Today was Blacktooth’s very last day on earth and he was patiently awaiting the arrival of a distinguished visitor. He did not mind one bit. Blacktooth was, after all, a master of his art and patience is first among masterful qualities. Besides, Garza was traveling a considerable distance to take part in tonight’s revelry. And to collect on their century-old bargain. Take all the time you need, Blacktooth thought, the night wouldn’t be the same without you. He clicked his teeth together twice. And I’m in no hurry to be off.
Blacktooth turned his wrist over and back, a conductor’s gesture. His arthritic fingers were dark with soot and drove delicate eddies toward the ceiling as they passed through the tendril of smoke rising from the candle.
It was a simple white candle. Slender, unscented, fashioned of common wax. To Blacktooth the sweetness of its burn perfumed his home and stretched a smile across his wrinkled face. Quite the special find it was. Something saved for such an occasion as today.
He stirred the smoke, chewing a page torn from a tattered old book. Blacktooth hummed softly as the paper and the words and their meaning dissolved over his tongue. Ink bloomed, ran, mingled with his saliva. He savored the taste before swallowing it down.
One hundred years ago, Blacktooth was initiated to the witching ways. He was marked that night by the growth of a second pupil in his left eye. If he rolled his eyes back into his skull and gazed through the third pupil, boundaries of wall and flesh fell away. When the fine hairs on his arms began one by one to stand on end, he sent this vision through the ceiling to the sky overhead. Sure enough, a dark shape approached on wing, circling down toward him.
Broad feathers beat the air and from outside Blacktooth’s door came the guttural grind of a heron’s croak. Blacktooth found his feet with the help of his cane. The door swung open and in its frame stood Garza, slender and tall in coat and tails. He clapped his hands and spread his arms, long fingers splayed in Blacktooth’s direction, inviting embrace with a squinting smile.
“Please, in, in,” Blacktooth said, beckoning.
Garza closed the distance quickly on his spindly legs, and the two met with claps on the back.
“Old friend, too long it’s been,” Garza said.
Blacktooth answered with dry hacking laughter, his mouthful of ink-stained teeth on full display. “Don’t know who you’re calling old. This gimmick fools no one,” he said, patting Garza’s cheek playfully.
Garza shot back from the touch, crying out. His hands went to the place where Blacktooth’s fingers had made contact.
“What is it?”
“My hand? What are you…Oh, careless me! The candle,” Blacktooth said.
“Candle?” Garza turned to the steady flame on the table, sniffing the air. “Filthy thing’s been blessed,” he said with a sneer. He winced as he touched his fingertips to the streak of soot on his cheek.
Blacktooth pulled a faded handkerchief from his pocket and began scrubbing the soot from his fingers. “I feel terrible. A gift from one of the villagers; I thought little of it.”
“Well it’s…nothing. Just please get rid of it,” Garza said. He shook his pointing finger at the candle, turning away in disgust.
“Of course,” Blacktooth said. He pinched away the flame, snapped the slender stalk in half, and tossed both halves outside. “Careless, thoughtless. Not as sharp as I once was, looks like,” he said.
“Already forgotten,” Garza said, resting his hand on Blacktooth’s shoulder and resuming the squinting smile.
Blacktooth indicated the smudge on Garza’s cheek with his handkerchief. “Please, least I can do,” he said. Garza nodded assent and Blacktooth carefully dabbed at the mark until there remained only the slightest tint of ash.
Garza motioned toward the rectangle of daylight suspended in the doorframe. “Are you ready? The day dwindles and celebration awaits,” he said.
Blacktooth hacked out more laughter. “Ready for anything. Lead the way, you dusty old bird.”
“There’s a spark of the brujo we know,” Garza said, starting out the door. Blacktooth followed, snatching up his dingy stovepipe hat from a chair. He pulled the door closed with the crook of his cane and locked it with a snap of his fingers.
Garza stretched his long limbs in the sun. Blacktooth had always marveled at how ridiculous this guise was, the slicked back hair that jutted out in back, the blade of a nose, that stem of a neck. The proportions were all wrong. Garza looked only human enough to unsettle the uninitiated eye. Very likely the reason he wore it this way.
As they set out, Blacktooth looked down the sloping street to the north where the spill of the city was visible in the distance. It flowed further into the valley year by year, ever closer. Soon the village would be swallowed up, covered over with a veil of hurry and noise. The thought didn’t worry him as it did some of his patients. Blacktooth was only curious. He was unable to suppress a twinge of longing, a desire to see what changes would come creeping up the mountainside.
