Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and eighteen.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Shadow Publications
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 confronted by a one-handed man with a tale of loss.
Pinch: a Blackhall Chronicle
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Thomas had risen before dawn, eager to see an old friend and return to his hunt, to discover that a visitor awaited him in the great room of the inn at which he’d taken up temporary lodging.
As the stranger flagged Blackhall over, the woman who ran the establishment – a mother of four who’d been left too soon by a soldiering husband – stood sleepy eyed at the fireplace, trying to will the embers into a greater flame. Thomas briefly considered ignoring the newcomer’s summons and to instead wander hastily out of the sleepy scene, but the handless stump with which the man signaled was difficult to overlook.
Working off the straps he’d just finished arranging and then setting down his baggage and rifle, Blackhall sat.
Sensing the frontiersman’s aggravation at the delay, the round-faced caller raised his early cup of hops and said, “oh, I assure you, this digression is worthy of your time, Mr. Blackhall.”
“Name’s Meriwether Tristram. My cousin in Perth wrote to tell me of you once he’d caught wind of my – situation.
“You see, one Sunday I’d arisen to breakfast only to realize my meager cupboard was empty. Worse still, I’d spent the last of my coin on quenching Friday night’s thirst, and, though I laboured greatly at the Mill in New Branston, there was no hope of fresh pay till the Wednesday following – anyhow, hunger and a long sleep drove me from bed that morn, but I still had plenty of shot for my musket. It was my search for venison, north of the cluster of shanties that make up the so-called town, that lead me to a stretch of spruce that I did not recognize from previous expeditions.
“I could hear a stream on the far side of the stand and I was considering spending a period amongst the foliage to see what passed when I noticed a set of white stones arranged in a strange pattern upon the ground nearby. A closer examination, of course, presented the fact that they were not rocks at all, but the skeletal remains of a foot. There was no sign of the rest of the body, but I did spot a trinket resting in close proximity to the detached ankle.
“I assumed it to be silver, though I now highly doubt it. Its surface is engraved with curious care, an arrangement of loops and strokes that seems to deepen as you look them over, and its sizing – well, you shall see.
“Now, let me make it plain: Other than the scrollwork, the dimensions were not outside of the ordinary for a thick ring – that is why I kept it. For my distant girl.
“Well, I mean, I may have attempted to sell it first, but even then the proceeds were to be obtained with my intended in mind. The few I inquired with, however, had little interest, and I knew that there were others nearby who would be quick to call for the bauble against debts owed – unfortunate pinches about the dice table have left me with more creditors than friends. As such, I dispatched it to my wife.
“Or, truly, my would-be wife; even previous to our betrothal I worked the camps in hopes of collecting adequate funds to purchase a plot large enough for a cow and a field of corn, and so my intentions continued though my empty-pocketed status kept us apart.
“Anyhow, I parceled it up and sent it, by trusted courier, homeward.”
Thomas cleared his throat while Meriwether took a moment to wet his own.
“For what period have you been in search of your fortune?” asked Blackhall.
“Well, at this and at that for the last dozen months.”
“- and how much have you garnered for your farm?”
“You must understand, I’ve yet to find the gambit that will truly make my name. Currently, sir, my possessions extend only to the small traveling case of clothes that resides in my room, and the willingness to put my back into future labours.”
“Seems a shame to expend such effort without a result to show for it. Perhaps the dice are not your friend.”
“I have had some bad luck, it’s true – though it hardly matters now. She called the wedding off. A month after my missive I received a note, with my love token returned. I thought at first that the issue was impatience or another fellow, for the attached explanation made little sense to me at the time. It spoke of a curse – both on the ring, and on our love. Half was true, at least.
“My sole consolation was that the news came on a Friday. As it happened, I’d changed occupation from miller to lumberman, and, as my new position came with a week-ending payday, I was flush enough to hold the head of my sorrows below a steady flow of ale.
“It was a night of singing and weeping. It was the sort of occasion on which friendships are made and broken, sweeping oaths are professed then forgotten, and many mugs are broken by accident or design.
“The ring remained in my pocket throughout those hours of lament, but, on my stumbling route back to my bunk, my fingers came upon the accursed thing.
“My memory is piecemeal at best, but I recall noting with some amusement that the metal seemed to stretch about my stocky fingers. It was with some amazement, then, that I found myself able to expand it so wide that it might act as a bangle around my wrist, but my experiments were cut short by the attentions necessary to capture a few hours sleep in a company bed after having ditched a scheduled day’s labour.
