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Down among the Fireweed

It said upon the gelid gallows, sat down among the fireweed, that Mistress Marjorie Hart was dead. She wasn’t hung up from a rope so all peered and read again, and thrice, the words carved on the wood, yellowed as autumn leaves. “What portent’s this,” they said, “her name writ on the gallows wood when she was recent seen beneath the full-stomached moon like a greying haunt? What mischief and what fairies come and play among the fireweed?” Shook the blue bells and the mad caps beneath the gallows jawing trap so all were to the road and none look back.

***

A fortnight before Marjorie Hart’s name was written on the gallows’ wood, in dusk and wind-blown rain, Jack Withall came up the road, long into his cups. He’d wept all through the wood, so the river ran behind and his heels rusted through. His mother had that morning starved and died and sent him reeling from the door. He’d not washed her skin or closed her eyes but held his arms against his ears and  sunk far away into the wood when the funeral men went by.

Winter-born, Jack had been, and hungry, so that his mother cried and ground the barley flour on a stone. No wheat, no meat, no summer herb kept company with shelf or drawer. No milk beaded on her breast. But rather Jack supped on birthing blood and starved until the dusk. Up the way, Tom Scratch came to play a ditty at the hatched and crossed roads of Carrick town. At the door he tipped his hat to ma’am and redded babe. To her he said, “I’ll make a bargain with you. I’ll keep you on past Morrow Night with rye, milk, and mutton. In return I’ll bind your babe to that grey gate of death, grown o’er with grass and o’er with rush. Hained, he will be a crossing man to part the doors when there is need.”

So mother agreed and took his sun-stamped coin. This was done upon Slag hill so at the age of twelve Jack was strung by rusted chain, wrists raw and one eye down the hoary road.

Twelve he’d been, and now a man, his breath of hops and clove, and heavy hung his arms with chains that rattled on death’s keyholes like tumbling stones.

At Marjorie Hart’s hearth, burnt orange as sear field, he threw his hands into her lap that she might unbind him from his chains or elsewise cut from him his wrists.

Marjorie bent, hand over arm, eyes of silent field and blowing leaves. “You are half-threshed, half-plowed, wheat stalk broken at the hip and left to rot, your fate weaves from rotted fingers.” She took a shawl late made of beaten flax and strung it through a widow’s ring, like a body through a cloven gate. “A passing through the door, when lock is begun to turn, left eye to road and right still on home.”

Jack felt so pulled, stuck between, before and after, twisting away from left to right. But he said, wry, “You make me as a pitiable stone.”

She laughed, screeching and moorish, which had earned her name of witch before her roof was fully raised. “No stone before has been known so much to moan or keep me such good company.”

Jack pulled his thumb beneath his eye. “I am only taken so well when compared to such silent companions as your own.”

“Well.” Her cheeks folded upon themselves beneath her grin. “Perhaps it is so.”

Marjorie kept before her door a loamy shovel above a rusted cage and for the town of Carrick dug the musci graves. Like landed sailor, she swung her arms and hips and sang a lover’s song: The magpie’s in the water skeel, too late the soldier comes heel to heel. Some said from her open sleeve she spilled goat’s milk upon the graves and so nursed the dead to sleep and not a ghost or haunt bothered the split streets. Others said Marjorie bound fox teeth into the departed mouths and in the night put ear to grave for rumors of their sorrowing.

She tapped her palm upon his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Jack, to hear this morning’s news.”

Jack shook his head, sunk further elbow to knee. “My mother sent me to Slag hill when I was twelve. I went through old Tom’s barley field in the smell of greenish spring, following the rabbit tracks. The dew set upon my toes, the lasted yellow fading off the grass. And away, among the naked trees, the deer wore garlands of horn, hung with red ribboned velvet. Atop the hill I found broken glass cut through my heel.”

She held her hands to splayed knees, a head above him. “What such glass?” she said, not unkind. “A witching glass?”