Garza spat on the broken candle when they passed. His phlegm crackled and sputtered like grease in a skillet. “Tell me, how are things? It’s been what, a Jupiter’s year since I saw you last?”
Blacktooth did some figuring in his head and nodded. “Just about that, yes. Not much to tell. A quiet decade.”
“Come now, you’re not the sort to have idle hands. Devil’s workshop and all that,” Garza said. He came forth with a burst of laughter that set nearby roosters crowing.
“These bones are more tired every day. I can’t get up to the same work we used to enjoy, so mostly I stay to the house. The villagers come with their ills, their wants. I assist where I can.”
“Not for free, please tell me. You at least demand something in return?”
“Oh, you should know better.” He swatted Garza’s sleeve. “There’s nothing in this world that’s free,” he said.
Garza leaned in. “Or the next, mm?”
Blacktooth met his eyes, pressing his lips together to show understanding. “Or the next.”
Garza appeared satisfied. “So, what payment from these…people?” He scraped the final word from his tongue.
“Whatever they offer. Baubles, books, and liquor. Mostly food. My needs are met.”
“All your needs?”
Blacktooth disliked his insinuating tone, but kept a passive face. “Our appetites are very different,” he said.
“Always have been, haven’t they? I see by your smile you still have that appetite for words. Pity you weren’t born with pages inside, instead of all that warm blood. A waste of good flesh if you ask me,” Garza said.
Blacktooth rolled his eyes and shrugged apology. He had no desire to revisit the old arguments. Garza preached what he called a “balanced diet,” and was bound to have the final say through simple allotment of years. Blacktooth preferred walking in peace to talking in circles.
As they traveled the dusty street one of the men from the village spotted Blacktooth and called out, “¡Papa Dientenegro!”
When Blacktooth turned, he recognized the man. Alvaro, whose chronic nerve pain brought him around regularly. Blacktooth provided medicinal salve in exchange for fresh eggs.
“Friend of yours?” Garza asked.
“A patient,” Blacktooth said.
Alvaro approached. When he got a good eyeful of Garza he shifted closer to Blacktooth.
“¿Que pasa, Alvaro?” Blacktooth said.
Alvaro seemed not to have heard, staring at Garza openly. His eyes darted over Garza’s shape, trying to pinpoint what was so disturbing about it. Garza hoisted his eyebrows to acknowledge the attention, then spread his smile. Alvaro shivered.
“Al-va-ro.” Blacktooth said, three staccato syllables in a tone that pulled the man from wonder.
“Papa Dientenegro, por favor, necesito su ayuda. El dolor ha vuelto, y es peor que nunca. Mire!” Alvaro said. He held out his wavering right hand.
“Venga a verme mañana,” Blacktooth said.
Garza laughed at this.
“Por favor, Papa. No puedo esperar un día más,” Alvaro said.
Blacktooth laid his palm against the round of Alvaro’s shoulder. “Mañana,” he said.
Alvaro slackened. The action of his right hand stilled. The pain that dominated him was now sheathed in a warm swirling sensation. “Mañana lo voy a visitar,” he said, entranced. He turned and ambled away in the direction he had come from.
“Sorry for the delay,” Blacktooth said.
“Oh no,” Garza said, “Quite entertaining! A bit cruel, don’t you think? All that talk of tomorrow?”
As their walking took them from the village, the street gave way to an ancient footpath. Generations of travelers had worn the trail into the earth skirting the base of Tiltiktepet, the smoldering peak above. Garza admired the plume of steam it spat into the heavens.
“Do you remember our fun on that summit?” he asked.
“Such heat! I’m sure you felt right at home,” Blacktooth said.
Garza rolled his head to make eye contact in appreciation of the joke. “What was the poor fool’s name again?”
“Ah! Martín, Martín! ‘Foul creatures, you don’t frighten me. I am protect-aaiiiii…” Garza imitated the way Father Martín’s scream faded as he fell into Tiltiktepet’s fuming throat.
“Quite a set of lungs, you must admit. Held that note all the way down. I think he missed his true calling, a career of singing,” Blacktooth said.
“Mm. But then, I’m inclined to think they’re all in the wrong line of work,” Garza said.
“Fair enough,” Blacktooth laughed.
They came to a grove of mangos, heavy with fruit. Garza’s blue-black tongue danced over his lips.
“A small appetizer, I believe,” he said.
Blacktooth gave a “by all means” bow, concealing his pleasure with practiced restraint.
