The following chapter is from Ghost River by Chad Ryan available October 31st, 2020.
Note: The following chapter contains mature subject matter, graphic violence, sexual situations, and disturbing imagery for mature audiences (18+) only.
Chipped dishes in the sink. Red, frothy mold floated on top of half-scrubbed pans. Fat maggots squirmed around the forgotten edges of the basin. Cigarette butts formed clumpy islands in cups of muddy water. Horseflies tapped on the windowsill. A baby mewled from the nursery at the back of the old stone-stacked house nestled at the base of Orphan Rock.
“Coming, Little Snake!” Esther rubbed her bloodshot eyes.
The teenager hunched over a propane stove warming a bottle of milk in a battered pot. Her greasy blonde hair stuck to her dirty cheeks in clumps. She squeezed her knees together when a drip of water trickled down her bruised inner thigh beneath her only nightgown.
“No, goddammit! Not now.”
She leaned against the old icebox and stole a breath. With her hand resting on her pregnant belly, her blue eyes tracked a bark scorpion skittering across the far wall.
He put a pig in you.
You make pig babies, don’t you?
Just breathe, pigfucker…
She closed her eyes.
Minister’s sun-chiseled face appeared in the warmth behind her eyelids. Tan skin, chestnut eyes, shaggy hair that curled at the ends. That Burt Reynolds smile.
I’m going to run away with you someday.
Two pinkies entwined through a rusty cage.
The air chilled when a hidden door—one of many—to The Dark tore open. A screaming rip in the shadows that two bloody hands pulled open.
Snarl, the watchful boy wrapped in barbed wire, slithered through the obsidian portal. The blood that crusted the edges of his thousand cuts was deep purple, and his one working eye was black and golden like fire on oil. His tattered Sunday best rotted away years ago, leaving a walking wound of a boy wearing only scabs and rags to hide his shameful parts.
“What’s the matter? You feeling down?”
“The baby’s fucking coming!”
Snarl didn’t blink. “You sure about that, Coyote?”
She pointed at the puddle of water around her black-bottomed feet.
“Well, if it ain’t my favorite Injun come to celebrate my most sacred of birthdays!”
Minister’s drunken grin stretched for miles. He opened his arms and gave Wallace “Macho” Machado a brotherly hug and it was no minor feat. The Ghost River man stood over six feet tall with a stout chest. Unlike Minister, who wore the same pair of jeans every day of the week and a soiled mechanic’s shirt with his name embroidered over the breast pocket in the best lettering Esther could sew, Officer Machado patrolled Ghost River in a crisp tribal police uniform.
“Sure, Mona. Draft.”
“You off duty? I fucking hope so.” Minister reeked of smoke and hooch.
“Am now.” Macho unclipped the badge from his brown button-up and set it next to the cocktail napkin on the bar. Mona delivered his frosty beer.
“Thank Christ. I thought you came on official business.”
Macho winked. “Beer first with the birthday boy.”
“Fuck, yes. I will accept your plan of action, deputy.”
“How old are you now? Twenty-three?”
The skinny man shrugged. “Sounds about right. You’d think I’d fucking know, considerin’ every birthday I celebrate in Ghost River is a goddamn miracle with no guarantee of another.”
Macho laughed into his glass. “You’re telling me.”
Despite seeing double already, Minister lit a cigarette and pointed at a picture framed across the bar. A group of Ghost River men in military fatigues posed in front of a combat chopper. He squinted to make out the young, familiar face of his best friend sitting in the open cockpit. “Look at that handsome devil hero right there,” he said, smoke billowing out of his nostrils. “Soaring like a fucking eagle. Over all them green jungles!” He knocked the ashtray over, didn’t care. “I ain’t ever flown before. Don’t think I’d have the stomach for it anyway.” The holy man from Orphan Rock withered for a few seconds, but a sip of whiskey perked him right back up. “What kind of chopper is that again? I know you’ve told me before, but I don’t listen to redskins…”
“Bell UH-1. The Huey.”
