Chapter 17: Living in the realm of the dead
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
Ferryman? Ghost? “What the hell, am I going across the River Styx?” I ask. Yeah, that’s a tone of amazement and crazed fear creeping into my voice. I’m getting used to it, if that makes any sense.
The burning dog looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “No, just across Lake Netherfield. Where is the River Styx, and why would we want to cross it?”
“Never mind.” Relieved, kind of, I shake my head and go scrounging for a few bills. I hold out three ones, a five, and two twenties to the dog. “Is that enough?”
The dog looks at me sadly. (It’s a basset hound. It can’t do anything else.) “Just bring two ones. The ferryman won’t know the difference. He keeps talking about drachmas and obols.”
I don’t know what an obol is, but “drachma” is definitely Greek. “This ferryman, his name wouldn’t happen to be Charon, would it?”
“Chiron, I think,” the dog replies. “Let’s get going. We don’t have all night.”
Methinks, dog, you’ve made a mistake on the name, and are getting me into something I’m not going to like. But I go with him anyhow. I don’t really understand anything anymore. I suppose I can always refuse to board the ferry if it looks like bad news. Charon would be bad news. He’s the ferryman who takes you to Hades after you die.
We head down to the main road and then strike across country until we hit what looks like an old abandoned road. The dog laughs. “This is where I scared Norm Jones and his girl in 1926.”
As we walk along the road, I think of what Miranda wrote in her book. “That was a burning mastiff that scared Norm Jones. And he was alone.”
“Nah, that was me. Norm was out here with Doris Wheeler, who was cheating on her husband. He ran off without half his clothes, he was so scared. You can figure the rest.”
I can. Who wants to admit being scared by a basset hound? “What did Doris do?”
The dog looks up at me. I swear it is smiling, even though it still looks sad. “Oh, Doris was all right. A little light in the heels, but a real sport about things. She and I played fetch with Norm’s wallet. And she dumped him right afterward.”
I realize how weird it is, walking down an old dirt road, listening to a dog talk about people who were no doubt long dead. And then we reach the end of the road, where it runs into the lake. As I should have expected, there is a boat waiting there, and a ferryman standing in it.
What I didn’t expect is that the ferryman is a centaur. I’ve read my mythology. Centaurs are lusty creatures. I’m not sure I want to be in a boat with one. So I try to delay. “Um, I thought the ferryman is supposed to be Charon.”
The centaur looks dismayed. In a plaintive voice, he replies, “Well, it was supposed to be Charon, but someone,” and he glares pointedly at the burning dog, “screwed up the pronunciation. I’m Chiron, and I’ll be the ferryman tonight. You have my payment.”
“Yah. Um, ah, wait a minute.” I give the dog a meaningful look and we step back a bit. Pitching my voice so the centaur won’t hear, I say, “Um, I don’t know how to put this, but that’s a centaur. I am not going in that boat to be . . . um, raped by a centaur.”
The dog looks mournful. (What’s new?) In equally low tones, he replies, “Not a problem. Chiron’s gay these days. Hades, I’m in more danger than you. So, since you mention it, could you kind of keep between us? He resents my summoning him here.”
What can I say? I get out my two ones, advance to the end of the boat, and hold them out. “Here you go, one for each of us.”
The centaur, Chiron, looks disapproving as he plucks one of the bills. “You only pay for yourself, unlike some freeloaders I know,” and he glares at the dog. In a confidential whisper, he says to me, “I heard everything you two said. Look, nothing personal, but I like lovers with more of an ass.” He looks back at his own substantial nether quarters, turns back to me, and gives me a wink. In a normal tone of voice, he adds, “Come onboard. We need to get moving.”
Great, I’ve just been turned down by a centaur because I don’t have much of a figure. My day is already complete, and it’s still hours until dawn.
We’re walking along what seems to be a continuation of the same road, just on the other side of Lake Netherfield. The whole area is wooded. There are old, broken stone walls along either side of the road.
I’m enjoying this. It’s not too cold, the road is decent if obviously little used. Above all, it’s quiet. After the way Chiron and the basset hound bickered in the boat, I’ve been happy for these few moments of peace.
Abruptly the burning dog leaps onto a low stone wall along the side of the road. “This way,” he says, and jumps off on the other side.
I do the same. To my surprise, the dog is no longer covered in blue fire. It doesn’t smell to high heaven, either. Instead, it acts like a normal basset hound. It wags its tail at me, gives me a sniff, wags its tail some more, and then just heads off into the long grass. I decide to follow, but a voice behind me says, “Let Pluto go.”