As Garza strode toward the trees, the ground roiled beneath him. It swelled and burst in pockets of activity ahead of his footfall. A stream of serpents, rats, and insects poured up from underground, lifting him higher with every stride. He climbed the swarming stair until he could reach the topmost boughs. Then he twisted his chosen fruit from its branch. As he descended, the squirming mass shrank under him as it had grown, draining back into the churned soil until Garza’s feet once again touched the earth.
For a moment he admired the fruit, then snapped into it with eager jaws. He made his pleasure noisily apparent. “Exquisite. You must have one,” he said.
“I can wait,” Blacktooth said.
“Now that,” Garza said while chewing, “I’ve never understood. Waiting. A man with your talents, he could have just about anything he wanted. Isn’t that the point?”
Blacktooth sighed. “Not for me. Knowledge is my aim, simple as that.”
“Seems to me there are whole subjects you’ve left unlearned. Shame. All that time spent in study, when there are delights around you ripe for plucking,” Garza said.
“My plucking days are behind me,” Blacktooth said.
“So it seems. How long has this grove stood here? I don’t recall seeing it before.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know. It’s been an age since I walked this way,” Blacktooth said.
“Mm,” Garza said, and returned to the task of eating.
In fact, Blacktooth had planted the grove himself, years ago. He sowed it with only a handful of seeds, given as payment for a cure. The seeds were from a tree of local fame which grew in the courtyard of the village’s modest church, from the very grave of its founding cleric. The mango tree had withstood hurricanes, earthquakes, even one of Tiltiktepet’s fiery tantrums. The villagers believed the tree was an object of divine blessing. Blacktooth was inclined to agree.
He planted and nurtured the seeds, using his art to ensure the plants grew firm, full and tall. Garza could be trusted to have an appetite.
“This is the place, you’re sure?” Blacktooth asked, leaning on his cane. They stood on the bank of a little-trafficked lake, a perfect reflection of the afternoon sky on its surface.
“Am I not trusted?” Garza said, feigning hurt.
“Bah,” Blacktooth said, dismissing Garza’s theatrics with a wave.
Garza held his “one moment” finger aloft. He tilted his head back, dropped his jaw, and croaked into the air. After all Blacktooth had done and seen, the convulsions of Garza’s throat still managed to disgust him.
As Garza’s call echoed around them, the second sky on the surface of the lake was split apart. It fell in little pouring rivers from an enormous shape rising from the lakebed. As it emerged, Blacktooth recognized the craggy ridges and peaks, the raised spider’s web texture of shell. Its broad tapering head came into view and Blacktooth looked into the onyx mirror of its eye. The gaping snapping turtles were common to waters near the village, but he never imagined one growing to this size.
The sight of it moved him: the mountain range of shell, the algae carpeting the valleys between plates, the infinitely creased and thorned skin of the neck and shoulders. Its coloration of ink and orange recalled to Blacktooth lethargic flows of cooling lava. He imagined that to this creature the years must feel like fine raindrops. The turtle rested its chin on the bank and parted its razor jaws, revealing the cave-like hollow of its throat.
“The most exclusive dinner reservation on all this earth,” Garza said.
Blacktooth rested the crook of his cane over a wrist and applauded.
“After you,” Garza said.
Blacktooth tipped his hat and stepped into the yawning mouth. The soft tissue gave underfoot, so he moved with deliberate care further into the gullet. He felt the creature around him sinking back down into the depths of the lake. A warm glow and the sound of conversation came to him from deeper within. He followed them until a spacious chamber opened before him. From the ceiling hung an elegant crystal chandelier. Underneath was a table handsomely arranged with fine linen and silver, garlands of jungle orchid winding between platters crowded with food and decanters spilling with wine.
As he stepped into the room, cheers rose from familiar voices. At the table were precisely the two souls with whom Blacktooth wanted to share the occasion: Ichtaka the toad, his frequent counselor, and Eskisa, an upriver bruja he’d known since his fledgling days.
“Man of the hour,” said Eskisa.
“Take a bow,” said Ichtaka.
Blacktooth flashed his abyss grin and bent ceremoniously, hat in hand.
Eskisa patted the seat next to her. “Sit and catch us up,” she said. Her movements were accompanied by the jangle of the charms she wore up her arms and around her neck, rows of beads carved from antler and shell and bone.
Blacktooth lowered himself with a grunt as Garza entered the dining room.
“Ah, the fancy feathered fiend,” Ichtaka said.
“Frog,” Garza shot back.
Ichtaka croaked indignantly.
“Try to behave, boys.” Eskisa said.
Garza made a sign of surrender. He surveyed the table’s offerings, and when his eyes found a pail full of silver swimming fish, his blue-black tongue danced again. He pinched one out by the tail. He held it over his open mouth, watching it wriggle a few seconds before letting it drop. Then he stroked his stomach.
