Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and seventy.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Haywire.
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, Will Coffin, urban shaman, and Bunny, his tipsy companion, encounter a twelve-hundred pound canary.
Coffin: Infrastructure, Part 3 of 3
A half hour of walking had left Bunny wondering if Oregon was an incredibly uneven state, or if she’d perhaps had a bit too much whiskey along the trip.
Finally, however, the path’s intruding branches had thinned, and the brush had given way to a broad lawn.
The grass was ankle deep, and dotted with weeds and wild plants, but the trees were meticulously shaved, creating a field of ornate posts holding aloft a thick canopy of green. Cropped maples, bare of foliage for the lowest twenty feet, stood as support to the thick-trunked sequoias that dominated the view. Faces, scenes, and ornate patterns, had been carved into the surface of the lumber, lending the space the feeling of a naturally grown temple.
At the center, made tiny by the timber pillars that rose around it, was a cabin made of generously applied mortar and rough stone.
There was a large man at the door, in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt.
He was smiling.
“That’s Pa Keeper,” said Coffin. “He’s nice enough, but watch it with the colour commentary. He’s an old fashioned family man.”
“####, do I refer to him as Pa; or Mr. Keeper; or THE Keeper; or the right honourable Keeper, LLC; or what?”
“Just call him Levi.
“Keeper’s not a title, though, it’s his surname. Blackhall picked it. I guess the Victorians were really into that sort of thing.”
“This guy knew Blackhall?” To Bunny’s fuzzy vision, the nearing man looked about fifty.
“No, but his great-great-great-great grandfather did, give or take a great. He was the first Keeper – and the first Axe-Holder, which IS a title, of sorts, held by the eldest living Keeper. Actually, a few decades ago this clearing had three other huts in it – two sets of aunts and uncles, and an Axe-Holder’s widower, but there was an, uh, incident, and now Levi’s branch of the clan is all that remains.”
They were nearly within conversational range with the stranger, but Bunny couldn’t help but make her opinion clear.
“Understanding the history doesn’t make it sound any less ####ing weird,” she said.
“You’ve never had trouble calling me Coffin,” Will replied.
Now that they were within a reasonable distance, he raised his voice.
“Hello there, it’s been too long.”
“Too long by half,” replied Keeper.
* * *
Before moving into the shelter of the stony walls, Bunny thought she heard something like a bull bellowing in dismay, but, instead of inquiring after the noise, she decided it was a low priority on her list of mysteries to solve for the day.
The home’s main chamber was a combination of living room, kitchen, and great hall, with a massive fireplace commanding the majority of the northwest corner, and an upper loft which presented a row of bedroom doors behind a mahogany balcony.
Every wooden surface – the railings, the roof beams, the wall planks – had been adorned with a mix of monstrosities and nature. To her right, on a windowsill overlooking the direction from which they’d come, Bunny noticed a set of detailed trunks that she guessed to be a representation of the forest scene outside. To her eye, the carved bark of the etched trees was worn and faded, but the demons that crept about the image’s edges appeared freshly hewn.
Despite the ornamentation, however, the focus of the lodging was undeniably the double headed axe which rested above the mantelpiece. Cast from a single piece of silver, the gleam of the wide haft was broken only by the leather bindings that formed its grip.
At the room’s center was a banquet table, upon which lay a selection of steaming meats and roasted vegetables, hemmed by a double row of place settings. A collection of carafes and decanters were distributed across the planks, the contents of which greatly intrigued Bunny.
Though there were dozens of chairs set out, none were occupied.
Still, Coffin found a seat at the furthest end.
The conversation was largely filled with the personal details of an aging family: The recent departure of his youngest daughter to be married; a particularly successful hunting trip with his son, Mathias; the stubborn nature of his oldest, Malinda. Before long Bunny found she had a greater interest in the gargoyles decorating the walls, and the spiced rum warming her throat.
Her attention returned, however, when Keeper, with his chair creaking from the stresses of his languid stretch, said “An hour till dark, now.”
“Time to see the canary?” she asked.
Will gave her a straight answer, for once, by rising and shrugging his leather-jacketed shoulders.
* * *
Due to the increasing gloom, the rougher terrain, and her own drunkenness, Bunny found the second leg of the hike considerably more difficult.
It did not help that the further they progressed, the nearer they seemed to come to a raging Incredible Hulk imitator with a megaphone. The shouting was sporadic, however, and fell to silence when they arrived.
They found Malinda, the eldest, sitting upon the cusp of a pit whose edge was as crisply cut as any of the cabin’s engravings.
She stood and hugged her father, then gave her report.
“He managed to shatter one of the struts to use as a throwing weapon,” she said, pointing to the projectile, a rectangle of timber which Bunny thought was likely stout enough to act as a police force’s battering ram. “We’ll have to get a replacement in once Bax is napping, but getting that one broken down took a lot out of him, so I don’t think he’ll have much interest in disturbing the backups.”
The gathered four were clustered at the lip of the drop, and Bunny’s gaze worked busily at the darkness below.