I turn around, and there’s a woman standing there. Where’d she come from? I take a good look at her. She’s middle-aged, and looks thin and worn. Her clothing looks positively rustic. Yet she speaks with vigor and confidence. She tells me, “He so rarely gets to play at being a normal dog. He misses it. So I give him back the chance when he visits me.” She sighs, and then says, “And how are you, Jane Harris? I hope Pluto wasn’t rude to you. He can get impatient.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I reply. “Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but just who are you? And what do you want with me?”
“I am Asenath Shattuck. And I want to discuss your future.”
This is the ghost of the first witch of Netherfield? I give her a second look. Could be. I stick my hand out, and it goes right through her. I pull my hand back out of her. Okay, ghost. “I’m satisfied for now,” I announce.
“Then let’s sit down and talk,” she says. “We need to finish and get you back to your place before your parents wake up and find you missing.”
Sounds good. I sit down on the ground. Asenath follows suit. I notice that the grass bends around her, as if she’s substantial. Curious.
Asenath begins, “People are people. They want the company of other people. Even ghosts like company. I tell you this so that you understand that while I am bound to this land, over the course of the last two centuries many of the ghosts of Netherfield have come to pay a visit. They know I will be here.
“A few months ago, the ghost of a little girl named Polly came to me. She told me someone was working magic on her, to force her to harass a living person. That person was you, Jane Harris.”
“She’s the girl I’ve heard sobbing in my house?” I ask.
Asenath nods. “Undoubtedly. She was trying to fight back against whoever was trying to control her, and I am afraid she lost. I have not seen her in the last few weeks.” Asenath looks grim. “Fortunately, I have other informants, enough to piece together what is going on. Someone is using you, Jane Harris. That person put a spell upon you to bring about the death of Miranda Milan. How this will happen, I do not know. It is not likely to be as simple as you killing Miranda, for you couldn’t do that by yourself.
“From this, I judge that the person who did this is an enemy of Miranda’s, but is afraid to confront her openly. You are part of some sort of trap or plot. And the person who devised this has no regard for your welfare. The workings of this death spell could kill you as well as Miranda.”
Charming. I add, “According to Cindy, my friend Cynthia Van Schacht, the spell points at her as well.”
Asenath closes her eyes and looks uncomfortable for a moment before she replies, “So you are in a difficult position, Jane Harris. Miranda’s enemy is using you. Miranda herself is no doubt more concerned to save herself than to save you. And your friend Cynthia is enthralled by that dragon, and may not always act in your best interests.”
“She’s my friend,” I insist.
“She and the dragon are now lovers,” Asenath replies. “Consider what that does to her motivations.”
I want to think otherwise, but I don’t think Asenath is speaking metaphorically. Llama shit. Remembering Miranda’s remark, I ask, “Do you know what the dragon’s motivations are?”
Asenath looks even more uncomfortable when she answers me after thinking a bit. “The dragon, like any person, wants company. It came to Netherfield looking for company, and found your friend Cynthia some years ago. So it set out to influence her through her dreams to make her want to serve a dragon.” Asenath looks down for a moment, and when she looks at me again there is a strange smile on her face and a glint in her eye. “As often happens, nature has taken its course and confounded the dragon. Instead of acquiring a servant, the dragon has fallen in love with your friend, and she with it. The dragon is going to find that Cynthia Van Schacht is no more its servant than it is hers.”
Well, that explains a few things. I don’t know whether to feel sorry for Cindy for being sort of brainwashed, or delighted that she has this great, if weird, lover. But it does point to a conclusion. “What you’re telling me is that I can’t count on anyone useful to act in my interests. Unless you’re offering yourself.”
Asenath frowns. “I would if I could. But while my power here is unchallengeable, it does not extend beyond the limits of the old farm. So I am not a very useful ally. And you have no reason to trust me, no matter what I say.”
That’s depressing enough, but Asenath isn’t finished dishing out the bad news. “It is even worse for you than having no reliable allies, Jane Harris. You have no magical powers at all. While your friend Cynthia, Miranda, and Miranda’s unknown enemy all do. If they choose, they can read your thoughts. They can make you do their bidding. And you cannot stop them.”
I toss up my hands. “So it’s hopeless.”
Asenath is emphatic. “No! Not so! Tell me, have you ever heard of a great man who was alive in my youth, Benjamin Franklin?”
I smile at that. “Sure have. He’s in every American history textbook.”
Asenath returns the smile. “When he was in Paris, negotiating with the French and the British, he had an assistant whom he discovered was a British spy. Do you know what he did to the spy?”
“Fired him, I suppose.”
“No, he kept him on. Instead, he acted as if he did not know the man was a spy, and fed him information to make the British think what Franklin wanted them to think. Benjamin Franklin knew that you need not fight on the grounds of your opponent’s choosing. With care and planning, you can choose the grounds on which to fight.
