Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and seventy-one.
Tonight we present Beneath: a Thomas Blackhall Chronicle, Part 2 of 2
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Gatecast!
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age - three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, at long last, we discuss the dead of Otter Rapids.
Beneath: a Thomas Blackhall Chronicle, Part 2 of 2
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Blackhall’s words began with the slow momentum of a man groping through memories, and he paused often to sip at his pine tea while it remained hot.
“In the crook of a river’s bend there was a small town of perhaps a hundred heads called Otter Rapids - well, a hundred if you were generous and cast a wide net around the hunt cabins and bush farms that collected their mail in the town’s sole commercial establishment.
“Though all trade flowed through the docks adjacent to the Globe - a venture serving as harbour, weighmaster, inn, public house, post office, and general store - the clay in the land and the fur in the weald was abundant enough to draw a steady stream of grain croppers and pelt collectors.
“Some of them had even made a success of it, and thus the township had been born fifty years previous.
“Now, operating the Globe was a supposed wise woman, Rhine Ande and her husband, Howard. Howard was the sort who made his way with a strong back and stronger opinions, though he rarely considered, until after her passing, that these opinions were little more than a parroting of his wife’s words.
“In truth it was but one of the many ways in which her husband was the result of her molding, but it was a beneficial bond for both.”
Blackhall paused in his telling as a single great knock came at the makeshift cabin door, but an upright raft of timbers bound together with tightly woven reeds. The wood trembled at the impact of the visitor’s declaration of arrival.
Sour Thistle let out a low growl, and, though Thomas at first mistook it as a sign of anger, he soon realized she was simply conveying that the intrusion would be tolerated.
Beyond the swinging entrance stood a bear of immense size. Upon its back it wore a harness of leather and wood that held aloft a platform. In turn, upon the platform had been laid a selection of firewood.
The sight pained Thomas. There were few left of the old nobility - Sour Thistle stood as a rare example of one of the survivors of the years of creeping madness - and he could not blame her for wishing to council against war. Yet Blackhall knew well enough that it was he himself who’d ended the lineage of the Bear King, and that there was no hope of seeing that gleam of intelligence in these ursine eyes - this beast who had been reduced to pack animal.
As her servants stoked the fire, Sour Thistle asked, “how did you come by this tale? The pen of some distant fabulist?”
“No,” answered Thomas, “Most I read of Howard’s journal, the rest, well, the rest I tell you first hand - but we’ll get to that.
“Rhine’s interests, as her husband recorded in his simple scratch, were as varied as the operations housed beneath the Globe’s roof. At the lack of a local broadsheet she became the source of official news flowing up river, and her shop shelves maintained an irregularly robust collection of tomes on farming, histories, and philosophy. Having set up keeping at the head of a gateway to the north had provided some interesting finds in those decades of nameless drifters and fleeing blaggards.
“Here in she found words of healing, cursing runes, and much beyond her self-taught ability to decipher.
“The results of these mystic tools were what she considered just another prong in her efforts to gain capital. Fear of superstitious reprisals kept her from brazen advertisement, but if a member of the community she deemed discrete were in need, and had the coin, she would often approach with a hex to stiffen wilting crops or a sigil to chase wolves from the edges of the lonely clearings in which the dirt-tillers lived.
“It was Rhine’s central tenant that though she acted in self-interest, in the end her actions brought betterment to the community. If she held a morality, it was that. Any she did not help had been given the opportunity, and if the coin was so important to them clearly it was within their right to keep it.
“Speaking of coin, at that time there was a great demand for bodies in the city of Kingston. A hub of education, the surgical schools and their students were more than willing to pay a decent dollar for a cadaver on which to practice.
“Though Otter Rapids’ graveyard was a simple affair in a clearing not far from the community’s single church, which itself rested directly across the muddy street from the Globe, high and heavy fences had been commissioned from Robert Tunsel, the town smith. His specialty was horseshoes and kitchenware, but the man approached the project with gusto.
“While it is not uncommon to wish some protection from the probing paws, and hungry bellies, of wild carrion feeders, this wall was intended to keep a much larger beast out.
“Two years earlier the Collins had buried their eldest daughter, a girl of sixteen who’d perished after startling a horse who’d bucked in instinctive fear. Her crushed skull had not been enough to dissuade a pair of riverborne bodysnatchers from collecting her up, one moonless October night, and carrying her chill body downstream.
“Eight months later the death of Mr. McGrath, the end result of a long bout with failing lungs, had seen a similar breach. The families, finding only each other to commiserate with, had pooled their funds to erect the barrier.”
Blackhall paused again, sipping at his tea, then continued.
“Hard to say how such a thing fit into Rine’s notion of self-interest fueling community betterment, but it is a strangely human foible to ignore all that does not support one’s own notions.
