Swamp Witch and the Tea-Drinking Man


 

 A Sample by DAVID NICKLE

 

 

 

This is a tiny bit of my story "Swamp Witch and the Tea-Drinking Man," which appears in Cory Doctorow and Holly Phillips' Tesseracts Eleven,  from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. And it appears in Monstrous Affections, my story collection available from ChiZine Publications. What's it about? Read the title. And then read this bit...

* * *


Swamp witch rode her dragonfly into town Saturday night, meaning to see old Albert Farmer one more time. Albert ran the local smoke and book, drove a gleaming red sports car from Italy, and smiled a smile to run an iceberg wet. Many suspected he might be the Devil's kin and swamp witch allowed as that may have been so; yet whether he be Devil or Saint, swamp witch knew Albert Farmer to be the kindest man in the whole of Okehole County. Hadn't he let her beat him at checkers that time? Didn't he smile just right? Oh yes, swamp witch figured she'd like to keep old Albert Farmer awhile and see him this night.

That in the end she would succeed at one and fail at the other was a matter of no small upset to swamp witch; for among the burdens they carry, swamp witches are cursed with foresight, and this one could see endings clearer than anything else. Not that it ever did her much good; swamp witch could no more look long at an ending than she'd spare the b
lazing sun more than a glance.

As for the end of this night, she glanced on it not even an instant. For romance was nothing but scut work if you knew already the beginning, the end and all the points between. The smile on her lips was genuine, as she steered past the bullfrogs, through the rushes and high over the swamp road toward the glow of the town.

By the time she was on the town's outskirts, walking on her own two feet with the tiny reins of her dragonfly pinched between thumb and forefinger, the swamp witch had a harder time keeping her mood high. Her feet were on the ground, her senses chained and she could not ignore the wailing of a woman beset.

It came from the house which sat nearest the swamp -- the Farley house -- and the wailing was the work of Linda Farley, the eldest daughter who swamp witch knew was having man trouble of her own.

She had mixed feelings about Linda Farley, but for all those feelings, swamp witch could not just walk by and she knew it. There was that thing she had done with her checkers winnings. It had made things right and made things wrong, and in the end made swamp witch responsible.

"One night in a week," swamp witch grumbled as she stepped around the swing-set and onto the back stoop. "Just Saturday. That's all I asked for."

* * *

Linda Farley was a girl of twenty-one. Thick-armed and legged, but still beautiful by the standards of the town, she had been ill-treated by no less than three of its sons: lanky Jack Irving; foul-mouthed Harry Oates; Tommy Balchy, the beautiful Reverend's son, who wrangled corner snakes for his Papa and bragged to everyone that he'd seen Jesus in a rattler's spittle. Swamp witch was sure it would be one of those three causing the commotion. But when she came in, touched poor Linda's shoulder where it slumped on the kitchen table, and followed her pointing finger to the sitting room, she saw it was none of those fellows.

Sitting on her Papa's easy chair was a man swampwitch had never seen before. Wearing a lemon-colored suit with a vest black as night rain, he was skinny as sticks and looked just past the middle of his life. He held a teacup and saucer in his hands, and looked up at swamp witch with the sadness of the ages in his eye.

"Stay put," said swamp witch to her dragonfly, letting go of its reins. The dragonfly flew up and perched on an arm of the Farleys' flea market chandelier. "Who is this one?"

The man licked thin lips.

"He came this afternoon," said Linda, sitting up and sniffling. "Came from outside. He says awful things." She held her head in her hands. "Oh woe!"

"Awful things." Swamp witch stepped over to the tea-drinking man. "Outside. What's his name?"

The tea-drinking man and raised his cup to his mouth. He shook his head.

"He-he won't say."

Swamp witch nodded slowly. "You won't say," she said to the tea-drinking man and he shrugged. Swampwitch scowled. People who knew enough to keep their names secret were trouble in swamp witch's experience.

The tea-drinking man set his beverage down on the arm of the chair and began to speak.

"What if you'd left 'em?" he said. "Left 'em to themselves?"

Swamp witch glared. The tea-drinker paid her no mind, just continued:

"Why, think what they'd have done! Made up with the Russians! The Chinese! Built rockets and climbed with them to the top of the sky, and sat there a moment in spinning wheels with sandwiches floating in front of their noses and their dreams all filled up. Sat there and thought, about what they'd done, what they might do, and looked far away. Then got off their duffs and built bigger rockets, and flew 'em to the moon, and to Mars. Where'd they be?"

The tea-drinking man was breathing hard now. He looked at her like a crazy man, eyes wet. "What if they'd been left on their own?"

And then he went silent and watched.

The swamp witch took a breath, felt it hitch in her chest. Then she let it out again, in a low cough.

"You're infectious," she said.

"What?" said Linda from behind him.

"Infectious. The dream sickness," she said. "You look at the past and start to think maybe that could be better than now. You can't move it's so bad -- can't even think."

The tea-drinking man shrugged. "I been around, madame."

"Around," said swamp witch. "Surely not around here. This place is mine. There's no sickness, no dreaming sadness. These folks are happy as they are. So I'll say it: You're quarantined from this town." She glanced back at Linda, who looked back at her miserably, awash in inconsolable regret.

"That's how it is."

Swampwitch glared once more at the tea-drinking man.

The tea-drinking man smiled sadly.

"I am --"

"-- sorry," finished swamp witch. "I know."

And then swamp witch raised up her arms, cast a wink up to her dragonfly, and set a hex upon the tea-drinking man. "Begone," she said.

He stood up. Set his saucer and cup down. Looked a little sadder, if that were possible.

"I was just leaving."

And with that, he stepped out the door, through the yard, over the road and into the mist of the swampland.

"Stay away from my hutch, mind you," swamp witch hollered after his diminishing shade. "I mean it!" and she thought she saw him shrug a bit before the wisps of mist engulfed him and took him, poor dream-sick man that he was, away from the town that swampwitch loved so.



To be continued...