“I do love the squirming. Fighting all the way down, in my dark. Poor thing, there’s so much of it, don’t you know?”
“Someone’s overcompensating,” Ichtaka said.
The first few notes of a giggle escaped Eskisa, but when Garza’s squinting eyes fell on her she feigned a sudden cough.
Blacktooth spoke to ease the tension. “Thank you both for coming, it means much.”
“Oh, wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said Eskisa.
“Likewise,” agreed Ichtaka.
“Have to admit, I can’t believe it’s happening. A hundred years already? The circle dances won’t be the same,” Eskisa said.
“And I will miss our conversations dearly,” said Ichtaka.
Blacktooth lowered his head graciously at their words.
Garza struck his wine glass with a gnawed bone. “Let me speak just a few words about the guest of honor: When Blacktooth first conjured me, he was a skinny pup playing at things he didn’t understand. I tend to reward such ambition with a snapped neck, but in him I saw such ruthless spirit. His hunger won me over. We shook hands that night and many of my fondest memories in the century since are of havoc we’ve wrought together. His skill is unsurpassed among men, and his enthusiasm for the work nearly matches my own. Blacktooth, we honor your loyalty and service. Tonight, this world will lose one of its great artists, but the next world becomes that much richer.” Garza gulped down his wine. Eskisa applauded. Ichtaka cheered.
Then Garza said, “I’m certainly looking forward to all the quality time we’ll be spending together.” He bounced his eyebrows twice.
Blacktooth politely raised his glass. The table was set with three candles. Their flickering was reflected onto the organ walls of the dining chamber by the hundred crystals of the chandelier. The play of light took Blacktooth from the room, lifted and dropped him back into the night he acquired the white candle he had burned earlier, the soot of which caused Garza such pain.
He had snuck into the church in a cat’s body, crouching low and darting swiftly under the pews. He heard a woman’s sobs tremor under the soft placations of a priest’s voice. He heard the priest say the words “dear boy” and “gone up to the Kingdom.” He heard a question, “better if we prayed?” and a whispered “yes.”
Blacktooth stretched his cat’s neck and saw the priest take the grieving mother’s hand in his and light the pale candle. The priest chanted a benediction for the small life that had slipped away, and the mother bowed her head.
Blacktooth purred. Fortune smiled on him. He had come to retrieve another item of interest, but a candle lit and prayed over by a priest and a grieving mother? The potency would be incredible. Blacktooth waited, quiet and still, for the prayers to fade. When the church was empty he came out from his hiding place and took the candle.
Ichtaka’s voice tugged Blacktooth back to the dining chamber.
“Are you enjoying that volume I recommended?”
“Oh yes, every page. Just finished this morning,” Blacktooth said. He tapped his temple with his forefinger.
“You found it useful, then?”
“Immensely,” Blacktooth said.
“There you go again, being bookish. Tonight of all nights,” Garza scoffed.
“Not just a book; the journals of a mad old anchorite. They would hold even your interest,” Blacktooth said.
“I highly doubt it,” Garza said.
“We won’t bore you with details then. More wine?”
He hoisted his glass and Blacktooth poured.
The four fell into reminiscences. They laughed until breathless at retellings of bonfire gatherings and flights through midnight air, of inventive hexes, of uncooperative sacrifices fleeing naked into the jungle only to be eaten by jaguars, which were sacrificed in turn for the sake of balance. They wiped away tears and beat the table.
When Blacktooth saw with the second pupil of his left eye that outside the solstice moon had risen, he suggested they head to open air for proper celebration. Garza sounded a command and they felt the room shift, heard the water rushing against the turtle’s shell as it sought the surface. Before leading the way out, Blacktooth offered his palm to Ichtaka, who hopped on. They filed through the turtle’s damp passages until they stepped from its gaping mouth into the warm, starry night.
Blacktooth held up his free hand and whispered, “Kuti-tsín.” Golden flame leapt to life from the skin of his palm, strolled up and down his fingers. Then he whispered “Mu-chiwa,” and blew on the flame. It jumped to the earth and climbed steadily until it burned at shoulder height. Eskisa’s trinkets rattled as she stretched in the warmth. Blacktooth lifted Ichtaka to his breast pocket, where the toad settled himself with crossed arms resting on the pocket’s edge. The primeval turtle had already slipped back into the depths of the lake, leaving only gentle lapping at its bank.
