By on Oct 7, 2012 in Fiction

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Swamp with superimposed boy

We get to our island and Uncle Zeb, he tells them about it, me with my head down, looking at my shoes. And I feel them all looking at me, and I’m already carrying on inside myself, because of how it’s going to hurt, even though they haven’t hit me yet. Mam’s crying a little, and the uncles and cousins, they’re all buzzing, some saying shun him. But me Pap’s eyes, they’re cold blue, like that ice I buy at the flea market to lay the dead mullets on.

“Whompus him,” he says. “Fire whompus.”

His voice is cold as his eyes. And I go cold inside.

So I stand there while they start gathering up the dry sticks and logs, me little sister staring wide-eyed, and Mam crying, but gathering, too. And next I know the pyre’s all built, and ready for me. But now we wait while Cousin Abel gets out that file from the toolbox, and they take turns filing on Uncle Zeb’s handcuffs, while he glares at me, and finally they get through that chain. He swings his arms to get the blood back in them, then he belts me with his fist, and down I go, everything ringing.

It’s a while before the ringing stops, and then I see the pyre’s aflame, so that looking through it everything on the other side seems watery, because of the heat. And I see Cousin Abel coming out with an armful of whompus poles, for everyone except me, to send that fire at what’s to be burnt. I get up, but me Pap puts his hands on me shoulder, fingers like iron, and lifts me in the air, me smelling the tobacco smoke in his beard, him holding me up like that, me lying there limp, like a shot deer, not even thinking now, just knowing I did bad and now I’ll burn and char.

A voice from the river, yelling. I can’t hear what it says, because Pap throws me down.   

It’s Cousin Bobby Morgan, rowing in and shouting: sheriff’s boat coming, headed here.  

“They’s a coming for me,” Uncle Zeb says, grim.

I lie like I’m dead. I should run now, and hide, but I don’t.

“Whompus ‘em!” Pap says.

So they get out the whompus poles, ready. Now there’s engine sound, from the river, and I’m lying where Pap threw me down, looking through the legs, and I see coming that raft boat, “Captain Tip Barstow’s Hapacoochi River Wildlife Tours.” Behind that’s another boat, sleek, that says “Sheriff’s Department.” In the raft boat I see Captain Tip Barstow driving, looking mean, but like he’s enjoying himself, and riding with him is the red-haired lady, looking upset and worried. I see her scanning all of us on the shore through her spectacles, and I think she’s looking for me. I can see that Tip Barstow led those deputies to us.

“They’ve got rifles!” Captain Tip Barstow yells back to the deputies in their boat.

 So just off the island both boats stop their engines and sit quiet, bobbing, all them on the boats staring at us, and that whompus pyre burning fierce now.

“I’ll be sender,” Uncle Zeb says.

So he steps forward and everyone else steps back, holding their whompus poles aimed at the pyre fire, to take it in. Uncle Zeb stands in front with his pole to his shoulder, aiming at those boats right there, to take that fire from the other whompus poles and send it out onto those boats.

I think about that whompus fire hitting that raft boat, and I imagine the red-haired lady charring and turning to ash.

“Hey!” Captain Tip Barstow yells. “That big yellow-bearded bastard’s aiming his goddamned rifle at us!”

He ducks down. But the red-haired lady stands where she is, with her hands on her mouth and her eyes wide behind her glasses. And I know she’s seen me now, lying on the ground where me Pap threw me.

“Put down that rifle, sir, and step back,” says a deputy.

His voice sounds too loud and strange, and I see he’s holding up something to his mouth with a wire leading from it, to make his voice big.

“I’m only going to say this once more, put down that rifle,” he says.

Uncle Zeb holds that whompus pole aimed at those boats. And I think he’s got it aimed at the red-haired lady, because she brought on this trouble, to char her first. And I get up from the ground and wave my arms and scream out, “Go back, go away, it’s the whompus!”

And I’ve broken the circle. And now the whompus will have to be built up again. But on that sheriff’s boat those deputies all have out their pistols, and one deputy’s got a rifle, aimed right at Uncle Zeb. But all my kin, they’re staring at me, ice in everyone’s eyes, because I broke the whompus now, after bringing this trouble on us. Uncle Zeb has the fury, and I can see he means to smash me with his whompus pole, but he points it out at the sheriff’s boat, even though the whompus is broken, just because the fury is on him. And there’s a pop. Everything goes quiet.

Then we all look down. Uncle Zeb, he’s lying there, with a red hole in his forehead.

“Run,” me Pap says, and we all do.

We run to hide. I run, too, hearing as if from far away that red-haired woman cry out, “Ebenezer! Please, I want to help you!”

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Richard Wolkomir is a long-time contributor of award-winning articles and essays to magazines, e.g., Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian, Woman’s Day, National Geographic. Now he’s turned to his original interest, fiction, with stories appearing in a variety of literary magazines. He’s especially interested in fiction with a speculative flavor, because our world seems increasingly permeated with the stuff of science fiction, and fantasy is everywhere. Richard lives with his wife, Joyce, in the Vermont mountains, where he keeps an eye out for oreads. You can find more information at RichardJoyceWolkomir.net.