Short Story Runner Up - December 2013

Adam James Jones - God's Country

Your family is poor, and so you live in a sagging jacal built and abandoned long before your time or even your parents’ time. Tonight it’s raining, and the water drips down from the roof or else bleeds down the walls in dark, mud-clotted streaks. Every so often a new leak springs forth, dousing a candle, and your mother must rise, pinch and dry the wick between the front of her dress, and relight it.

Your mother is there, but this is the second night straight you haven’t seen your father. Your mother doesn’t mention it, and it never crosses your mind to either.

One would think that your hatred for your father would only accentuate your love for your mother, and there was a time when this may have been true. After a while though, your hatred expanded into such a thick and permanent shade that nothing else could grow near it. It solidified until, eventually, without you even realizing it, everything had died, and now, despite their efforts, you don’t even hate your father nor love your mother because you are desensitized, and now you can take a beating from one and an embrace from the other and with each feel the same thing: nothing.

Nonetheless, you are still capable of wanting something more, and in this respect you are blessed because you know exactly what you want and you want it powerfully. You wake up thinking about it and you go to sleep the same. You know you need this thing not because it will improve your circumstances but because you were born with a particular void that this thing was meant to fill. Your lack of it gives life meaning, and you are proof that one can live on desire alone.

Your family is poor, so there are no books to read. But your mother knows stories, lots of them. She asks if you would like a story tonight.

“That’s fine.”

“What shall it be about?”

“Horses.”

“I’m running out of those.”

You shrug.

“I suppose, now that I think of it, I might know one more. Although it’s not a horse story like you’re thinking.”

“Does it have horses in it?”

“Yes. Well, in a way.”

“You can just tell it.”

You get in bed – a quilt atop four hay-stuffed grain sacks – and your mother sits on the floor beside you, her back against the wall and a candle in her lap.

“There once was a ranch hand working for a small cattle operation not far from here. When he wasn’t working the cattle the man who owned the ranch let the hand stay in a little cabin set right where the pastures met the trees. It was a good arrangement for both men concerned.

“But after a while, the owner began to notice that his hand was looking very tired and worn down during the days. He asked him what was wrong.

“‘There’s a witch that comes to me at night,’ the hand said. ‘She slips in the cabin while I’m asleep, stands at the foot of my bed and puts a curse on me so that I can’t yell or kick or even blink. Then she pulls out this bridle, fits it over my head and into my mouth, and when she does I turn into a horse. Then she gets on my back and whips and rides me around the countryside all night long.’ The hand lifted up the back of his shirt to reveal the whip marks across his back. There were hundreds, all of them deep and fresh.

“‘I tell you what,’ the rancher said. ‘How bout you and I switch places tonight. You can stay in the main house and I’ll stay out there in the cabin, just me and my friend Colt.’ The rancher patted the pistol on his hip.

“So, that night, the rancher went to sleep in the cabin. And sure enough, in the middle of the night, the door creaked open, a rush of cool air sweeping in, and an old woman appeared. The woman was whispering something, the words coming out raspy and in a language he had never heard before, and as they did the man felt the blood in his veins turn to ice so that he could not move. He could only stare in wide-eyed horror as the witch shuffled toward him and fitted the bridle over his head. Immediately he began to grow. He felt his bones stretch and reconfigure themselves, his skin expand and grow hair at every inch, his nose draw out, his hands and feet curl and harden into blocky hooves.

“The witch led the man out the doorway and into the night. There she swung atop him and, whipping him all the while, rode him galloping into the dark forest.

“After what felt like hours, they emerged at a strange house set all alone, with no roads leading to or from it, in the middle of a high meadow. Lights blared from the windows, and the sounds of a great party rumbled from inside. The witch swung off her transformed mount, tied him to a tree, and went in the house.

“There the rancher stood the rest of the night, rubbing the bridle against the hard bark of the tree until his face was raw. Finally, just as the noises from inside the house had begun to die down and dawn was soon to break, the bridle ripped free and the man shrunk into his normal self.

“The rancher repaired the bridle and waited. The witch emerged from the house and when she approached the tree she stopped, looking about in worried confusion. It was then that the man jumped out from behind it and, just as the witch was about to speak her evil spell, forced the bit inside her mouth and latched the bridle behind her head.

“The man whipped his new mare back through the trees, across his ranch, and into town. There he met the local blacksmith and had the horse shod, then rode the horse a few more miles to a friend of his, a fellow rancher.

“‘I’ve got a proposition for you,’ the man said to his friend. ‘You’ve got that old pinto you’ve been looking to get rid of for years, and here I’ve got this new mare who’s just a little too wild for what I have time for. What would you say to an even trade?’”