“Despite my circumstances the foreman had no pity for me – admittedly, it may not have been my first such sabbatical, although it was certainly my most justified. Whatever the case, my call to rise was an unpleasant one. It did not help, I suppose, that I appeared more attentive to the sting in my arm than the bull-mouthed man’s words. Still, there was no time to investigate the source of my affliction before I was tossed up on a wagon bound for town.
“I am not unfamiliar with slumbering through an unexplained ache, and the rocking of the wheels quickly pulled me back under. Besides, although persistent it had not yet grown so painful as to be all encompassing.
“Not, that is, until I awoke in a heap on the ground, with the cart trailing away in the distance. Stevenson, the driver, had gathered a dislike for me after a misunderstanding, on an earlier occasion, regarding the number of aces in a certain deck of cards we’d been, er, inspecting.
“‘You were howling in your sleep, it was scaring the horses,’ he shouted back, but he was gone before I could collect myself enough to make a reply.
“At least he had the decency to drop me at a signpost that indicated my position in relation to town. I wasn’t within sight of the local pub, but I was in the proper county.
“Realizing my recent gin soaking would hardly win me friends amongst any decent folk with functioning noses, and feeling as if I’d perhaps injured my arm in my tumble, I crept into a nearby barn with the intention of continuing to nap away the last of my wobbling remorse.
“Now, understand: Come into town looking rough and smelling of cow dung, they’ll assume you’ve been hard at work, but, come in looking rough and smelling of the lower shelves, they’ll assume you’re a roustabout who’s never held a shovel in his life.
“Anyhow, I could not rest. In attempting to reach the upper loft I came to realize that my right hand was not just numb from the fall or the spirits, as I’d assumed. I had no control of my fingers, and no sense that there was anything attached beyond my elbow.
“Working back my jacket and shirt sleeve, I found the ring, just as thick but now approximately the size of a malnourished crab apple. I note this because, as you can see, I carry the weight of my drinking habits with me, and my arm is considerably meatier than an apple’s width.
“You see, the damned thing had contracted while I was sleeping. It’s ever tightening circumference had cinched my flesh like a corset, then worse, and I’d accidentally anesthetized myself against the procedure.
“There was no blood, but the agony increased with my sobriety. In short order I was weeping in the corner of a swept pig pen, with only the sound of snapping bone and grinding metal to keep me company.
“I pawed at the ever-tightening band, but I could not even rise to take up the woodpile axe at the edge of my vision – and a good thing too, as, in my state, I would’ve just as likely displaced the entirety of my arm.
“I was come upon the following day by a maid come to milk their Bess. I’d become senseless in my uncomfortable position, and the family’s sheepdog had taken to gnawing on my now detached extremity – a fact that was discovered as the gal’s father carried me house-ward.
“It was the same fellow who located the blasted ring, again the size at which I’d originally discovered it, and slipped it in my pocket for safekeeping.
“Since then I’ve dared to touch it only to bind it more securely.”
Having concluded his tale, Tristram’s remaining fingers went to his jacket front to retrieve a small bundle wrapped in a well-used handkerchief.
Blackhall raised a brow at the parcel, but said nothing.
Tristram did not let the silence hang long.
“I was hoping,” he said, “ that you could perhaps return my hand – for surely, if there is magic enough in this world to remove it, there is also ample to form another?”
Thomas exhaled, considering his words. Finally he replied, “many things are possible, but what you ask is not one of them.”
Without pause, as if he had already guessed at the answer, Meriwether pressed on. “Then mayhaps it would be worth some coin to you?”
Pulling apart the hasty knot, Blackhall exposed the charm in question to the still morning air.
“I recognize this piece,” he said, “It was constructed for – er – softer meats. Not to pass through bone.
“At some point in the distant past it no doubt amassed a hefty purse for a medicine man wandering about sod-hut farms, but, though it cost you much to carry, I’m afraid it will earn you little. I, for one, will give you nothing worth more than a freshly filled stein and the safety of not having to deal with it further.”
Tristram frowned, saying, “I do not understand.”
“In the days before this enlightened age – well, let us simply say that not all bulls are meant to breed.”
There was a silence between the men, then a nod from the one-handed visitor. At the sign, Thomas collected the ring, laid payment across the bar, and made note to the proprietress that there was enough extra to make it worth tapping a keg for his peer.
Even as Blackhall moved towards the exit, the next of the day’s patrons stumbled across the threshold.
“Too my future fortune then,” smiled Meriweather, as he waved down the newcomer and reached for an empty cup in which to set his dice.
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