“The Huey! The Booey! You flew that fucking whirlybird, didn’t ya? Who cares what it’s called. Names don’t mean shit.” Minister laughed, his contention cutting. The years Macho left for ‘Nam were lonely ones in Ghost River and it still stung like a scorpion prick when he dwelled on them dark days. “I bet you blew them funny rice hats right off their heads.”
Officer Machado rolled his eyes. “You’re drunk as shit.”
“Fair assessment.” Minister clicked his tongue and pointed at Macho’s nose.
“Frankly, I’m surprised she’s letting you out tonight. Didn’t think you’d be here. Then again, where else would you be?”
Minister tapped his cigarette into the spilled ashtray
“Which she we talking about here?”
“How about Esther? The only decent woman in your life.”
“Esther!” Minister rubbed his brow in weariness. “Well, she’s about as fun as a heart attack these days. Pregnant. Very pregnant. Probably watching television. Ever since we got that new antennae, we’re picking up the local channels in Phoenix. Can’t get her off the couch without begging. All day long…game shows and soap operas. Never a football game on.”
“I don’t know how you do it.” Macho’s voice barely loud enough to cut through the jukebox noise. “Leaving her alone out there. Markus too. That land. That goddamn land…” He caught himself, took a breath. “Sorry, I’m still in serve and protect mode.”
“It’s all right. We don’t choose who we are, but we got to be those people anyway.” Minister pointed at his empty whiskey glass. Mona lifted her eyebrow.
“Didn’t I cut you off?”
Wallace chuckled. “If not, you should.”
“Come on now!” Minister slapped the bar top. “Ain’t no harm in having a few drinks on your birthday! It’s almost the last call anyway!” He adopted a strange accent and swung his bent elbows with swagger. “I’m desertfolk, and I shall have my fucking whiskey or suffer ye!”
Mona’s expression begged Officer Machado for help.
“I wouldn’t if I were you.”
She smiled nervously. “Sorry, Minister—”
“One more shot ain’t going to hurt nobody, ‘specially me! I was never gonna live long anyway.” The holy man’s eyes sparkled in the smoky bar. Two golden coins flashed in the black ripple of a wishing well. Mona cocked her head a little to better see the angels in his snakeshine.
“Sure thing,” she said. “One more for the road.”
Macho slapped the bar and let out a laugh.
“Jesus, man! If it wasn’t your birthday, I’d arrest you.”
Armed with a fresh pour in his glass, Minister toasted the Wagon Wheel’s bartender with a sly wink. “I don’t care what Macho says about you, Mona. You’re good people.” He swallowed the liquor, felt the fire melt his throat. “Hard to find in Ghost River.”
“Well, you’ve had enough now, Birthday Boy.” Macho signaled Mona for the tab. “I don’t plan on putting this badge back on tonight to pull you out of a fucking ditch.”
Minister’s gaze drifted across the room to an attractive Ghost River woman shooting pool by her lonesome. Her brown eyes settled on the nine-ball, lining up the perfect shot. A chalked cue pumped between the tight loop of her finger. In. Out. In. out.
“The tribal council needs a favor.”
Minister perked up. “It pay? I need the money.”
“Consider it rent. Maybe a little on top.”
“Let’s hear it.”
Officer Machado looked over both shoulders, scanning the smoky bar for open ears. When the coast cleared, he began, “The Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is planning a visit to Ghost River next week. After what happened at Pine Ridge, the feds are in a major titty-twist about tribes stockpiling weapons, building militias, misappropriating funds…the list goes on. It’s a real concern right now in DC. They want a peek in our books, and that’s just not a workable scenario.”
Minister smiled darkly. “I bet not.”
“Resources and contingencies matter to the council. We’ve spent a long time gathering our rainy day fund.” Macho pulled out two twenties and a five-dollar bill from his faux leather wallet. “They want to discuss a way forward. One that benefits all of us, even her. Meeting’s tomorrow, er…today. Are you going to be able to pull yourself together by then?”
“Yes, sir! Just tell me where I gotta be and when.”