“Taking one look at the mare, the friend quickly agreed. The two swapped horses, and just as he was about to go the rancher said to his friend, ‘Like I said, she’s finicky. I wouldn’t recommend removing that bridle until she’s safe inside the stable.’”

“With that the rancher left and the friend was left alone with his new horse, feeling proud. He led her to the stables where he slipped the bridle off her face, turned around and hung it on a nail.

“And when he turned back around, there stood his wife, whip marks across her shoulders, horse shoes nailed into her bleeding hands and feet.”

Your mother holds the candle close to your face to see your reaction.

You ask her, “Did all that really happen?”

“It’s an old story. Folklore. But something true must have inspired it.”

“Are there really witches?”

“Not around here there aren’t.”

“What is the opposite of a witch?”

“The opposite? I don’t know that there is such a thing. Or else I don’t know what you mean.”

“Is The Devil the opposite of a witch?”

“The Devil is the opposite of God.”

You think about this. “Who is more powerful, God or the Devil?”

The last thing you see before your mother blows out the candle is her smile, her understanding and sympathy. In the darkness she brushes aside your bangs with her palm and kisses your forehead. “It depends on what you want, and what you are willing to do to get it.”

 

The next morning, you go to see The Devil. It’s a long walk through steep hills prickly with sage and yucca, cracked lake bottoms stained with ancient salt deposits, and an ascending forest of low brush and limbless trees standing tall and charred like spent matchsticks. There are no roads to The Devil, although many ways to go.

As far as you know, the last anyone saw him in person was eleven years ago. You were little more than a baby then, but the story has persisted into legend which has reinforced your few memories of it.

The McLaughlin girl had gone missing. It could have been anything that took her: a plunge into a mine, a sweep down the river, a rogue band of Utes. Jim McLaughlin didn’t believe any of that though. He said it was The Devil, and when he did all those that might have helped him shied inconspicuously back to their own affairs. And so Jim McLaughlin, with only his two reluctant sons, set out one night to the home of The Devil.

And this is the part you remember most clearly. You stood watching just like your parents and everyone else that night: in the doorway, halfway in, halfway out, looking to the westward mountains. You remember the small orange light suddenly appearing at the base of those dark mountains, how it grew and flickered and flared until the whole western forest was afire.

It may have been that the McLaughlins meant to burn the home and the entire forest around it. It may have been that their fire grew out of control. It may have been that they never even started the fire. Whatever the case, no one ever saw Jim McLaughlin or his two boys again, and no one, unless perhaps in secret, has since visited The Devil. In fact, in six years not a single new home has been constructed on the western side of town.

Because The Devil is still there. You do not doubt it, and neither does anyone else.

The sun is setting below the mountains in front of you. You’ve been walking all day. You wipe your face with your forearm and notice a dark streak of ash. You can taste it in your mouth, feel it along the walls of your nose and throat.

Then you see it. The house. It sits directly against the incline of the mountains looming above with two shaved and massive timbers plunging upwards from their foundations to support the home’s front. Between these two timbers is a long and vertical stairway made crudely of what looks to be nothing more than fireplace logs. The stairs lead directly to a door painted a flaking white against an otherwise uncolored and windowless exterior wall. The house looks to be small, no more than one cramped room.

You climb the stairs, feeling them wobble and roll inside their carved brackets. At the top you pause and look behind you, taking in the miles of forest and desert you have crossed this day. The land and sky glow pink, and far off in the distance you can just barely make out the few glinting tin roofs and windmills of town.

You knock. There is no answer. You knock again and wait. You wait a long time. Finally you decide it is unnecessary to knock and you try the doorknob. It’s unlocked. Leaving the door open, you step inside.

For a moment it feels as if you are falling. The floor drops below you, and a warm, humid air rushes past your face. You throw yourself backwards and land on your seat with a short yelp, and it takes half a minute of digging into the wooden floorboards with your fingernails and boot heels for you to realize that you are not falling, but are instead perched at the top of a long and sudden slope. The light filtering in through the opened door illuminates a narrow, tube-like interior paneled with wooden siding in a steep and steady decline into indefinite blackness. This is no house. It is a tunnel.

You climb to your feet and, carefully, leaning slightly back in order to keep your balance, gaze around. In the fading light you observe a small dining table with two chairs at each end and a steel rocker devoid of cushioning. The furniture is pitched forward with the declivity of the floor.

Along the walls you notice a few framed paintings. One of them, the largest, depicts a great and stormy ocean unremarkable except for the violence of its waves and the look of desperation on the face of the lone man stuck within them and struggling to remain afloat. Another displays a rat nested contentedly inside a human ribcage. A third shows an obese man leaning back in a chair wearing only a smile. He holds a fork in one hand, a knife in the other, and is feasting on his own opened stomach.