“A naked glass, to catch me in. To steal my eye away.” He passed his hand before his left eye, cold and blue, and saw not the chain along his wrist, but the low-slung dead taking deathly road in fireweed and rain. “I sat atop the hill and wept onto my bloodied heel. I thought I was to die, the blood came so thick and fast. A ribboned road I left from field to crown, my first, my own, a terror unfurled off my grief. But I was deceived, as a child is by those who seem to know the world by virtue of certainty and weathered face. I stood at the gate o’ergrown with rush and saw the hoary road; I stumbled and am stumbling still, stepping between, looking back and before. Bound and kept and weaved. Marjorie,” he put his hands beneath his knees and so hid the manacle and chain, “I don’t want to die.”

Again she laughed. “Oh, true? An uncommon thing, no doubt.”

He scowled. “You are kith with the dead. With milky tea you picnic on the graves. In yellow summer you lay on fresh-turned soil and weave spells among the broad-leafed trees. At muggy dusk, you skin rabbits upon your knee, the fur left on the head, as a reprieve to digging graves.”

“You think I carry barrows in my womb, that I have made to love, to lie, upon death’s frozen bones because I know its bed?”

Jack turned his wrists about each other, knotting himself tight to not be furthered pulled through the widow’s ring. “You spangle your house with graves, rank poppy on your breast. With rush lantern light and trader’s coin you pull the dead upon your door. I have, it seems, seen you put hand through earth and reach to rotted hand of those that have passed the threshold and walk west.”

Marjorie took hold of the chain between his wrists and made as if to haul him to his feet. “And you are master of death’s gate.”

He pulled away. “I am no master.”

“You are a sullen swain.” She served up soup and sat before him eye to eye. She put her hand beneath his own upon the iron stain and callous wrist. “Jack, for you I have made thistle tea and creams and salves and will again. But I am at heart no hearth-witch, to comfort with warmth after rain and the familiar smell of home.”

With quivering breast he took in her somber eye. “If you would have me go, take these chains.”

“I am loath to break your bargain.”

“It was not I, sunk in dusky loam, who made it.”

“It is yours to own, unsightly though it is.” She took a bowl of soup to set between her knees. “I was once cleaved from death. I made a bargain and cast the gate behind.”

“Then cleave me too! So that we can roam us both to greener place.”

Marjorie shook her head. “I bargained for ten years of life, took the sun-stamped coin, and I was quick to regret that piece of gold. I would rather now with soiled hands clothe the dying fox so that we two might die together. I would say prayer to its bones and teach its pounding heart to grow with horehound, to plant heather in its lungs.”

Jack bent to his soup and muttered, “The old wives say, when grain rots before its sewn and chickens are slain a dozen in their coops, that Marjorie Hart has gone marrying Tom Scratch beneath the gallows’ wood.”

Marjorie smiled, bemused. “And your own rumors, Jack, the man of waning moon? The boy upon the hill bound up in chain. Are you not unhallow too?” From her palm she brushed dried rabbit blood and Jack turned away least it show the rabbit’s death.

“Jack,” she said, “why did you not come to see your mother in her grave?”

He rested his cheek to the hollow of his wrist and would not speak of it, but rather pressed his palm to his blue eye so that it pulsed with night.

Marjorie stood to make a yarrow tea to ease the swelling in his joints. “I once bargained my hide from between the hound’s teeth, as your mother did. I would not abide the sight of bone. I now take lessons from the hare’s fading eye and the fox’s cracking jaw. I unweave.”

Jack did not hear. He knew only that she was all that could untether him from his inbetween, of left eye blue on rime and snow and right eye brown of seeded soil and growing wheat.

“We will visit her grave,” Marjorie said. “The soil is fresh-turned and in want of care.”

Jack did not go, but lay a while beside her fire drinking yarrow tea before he went back along the road all low and sore, bloodied about the wrists.

On the hastened way home to Carrick among the pine, he met Tom Scratch, sawing at his fiddle with an old hen bone and a strangled hare at his waist. It seemed-oh horror-that for a moment with both left and right Jack saw the hoary road and hastened dead barefoot in the snow. Until from his pocket Tom took a pair of dark-pipped dice.