The pool shark dropped the nine-ball into the corner pocket. Her raven hair framed a sexy, desertborn smile carved from the sandy basin of Ghost River just for him.
Silver moonlight spilled into the sanctuary of the Chapel on the Mound. Potato Sack, the biggest of the Broken Kids, hauled Esther over his blubbering shoulder past dusty pews toward the rickety pulpit. The coarse burlap of his mask and gown burned her skin and smelled like moist cobwebs. The eyeholes were empty. Skin cold. The fevered snort of a desperate pig warmed the hole of her ear. She was a little girl again with grimy knees, running through the cactus patches while the wild boars chased her. Feed. Fuck. Fury. Feed. Fuck. Fury. Feed—
The Crooked Woman stood at the spider-webbed podium. Her back arched like a bent buzzard’s neck and her gangling, elongated fingers scratched symbols into the rotted wood of the dais. She wore a yellowed dress, stained with age. A tattered veil covered her pallid, scarred visage and black-eyed stare. Snarl stood at her side, grinning like an obedient dog.
“Dirt on your knees, Coyote,” the boy wrapped in barbed wire demanded.
Esther spilled on the floor. She swung her shins over and sat up on her knees in the powdered sand. She lifted her gaze toward the cloudy rose window and clasped her hands together in prayer. Behind the Crooked Woman stood the Dead Tree, gnarled roots growing from the sacred dirt hill called the Mound. Windchimes and effigies dangled from spidery branches, jingling in the desert breeze. Luminarchs, souldust butterflies, circled above the sacred dirt with glowing, blue wings that pulsated like bottled fireflies in the everdark church.
“Shit!” Another contraction.
Esther squeezed Minister’s hand when Markus was born. He sang Waylon Jennings to her when they hung her in the Dead Tree to birth her first child. Was she seventeen? Might have been. He was maybe twenty-one? Had those wild eyes that she loved and that short holy boy beard. “It’ll be OK,” he told her, weaving his pinkie around hers. “I promise.”
And it was OK. Markus was born without a hitch. Afterward, they cut her down from the gnarled branches, and the Crooked Woman was pleased enough to let her rest awhile. She took the baby away, of course, and left the orphans behind in the chapel. Esther recovered on a blanket stretched across the dirt. She bled a lot, but Minister was there to wipe fresh water on her skin, tell her she was brave, and spin make-believe stories of faraway lands to pass the time.
“I had a dream last night,” Esther had told him, smiling before she diminished in a blush. “Never mind, it’s fucking stupid. You’ll just laugh.”
“Tell me!” Minister sat up, lighting her cigarette.
Esther shook off the embarrassment and laughed. “OK. In the dream, we took a vacation to California. We saw the ocean. Disneyland. With the big fucking castle.”
“And them Mickey Mouse ears?”
“Yes,” Esther said, smiling broadly. “You had a pair!”
“Wouldn’t that be a sight?” Minister twisted the bloody water from the wet rag into the dented pail, and then blotted the sore spaces between her thighs. He was gentle, took pride in making sure she was cared for. “The Northamms at Disneyland. Can you imagine?”
They laughed. He looked a little down after.
“Nothing. It sounds like a nice dream is all.”
Esther crossed her arms. “I know it’ll never happen. It’s just fun to dream.”
“Dreaming is fucking dangerous.” Minister rested his back against the Mound. “Every time I dream, my heart dies a little bit. I think I might need a new one someday.”
“Hurry, Coyote! Say the Dirt Prayer, and let’s get you roped up!” Snarl’s shrill order tore her away from her daydream. The boy wrapped in barbed wire squeezed the back of her neck. Barbs scratched her skin and she winced. “The boonchild is coming.”
Esther nodded, feeling the baby in her belly kick.
“What comes from dirt,
must be cleansed.
Give my life to make amends.
Bleed this heart,
On my knees,
Suffering is salvation.”