You follow the pictures further down the tunnel, and suddenly your feet do fall out beneath you. But not far, only about an inch, and feeling about you discover the floorboards and wooden paneling have abruptly stopped and now there is only the soil and rock of the tunnel.

And the slow clop of hooves climbing towards you. You freeze. A firelight approaches from somewhere deep within. Something snorts, spits. The firelight grows brighter, the hooves louder.

The first part of him you see as he scales into view is his hat, a crisp, gray gambler. Below that is a matching and similarly immaculate suit. He is tall and narrow, his face smooth-shaven and dark-complexioned: not like a Mexican or an Indian, but something more exotic and far away.

As for his hooves, you must have been mistaken, for The Devil wears the most beautiful pair of snakeskin boots you have ever seen. Except that they are extraordinarily short at the toe yet bulging around the ankle and heel. Perhaps you were not mistaken.

The Devil raises his lantern and squints at you. “I’m sorry if you were waiting. I didn’t hear you.”

“That is all right.”

“You’ve come a long way. Are you thirsty?”

“Yes. Please.”

“Oh. I didn’t mean that I had something to drink. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

The Devil moves past you, a kind of march with no flex at the ankle, and peers out his door at the darkening land. “So, here we both are, sorry and all right.”

“I was hoping you had something.”

“Jeezum it is a gorgeous evening. Look at it. I’m glad you didn’t let me miss it.”

“It might not even be a real thing. But if it is, and if you have it, I sure would–”

The Devil whirls back on you. “Of course, what can I do for you?”

You hesitate, but he is patient. And so you say it: “I want a bridle that changes people into horses.”

You’re worried that he’s going to laugh, but he doesn’t. Not at all. Instead he fixes you with a look so genuine and full of understanding that you feel rich from it.

“Who do you want to turn into a horse?”

“It doesn’t really matter. Anybody.”

“Well that is not very nice. From man to horse would be a painful transformation. And then to sit atop him, with all his prior consciousness I assume, would be quite degrading. What if this was your own mother we were talking about?”

You sense the question to be some kind of test, and so you answer it immediately and honestly. You shrug.

“I see. Is that what you came all the way up here for, a magic bridle? You really believe I have it? You want it that bad?

“I want a horse.”

“A horse!” Now he does laugh. “Well isn’t that just cat pants. Why didn’t you say it was a horse you were after instead of this magic bridle business?”

“You mean you have one? That you’ll give me?”

“Matter of fact, I happen to have just the one.”

“And I can have it?” Spit flies off your tongue as you say it.

“I don’t see why not, as long as you’re up for it.”

This is the part you were waiting for, the scenario containing so many more scenarios that you could not possibly imagine them all, let alone answer them, no matter how hard you tried throughout today’s long walk.

“What do you want for it?” you ask. 

“I need a rider.”

“A rider?”

“Yes.”

“For how long?”

“Until the work is done. See, you caught me at the right time. I’m short a man. Already got three, and they’ve started without you. But I need another. And truth be told, mind you I’m not just blowing smoke here, by now most of the hard work is done.”

Through the door the sun has set, and behind his lantern The Devil stands a flickering orange silhouette against a fading backdrop.

“Can I at least see the horse first?”

“Of course.”

“Right now?”

“You got some other place you got to be?”

 

You follow him all the way through the black trunks of the dead forest to timberline and beyond. Shale cascades and tinkers below your feet like shards of glass. Your throat is dry leather and you lick the sweat from your upper lip and savor its salty, ashen taste. It’s a dry night breeze, a cloudless, starry sky. The hills and deserts below are like one dark ocean whose many features and life forms are hidden to all but those inside it.

“Why do you live here?” you ask.

The Devil keeps walking but lifts his arms, palms up, toward the land and sky around him. “Because this is God’s country.”

 

At the summit of the mountains is a bristlecone. The trunk is thick and tilted eastward from millenniums of severe winds. Its limbs sprout wild and spindly in all directions of the constellations. The tree grows in utter isolation from nothing but mountain granite.

The Devil stops before it. “Here is the most lonely thing in the universe, yet also the heartiest. It is one because of the other, and for this reason there is no curse that is not also a miracle, no miracle that is not a curse. Now, break off its branches so that we might build a fire.”

You snap off the dead limbs, as well as some of those still alive in great echoing cracks. You carry them to where The Devil is crouched and preparing the kindling into a small teepee. You return to the tree, and when you turn back around with a second armful the fire is already started. You drop the twigs beside the fire and watch as The Devil adds the rest of it onto the blaze.

He produces a dagger. He holds the blade into the flames. After a moment, the steel begins to glow orange-red.

“The horse–”

“You have to call him,” The Devil says.

“But I don’t know his name.”