“I do not play,” he told Tom then, when offered the first throw. Feeling as bare as an empty loom, he said, “To bed I keep my bones when deals are made. I take no interest in their gleeful cries.”

“Be you priest or be you brother, to speak such lies?”

“I am neither, be on your way.”

“Will you sit and listen to me play?”

Down he came onto a mossy stone, wrists bound and bent, chain-handed and moon-hooked. He watched Tom play at Bones in the Pot, horsehair and catgut bending to crossroad chord. Across his teeth it split, and upon his tongue he tasted cordgrass wet with rot and camellia winter-deep. The stars sunk down, unclothed and bright, of bluish midnight light and lozenge on the wind.

Jack was tossed between the stag’s branched horns that pierce the swollen moon and spill milk like blood across a stony vein. He turned on dark-glass eyes as of the deer that stood among the misted wood and were lost among the trees. By left and right, by in-between, by done undone and unmade sain.

Jack lifted hand and offered palm. “Will you these chains unlatch?”

Tom Scratch put arm to moon, woven bands upon his wrist of hemp and skin of sheep. “Will I unbind what I have bound? Will I leave the gate, which is surely not my own, but gift to all, unmanned? Would I? Tom Scratch? You are moon-caught, lad, her reaping scythe set into your breast and her waning eye beneath your chest. Hein, you stand in thrall, lost between life’s road and ours.”

How tired Jack grew then and he ceded all thoughts of comfort or of steaming cup. He knew, in truth, it was a foolish thing to ask. Tom Scratch could not break his own bargain. “I’m home then to my bower.”

“Well, not so fast, after all, I am Tom Scratch. Though late the hour I might find some answer with stave and rue.”

“And what must I give to you?”

Tom shook a careless, but expectant, hand. “I will bargain your chains against your life’s end. That once they are broke, I will gain the choosing of your death.”

“And bargain breath?” Jack held his face. He didn’t know how Tom would cleave his own deal, but he didn’t think it mattered. “Yes.”

Tom Scratch grinned all of teeth, and when he flipped a coin from thumb to air, Jack was the fool to catch it.

***

The night before Marjorie Hart’s name was written on the gallows’ wood, she stood upon her threshold, stew gone cold and winter on her back. Tom Scratch sat before her fire; broth wicked down his chin as he sucked meat from rabbit bone. Behind her she could feel the fox and hare bound o’er the field, in hunt and play, and turned toward death.

Tom’d not hung his coat at the door, but kept it at his waist. It was of amber-red like baying hound and spun of warp and weft so sometimes Marjorie saw thickets strewn of mongrel track and brambles full of frozen seed.

Tom turned up a scalded eye of rimy blue. “Hard cold tonight. The rabbit’s to its den, the mouse beneath the leaves.”

Marjorie nodded to frost and hoary moon.

“A body’s like to freeze. Blood gone black and bones nigh cracked.”

Marjorie gathered fox hide to her shoulders and smelled musty pine. “The moon’s turned scythe, reaping brittle sheaves.”

Tom frowned and hunched around his bowl, slunk with baleful eye. “The sleepless left to grieve.”

“Is it true? Ten years are past and made the hound’s catch?” Marjorie felt those ten years slipped, lost among the drifts of snow and fallen pine. She slipped herself and desired more, another spring creased with lovat clouds and sudden rain.

Tom turned broken bone between his teeth, his face of sickle and blasted wheat. “Caught, and bargained to Tom Scratch. The apple’s frozen from its stems, figs and almonds grown from hand-sown seed.” He took his fiddle from its seat and plucked a tawny string. “Time is up and a bargain must be paid.”

Marjorie sunk her hands into the fox’s hide, felt the growing wood, the spring that would come soon with Mallow Night. She pulled down her heels so she’d not show her fright. “You have no dice to throw? No second bargain to rattle my bones?”

