee out of blue-enameled mugs and asked Petey, Eb and Zeke a lot of questions. They didn’t mind. Truth to tell, they were pleased as bull-pups with a marrowbone to have some company out there. Then the sheriff asked Eb if he had seen any zombies on the ranch since his partner had been killed.

Eb, a long, dried-out string of a man, bobbed his Adam’s apple and nodded. “Yes’m, I sure have,” he replied, fear at the back of his worried eyes. “Every now and again I have to go looking for strays up in the box canyon. That’s where I seen ‘em, mostly. Zombies, I mean.”

Lili’s eyes lit up, making her beauty nearly lethal. She’s going to have to learn to tone that down, I thought, or there’s going to be mayhem in the streets. Then I recalled there was already mayhem in the streets. “You ever see them anywhere else on the spread?” she asked eagerly, leaning forward. I reflected that she probably shouldn’t lean forward, either.

Eb looked like someone had just clobbered him on the head with a branding iron, but he replied, “No’m. Yes’m. I mean, no, I don’t see them anyplace else, Ma’am.”

Lili patted Eb’s knee, nearly causing him to lose consciousness. “You’re a good man, Eb! C’mon, Doc. Let’s go explore that box canyon.” We got directions from Petey, who could still talk, and we set off. Three heads poked out of the little house’s windows, staring after us.

“Y’all be careful now,” Petey called, but the other two just gawked. They don’t see womenfolk out there too much, and Lili was good for a couple hundred of the usual kind.

The ride up to the box canyon took maybe an hour or two, but the sheriff and I didn’t talk much. I guess we were both pondering what we would do if we got there and encountered zombies. I didn’t know what Lili had in mind, and she wasn’t saying. For my own part, I had brung along a bottle of kerosene and some lucifers—the Prinkett Fix. I wasn’t worried about vampires—they always attacked at night. We hadn’t figured out why, because they could walk around in broad daylight just like regular citizens, but night was the only time they ever attacked.

It was a mighty pretty day for a ride. Birds were singing their little hearts out, and there were buckets of wildflowers. The air was warm and sweet, for the scorching heat of summer hadn’t gotten its feet under itself yet. I watched a pair of butterflies courting and thought what a grand day this would be for a picnic with my sweetheart. If I had a sweetheart. If I weren’t riding around looking for brain-gobbling ambulatory corpses.

Weathered pillars of pink sandstone, layered like a cake, concealed the entrance to the box canyon. But Petey had told us the way, and we had no trouble winding through the narrow passage into a lush little canyon. There was a stream flowing through it, fed from a waterfall spilling down the cliffs at the back of the canyon. Cottonwoods and willows grew thickly by the water, and there was plenty of pasturage. I could see why some of those strays wound up in this canyon; it was a tiny paradise.

Except possibly for the zombie. This one was female, but that makes no nevermind when you’re talking about the walking dead—they’re all bad eggs. Anyhow, this one was standing under a cottonwood tree, staring at us. Well, her one remaining eye was staring at us, though from what I’d seen, they didn’t really need eyes. She wasn’t moving.

We were maybe a quarter of a mile away from the zombie when we saw it, and our horses’ nostrils caught the stink of deliquescing rotten flesh. They began to crow-hop and whinny. “Maybe we should stop here, Sheriff,” I said. “The horses ain’t hankering to get any closer.”

She agreed, and we sat in our saddles, regarding the motionless zombie. “Looks harmless from here,” Lili said.

“I got some kerosene with me,” I told her.

“Naw. Not yet. Let’s see if there’s any more around,” Lili said.

I was disinclined to seek out more of the walking dead, but I kept my peace. We waited for a good half-hour, the zombie standing there like a war monument, and us on our skittish horses. Then there was movement in the trees behind that unmoving figure. A line of zombies emerged from the undergrowth along a well-worn trail. They were hefting burlap sacks, like the kind you store potatoes in. When they sighted us, they set the sacks down on the ground all at the same time like they were rehearsing a dance-hall routine, and began shuffling toward us in the now-familiar zombie attack mode: arms extended, heads lolling, feet stumbling.