“But you do. Walk into the wind, to the peak’s edge there, and then stop. Stay there. Call it.”

You linger there a moment, waiting for further explanation. But when none comes, when The Devil simply remains squatting, toasting the blade in the fire, you turn and walk in the direction indicated.

You stop before an abrupt precipice, suddenly grateful for the breeze that is against you. You dare your toes over and look down and can just barely make out the boulders far below. You listen and hear nothing but the wind.

And then his arm is wrapped about your chest, quick and strong. For a split second you register his breath against your neck before a fiery pain explodes in your back and presses towards your front. It’s the dagger, red hot and sliding from below your shoulder all the way into your heart. The blade twists and your heart bursts, splattering across your vision – your very consciousness – a curtain of blood.

The blood oozes down like rain on a windowpane, and through this crimson lens you look upon a beach gray with storm clouds. The surf is red and frothy from what must be thousands of corpses being tossed about and floating in the tide. Some are missing limbs, some their heads. Many have sunk into the shallow edge of the water, dragged down by their chain mail.

The curtain keeps falling, revealing a new image of a great city. The city is on fire. Huts made of timber and straw are mere shadows inside the flames that devour them. Men, women, and children run shrieking through the streets before collapsing to writhe within their own personal infernos.

The blood flows. The window streaks. A hundred men stand over a cavity in the earth wherein they throw shovelfuls of dirt atop a hundred more dead and naked forms. A cobbled street is littered with figures either dead or dying from the black sores eating at their mouths, nostrils, and eyes. A wave the size of a mountain falls onto an island city, whisking away its marble pillars and white-robed citizens.

You scream. It is like screaming in your sleep, for not only does it wake you but what you scream makes no sense outside the dream.

You scream out the name.

The Devil releases you, withdraws the blade, and steps back. You fall to your knees and begin to shiver. Minutes go by, your body turning cold, the blood seeping from your chest and back dripping into little pools at your sides.

But you remain aware, alert, and from somewhere below you hear it. Once more the clop of hooves. A snort. Little avalanches of tumbling stones. You are still. Listening. Waiting.

The horse climbs over the rim like a hoofed spider, his legs long and stretching for purchase. His coat is a white so pale it seems almost green, and you think of milk diluted with chlorine. Some of the fur hangs off in ragged patches, revealing long sores oozing some purplish fluid. Each of his four hooves are chipped sharply enough to appear claw-like, and clotting his thin mane are cockaburs and dried globs of mud.

He stops before you and you look deep in his eyes. They look back, deep, into your own. They are black and loving.

“He’s beautiful,” you say, rising to your feet.

“He’s yours,” The Devil says.

You hold the back of your hand to the animal’s nostrils, letting him sniff and snort, the warm breath sending an almost erotic chill through your body. You stroke your palm across the sores on his cheek and upwards to his ears. You give them a scratch.

“He’s mine?”

“Go ahead, get on.”

You walk to the animal’s side, brushing your hand along his protruding spine. “We didn’t bring a saddle.”

“A caged bird won’t sing, a saddled horse won’t run. Not like him anyway.”

“He fast?”

“He’s how you need him.”

You clasp a handful of mane and swing atop. The sensation is one of plunging head first into a freezing river, the water crisp and swift and all-together invigorating. For a brief moment you feel dizzy from it, your calves squeezing against the horse’s ribs for balance. The stars swim into a blur above your head before, just as suddenly, refocusing and brightening. It’s as if you can feel their cold and far-away beams alighting your skin, dazzling it pleasurably like a million little pins.

“I’m ready,” you say.

“Then go.”

“What about you?”

The Devil pats the horse on its rear. “I won’t be far behind.”

You eye the edge of the cliff and immediately the horse steps toward it. You take one last look behind at The Devil retreating toward the fire, his dark silhouette a black portal against the flames.

Twisting back around, the distant rim of eastern sky is warming a murky pre-dawn blue, meaning that when you ride it will be with light upon your face and night on your shoulders. Men and women will wake from personal, self-created dreams into a world they have no control over. It’s a world of War, Famine, Conquest, and Death, and you find it beautiful because you are one of the blessed few that has purpose.

Keeping hold of his mane, you tap your heels against the horse’s flanks. He leaps, and when he lands the ride is just as fast and sure as the fall. 

*****

About The Author

Adam James Jones received a BA from the University of Northern Colorado and a MA in History and Writing from Western New Mexico University. He is the recipient of the 2012 Homestead Foundation Fellowship from the Western Writers of America. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Southwestern American Literature, Weber, and, in 2014, Wild West. His debut novel, “The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa”, is set for release in October 2014 by Five Star Press. He lives in Pecos, NM where he teaches middle school English and runs the western history website, www.rockymountainlegends.com.