Tom raised a delighted brow and put thumb to chin. “No.”

Marjorie grew cold.

Tom set down his bowl. “So, it is my half of the bargain, to choose your path after you die. After death you will turn astray from hoary road and go without eyes–pricked by needle and devoured by flies–until you are led by sun-stamped coin to proper death among the rue.”

“My own?”

Tom stood and from her mantle took the coin he’d ten years past put into her palm. “That is already used.”

Marjorie watched him turn the coin between his fingers and wished she had her leather cap close at hand, that she might take a final turn about the field. She would soon enough lose her away among loosened meadow, to mourn, to haunt. And perhaps there was no other coin, no wayfarer possessing the sun’s face that could open death’s gate. She nodded to Tom farewell.

Tom grinned and she was snared in net of forest pine; set before snarling hound with upcurled lip. The wind chilled of bone and the fire flickered cold. Dim it grew, so shadows danced that cut eye from eye and mouth in twain, crossroads set on moon-scythed lip. Marjorie drew closed her loamy hands and she was clothed in death–by fox and hare and bear–lost among the fireweed.

***

On the day Marjorie Hart’s name was written on the gallows’ wood, Jack came with click and kick in shoes of iron heel and holly on his hat. With wrenish fright he took the news from the folk of Carrick town that Marjorie’s name was writ onto the gallows’ wood. Omen, it seemed, evil and strange. He bobbed his head and flushed bright red.

“Not I,” said he. “I’d do no such dreadful thing. Nor was I called to open the gate o’ergrown. Yestereve the locks were all made fast and the window’s open wide. I heard no calling in the night of death, nor whistling wren or hawking craw, and slept until the morning’s light.” Tight he pulled his coat around his sagging chest and clicked his heels so he’d not sink through rime and frozen earth and set his mind on that long hoary road that in the ground lead west.

“We’ll go,” Jack said, “and call to Mistress Hart from the field so at the window she can show her face.” And to desperation he slipped as hands were into pockets turned.

All looked to road that at the edge of town wended like a tattered sheet. It went among the pines and through the watchful shadows that turned on travelers late at night. Grey, it was, and green as lichen and ice caught among oak roots. On it went by den of black-eyed hare to Slag hill where in the lee Marjorie skinned her meat.

“Gristle and gall,” the ale’s wife said, “I’ll not turn to the hill like gallows maid, as if my grave tax had been this morning paid. I’m as like to from a fairy’s basket take cheese and mead for this eve’s sup.”

So Jack imagined Marjorie beneath the drying sage, beating bone to bone. Slat of hip and rib, drummed on her own hide, stretched and dried, so fox and hare throb and run where bones lie under leaves. And all the dead beat in time with rotted hearts.

Kith and kin drew closed and listened for death’s mortal tryst, the crash of gate, the drumbeat cleaved from sound. Jack stood, left eye shut in dread. He feared her death, to see it twisted round his eye, to pierce him like a briar thorn.

“It is a jest,” Jack cried, “that the young boys have played upon the gallows wood. I will go myself and call to Marjorie Hart from the field and find her putting lilac on her breast.”

All bit lips and put unfriendly eye to Jack’s rusted chains, so he went alone to that unhallowed road. By vixen den and, hung from pine, fairy homes made by children’s hand on Morrow Night. By blighted ash grown with pulpy blue and bleeding stone where beer and mead was thrown. Past where the road was made of rock and silence sat among the woad.

Marjorie was all of hunt and grave and flint, Jack thought. She’d not be dead. Who else would keep his right eye open, to look to boiling iron pot and hedge gates grown with rain-dark mint? To the fallow field Jack came and turned his heels around, so he looked down on Marjorie’s berth and saw her shovel gone from its perch. Moorish wind, albicant and cold, turned his coat tails over and he pulled his arms tight.

“Mistress Hart,” he called, his feet among the fireweed. “Marjorie.”