“Boss, I don’t have enough kerosene for that mob,” I said, but Lili was already wheeling her horse around.

“Hyah! Back to town!” she yelled, and her fancy black horse sped off toward the canyon entrance. Jupiter needed no encouragement, and I caught up with her easily. Once we left the canyon, we stopped to see if the zombies were following. We waited maybe an hour because zombies are powerful slow, but nothing ever emerged from the canyon.

We rode back to town in the late afternoon, the shadows of the mountains stretching purple across the chaparral. Lil was thoughtful and quiet for a while, but finally she asked, “Doc, what d’you reckon those things are carrying around in those sacks? Even more interesting, why are they carrying whatever it is? And all those zombies together. You ever seen that many in one place before?”

I shook my head. “No, Sheriff, I surely have not. As to the sacks—well, I kinda hate to speculate on that.” I repressed a shudder. I was afraid to imagine what might be in those burlap bags.

“I’m thinking maybe we ought to call on Mr. Holstrup. That box canyon is on his property, so might be he has some notion of what’s happening,” said Lili.

I turned in Jupiter’s saddle to face her. “You’re a brave woman, and that’s a fact. You haven’t been in Gristle Creak very long, Ma’am, but you should know right now that Jed Holstrup is the richest man in this town. He pretty much runs this town, for all he ain’t an elected official. I’d advise caution.”

Her delicate black brows frowned, looking somehow enchantingly like a moth’s antennae. “Well, I’ll take that under advisement, Deputy. Night’s coming on and we’d best leave it to morning. Good night.”

I went home and blocked all the doors and windows, as usual. I even had the chimney blocked off. I had run a narrow stovepipe from my cast-iron wood stove out through the wall, making sure that there were steel mesh blockages several places along the pipe just in case someone tried to get clever and enter as a bat. We had discovered that while vampires were greedy and vicious, they were also lazy. If you made it really hard to get at you, you had a better than average chance of waking up in the morning and still seeing your reflection in the mirror. Yes, that particular bit of lore is true; vampires have no reflections. Of course, that was no good to us. All it meant is that the females always looked like sinister circus clowns; they wore a lot of cosmetics but couldn’t use a mirror to apply them properly.

Next morning Lili was still hell-bent on seeing Holstrup, so we both called at his home. Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, opened the door to us after peeking cautiously through the curtains, her thick blonde hair piled high atop her head like a proper matron (though I recalled it used to tumble down her back in a waterfall of gold). I introduced the sheriff and asked if Jed was to home. He was, and Mrs. Holstrup showed us into the sitting room.

Jed strode in, wearing one of his pretty suits. He had a shirt of whitest linen, set off with a Chinese silk cravat, and a yellow brocade vest under a black frockcoat. His black kid boots gleamed like wet tar. He shook my big paw, but stooped over Lili’s little white hand and kissed it like he was Sir Water Raleigh. I snorted audibly, but Lili didn’t react at all. She just said calmly, “Mr. Holstrup, we want to ask you a few questions about those zombies on your ranch.”

He continued to smile, but somehow, it was no longer flirtatious. “I know nothing about them, Miss Darkling.”

“Sheriff Darkling,” Lili corrected.

“Sheriff. Nonetheless, I can tell you nothing. I go out there only a few times a year, and I have never personally seen any zombies on my property.”

“Me and Doc were out there yesterday. We saw a whole passel of ‘em in that box canyon north of the ranch house,” Lili said, her eyes fixed intently on his. “Any idea what they were doing out there?”

“I haven’t any notion, Sheriff.”

“Do you know what’s in those bags?”

For the first time, Jed looked nonplussed. “Bags? What bags? No, I haven’t the slightest idea. Wish I could help—I’d love to see those devils gone for good myself, you know.”

Lili looked at him for a full minute. Then she said, “Thanks for your time. Let’s be going, Doc.”

Lili didn’t say anything about this conversation, but she told me we were going back to the box canyon. That very day, no less. I filled several canteens with what kerosene I could find. I checked to make sure I had my lucifers. Lili brought her supply of kerosene as well, so I figured we were probably in for some action.