“And that is what you must do, Jane Harris. You are smart, and can be brave, and you know what your enemies and even your friends can do now. Use that knowledge, and you may yet prevail.”
Brave? Really? I’ll hold off on that one. As for knowledge, I think about what I know. It doesn’t add up to much. Probably most of what I know about weird things in Netherfield is what’s in Miranda’s book. And what does it tell me about Asenath? So I ask, “You used to be a witch. At least that’s your reputation. Even if your power is limited to here, isn’t there anything you can do to help me?” I regret saying that the moment I do, but done is done.
Asenath doesn’t seem put out. “Advice is almost all I can offer. Almost. But I have managed to do one thing for you, earlier. You recall when Miranda forced you to commune with nature?”
“Because I draw my power from all that lives on this land, Nature and I are closely connected. I persuaded Nature to confer her love upon you, as a form of protection.”
I think about that a bit. “People keep telling me that, but I don’t see any difference.”
Asenath leans forward to look directly into my face. “Look into my eyes, Jane Harris, and see what I see in you.”
So I look into her eyes. Instantly, it is as if I am looking at me from her perspective. But it’s not just me the way I’d normally see me. It’s like I can see inside myself, see how every organ and cell in my body is working. I can hear Asenath’s voice in my head. See where I am pointing, Jane? You were damaged, a lesser creature than you could be. Nature has been repairing you, making you more alive. See? These things take time. But you are more alive than you were a month ago, and you will come into your own in time, if we can keep you alive through this danger. And I do see. It is as if I can see how I had been, and how Nature has been changing me.
Abruptly I am seeing normally out of my eyes again. Asenath has pulled back, and is smiling at me. She says, “Nature’s love is not everything, but it is something. Few who understand it will want to harm you. And as I said, you have my goodwill and advice, if they will be of service to you. Now you had best go home.”
Pluto the burning basset hound has been quiet as we’ve been heading home. He didn’t even argue with Chiron on the ride back across Lake Netherfield. I’m feeling sorry for him, so I reach down to pet him. He sees me, and comes to a stop. “Don’t do that,” he says. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” I reply. “I just meant to be nice.”
Pluto looks up. Somehow he doesn’t look quite so sad. “Good intentions noted. But I had my reward from Asenath. She let me be a proper dog again.”
“What happened to you?” I ask. For the legend of Netherfield’s burning dog says nothing about how he came to be.
The dog shakes his head. “Long story, which you ought to hear, but you need to hurry home. Your mother’s awake.”
“You sure?” I glance up at the sky. There’s light just beginning to break in the east. So I observe, “It’s not even dawn . . . yet. She never gets up this early.”
The dog sniffs and growls. “Unless someone else is wearing her perfume and making coffee in the kitchen, it’s her. And I don’t think she’ll appreciate my being in your company. Now go!”
I don’t need another warning. I run the remaining distance and pop in the back door to the kitchen. “Hi, mom!” I say as soon as I’ve seen her.
My mother looks over from where she’s standing by the coffee machine. She’s surprised. It takes her a moment to think of what to say. “And where did you come from, young lady? Out with the boys again?” She’s still kind of thinking my disappearance was boy trouble.
“Nope,” I say, and walk over beside her and smell the coffee. “Is there enough for me?”
She gives me a light swat on the hand. “No, and you’re not supposed to be drinking it. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to, Jane Wendy Harris. You’re trying to distract me.”
Well, yeah. I had hopes. And now I need to lie. And a simple lie won’t do. It’s time for confabulation mode. “Well, mom, I was out much of the night with Netherfield’s burning dog. We went rabbit hunting. I rode a centaur, while the dog chased after the rabbit. The dog caught the rabbit, and by the time I dismounted from the centaur, the dog’s flames had already cooked it. You know, it turns out I don’t care much for rabbit, so I let him eat most of it. Oh, yeah, and the centaur and I . . .”
Pain ripples through my abdomen, putting an end to my story. It’s more the surprise than the intensity that causes me to double over and then sink to the floor. My mother drops to her knees and flutters about, not sure what to do. “Are you all right, darling?” she asks several times in increasingly worried tones.
I nod, give her a weak grin. I know what the pain signifies. Asenath was right: Nature’s been fixing me up. So, with half a smile on my face, I tell her, “At least you don’t have to worry over whether the centaur got me pregnant, mom. I’m having my first menstrual cramps.”
I am happy to say that that line actually makes my mother laugh, despite herself.
End of chapter seventeen
(Seeing that many legends about centaurs say they’re all-male, it’s no wonder there are gay centaurs. Or at least bisexual ones. Jane should have expected that. Netherfield’s night life is getting to be weirder than New York City’s, if you ignore the dancing skyscrapers. On the other hands, days can be strange, too, as Jane will find out in the next chapter.)