When Riane learned she was dying, she went to Sesqua Valley. She found a thin tree in the fat shadow of the twin mountains that perched above like great petrified wings. She ran her fingers over the lower branches, feeling for whispers. She made her choice and, in exchange for a small red libation from a slice in her palm, cut free a branch. The following day she returned to her home in Innsmouth, Massachusetts.
It was a steep old house, the color of a rain-fed Atlantic, seated on a hill above a meadow. The bottom floor contained a potter’s shop, containing dusky paintings and strange creatures fashioned from painful twists of driftwood. The branch waited downstairs until the moon came up from the sea, abandoned in the sky like a shell on a beach.
Riane tied back her long, light hair, burned incense, removed her clothing, and then walked down the slow stairs. The branch leaned in a corner, pulsing with Sesqua darkness. With candles lit and tools readied, Riane sat upon a stool with the branch across her legs and set to work.
The dying woman shaped the branch into a staff – white, smooth, bearing at its top the head of a horse. The moon spun above the house, dimmed, descended westward as dawn made pink insinuations and, impatient, forced light onto the old sea-colored house. Trembling and chill in the darkness, Riane collapsed, exhausted, to the shaving-strewn floor.
Later that morning, Lauren came to the house and found her sister; she helped her up to bed. Riane was too weak to go downstairs; her potter’s wheel stood silent, her tubes of paint faded under dust, her carving tools never again to know the warmth of her hands.
The nights belonged to fever. Riane tossed in her sweat, told strange stories in her sleep, and made a curious alphabet of gestures with hypnagogic fingers. Lauren sat by the bed throughout, watching as death’s slow-sculpting hands shaped her sister into something fearful and sad.
One night, Riane freed herself from the bed. It had been a month since the moon rose dripping from the Atlantic. She moved past her sister who was slumped, sleeping, in a chair, leaving her to guard an empty bed. Riane moved quietly to the first floor where the staff awaited.
She walked out into the soft light. She walked down the hill into the meadow behind the house. The wind shared a secret of wild herbs and brine. She tapped the earth with the staff as if to wake a heart beneath the field. The staff thundered in the ant mazes below and echoed in the air where clouds wrapped the moon. Lightning thorned the sky.
A bolt found the staff, knocking it to the ground, burning it into the meadow.
The fevers were gone. Sleep seemed friendly enough: no more half-coherent mutterings, no more gnarled gesticulations. Riane grew thin and pale, her few spoken words like a mist. Lauren flitted between relief and terror, the lone witness to the process. The world had become a queer place as of late…
Lauren had seen the strange horse-shaped pattern of ashen white in the middle of the field, had witnessed lightning dance in the field alongside the pale horses that thundered about in the rain. How strange that they always vanished when the storms faded. How strange that the crows that pecked the horse-shaped mark turned white and hovered above it like gulls.
The night smelled like rain. Riane sat up in bed and stared at her sister. She told Lauren to go to the meadow and to bring some of the dust from the place where lightning had struck. Lauren assumed that the fevers were back, but her sister insisted, so she went.
Thunder mumbled in the distance, and something snorted in the close darkness when Lauren bent to dig at the chalk-white horse. She hurried back into the steep house and up the stairs to her sister’s room.
Riane smiled sweetly and whispered goodbye. She took the ash, touched it to her tears, and died. Lauren held her hand until it went cold. Thunder stampeded across the meadow, and wind flung the doors wide. Rainy white horses danced into the room, gathered about the bed and, grasping the shoulders of Riane’s nightgown in square teeth, carried her limp body down the stairs, down the hill, and into the field.
Lauren watched from the window as they dragged her limp and flopping sister about the wild grass, lightning spitting, rain hissing. White crows swirled above, calling, and Riane’s legs stirred, flexed under her soggy garment. The horses ran, skimming her feet over the damp earth until her feet stepped of their own accord, and she was upright, moving. The horses released her and she ran, laughing in the grey brine of the air, her mane behind her in the galloping storm.
Scott Thomas’ short story collections include Urn and Willow, Quill and Candle, Midnight in New England, Westermead, The Garden of Ghosts, and Over the Darkening Field. His novel Fellengrey is a fantastical nautical adventure set in an alternate 18th century Britain. Scott has seen print in numerous anthologies, such as The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #15, The Year’s Best Horror #22, The Ghost in the Gazebo, Leviathan #3, Otherworldly Maine, and The Solaris Book of New Fantasy. His work appears with that of his brother Jeffrey Thomas in Punktown: Shades of Grey and The Sea of Flesh and Ash. Scott lives in Maine. His blog can be found at http://scottthomasotherworldlyfiction.blogspot.com
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Story illustrations by Dave Felton & Anthony Pearce.