All was still and the lantern was unhung from Marjorie’s fence, but rather laid among the grass all broken glass and cooling wax. A blueish rain began that bent the stalks and leaves. Jack put hand above his hollyed hat and didn’t knock, but pushed inside to Marjorie’s berth to keep his body dry.

He breathed musk, Marjorie’s rafters swung with fox pelt and hare. Charcoal burned dark red and damp, unstirred. When he set wood onto the hearth, the stifled smell of gutted creatures grew. Under the grey light and the rushing sound of rain, he saw her upon the frosted ground among the uncured meat and anise seed. Marjorie Hart was, rightly, surely, gone. Already, from her chest red heather grew, rooted in the lung, and horehound in her heart. About her hips like pelvic bones nested barrow moths and bulbous flies on her skinless knees.

Jack took down his hat and it trembled at his breast. “No cock nor crow came to laud your departure in the night.”

He crouched before the dark fire and came apart; from himself he spilled like red seeds from a jar.

“Marjorie.” Jack wiped his cheeks. “I’ve not the heart to bring you to death’s gate. I’ve not the way through lilac field, having spent these last dozen years straining against blue death, my wish to pluck my left eye out. You need make your own way to the hoary road.”

The moths took up, like leaves and wind, and settled down, as if in augury. “If you’ll not take me,” she said, “I’ll not go.”

He started from her corpse. “How’s it you speak?”

The light took up her face, skull full exposed beneath her shriveled eye. “By trade and pay. By the sun-stamped coin you took when the night turned bleak.”

“Your name is writ on gallows wood.”

“And I will go. But take me on. I hear your chains that run from skin to bone, all along the hoary road.”

“I will take you if you would but set your foot onto those frosted chains that through the keyhole runs like sateen scarf through widow’s ring, and break them both in twain.”

“You would ask that now?”

He clasped his hands and his palms were chilled. “Please.”

She might have taken then his arms so he would feel how her hands trembled in fright, but what flesh remained was stiff and he did not reach for her. “You were given blight of boon. What fool deal did you make? Was it not enough to be bound once? Think you the second will break the first and not cut straight through your spine?”

“He found me on the road. I am blown as if into a ditch.”

“He cast it thus,” she said. “Jack, listen close. Listen here. Tom cannot break your bargain. So he would that I crack your chains across my knee. He knew you would ask it of me in return for leading me to the hoary road. Then Tom may take what he would in payment for orchestrating this plan. And you will be the worse if that is done.”

Jack beat his heels and turned away. “No other will come to your door, should I go.”

Marjorie’s voice rose. “It is because of you I stand among the fireweed, blind to the frozen gate, o’ergrown with grass and reed.”

Jack listened to the beating rain, his final chance for reprieve slipping away.

“And I must pay a crossing tax, like a hare that must skin itself for the hound, when I have done you favor of keeping you from turning both eyes to the hoary road and losing sight of green? I have propped you like a mother against my knee and this you will not do? Would you not even keen for me or sing lament, but rather rapine my rabbit bones and funeral pall, as I may no longer raise cry and hue for thief?”

Jack gripped his wrists and the skin was stiff and blood showed through above the knobby bone. “You will not help?” he said, all hushed.

The moths stepped across each other’s backs and made a confused path across her bones. They’d lost their way, it seemed, and walked, blinded, over their sisters’ wings.

Jack thought to touch her palm, gone wet and blue, but he startled from the morbid skin and could not look onto the bones appearing from her peeling shin. “I sink down into the graves,” he said, “and the dead lie upon me chest to chest and hands clasped, as lovers do. They would put their mouths atop of mine so that I am as of unwilling lover. I was not bound to grave but married, married and tied by ring and veil so that I must not just watch the flesh rot, bled from red to blue, but love and let it down my throat.

“I know that you speak to the dead, that you have held them hand to hand. You have taken sorrows from their mouths and bound them among the drying sheaves.”

Marjorie scoffed, as of flapping moth wings. “In recompense for a bargain I never should have made. So that I would not loath the dead as I once did.”