I tried talking to Lili on the way to the canyon, but she wasn’t much inclined. Finally I asked, “Why’d you pick me as deputy, Sheriff? Seems to me there’s other men better qualified, but I’m the town’s only doctor.”

She looked round at me from atop her pretty horse. “Took one look at you and I knew you were the man for the job. Knew you wouldn’t let me down in a tight spot. Think I’m right about that, Doc?”

Well, there wasn’t but one answer I could make to that, so I nodded and we continued on, the clopping of our horses’ hooves the only conversation between us. When we reached the entrance to the canyon, Lili silently dismounted and secured her horse’s reins to a cottonwood. I did likewise. Taking our canteens of kerosene along with our pistols, we walked the rest of the way, careful to tread quietly and keep to available cover.

Once inside the canyon, we moved cautiously through the trees along the little stream, heading for the back of the valley. We made slow progress, as we had no desire to inform the zombies we were on the way. The path the zombies used seemed too risky, so we moved through the underbrush, making it rough going. At one point, an impenetrable thicket forced us back to the path, which was fortunate, because otherwise we never would‘ve seen the gold.

Lucky that Lili had such sharp eyes. It was just a little chunk, lying to one side of the trodden dirt trail. She picked it up and it shone like pure sunlight in the palm of her hand. We stood there for some minutes, gaping at it.

“Fool’s gold, d’you think?” I asked.

“Naw,” Lili said, and pointed a slender forefinger at the rounded shape. “If it was fool’s gold, there’d be sharp crystals, maybe layers. This here’s rounded. It’s a real bright color, too. It’s gold.”

I didn’t think to ask how she knew, but I was sure she was right. “Think that’s what the zombies are hauling around in those bags?”

Lili gave the gold nugget a last, loving look and tucked it into her pocket. “I sure do, Doc. Let’s take a closer look at the back of this canyon.”

It took a long time to get back there because we knew if we were sighted by the zombie gang, we’d have a hard time getting out of there alive. We crawled on our bellies and snuck through the bushes and tiptoed like little girls playing at hide and seek. When we finally arrived at the back of the canyon, we saw a line of zombies staggering in and out of a cleft in the cliff wall. Further observation revealed the cleft to be the opening of a cave. The zombies would shuffle in with limp, empty bags. Then they’d shuffle out again, each with a laden bag.

I felt a deep sense of revulsion, watching these things go about their strange business. The only sound they made was a slow dragging as their feet shuffled along over the earth, with an occasional nauseating splat when a random part fell off and hit the ground. The smell was beyond anything a civilized man would’ve encountered, unless maybe he was a grave robber. Being a doctor I am no stranger to bad smells, but this lot had it beat all to Kingdom Come for pure, unadulterated stench.

“Follow,” Lili hissed softly, nudging me. I deduced she meant follow the zombies with the gold, and began edging away from the scene. We did a lot more belly crawling as we tracked the undead, but they didn’t go to the entrance of the little box canyon. About halfway to the entrance, they veered sharply off, following another trail. They shambled in silence toward the west wall of the canyon, coming finally to a small, windowless shack hidden among some piñon trees. Each zombie entered the shack laden with a full sack and exited a moment later with an empty one.

Sitting a ways off hidden by trees and brush, I whispered to Lili, “Want to use the Prinkett Fix on ‘em now?”

She shook her dark head. “I’m more interested in who’s gonna come and pick up the gold. I never heard tell of a zombie that cared anything for gold. Or money. Or anything. ‘Cept maybe brains.”

I had to admit she had a point there, so we waited all that blessed afternoon, as the walking dead marched painfully along, depositing their precious burdens in the shack and then departing. As the shadows lengthened and the canyon began to darken, shaded by its walls, no more zombies appeared. Apparently, production had ceased for the day. But we waited, still hidden nearby, making as little noise as possible.

