Son of a WitchA Novel
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Gregory Maguire
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060548932
The House of Saint Glinda
So the talk of random brutality wasn't just talk. At noontime they discovered the bodies of three young women, out on some mission of conversion that appeared to have gone awry. The novice maunts had been strangled by their ropes of holy beads, and their faces removed.
Her nerve being shaken at last, Oatsie Manglehand now caved in to the demands of her paying customers. She told the team drivers they'd pause only long enough to dig some shallow graves while the horses slaked their thirst. Then the caravan would press on across the scrubby flats known, for the failed farmsteads abandoned here and there, as the Disappointments.
Moving by night, at least they wouldn't make a sitting target, though they might as easily wander into trouble as sidestep it. Still, Oatsie's party was antsy. Hunker down all night and wait for horse hoofs, spears? Too hard on everyone. Oatsie consoled herself: If the caravan kept moving, she could sit forward with her eyes peeled, out of range of the carping, the second-guessing, the worrying.
With the benefit of height, therefore, Oatsie spotted the gully before anyone else did. The cloudburst at sunset had fed a small trackside rivulet that flowed around a flank of skin, water-lacquered in the new moonlight. An island, she feared, of human flesh.
I ought to turn aside before the others notice, she thought; how much more can they take? There is nothing I can do for that human soul. The digging of another trench would require an hour, minimum. An additional few moments for prayers. The project would only further agitate these clients as they obsess about their own precious mortality.
Upon the knee of the horizon balanced the head of a jackal moon, so-called because, once every generation or so, a smear of celestial flotsam converged behind the crescent moon of early autumn. The impact was creepy, a look of a brow and a snout. As the moon rounded out over a period of weeks, the starveling would turn into a successful hunter, its cheeks bulging.
Always a fearsome sight, the jackal moon tonight spooked Oatsie Manglehand further. Don't stop for this next casualty. Get through the Disappointments, deliver these paying customers to the gates of the Emerald City.But she resisted giving in to superstition. Be scared of the real jackals, she reminded herself, not frets and nocturnal portents.
In any case, the light of the constellation alleviated some of the color blindness that sets in at night. The body was pale, almost luminous. Oatsie might divert the Grasstrail Train and give the corpse a wide berth before anyone else noticed it, but the slope of the person's shoulders, the unnatural twist of legs — the jackal moon made her read the figure too well, as too clearly human, for her to be able to turn aside.
"Nubb," she barked to her second, "rein in. We'll pull into flank formation up that rise. There's another fatality, there in the runoff."
Cries of alarm as the news passed back, and another mutter of mutiny: Why should they stop? — were they to bear witness to every fresh atrocity? Oatsie didn't listen. She yanked the reins of her team of horses, to halt them, and she lowered herself gingerly. She stumped, her hand on her sore hip, until she stood a few feet over the body.
Face down and genitals hidden, he appeared to have been a young man. A few scraps of fabric were still knotted about his waist, and a boot some yards distant, but he was otherwise naked, and no sign of his clothes.
Curious: no evidence of the assassins. Neither had there been about the bodies of the maunts, but that was on rockier ground, in a drier hour. Oatsie couldn't see any sign of scuffle here, and in the mud of the gulch one might have expected . . . something. The body wasn't bloody, nor decayed yet; the murder was recent. Perhaps this evening, perhaps only an hour ago.
"Nubb, let's heave him up and see if they've taken his face," she said.
"No blood," said Nubb.
"Blood may have run off in that cloudburst. Steel yourself, now."
They got on either side of the body and bit their lips. She looked at Nubb, meaning: It's only the next thing, it's not the last thing. Let's get through this, fellow.
She jerked her head in the direction of the hoist. One, two, heave.
They got him up. His head had fallen into a natural scoop in the stone, a few inches higher than where the rain had pooled. His face was intact, more or less; that is to say, it was still there, though shattered.
"How did he get here?" said Nubb. "And why didn't they scrape him?"
Oatsie just shook her head. She settled on her haunches. Her travelers had come forward and were congregating on the rise behind her; she could hear them rustling. She suspected that they had gathered stones, and were ready to kill her if she insisted on a burial.
The jackal moon rose a few notches higher, as if trying to see into the gulley. The prurience of the heavens!
"We're not going to dig another grave." That from her noisiest client, a wealthy trader from the northern Vinkus. "Not his, Oatsie Manglehand, and not yours, either. We're not doing it. We leave him unburied and alone, or we leave him unburied with your corpse for company."
"We don't need to do either," said Oatsie. She sighed. "Poor, poor soul, whoever he is. He needs no grave. He isn't dead yet."
In time, when the travelers had rejoined their cronies and relatives in the Emerald City — in salons, in public houses, in taverns of exchange — they heard more chatter about the hostilities they had managed to sidestep. Rumor flourished. Forty, sixty, a hundred deaths resulting from the skirmishes between the Scrow and the Yunamata. Barbarians, the lot of them:They deserved to kill off each other. But not us.