Jack dropped his head and put bloodied wrist to eye.

The mayflies buzzed harsh and fast, blue-bottle bodied with glassy wings. The red heather bent and swayed, as on a forgotten grave. “It is a terrible thing, to wander,” she said. “The hay’s gone gray, the sheaves undone. I walk on frosted grass and cannot see the trees.” The horehound, bittersweet and clung with musk, bent thick and sorrowful leaves. “Did you look on your mother when you found her dead?”

“As a death-bound son made prey. As a shackled child sent early to such a hard apprenticeship.”

“You did not look?”

He shook his wrists and felt his eyes grow wet. “My bargain is made.”

“Take me on,” Marjorie said, “so that sun-stamped coin can’t be drawn further along your hand. A flail that flays you to the bone.”

“Then go yourself. It is a well-trod road.”

The moths turned in circles.

“If you will not,” Jack dropped his hands, “I will take the knife from your drawer and part my wrists at your door.”

Rain dripped from the rafters.

“You are a selfish man.”

The rain blew open the door and wet the entranceway, so it sunk into grey and shallow pool. The mayflies walked down Marjorie’s legs and the bone showed through.

“Give me the widow’s ring. I will unbind you from the gate.”

“Marjorie.”

The moth’s silenced the humming of their wings.

“Marjorie.”

But she said no more.

The water spread across the floor, spattering his ankles. Jack put silver ring, black with age, into her palm. He laced her boots. The moths and mayflies bloomed to the rafters, leaving her bones bare. His tongue failed, twisted stump, dead root. There was more–a keen, a ribbon around her waist, the room swept clean–but he did none. He looked through his left eye and reached and opened death’s gate. The rain blew against his back and the moths flew out. When he saw her step onto the hoary road, the chains from death’s keyholes bowed around her ankles and drew up through her widow’s ring. They snapped and fell about his feet. The shock sent Jack’s wrists numb.

He heard then such a booming sound, so great, like howling beast, like yowl that sent foxes to their bellies with their tongue about their teeth. And when he took his last look, before death was struck from his blue eye, he saw the gates barred full closed and not, again, to open to the sound of his iron-heeled shoes. Locked, weaved as he unweaved.

Out the window he saw Tom Scratch, digging Marjorie Hart’s grave.

He walked into the rain and took the lantern from the grass, shaking from it the broken glass. Cried the jackdaw from its hedge and leapt the hare from juniper bush. The hare bound over yellowed field and into rimy sky, greying quick with rain. Tom set the shovel into the ground. In his hands he gathered from the graveside poppies and rain-rotted briar sheaves. Water dripped from his hat and he mocked sorrow with rimy eyes.

Jack felt the fool. “Scratch.”

Tom held forth the damp bouquet. “It looks she got away. On to noble death, a bargain paid.” He shrugged and his smile cracked Jack through. Tom chuckled, light, wheat beard against the wind. “What shall I play?”

“I could not say.”

So Tom played a ballad, Down Among the Fireweed, and laughed when they parted ways, red-bellied hound baying from the gallows wood.

***

They call him Jack-a-None, age to age, the story passed mouth to mouth along the fiddler’s bow. He wanders down the evening road with his lantern held full high. It bobs and drifts and always runs from coffins rested on shoulders in funeral parades. It is said when the night is hazy and the moon is shy, he calls out to a wild-witch, to cleave the deal she made with him. That she would hang him from a gallows and open up the trap. For he has lost the way to death, cannot find the gate o’ergrown or hoary road. He goes undying and alone. But she doesn’t come and the lantern turns, weeping in the dark, through rimy fields and grasses white with frost, fog clinging to his back.

A bit about the author:

Sarah McGill is an author of fantasy short stories, appearing on GigaNotoSaurus and Lyonesse, and rarely ventures past the turn of the century. After all, everything got less interesting after Pepper's Ghost and fugues in silver went out of fashion. She lives in New York City with a kaleidoscope of paper butterflies and a cat who is playing all the angles. Visit author page