To amuse myself during the long wait, I tried to identify birdcalls. I identified quail, scrub jay, roadrunner, mourning dove, and pygmy owl, but I was having trouble with a new one. The call reminded me of the squeak of new leather boots, a sort of constant creak creak creak like a cricket. By the time I felt the rifle barrel poke me in the back, I had just about figured out that it actually was the creak of a pair of new boots and that someone had been stealthily creeping up behind us.

“Afternoon, Sheriff, Doc,” said Jed Holstrup. “I can’t say as how I’m too happy to see you, though. Get up, now, and let’s move on back to the mine. ‘Bout suppertime for my … men. Throw your pieces on the ground.” He grinned. We complied.

Lili looked up at him. “Thought it might be you, Holstrup,” she said. “So would I be right in thinking that you brought the zombies here? That’s a pretty sweet berth you found yourself here—gold mine, free labor, no losses. Run some cattle to pretend you got a legitimate operation out here. Am I right?”

“That’s about the size of it,” Holstrup agreed. “They’re hard working, too. Feedin’ ‘em has been my most pressing problem. Only reason they wander away and bother folks is if they’re hungry. Otherwise you’d a never known they was here.”

“Bothering folks.” That’s what he called cracking people’s skulls and sucking their brains out.

“So how do you feed them, Jed?” Lili asked sweetly, for all the world like she was taking tea back in town and making polite chitchat.

“Well, now, that’s where the vampires come in,” Holstrup said, puffing his chest out like he was a proud daddy. “I ain’t really had too many runaways since I invited the vampires in—yes, that’s true, you really do have to invite them. Anyhow, the vampires provide a regular supply of fresh brains. Zombies don’t mind rustling up their own dinner.” I pictured the newly turned graves in the cemetery outside town and shuddered.

After a bit Lili pipes up again, “I know you’re gonna kill us, Holstrup. But we might as well go in comfort. I need a drink, and I bet Doc here does, too.” She hefted one of her canteens and looked at me.

“I could use one last smoke,” I responded. “Jed, you’d let a condemned man have his last pipe, wouldn’t you?”

Holstrup didn’t even look annoyed or impatient. “Sure,” he said. “I got all the time in the world.” He kept his rifle pointed at us, but leaned comfortably against a cottonwood.

I pulled out my pipe and filled it. As Lili pretended to take a swig of water from a canteen, I lit a lucifer.

“This water tastes terrible,” Lili commented as she poured the canteen’s contents on the dusty earth near Jed’s feet. I flicked the match before Jed had the opportunity to react to the smell of kerosene. The resulting fireball would’ve startled a man with better nerves than Jed; he dropped his rifle and leaped away, cursing and shouting. Of course, by that time I had the rifle and Jed was on the wrong end of the argument. Once he’d put out the flames I examined him and he wasn’t hardly burned a-tall.

Which is more than I can say for the zombies. Lili and I pretty much Prinketted the lot of them right there in the mine. We gathered up all the loose pieces and burned them, too, just in case.

So that was all right and satisfactory, except that now it was well past sunset. We decided not to attempt the ride into town at this hour, as there was too much risk of vampire attack. Also, we wanted to make sure there was nothing left of the zombies but ashes. So we decided to camp in the box canyon for the night.

I fetched the horses, our two and Jed’s handsome bay. There were enough emergency rations in the saddlebags to feed three people, plus more lucifers and canteens filled with actual water. We tied Jed up to a tree, built a campfire and commenced to jawing about the day’s events.

“Why’d you want to go and bring a mess of zombies in here, Jed?” asked Lili. “Couldn’t you just work the mine with a few of your ranch hands? You’d have to pay ‘em, of course.”

Jed didn’t seem especially neighborly, but he replied right enough, “Cain’t trust them boys. They’da stole me blind. You can trust zombies. They work hard and they don’t ask nothing in return. ‘Cept brains. The vampires, though, they been a bit of a problem. I can see that.”

“A problem no longer,” said a new voice, and it wasn’t Lili’s. It was a rich, dark, oily voice, and it came from the darkness beyond our circle of firelight.