“It soon did become a communal concern, however, when the fires of typhus spread through town. No medicine, mundane or mystical, could touch the natural infection that swept up the river. Fingers were pointed, salves were applied, the old remedies were trotted out by Rhine and country wisemen alike.
“All efforts were futile.
“Fever sheds were erected, and any knowledge of the coffin ships was denied by those whose names were landed upon as likely sources. The Irish of the area, often cited as the source, were so well integrated with the families they had arrived to be reunited with that it became impossible to extricate the newcomers - even those with the longest stead grew sick.
“In the end it mattered not who the source of the diseased lice that spread the plague. More than half of the once vibrant and growing community fell ill, and, in the end, Rhine was among them.
“Worse, though the disease would soon arrive within the limits of Kingston itself, and as many bodies as the surgeons might ever have call for would soon be at the disposal of their earth-encrusted fingertips, in those early days Otter Rapids stood as a treasure trove of human flesh.
“The fiends were quick and quiet, their methods as varied and clever as the attempts to stop them. At first simple guards were posted, but with the demands of the harvest already being split by the ailing population it was no small thing to spare an able body to stand guard for the night.
“Even with such precautions taken, the flow did not cease. One sentry claimed to have been knocked flat, likely by an oar. Another spoke of his water skin being tainted with some slumber-inducing tincture, though many suspected it was simply whiskey and the man had only poisoned himself. Distracting fires ensued, strange whispers in the distance pulled sentinels into goose chases, the sound of an approaching bear threatened.
“Whatever the diversion, the cadavers were retrieved at nearly the pace they could be buried, and no change from public cemetery to private gravesite, nor rocky coverings, nor human intervention seemed capable of stopping it.
“In truth, the spread of typhus was such that soon after there were few left unexhausted enough to attempt to try.
“Howard, however, born with the luck of a stronger constitution than most of his neighbours, and with the stubbornness of a man who’d had the fortune to never encounter an obstacle he could not overcome, was determined to keep his wife safe at any cost.
“Now, that is not to say that he too did not suffer the fate of so many of his customers and acquaintances, yet when Rhine first fell ill he poured over her books, his rough education being pressed to its limit as he attempted to locate some rite or elixir that might pull her from the grave’s edge.
“Though the couple had been among those lobbying for the fever sheds, he chose instead to tend her at home, in her own bed. Between his reading he collected cold river water to cool her forehead, and the supply of pemmican and pickles that had been the major source of their seasonal traffic ran dry as he did what he could to coax them down her throat.
“In the end he was able to accomplish little beyond extending her suffering. Even as he felt the fever building within his own limbs he held her hand and watched her final exhalations. Even as the chills ran up his spine and through his limbs he dug her grave. Even as the sweat of exertion and malady churned in with the muck he pulled from her resting place, he knew he was breathing his last.
“He’d considered a simple plot alongside their rambling clapboard shop, yet the proximity to the riverway - and the nearness to the body snatchers’ picks - convinced him the communal graveyard was a spot more likely to bring her peace.
“Howard did not stop there, however. For the final words of his diary, as I found it open within their buttoned-tight store, laid out the concerns he had around his wife’s eternal slumber being disrupted, and his plan to stop any such intrusions.
“Though he’d dug the hole himself, he offered up a barrel of Liverpool salt to the Henleys - a local family who’d had the good fortune to otherwise survive the plague unscathed - to finish the job.
“Now, you must recall that this was a time of rapid internment. Worries over spreading disease and, frankly, making way for the next to fall, meant that holes were dug and filled as fast as the shovels might fall.
“Though Otter Rapids never quite reached the point of mass graves or funerary pyres, the situation on the ground was one of rot and woe.”
Though her crinkled nose and bright eyes told Blackhall clearly that his host was, at this point, deeply invested in his tale, she took a moment to interrupt his telling.
“Imagine it,” she said, “all that delectable meat being left to spoil - above ground or below, it matters not, your people should learn the beauty of a feast upon death.”
“Well,” answered Thomas, “we do often do hold a commiserating meal, but it is largely considered bad manners to feast upon the dead. Besides, disease was rampant enough at the time, there was no need to exasperate the situation by spreading it through a belly full of Uncle Bill.”
The Lady of the Forest chuckled. “Call me at your next such venture, I will gladly lend my teeth in assistance of your disposal problems.”
Attempting a half-grin that spoke of too much experience with such calamities to allow for any true black humour to show through, Blackhall continued.
“Given the great rate of collapse and interment the Henleys can hardly be blamed for not questioning why they found themselves, upon having filled over Rhine Ande’s grave, with no small amount of redundant dirt still left in Howard’s pile.
“Further, in light of the man’s loss, and the sickness pillaging the beds and fields of Otter Rapids, the Henleys might also be forgiven for not questioning further the disappearance of the man who had hired them.
“The truth likely lay dormant for a day before being quite literally uncovered.
“You may note that I have provided little information about the body snatchers plaguing the town. I can not even truly tell you their names - when I met them, they had very little to say on the matter.
