Suffer a Witch to Live
by Seth Mullins
part 1 of 2
Mater Stanfrey had spent the latter half of his life in a shanty along a rutted dirt lane without name, penned in by the dwelling places of other miners — some mere tents or lean-tos for the transients. His roof was shingled and partially rotted. Two glass windows faced the road, and during the daylight hours he could peer out to the edge of Lake Kimbahal.
Tonight he was awake past his usual hour and awaiting his son’s return. Jain would likely wonder why a lamp was still lit in the shanty; and perhaps he’d sense the impending argument. Provided, of course, that matters hadn’t already gotten out of hand and he’d gone to call on that woman at the Red Barn.
‘This whole city might be blind to what she does,’ Mater thought. ‘She can weave her nasty web around every other man from here to Bucton. But upon my life, her next victim will not be my son.’
He stretched out on his cot, which lay beneath the stairs to the upper loft, and groaned aloud. He may have seen fifty-five years, but toil in the mines — and long-nurtured grief — made him look and feel even older. Mater began a typical morning by coughing up gray-black phlegm. His back was ruined from hunching over in narrow tunnels, and his neck ached so badly that there was no comfortable way for him to sleep at night.
He lurched into a sitting position when he heard the doorknob turn. Jain let himself in and, without acknowledging his father, proceeded to remove his sooty black coat and hang it on the rack behind the door. Then he pulled on his boot laces.
‘Sure enough — lad knows something’s coming,’ Mater thought. ‘Forgot to even shake off his clothes before coming in the door.’
“Evening Pa,” Jain said finally. His voice was carefully bland. “Not used to seeing you up this late. Something keepin’ ya from sleep?”
“What’s keeping me up,” Mater pronounced, “is concern for my son who, judging by the way he carries on, isn’t worth the worry.”
With his saggy gray cheeks, ruffled brow, and bushy gray mustache, Mater always appeared to be frowning. The effect was no illusion this time.
“Maybe I oughta just let you learn your lessons the hard way,” he added.
Jain was only seventeen, and toil hadn’t yet marred the smooth youthfulness of his face and limbs. But his hands were habitually curled from gripping a shovel or pickaxe for nine or ten hours a day, and his eyes opened only halfway because they stung from soot; and he sighed like a grown and bitter man.
“All I want is to get clean right now,” he said. “I reckon I know what you would say, but I’m just too tired to hear it right now. Can’t it wait, Pa?”
“Manny Hedgeford stopped by here on his lunch,” Mater said, as if he hadn’t heard his son’s request. “He’s worried that you’ve got a thing for one of them whores as the Red Barn. Says you got a glow on your face when you mentioned her the other day. What’s more, he says the two of you’ve met and had conversations.”
“Nothing’s happened between me and that woman,” Jain said.
Mater rose up from his bed so fast that he had to stifle a groan; but he ignored the pain. He stared down his son, who was several inches taller.
“If it was any one of ’em, I’d give you a talkin’ to,” he fumed. “But it had to be this Jasmine — or at least that’s what folks know her as; what her real name is you or I will never know. You’d go and lose your head over her? After all the suspicions I’ve had and have told you about?”
Jain glared back at his Pa. “I already said that I ain’t done nothing with her, and I don’t plan to. Yeah, we’ve talked a couple of times — and I happen to believe that she’s a good lady. She’s landed in a hard place, and she does what she does to make her living. There’s other women in Ingmitn who do the same, and it’s not for you or me to judge.”
“What she does is something you can’t even begin to understand,” Mater said. “I’ve watched her. I’ve waited outside the Red Barn; I’ve seen the men who go in there and watched ’em come out again. There’s a few who kill time over at Winster’s. Those folks looked to me like they’d aged ten years of a sudden. You see ’em swaggering one day and then limping like lame dogs the next. Short of breath, faces pale... you explain it to me. They’re sucked dry, the lot of ’em. By that vampire witch.”
Jain scowled and shook his head. “I’ve heard you,” he said finally, “but I just don’t agree. And I’m old enough to make my own decisions, Pa.”