“Proper celebration requires accompaniment,” Garza said. He stomped his heel twice and the ground broke apart. An impish figure climbed free holding a bow and fiddle, eyes like embers. It shook clumps of soil from its hair before setting bow to string. Once it began to play, the swell of notes tugged everyone into movement. Blacktooth’s hacking laughter went up to the night sky as he tossed his cane aside. He and Eskisa and Garza began to gallop and leap around the fire, Ichtaka keeping rhythm with the fiddle, beating his webbed hands against the lip of Blacktooth’s breast pocket. Eskisa was a clamor of shell and bone. They howled and whooped in animal voice and blasphemed in forbidden language.
As the imp played on, with its tail whip-swaying the tempo, the dancers’ frenzy lifted them from the ground entirely, and they circled the pillar of fire in full flight.
Eskisa and Blacktooth met eyes through the flame. He winked.
“Just like old times, huh?” she called to him.
“Sweet as ever. Garza, how are you feeling?”
“Glorious,” Garza said.
“I haven’t felt this fine since the time that farmer wandered into our Sabbath rite. Do you remember?”
Garza squealed. “One of my favorites! Can you believe it, actually pissing himself?” he said.
“What was that he said? Over and over he said it with the knife to his throat?”
Garza tried to get the answer out over his laughter. “He said…heh heh…he said ‘Forgive me, Lord. I repent of my ways. Mercy, Lord.’ How he went on! ‘Forgive me, Lord. I repent of my ways. Mercy!’” Garza acted out the farmer’s words with clasped hands and derisive passion.
Now it was Blacktooth who was overcome, his usual hack now a wild cackle. He slapped his thighs, nodding. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes!” He glided to a stop and set his feet back onto the ground. He bent for a moment, hysterical with hands on knees, then reached inside his jacket. He pulled out a silver flask that gleamed in the firelight. He stopped up the mouth of the flask with the tip of his tongue and feigned greedy gulps.
Garza set down next to him. “Well now, what’s this? Holding out?”
“Cane liquor. Help yourself,” Blacktooth said, presenting the flask.
Garza took it and toasted, “To your last minutes on earth.” He drew two long swallows before his eyes went full moon. He released something between a man’s scream and a heron’s croak, hands clutching at his neck. “W-What?” he said in a dissolving voice.
Blacktooth went cackling again. Eskisa came up smiling beside him, and little Ichtaka snickered in the pocket.
“What…did you…do?” Garza gasped.
Blacktooth picked up the flask and sniffed it. “Oh, careless me! Holy water in my flask, how embarrassing. Confusion of my old age.”
Garza bellowed again. His body started distorting, neck and nose elongating, fingers flattening, his coat and tails sprouting feathers. He took two clumsy hops, trying to get airborne, but Blacktooth had him quickly by the neck. The heron flapped and kicked against him, but Blacktooth held the bird firm.
“You’ve had poor luck today. Much poor luck. In just a span of hours you’ve been brushed with the blessed ash of a mourning candle, eaten fruit that grew from a church father’s grave, and swallowed Holy Water. And to top it all, you repented. Begged forgiveness! Who has such luck?” Blacktooth said. He clicked his teeth together twice.
The heron jerked and flapped.
“It’s interesting. Your predicament reminds me of the book Ichtaka and I were discussing. Ichtaka, what do you reckon?”
“Now that you mention it, I do see a correlation,” Ichtaka said. Eskisa giggled, rattling her trinkets.
The heron struggled and croaked. Blacktooth tightened his grip.
“You see, that Mad Anchorite had some grand theories. Something about a devil’s power weakened by the overlapping effects of holy objects. But my memory is not so dependable these days. Could be wrong.”
Blacktooth plucked a feather from the heron’s tail. It honked angrily.
“No, it seems to be the case. I mean, what are the odds? A devil of your stature actually saying the words, repenting! But you were not in full control of your faculties. Something you ate, maybe?”
Eskisa giggled and rattled and pulled a knife from her sleeve.
“I’m interested in one of the Mad Anchorite’s other theories. Obsessed, really. He seemed to believe that if you eat a devil’s heart, the undying blood would then live in you. Forever. Isn’t that interesting? Garza? Ichtaka, do you have the impression he isn’t listening?”
“Certainly seems that way,” Ichtaka said.
Blacktooth sighed and snapped the bird’s neck.
Jason R. Poole is a writer, artist, and lover of all things strange. Originally from the Appalachian corner of Maryland, he is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Kansas. His short fiction has appeared in A cappella Zoo, The Fourth River, and the 1001 Nights Podcast. For more info, please check out his website: www.jasonrpoole.com.