She’d seen a few quarries in her youth – usually through the windows of a boyfriend’s parked car – and she was somewhat disappointed to discover she’d come all this way just to see another.
“Wait,” she said, “is this one of them ####ing invisible beasties? I hate that ####.”
That’s when she realized that what she’d assumed was a shadow on the rocks was actually a tunnel opening at the pit’s bottom.
From somewhere within came the sound of running.
“Let’s step back,” said Levi.
He had the silver axe with him, wrapped in his hands’ bulging knuckles, and Bunny was quick to listen.
The distant slapping of sprinting feet became the rumble of an approaching train, and the fury was soon followed by an echoing howl.
Bunny could not see the runner’s attempt to leap the height of the wall, but her shoes trembled with both impacts; its landing midway up the sheer slope, and the heavy fall to the earth after rebounding.
Coffin had grown preoccupied with the contents of his jacket’s pockets, but the Keepers took a moment to peer over the rim.
When she dared follow suit, Bunny discovered the naked form of a gargantuan man sprawled across the rocks. Oddly, though he was nearly twenty feet tall, and his limbs and face were of bulbous proportions, his belly was tight, and the skin on his ribs taut.
“Who are you?” shouted Bax the Maggot Eater. He’d fallen backwards, and now rested on his spine, huffing. “You’re no Keeper, but I’ll happily wrap my tongue around the candy meats at the top of your spine nonetheless.”
“Maybe he’d be less pissed off if he wasn’t ####ing starving,” Bunny told her fellow spectators.
“Oh, we push a goat in when it’s needed,” replied Levi, “but you don’t want to overfeed an ogre, I assure you.”
“Ogre? You’ve got a pet ogre?”
“The last ogre, no less,” said Malinda, “but he’s not a pet. He killed Mother, and many generations before us. Someday he’ll probably kill Pa, and then, when the axe is mine, me too.”
“What does the axe do exactly?” asked Bunny.
The behemoth had begun to right himself, and was punctuating his ascent with a stream of bassy grunts.
“It’s to kill him, if and when we need to,” responded Levi.
Coffin cleared his throat, and the trio gathered to turn towards him.
Having lost their attention, and once again upright, the Maggot Eater let fly with more verbal abuse.
“When I’m strong again,” he shouted, “I’ll punch a ladder into your prison wall and smash your cabin and piss on your broken bodies. I’ll -”
The beast’s tirade was cut short as Will stepped into his view. The Maggot Eater’s brow wrinkled then, and panic took his legs.
Bax’s babbling was incoherent as he bolted through the entrance to his manmade cave.
Under the last light of the day, the Keepers said goodbye, leaving Coffin and his roommate at the chasm’s brink.
After sipping at some of the rum supply Will had suggested she carry along, Bunny found herself with a question on her lips.
“If they’ve got that cleaver to kill the thing, what the #### do they need you for?” she asked.
“It’s complicated,” replied Will. “I told you there were two rituals. Well, every October, a pair of the Keepers go down and beat the ogre with sticks till he wakes up – The Waking.
“The Maggot Eater is highly aggressive, but he’s not bright, and by the time he’s on his feet, he’s angry enough to blindly chase them back through the labyrinth of mine shafts that Blackhall had built. The goal for his zoo keepers, at that point, is to make it back to their ropes without being eaten – although I’ve been lead to understand that dangling morsels can look especially delicious.
“Normally, if he slept a decade, he might be able to muster enough energy to rampage for a week. By interrupting his slumber though, the Keepers can exhaust him early, and, by dawn, he’s usually comatose enough that they can drag him back into his shelter and clean any mess he’s made.
“The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t gone back to sleep yet, and they woke him weeks ago.
“It isn’t a good sign, but it’s exactly why he’s kept. He’s like a mystical whale, resting near the top of the occult food chain, pulling energy from the very sea around him. We’re in Oregon because it’s about as far a place as Blackhall could manage from the hotspots to the east, but it isn’t enough anymore.
“Our canary is restless.”
Bunny nodded and sipped again from the whiskey bottle she’d refilled from a ceramic pitcher on the banquet table.
“Fine,” she said, “but that’s The Waking, and you said we were here for The Feast.”
“Yes,” said Coffin, giving some spin to the silver links in his hands. The wind seemed to find speed with each rotation of the ornate hook at their end.
“It’s a terrible thing to have to babysit the murderer of your brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but two hundred years of tradition and family is all these people have. Worse, the ogre isn’t the only thing that’s restless – the dead who got lost in the dark, or didn’t quite make it up the rope, or who simply weren’t fast enough, are also eager to stretch their legs.
“There’s one thing that can bring them closure, and that’s the death of the Maggot Eater. He’s too important to kill until there’s no other option – until he can no longer be controlled – so they settle for the infrequent opportunity to attend the feast held in their honour, and the living receive the bonus of having an evening of not staring at the hole.”
He forced his arm into a wider arc, and conversation ceased under the force of the growing storm.
The Maggot Eater’s screams were lost in the rain as the first translucent figure cleared the brim and made for home.
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