Music to her ancient ears, the Crooked Woman floated down to Esther. She offered a haggard claw. With a resilient nod, the girl accepted her cold fingers and followed her to the Mound. There, thousands of ancient eyes peered out of porous tunnels dug deep into the spoiled earth that kept all of the Grim Seed’s putrid miracles hidden below the crust of things.
The boy wrapped in barbed wire laid down a dirty blanket.
Esther dropped to her knees, opened her mouth like a robot.
The Crooked Woman filled her throat with dirt.
Minister fucked her inside of the Dodge Retriever’s cab. Her smooth, brown legs snaked around his lean torso. He stood outside of his beat-up tow truck, jeans at his ankles, and an unlit cigarette dangled from his dusty lips. She moaned a little when he rubbed her vagina with his fingers, felt his dick sliding inside of her. All of the motions, moistures, skin folds, and ridges created perfect birthday bliss for a man who never felt his wife when they made love. Doomed that way since the day they ate the dirt, and he became the vessel for The Pig.
All that we do, we do for Delora.
A warm breeze picked up.
Minister looked over his shoulder into the quiet, black desert.
Even though he was miles away from that stone-stacked house he called home, he could still feel the shadow watching at the window, knocking on the glass to come inside. Pigs never had their fill, and neither did Minister these days. Weren’t enough whisky to drink, or barflies to nail, and there weren’t no way to keep that fucking shadow from his marital bed no matter how hard he tried to ignore it. All snakes are born with a hole in their heart. That hole is a door.
The riverfolk woman sighed softly, while he clung to her tits. He pumped harder, angrier maybe, suddenly thinking about his daddy and the iron frown he wore every damn day of his life. Did the man ever smile? Not once had Minister seen it. And why should he have? Every great, life-defining moment Eugene ever lived, he never experienced a second for himself.
He was a tool—a cheap suit.
And he got what he deserved.
Didn’t they all?
What would the Miraculous Prophet, Eugene Northamm, say if he knew what his Little Snake was using his blessed boon for these days? Scamming drinks, playing dangerous politics with Injuns, and picking up roadkill to feed a city of dead fucking kids?
What good had Minister done for his god lately?
You’re just a small thing. A small thing that thinks small. Guess what? Thinking small will keep you that way.
One of the few Pig lessons Minister would never forget. Eugene was a true believer too. Never did a small thing his whole life. Even when he wore his pigskin mask and hung coyote girls from the Dead Tree, mouths gagged with gasoline-soaked rags, Eugene Northamm slid his pretty knife across their throats with the flair of a desert magician.
Throat after throat after throat. Crimson dripped from crooked toes over a sea of hungry pigs waiting to fuck and feast in the bloody mud.
Throat after throat after throat.
Minister came hard. Felt himself release into her warm pocket. If only it could last forever that feeling of coming. The pool shark gazed into his eyes, transfixed by the halcyon depth and hues of the light within. She arched her back and stretched her neck, longing for a kiss from that sweet snakeshine that was still so deep inside of her it hurt in the best way.
The engine died and the fuel light held a solid red.
“Oh, no, no, NO!” Stacy smacked the steering wheel.
Liz popped up in the backseat. The eight-year-old wiped the sleep from her brown eyes and blinked a few times. She looked out of the window at the spooky, moonlit desert. She saw shadows move, and the sandy dirt looked like silver dust. What a strange place. She hugged onto Reuben, her favorite teddy bear and bestest friend in the whole galaxy.
Momma stared in the rearview mirror. Eyes wide, dark-circled. Chestnut hair spilled out of a haphazard ponytail. She hadn’t slept since they left Oklahoma.
“I can’t believe this is happening!” She snapped out of it, punched the steering wheel a few more times, and tried turning the ignition over. The engine refused.
“What happened, Momma? We’re not moving.”
“Gas. Should’ve filled up in Tucson…” After a moment of contemplation, she pulled down her eyelids in frustration. “God, why didn’t I fill up in Tucson like a normal person?”
Liz squirmed nervously in her seat. “We ran out of gas? What! Really?”
“Elizabeth, stop. Let me think.”