“Maybe I’d reckon so, if I thought it was your head that was doing the choosing,” his father said. “You can say you’ve heard me, but you sure ain’t listened to a word. She’s hooked you; I can see it in your eyes. If this Jasmine was to suggest that the two of you elope one time free of charge — and I’ve no doubt that’s her next move — then what little sense and resolve you’ve got left is liable to drain right down your legs and into your boots. Then she’ll leave you like an empty husk.”
Jain nodded, but it was obvious to Mater that he did so only to appease his father and end the conversation. The old man shrugged. “I reckon I said my piece,” he said. “You go on now — your water’s getting’ cold.”
Jain stalked over to the washroom without another glance at his Pa.
Mater lay awake that night staring at what little was visible of the stairway’s underside. He was waiting for sounds of deep and slow breathing to assure him that Jain had slipped into dreams. He knew it wouldn’t be long. Nine or ten hours in the mines provoked a kind of bone-weariness that no man could stave off.
Beneath his woolen blanket he was fully dressed save for his boots. He ran a thumb along the blade of a hatchet he held and made a silent vow: ‘That witch is not getting my son.’
Jain couldn’t be trusted to resist her wiles; that much was certain. So a more drastic measure had to be taken to remove the threat of Jasmine. Mater was no criminal, and possessed neither the stealth nor the subterfuge necessary to take care of this bit of business discreetly. Surely he’d be found out — and even though Jasmine was a whore, he’d hang all the same. ‘But better me than Jain.’ Mater’s body was ruined anyway; he was content to lay it to rest. Besides, he felt utterly useless. He couldn’t work, and his lingering existence was just a drain on his son’s slim finances. The best hours of his days were spent dreaming of his youth, and his dear Althee...
Devil’s blood! Death would wash away those memories; that alone would make the sacrifice worthwhile.
He decided to harden his will to his purpose, and think no more of the probable aftermath of the deed. After all, he could lose his life and still fail. Wilford Stedd swore he’d seen Jasmine in his younger years, practicing her prostitution in Bucton. Forty-odd years gone by and the woman hadn’t aged a day. If she was impervious to the ravages of time — or possessed of some means of rejuvenating herself in spite of them — then what other black sorcery might she be imbued with? Mater had to catch her unawares — swiftly kill her in her sleep, preferably — before she had a chance to speak or fix her gaze upon him.
Presently he heard Jain snoring. The lad didn’t have to work on the morrow, and would likely sleep like one of the dead until day’s full light. Mater gripped the hatchet to his breast and slipped quietly from his bed.
As he donned his cloak, pulling the cowl over his head, he heard rain pattering the tin roof. Good: foul weather was likely to keep folks indoors, if any were even up at this hour; or at least discourage them from looking about if they did venture out. What’s more, fog was bound to rise from the lake and shroud the roads in white.
Within minutes the rainfall was so abetted that the sound of the shanty door opening and then closing again could scarce be heard over the din.
Mater walked as swiftly as his old body would allow him. Shacks and tents — now obscured by mist — drifted by him. Water collected in the ruts of the road. Mater’s clothing was soon saturated. He passed the restaurant where Jain had breakfasted with Manny three days ago. The alley had joined Main Street; and then Main Street itself narrowed. Trees became much more frequent than houses.
The Red Barn: that was the place where folks knew to go if they had a few coins to spare for “companionship.” Farmer Wintry rented out the place to the ladies. Mater had often wondered if these whores paid in coin, or were a few lewd favors for the farmer himself part of the arrangement?
He clutched tighter to the handle of the axe, which was sequestered beneath his robe.
Presently he approached the fence around Wintry’s farmyard. Cows grazed in the field during the day, but all were now inside. Jasmine and her cohorts entertained their men in lofts right above the pens, the dung and the milling livestock. But Jasmine didn’t spend her nights up there. Oh no; Mater had staked out this place just yesterday and discovered the truth. She lived in a tiny shanty behind the barn, which was built to resemble an outhouse.
Copyright © 2006 by Seth Mullins