It was a female vampire, and as she stepped into the light I saw she was a looker, too. Although her cosmetics were apparently applied with a trowel­­, they weren’t smeared all over her phizog like circus paint; her face was perfect. She was tall, and like all vampires generally, thin as a knife blade. I guess an all-blood diet is what does it, but it doesn’t seem to be catching on with the female population at large. Modern womanhood will smear poison on their faces and smash their innards into mush with corsets, but they won’t drink blood for breakfast. Anyhow, what with the tight, low-cut black dress, eerily floating long, black hair, curved black nails, and eyes that were somehow both black and fiery, this lady was indisputably difficult to overlook.

I broke the silence. “Does this mean you’re clearing out of Gristle Creak? All you vampires?”

She turned her white face and huge eyes to me. Her lips were a bright, fresh, wet-looking red. “Yes. That is exactly what I mean. We came at this man’s invitation,” she looked scornfully at Jed, sitting on the ground, bound to a tree and looking at her with horror. “But it is time to leave. We are very old”—she looked no more than a muslin miss, despite her provocative clothing—“and we can predict how humans will behave. Your little town is dangerously close to the torches and pitchforks stage. And this one”—she nudged Jed with the tip of her dainty black boot—“won’t be paying us in gold anymore, if I’m any judge.”

I stared at her with the fascination of a small bird for a large snake. “But what do you need gold for? You’re immortal, aren’t you?”

Her dark eyes unblinking, she slowly nodded. “Immortal, yes, but we still need money. It’s so much easier to hide from the authorities when one has plenty of money. We do what we can to avoid the torches and the sharp stakes, you know. Well, this has been amusing and profitable, but we have overstayed our welcome, I fear. Farewell.”

And she was gone. She didn’t turn into a bat and fly away. She was there, and then she was not there.

We sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, I turned to look at Jed. I had intended to ask him if he wanted some coffee, but Jed was slumped against his restraining ropes, perfectly limp. I checked all his vitals, but no luck. Jed, host to the undead, was now a potential member of that club himself. And all she’d done was flick at him with her little boot.

We burned Jed’s body, not wanting to take any foolish chances. After we finished up this chore, Lili turned to me and smiled. It was a triumphant smile, stretching from ear to ear in a manner that seemed unnatural to me—the widest smile I’d ever seen, so wide it seemed like she could swallow me if she had a mind. She seemed to gleam and glow in the light of the campfire, so full of some kind of energy that her body could scarcely contain it. She stood straight and tall like the goddess of victory, smiling at me.

“I am Ardat Lili, daughter of Lilith, demoness of the Western Wastes. I have triumphed in battle, and this town is now mine by right of combat,” she said, eyes blazing in the firelight.

I squatted down by the fire and poured myself a cup of coffee. “Yes, I know. Have a seat.”

It’s hard to use a word like “deflated” when you’re talking about Lili, but she did seem taken aback.

“How … how do you know?” Lili asked, puzzlement knitting her fine brows together.

“I am the wizard who summoned you here, Demon,” I replied equably. “By the laws we both obey, you are my servant. Sit.”

As I had commanded, Lili sat, looking like she’d just been kicked by a mule. I went on, “I was weary—weary of dragons and meddlesome priests, weary of kitchen maids wanting love potions. I settled in Gristle Creak as the town sawbones some years back, and everything was just fine. I healed folks and they paid me. Then all these incomers started up—the undead, you know—and I knew we needed a demon. It’s all very well burning the undead and shoving stakes into them, but when you’ve got an all-out infestation, the only satisfactory cure is a demon.” I drew on my pipe and sipped some coffee.

Lili’s eyes burned a feral green in the firelight. “So now that the undead have cleared out, I suppose you’re going to put me in a lamp for a thousand years? Seal me into that gold mine back there? Or did you have it in mind for me to be your slave, is that it?”

I looked up in surprise. “Oh, no. That would be poor payment for your assistance. You were compelled to come here, and you couldn’t help chasing after the undead because that’s what I brought you here to do. But you did your job, and a mighty fine performance it was, too. No, I have it in mind that you and I should marry. Settle down. Maybe have some children.”

“And be your lawfully wedded slave? No thanks!” she snarled, her dark hair all down around her face like smoke.