“But cars need gas to move!”
Liz knew that tone and obeyed.
“Somebody’ll come along. A sheriff or somebody. We’ll get more gas from them. Enough to drive to Phoenix to fill up the tank.” Stacy flipped open the vanity mirror on the sun visor. She inspected the make-up fading around her freshly bruised eye.
“Are we ever going to go back home?”
Stacy rubbed her nose. Didn’t know what to say.
“Not for a while, baby girl. You’re going to spend some time with your auntie in Glendale. It’ll be fun to visit your cousins for a few weeks, won’t it?”
“But…what about Daddy?”
Stacy snapped the visor closed.
“I think you should get some rest now. It’s late.” Momma looked like she wanted to cry, but she took a deep breath and stiffened up instead. “The morning’ll come soon enough. A little bit of light always makes things better and brighter. You’ll see.”
A swarm of Broken Kids slashed open horsefly doors from The Dark, pouring into the Chapel on the Mound like a swarm of desert roaches. Busted kneecaps. Metal pulleys. Skin stitched together with human hair. Missing pieces. Swapped parts. Screws twisted into bone. Bone pushed into skin. Teeth crushed with a hammer. Nails driven through nostrils. Lifeless, black eyes that had no bottom. They only knew how to serve the Crooked Woman who made them.
One of Delora’s favorite pets, Spider Girl, lowered herself from the shadowy rafters by one of her long appendages. She had three elbows on each arm and rusty hooks for hands. She wore a flowery dress to hide the blasphemous tangle of flesh that existed below her waist—four legs, each with a knee and foot. Hammered to the ball and heel of each was a board bottomed with corroded nails and fishhooks so sharp she could damn near climb any surface. Her dark brittle hair bounced in twin ponytails. Worst of all, Spider Girl always smiled, always flashing her splintered, screw-like teeth, because the Crooked Woman had snipped off her lips and cheeks a long time ago. The creature said nothing, slipping her cold hook hands under Esther’s armpits.
Spider Girl ignored her plea and lifted her into the thorny bramble of the Dead Tree. There, other Broken Kids scurried into the branches, ready to bind the expectant mother’s skinny wrists and waist to the jagged bark. They mumbled about pieces of things and strange thoughts rattled in their dead brains while they fastened her feet to a pair of tall, crudely built wooden stilts.
“It’s getting worse.” Esther yipped through her teeth when Spider Girl placed the razorblade crown on her head. The twisted blades slit the skin of her brow, and blood, rust, and sweat dyed her fair hair red. “Hurts so fucking bad this time. Worse than the last.”
“Breathe!” Snarl shouted from the front pew. He was the conductor of this train. The boy wrapped in barbed wire was the only ghost who spoke for Delora. He had all of the power here.
Just breathe, pigfucker.
In through your nose.
Out through your mouth.
The Broken Kids parted the stilts, and her legs spread open. She dangled from the Dead Tree, posed like a broken marionette with nothing to hide. Warm blood trickled from her forehead, down her back, chest, thighs and shins until it dripped from her toes onto the frilly shoulders of a mildewed dress. Delora lurked beneath her, black eyes upturned and visible through her shoddy veil, while her icy fingertips crept up the soft, warm skin of the teenager’s inner thigh.
“In her younger days they called her Delta Dawn,” Esther sang nervously, hoping that Waylon Jennings would soothe her just like it did the day Markus was born. Minister had a soothing voice, deep and full of country. “Prettiest woman you ever laid your eyes on…”
Her voice wobbled.
It wasn’t the same.
The baby twisted in her belly, tearing down her birth canal like a hungry peccary. Esther drowned in waves of spiky pain and faster contractions. When she squeezed, tiny claws scratched against the red walls of her womb with blackened nails. A fish mouth with piranha teeth puckered. Black eyes. Pig eyes. Biting. Scratching. Blood in the water. Blood in the dirt. Dirt in the River.
Esther dug her nails into the Dead Tree’s brittle bark.
“Something’s wrong! Help me!”
