FP358 – Thirst: a Blackhall Tale, Part 2 of 2
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and fifty-eight.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by the Quarter Bin
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, Thomas Blackhall, master frontiersman and student of the occult, is dogged by madness as he attempts to give breath to a dying girl.
Thirst: a Blackhall Tale, Part 2 of 2
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Long years of dealing with the Canadian wilderness’ lurking calamities, both natural and arcane, had Blackhall’s body taut and aching. It was well into 1849, and his march through the pines and over the tall grasses had especially left the injury in his leg throbbing at a greater volume than normal.
Still, while his limbs begged for a respite, his thoughts raced.
Though the absurdly well-appointed tea room in which he rested had many points of commonality with the parlour his mother had used to receive afternoon callers, his mind could not remain within its purple-and-white wallpapered boundaries, and he damned its errant wanderings.
Here sat a father with tears in his eyes and misery wetting his brow, and yet he could think of naught but the proximity of his dead Mairi – yes, even as the final strands of the fantastic gathered in the hinterlands to disappear for eternity, all was Mari, always.
There had been feverish moments in the deep brush in which the flat breathing stone tethered by rawhide about his neck had been his only indication that his occult undertakings were anything but madness, and that his transience was anything other than a manifestation of his refusal to accept his wife’s death, and he had wondered if she was his form of hydrophobia? Was he as rabid, in his own way, as the mystic beasts whose intellects had crumbled in recent days?
Had he given up his tools for safekeeping until the appropriate time because he could no longer trust himself?
He could not remember.
Yet here was Cecil Carter – wearing Sunday finery on a dusty Wednesday and weeping into a handkerchief elegant enough to appear on any Parisian boulevard – begging for his assistance.
With effort Blackhall brought his mind back to the conversation, but his timber-roughened hands remained crassly locked about the mouth of his thin-handled China teacup.
“She does not but scream in a single and constant tone,” Carter was saying, “but it is not her voice, and her chest labours ever more, as if her very breath has, too, been supplanted. There is a thing that resides within her. I know it sounds fantastic, but what I at first thought a hallucination persists – horribly persists.
“I can not say how long Courtney will do the same.”
A merchant who’d fallen in love with the Albertan plains, Cecil was a figurehead rancher on an expanse of land run by a stout-limbed Irishman named McCabe. It had been McCabe’s entreaty, made ardently a days’ journey to the south, that had convinced Thomas to board the launch that would carry them upriver to the frontier manor house.
Blackhall coughed a very dry cough, then said, “your man provided more than enough detail, sir. Given your state of panic, and my pressing concerns, I think we’d both be best served by moving directly to your daughter’s bedside.”
Standing, Cecil arranged the tapered ends of his moustache with practiced fingers and lead the way.
Thomas spent the time crossing the large house with some small attempt at regaining the civilities of his former life.
“I have read of such a thing in German texts, but I’ve never heard mention of one so foolish as to choke its host. It is my hope that the matter will be quickly resolved, and your Courtney returned unharmed.”
Internally, however, he was again railing against his own behaviour. How long had it been since he’d dispatched a letter to his own little one, Lizzy? Little one no more, perhaps, but he was so close to Mairi – if not for these perpetual distractions.
June sunlight flooded the room whose paint was white, whose bed clothes were white, whose plushly hung draperies were white. Outside, beyond the thick rope of river that ran across the property, was a view of a distant mountain ridge. Inside, atop the frosted bed and hillock of ivory pillows, was a pale girl of ten.
Her mouth was wide, as were her eyes, and her lungs gasped at a runner’s sprint.
From the shadows behind her trembling lips came a keening as unnatural as any Thomas had ever heard. The note might be expected from an injured and frightened cat, but it had no place in a child’s maw – and never so constant nor unending.
Stepping forward Blackhall’s mind fell silent for all but the girl. Wiping aside three sweat-stained hairs clinging to her brow he peered into her tortured throat.
The room within had formerly been regal. A single throne rested against the opposite wall, and a broad hall stretched between. Well crafted tables had once sat at intervals across the stone floor, but most had been shunted aside or upturned, and many of the chairs resided in a ragged pile to the right of Thomas’ vision. No single seat seemed any longer whole.
The master of the place had not noticed his intrusion. The old king stood before an immense fireplace, his tattered crimson robes dragging in the guttered ashes. His chest was largely bare, but he still wore the ringed metal of a swordsman’s armour.
At the clearing of Thomas’ throat, he turned.
His eyes were as wide as the girl’s, as was his mouth. Even in his movement he did not cease his endless scream.
A shattered chair leg projected from his left-breast, near his shoulder, and a second stood firmly upright in his pierced belly. He had used the resultant blood to lay sloppy paint across his cheeks.
Had the pain of his condition caused the being to attempt to carve out his misery? It was impossible for Blackhall to tell: There was no reason on the imp’s lips, only a rage-filled froth.
It was but the height of the portal that prevented a successful attack when the bedlamite took up a length of charred log and made to lob it towards his onlooker.
Thomas, however, did not relish giving the madman a second attempt.
Moving too quickly to draw protests from her father, Blackhall dug deep into the snowy warmth and pulled the girl free, then set hastily for the door.
He had forgotten the heat and smell of salt that accompanied a sick child against his ribs.
Courtney wore just a white nightgown, but it’s protection was more than sufficient in the sun’s stiff glow. To her dazed mind there seemed no end to the sky’s blue.
Pulling the rawhide from his neck and placing the disc of stone on her tongue, Thomas provided simple instructions.
“Gape your mouth as if you were receiving a Christmas pudding and let the river’s fury within. When necessary close to catch your breath, but then return to your flooding.”
Carter arrived only in time to watch his offspring forced below the water’s surface.
Within sixty seconds his questions had turned to beratements, and at double that he began screaming for McCabe’s assistance in wrestling Thomas to the ground.
Despite the fury at his back, Blackhall remained locked on the girl’s face. Calmness had stilled her thrashing, and her arms had taken to helping him fight the torrent.
It was as the Irishman arrived that it became apparent that, though an honest foot beneath the stream, Courtney’s respiration was easier than at any moment in the last two weeks. From within the clear flow her renewed face cast a smile at the trio.
Thomas could not say if the imp had drowned or instinct had forced it into relocating, but her inhalation upon breaking the surface was whole and clean.
To Blackhall, Mairi seemed suddenly close – and so too did Elizabeth, his daughter.
As Cecil continued screaming about the near murder of his girl, Thomas again took up his long tread.
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Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
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