“Well, I won’t compel you. I don’t want a slave, I want a wife. Pretty difficult finding a wife when you’re a wizard, you see. It’s just hard to explain certain things that most ladies would find kind of peculiar. A demoness wouldn’t need any explanations, and she’d be right handy at times, too, helping out with a bit of magic here and there. But if it don’t appeal to you, I guess I can’t change your mind. You can go any time. With my sincerest gratitude.”

Lili didn’t say anything. We settled down to sleep. The next morning, she was still there, though I had freed her. We made some coffee, saddled up and rode back to town, stopping at the ranch house to explain to the hands that Mr. Holstrup had a terrible accident and wouldn’t be around no more, but Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, would no doubt want them to stay on with the cattle, so they should just keep on as they were. They didn’t seem any too cut up about Holstrup’s demise.

We reported back to the townspeople about the improved undead situation. Out of respect for Jed’s wife, she that had been Annie Whitethorne, we didn’t tell anyone about Holstrup’s wholesale importation of the undead. I borrowed a leaf from Jed and said they’d wandered in from the badlands, but they were all gone now, and no more were expected from that quarter. We opined the vampires had departed in disgust on account of the poor quality of blood nowadays. As for Jed, he had died gallantly fighting zombies and had gotten himself burnt up on accident. We advised Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, to put an armed guard out at the gold mine, and to find workers she could pay in actual money.

Lili relieved me of my deputy duties and I went back to doctoring. She didn’t say anything the next week nor the week after. Finally, I went to see her one quiet afternoon. She was in the sheriff’s office, doing paperwork. She looked up when I knocked and walked in.

“Howdy, Doc. Help yourself to some coffee, and I’ll be right with you.” I did so, and then sat at the empty deputy’s desk, waiting patiently. We hadn’t any need for another deputy since the undead skedaddled.

Lili signed her name on one of the documents with a flourish and gave me her attention. “What can I do for you, Doc?”

“Well, Lili, I was wondering if you’d given any more thought to my proposal?”

Lili looked thoughtful. “I have. And it was a fine and generous offer, to be sure, Doc. I like it here in Gristle Creak. I’d like to stay on as sheriff.”

“That wasn’t my offer, Lili. You’ve done an excellent job as sheriff, but you can’t be sheriff if you’re going to be my wife.”

“Whyever not?”

That stumped me. I had thought it obvious. “Ladies aren’t sheriffs, Lili. Especially not married ladies. What would people think?”

“Do you care?”

“I care what folks here in Gristle Creak think of me, yes I do,” I said defensively. “It’s my home.”

“Well, I don’t think we’re especially suited, Doc. Seeing as how I want to be a sheriff, and you want me to be a wife. Why don’t you go ask Mrs. Holstrup, she-that-had-been-Annie-Whitethorn?”

I was positively thunderstruck at this suggestion. Annie was a married woman! Then I remembered that Jed’s ashes were blowing around the chaparral like the memories of youth, and that Annie was indeed a widow. A rich widow. With a gold mine.

Well, I reckon I can talk the hind leg off a donkey and you’re probably itching to be on your way, so I’ll make this short. Me and Annie have got four adorable little ‘uns—if you’re counting Jed’s two, and I am—all with curly blonde hair. Annie’s hair is as beautiful as ever, though there’s more silver in the gold now. I’m doing about the same. Wizards tend to age kind of slow. If they’re careful.

But Lili—well, some in the Territory think it’s a scandal that Gristle Creak employs a pretty lady sheriff. But I’m telling you, when it comes to enforcing the law, why, that woman’s a real demon.

The End

© 2017 K.D. Keenan

 

Review: “Fishing for Stars” by Bryce Courtney

Spoiler Alert: This review is for “Fishing for Stars,” by Bryce Courtnay. It is a sequel to “The Persimmon Tree.” I will be discussing elements of both books. If you haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree,” I highly recommend that you do. And then skip “Fishing for Stars.”