Snarl was on his feet. “Just breathe! Don’t fight it!”
Esther spat and lifted her eyes across the candlelit sanctuary. There, in the back of the desolate nave, she saw them milky eyes watching her. The eyes that wore her husband every time it felt like having a turn with her. A Father Pig. A shadow. A snout wet with blood.
“Kill it! Kill it! Killlllll iiiiittttt!”
“You keep breathing and pushing, Coyote!” Snarl thrust a barbed wire-wrapped pointer finger in the air. “That baby’s coming and it don’t belong to you!”
Glancing down, Esther saw blood on the Crooked Woman’s claws and laughed like a lunatic. “Oh fuck…it’s eating me, isn’t it?” Her head rolled. “Just let me die.”
OK. OK. OK. Esther tightened up like a metal spring, arched her back, and squeezed everything in her body as if it were a single, throbbing muscle.
More spit misted from her lips.
“Again! It’s coming! Breathe!”
There wasn’t enough air in the world!
“Push, Coyote! Push!”
“Fuuuuckkkk!” Esther’s cheeks bulged, her teeth clamped so hard she might as well be shitting out the world. Then came the feeling of passing rivers. Emptiness spreading.
The baby was out! The new mother lifted her head, dizzy and hot, seeing sparkling stars behind her eyelids. Blood salted her eyes and tears washed it away.
“What is it?” Esther asked weakly. “A snake?”
The Crooked Woman held the newborn by its gooey hocks. She rotated the wet bird-thing in her bony fingers, eying it with a grimbone grin. The hairless chicken squealed, its slitty lips peeled away from red gummy jaws. Tiny eyes black as pitch swallowed the moonlight. Esther’s relieved smile slipped into a blistering scream, until she passed out.
“Lookey, lookey!” Snarl did a little prospector’s dance while a chorus of Broken Kids flocked around the hem of Delora’s dirty dress. They croaked and drooled bearing witness to the new boonchild. “It’s a baby girl! A Sister of Sorrow! We’re saved! We’re saved!”
The Crooked Woman knelt to the Mound and scooped up some wormy dirt in her claw. When the baby cried for meat, she sprinkled it into her wet, gaping mouth.
“Prick!” Stacy flashed her middle finger at the fat trucker with the indecent proposal. He returned the gesture and taunted her with a long toot of his horn. Eighteen wheels kicked up dust and the big rig rolled on down the lonely highway without them.
Stacy smacked her forehead. Looked up in frustration and sighed on her toes. Not a cloud in the sky today. She guessed a few ticks above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. She wandered back to their broken-down Subaru and leaned against the window.
“What’s wrong, Momma?” The little girl kept herself busy in the back seat, tying a red ribbon around Rueben’s neck in several variations of bows and pretty knots. “Did that man have any gas? Is he gonna go and get some help for us?”
Stacy shook her head, gazing around the vast stretch of empty desert surrounding them. Who the fuck could live in such a place? There’s nothing here that doesn’t have pinchers and claws. She lit a cigarette and held her hand up to block out the blinding sunlight.
“We’re not in Oklahoma anymore, are we, Toto?”
Liz laughed, sucking up the last few drops in her juice box. The blistering desert was no place for a farm girl who liked chilly night breezes and shady apple orchards. She couldn’t see a single tree out here—only prickly cactus, ugly rocks, and circling buzzards in the sky.
A few more cars passed.
A station wagon filled with children.
A Cadillac with a couple of old folks.
More big rigs.
Nobody stopped. Nobody cared.
Then, a rickety tow truck appeared on the wavy horizon.
“Oh, you’re going to stop for me! Yes, yes, you are!”
Stacy ran into the road, arms waving wildly.
The driver, a handsome, bearded man wearing a button-up mechanic’s shirt, rolled down the window. His eyes sparkled in a way that made Liz feel like hugging him forever like a fuzzy puppy. Momma felt it too. She clung to the side of the truck, breathless.
“Need a tow?” the man asked, smiling like Jesus.