“Here’s what I do know: When I arrived upon the scene I was long delayed but finally answering a summons to inquire about the matter of the missing cadavers. You must recall that, at the time, there were many theories about the disappearing corpses - most of which assumed some witchcraft or mystic aspect.
“The friend who had summoned me, unfortunately, had passed early in the spreading disaster, and perhaps it was Alfred’s demise - and the worries about his final resting place - that finally drew me to the area.
“Whatever the case, it was no arcane matter that first caught my eye, it was simply my habit of traveling the wildwoods on foot. Meals can be few and far between in such a venture, so my stomach was on constant alert for game. It was this hope for a full belly that pulled my gaze to the canoe hidden on the east bank of the river, its hull covered over with a number of downed spruce branches.
“From the craft I simply followed a trail of churned mud and snapped twigs that led me directly to the graveyard - though not without encountering a fair share of danger upon the way.
“I discerned what happened almost immediately, as the answers had been laid out like the breadcrumb trail of a child’s story. Having been forced into association with a few bodysnatchers in my time, their techniques were already familiar to me. They often, as was the case here, concentrate their efforts in a shaft beginning directly above the head of their intended victim. Though the broadsheets carry cartoon images of men having laboured to turn back the grave digger’s work, in truth it’s much easier to simply draw a single chute, shatter the uppermost portion of the coffin, and drag their prize upwards.
“With this savings in labour a successful shovelman can carry off three or four loved ones without risking the light of dusk or dawn.
“This too was the case above the Ande grave, and it was clear that one of the two partners in crime had been forced to step down into the hole for leverage in driving the blade of his shovel against the coffin-top.
“The man had the look of a habitant far from home. His red toque, heavy woven jacket, and variety of leathers told me he was likely a huntsman who’d turned his skills in silent forest-running towards creeping into graveyards.
“He was no longer silent, however. He began moaning loudly as soon as I came into sight.
“Worse still, Howard was also at hand.
“You see, though the mourning husband could not save his dying wife, he had come across a rite of resurrection, or, at least, of infection. I know you have dealt with plagues of the dead in the past - the gnashing of teeth, the rotting flesh, the milky eyes and stumbling, waving limbs.
“Yet Howard had not invoked the curse upon his wife. No, instead he had, knowing her slumber would be disturbed, prepared the symbols of ritual upon his own flesh. Who knows how long he had lain, yet alive, as the Henleys laid their spoonfuls of dirt upon his lid, but he must have been still breathing when he set Rhine beneath, placed a first layer of soil, then cast his own box into the hole and prepared as if for slumber.
“His trap, of course, was a success - though I found him, some four days later, still caught in the pinewood, he had done no small damage to the nearest intruder’s leg. The man had bled out and been feebly resurrected without ever being able to escape the tunnel into Howard’s prison.
“It was a grisly sight. Much of Howard’s grasping hands had been shredded upon the jagged hole in his tomb, but he’d feasted well in the moments before his victim’s return.”
Sour Thistle, licking her teeth, raised a brown-furred brow. “So you say, then, that Rhine’s notion of self-interest did, in the end, benefit the community? It seems as such, at least, as I have never found much further threat in anything I’ve eaten.”
Blackhall, realizing he’d been speaking more to the fire than his friend, raised his head.
“No, you misunderstand me. When Howard went into the ground more than half the town was still in good stead. Though those closest to its heart had fallen to fever, some had recovered; others had simply avoided the illness altogether.
“For the sake of clarity I have unfolded these events in the format of a sensical discovery, but it is not as if I was not already aware of the wandering cadavers as I crept into the remnants of the town. It was there, too, that I saw self-interest in action; the crush of ravenous neighbours thrashing in attempt to climb each other and consume a babe that had been tossed by doomed parents onto a shack roof, the arguments of tooth and shattered nail over those scraps of meat that the decaying mob did manage to turn up.
“It was among them that I spotted the man that must have been the pinned robber’s partner, as he too wore leathers of a courier des bois, and I pegged him as the likely source of contamination to the village at large. No doubt he had attempted to pull his partner from the pit - either so they might flee, or so that he might dispose of the trail of evidence that would lead to him.
“Whatever the case, their self-interest, combined with the Andes’ own, was enough to kill every inhabitant but the lobbed babe.
“It was while collecting supplies that I came across Howard’s journal, and it was with the book in my pocket and the babe in my left arm that I set my torch to the brush upwind and burned flat everything between myself and the river.”
Silence fell in the small shack, then the great wolverine nodded.
“There was little reward in a situation that called for taking such time and risk,” said the queen, and a knot in the flaming log before them popped.
“Even less so for the babe I carried downstream.”
“I believe I understand now.”
The last of the pine tea drained into Blackhall’s gullet.
“Then we prepare for war,” he answered, and the true thrust of their conversation began.
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Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
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