Codling Moths and Garter Snakes
Codling Moths and Garter Snakes
Declan kicked the stand on his matte-black Indian 841. He stepped off into the weeds and mud.
The wind seemed to be whispering something at him, but he couldn’t make it out. The sky was very blue, like it was over the ocean sometimes. He preferred to work at night, but Nerio wanted it over before evening.
They’d done things with chemicals here, Declan remembered. The big brick building in front of him had played some part in how they’d won in the Pacific.
Whatever they’d done had made the building uninhabitable. Nerio had warned him not to spend any more time inside than necessary.
He walked up quiet and slow.
There was a girl standing in the shadow cast by the processing plant. She had on a white dress like a Mennonite’s, hair that looked a bit too long for her age, and a look in her eyes like she could just as easily kiss as stab him.
Declan checked the fire axe strapped to the back of his jacket and the trench knife in a sheath on his hip. The cultists who called that plant home might very well dress like that, Declan thought at first, but then he realized the Mennonite wasn’t really there.
The angels spoke in his ear often enough, but he didn’t usually see them.
She seemed to want him to follow her. But his business was inside, not around back, where she seemed to want him, and she was probably trying to lead him to an early grave.
The big steel door to the plant was open a crack. He drew the axe from his back and the knife from his hip and kicked the door open. It creaked like a wounded gull but there was also an odd slop that came with the creak.
The floor was red with a wrath-of-God quantity of blood and viscera.
Tall windows let in the afternoon sun, casting the gloom of the open factory floor in bands of bright light. Standing in the center of the big room was a tall man, bare chested and wearing overalls.
John Henry, he thought, and wondered if that was racist.
“Hi there,” Declan said.
“Well, hello,” the man said, smiling big white teeth at him.
While Declan was trying to get with the times, civil rights and all that, Nerio wouldn’t have hesitated to tell him he was hunting a moolie, if only to see his nose wrinkle. “Would you happen to be Paul Giery?” Declan asked.
“I most certainly would not,” the man said. “That’s who I was here for.”
“…Did Nerio send you?” Declan asked. Despite his playful race-hate, Nerio employed blacks when they came up useful.
“Nerio, as in Nerio Caiazzo? No…. Dylan, was it?”
“Sorry?” Declan said. “Oh. Declan.”
“Declan! Glad to see you made it out okay.”
“We know each other?”
“Shit…. You were a medic yeah?” Declan asked.
“That’s how I learned to use a knife,” he said.
Declan’s eyes had adjusted to the gloom. There were bits of people everywhere, cut too small to even guess at the number of dead.
“You stitched me up,” Declan said.
“I was never very good at that.”
“The scar’s pretty bad.”
“Sorry,” the man said, his laugh like an echo in an opera house.
“I would have died for certain. So, thanks. Your name, it was somethin’ Latin?”
“Meritorius, Meritorius James,” he said.
Declan remembered, the guys had called him Mary.
“So, you’re still a soldier?” Meritorius asked.
“More or less,” Declan said. “You?”
“There are people in my head. They tell me to kill people.”
“…About that, Paul Giery, was he one of these?” Declan asked, pointing at the floor.
“Yeah. I was only supposed to kill him, but I’m hungry,” Meritorius said, leaning over and reaching his hand into the crimson slop at his feet. “This him?” he asked, holding up a chunk of a man’s head.
“I hope so.”
“You want to see something?”
“Sure,” Declan said. It couldn’t be any worse.
Meritorius led him to the back of the precessing floor and out through another tall steel door. The sky was still blue but there was a pleasant breeze now.
The Mennonite girl was back, walking shoulder to shoulder with Declan as Meritorius led them across a field of crabgrass.
“You see her too?” Meritorius asked.
“Who?” Declan said.
Meritorius pointed ahead of them, but Declan only saw a small tree and few miles of urban wasteland beyond.
“That tree,” Meritorius said. “Figs are out of season, but the tree’s filled with them.”
The Mennonite girl ran ahead. As Meritorius reached up and grabbed a fig, popping it in his mouth, the girl knelt at the tree’s roots. She looked up at Declan with a kind of urgency that made him feel she might actually mean him no harm. She pointed down at a mound of dark soil.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Meritorius said as Declan clawed at the earth with his finger tips.
“Those dead people, the Mouth of God…. Why were you here for Paul anyway?”
“The way I heard it, Paul’s cult, the Mouth of God, I guess, had a thing for body fluids,” Declan said. “He was pimping out his girls for some kind of religious reason. But religion aside, he was cutting into Nerio’s business.”
“That was only part of their work. This is their tree of knowledge, but I don’t think I’m getting any smarter,” Meritorius said, popping another fig in his mouth.
“Babies,” Declan said.
“I told you not to dig there.”
Declan’s visit to Korea hadn’t been pleasant, but dead babies are a part of war. It’s normal there.
Even if it sometimes felt like his war hadn’t ended, this was supposed to be state-side, and you weren’t supposed to find dead babies buried next to fig trees.
He pulled five tiny corpses from the ground before looking up. Meritorius was still plucking figs from the tree, and the girl was still watching him.
Declan continued digging. He figured he’d have Nerio tell his clean-up boys to give the kids a proper burial. Maybe that was what the girl wanted.
Three more. Eight of them, laid out in the crab grass like unsold dolls after the Christmas season.
There was something else at the bottom of the hole he’d dug. A little foot. As Declan’s hands passed through the cool earth, his finger tips met with something warm.
He pulled out the warm mass. Golden eyes stared at him. This one was alive, or seemed to be. It was breathing. It was warm. His imaginary angels were usually things he couldn’t touch.
It didn’t cry or wail. It just stared at him. Declan brought the child closer to his face, unsure how to treat a baby he’d just found at the bottom of a mass grave. The child reached out to him, its fingers brushing against his cheek, its tiny nails scratching him.
As Declan stared at the child’s golden eyes, half of the world went dark.
“Are you alright?” Meritorius asked.
“What?” Declan said.
“The kid. Didn’t he just scratch out your eye?”
“…I guess so.”
“You should get that looked at.”
“You still carry a kit?”
“Not anymore,” Meritorius said, laughing again.
The Mennonite girl was gone, so they started back across the field.
“Whatchu gonna name him?” Meritorius asked.
“You figure its a him?”
“Looks that way to me.”
“…How’d you get a name like that?” Declan asked.
“Meritorius?” he said. “My mama gave it to me.”