“The Persimmon Tree” is how I discovered writer Bruce Courtnay. Born in South Africa, he had a notable career in advertising before retiring, moving to Australia and becoming a highly successful novelist. “The Persimmon Tree” was a complete surprise to me. It is the story of a young boy, Nick Duncan, and Anna Till, his first love, and it opens at the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in WWII.

Nick escapes on a sailboat that belonged to Anna’s father and after run-ins with the Japanese, winds up in Australia, now of combat age. He has an affair with an older woman, Marg Hamilton, fights at Guadalcanal with the Americans, and much later, rediscovers his lost Anna.

Anna’s story is weirder and more harrowing. She is forced to become a “comfort woman” by a high-ranking Japanese officer, Konoi Akira, forcibly addicted to heroin to keep her under control, and trained in the art of kinbaku, a ritualized form of rope bondage and sexual torture. This is why the officer wanted her—to perform kinbaku on him.

Long story short, Nick finds Anna (still addicted) running a kinbaku house in Australia, and decides to take her for a heroin-free cruise on her father’s former sailing ship, in an effort to help her go cold turkey. (Not Anna’s idea, by the way.) They sail into the sunset at the end of “The Persimmon Tree,” leaving us hopeful for their future.

Though I read this book years ago, it made a huge impression on me. It was tightly plotted and pulled me right through the story without a pause. I cared about the characters and rooted for Anna and Nick’s happy reunion.

I subsequently read Courtnay’s magnificent “Potato Factory” historical trilogy based on the life of Ikey Solomon, the model for Dickens’ Fagan character in “Oliver Twist,” plus several other tales. I enjoyed every one of them, even the last one he wrote, “Jack of Diamonds.” I didn’t think it was his best, but he was dying of stomach cancer while writing it, so I thought he deserved a pass.

Which made reading “Fishing for Stars” all the more dismaying. It is, in my opinion, a hot mess. Anna did not respond well to the amateur intervention and stays addicted. She has morphed into a skilled businesswoman with an insatiable appetite for more. Mostly more money, and she isn’t overly choosy how she makes it. She and Nick are lovers, but she won’t allow any touching below the waist as she suffers from vaginismus—a painful cramping of the vaginal muscles. She believes her power lies in preserving her virginity.

Nick admits to being completely satisfied by Anna’s sexual ministrations, but he chunters on ad nauseum about his “need to possess her fully” for YEARS. If I were Anna, I would have dumped him.

Marg Hamilton, the woman with whom he has an affair in his youth, reappears, newly widowed. After several years, she consents to sleep with him again. (I don’t know any men that patient. Do you?) Marg has become a green activist in direct opposition to most of Anna’s commercial activities. The two women call each other “the green bitch” and “Princess Plunder,” and settle down to really despising each other’s guts.

The first third of the book sets the scene and fills in the background for those who haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree.” Not brilliant, but readable. The second part of the story is an action-filled, well-plotted visit to Japan, where Anna confronts her old nemesis Konoi Akira. We get into Yakuza, the Shield Society, kidnapping, Manga porn, murder and mayhem, and it’s all pretty interesting.

The third part of the book is about Marg and her conservation efforts. It is essentially a long and tedious history of the Green political movement in Tasmania and I almost gave up.

In the end, Marg screws Anna (metaphorically), and Anna screws Marg. Nick spends the whole book as a sort of pingpong ball being batted between these two women.

I have always admired Courtnay’s portrayals of women. They are always three-dimensional, strong portraits, contrasting dramatically with the way men often write female characters. However, the way Marg and Anna are written in “Fishing for Stars” turns them into two equally unpleasant viragos—an impression heightened by the narrator, Humphrey Bower. (I listened to the audiobook.) Bower—who is brilliant at accents, from southern Black American to Japanese­—plays Marg as an unusually sniffy school librarian, and Anna as a bitch.

In the final analysis, “Fishing for Stars” is a bad book by a good author, and a very disappointing finale to the characters I loved in “The Persimmon Tree.” I strongly encourage you to read Courtnay’s other work, in particular “The Persimmon Tree,” “The Potato Factory Trilogy,” and “Brother Fish.” You won’t be disappointed.