Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   w a y n e   u d e   ~   w h i d b e y   i s l a n d ,    w a s h i n g t o n

THOMAS LONGBULL has been in town for a week now, drinking, even though Blunt can't get at him any longer. There are some who don't believe it will end even yet; the story's already spreading that Longbull has had a second shadow ever since he found Blunt's body. That's hard to judge, since Longbull stays in the bar's dark corner, sleeps on the floor when the place closes -- what bartender would dare throw a witch out at closing, or deny him the floor for sleep?

Of course, Longbull brought it all on himself. For forty years he'd been claiming to be a witch, all that time using the threat of his witchcraft to get people to do things for him. I've seen him at it, dozens of times, maybe hundreds; everyone has. Usually he'd choose a clinic day here at the hospital, when people were waiting to see the doctors and he could be fairly sure of finding the person he wanted to do business with. He'd walk up and ask the loan of something -- a tool, maybe, or a horse, or a pickup, or a crew to do some work around his ranch. He never asked for more than a loan: claimed his powers wouldn't let him keep things. While he asked for whatever it was, he'd stare at you as though he were looking for paths into your body.

That's how witch power works: he'd find a path into your body, and then go home and take a tiny bit of feather, or a splinter of wood no bigger than a fingernail clipping -- one of your fingernail clippings if he could get it, or a hair off your head -- and he'd talk to it a while, then blow on it. It would disappear, and you -- the person who'd refused him -- you'd feel a sharp pain along that path he'd seen into your body. No matter how far away you were, you'd feel it. The pain would settle in at the end of the path, and would come and go from then on. People who thought he'd witched them said you could tell he'd blown in something small and sharp like a splinter or a hair.

But a witch like Longbull was supposed to be doesn't just threaten and hurt; he can do a nice business in love potions, in charms to protect babies from scars and birthmarks, in divining for lost property -- that sort of thing. Personally, I think it's all a hoax. A young fellow gets a love potion, and starts acting like there's some reason a girt should be interested in him, instead of acting like some young stud horse just in from the mountains who's never seen a mare before. Since the girl isn't used to seeing a young fellow act sensible, she can't help thinking he's something special -- and she's right. Pretty soon she's chasing him, just a little, the way he's chasing her, and he's thinking that love potion worked pretty good.

No, I think this witch stuff is mostly just a lot of suggestion and fear -- though I must admit I didn't have this ulcer until I'd said no to Longbuit once myself. I'm the Sanitarian here for the Public Health Service -- my office is just off the corridor leading to the Clinic -- and that means I not only do inspections and things like that, but I'm also in charge of the crew that digs cesspools and puts in cisterns for Federal and Tribal buildings.

What Longbull wanted to borrow from me was a crew and about twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment to dredge out the cesspool on his place, so he wouldn't have to hire it done. He came up to me right in the middle of Clinic one day, didn't even ask me in the privacy of my own office, but out in the hall where there were a good dozen people to hear us. He asked, and then stood there, looking at my belly. There's a good deal of belly to look at, hanging over my belt the way it does -- I watch my weight, but like the fella says, I like to have it right out in front where I can keep an eye on it.

Anyway, Longbull was standing there, staring into me, and I could see why he scared people when he did that. If I'd been superstitious, I'd have said I could feel his gaze slipping up the lanes into my guts. But it didn't make any difference to me; I told him no, and the people around us kind of didn't say anything, and neither did he, so I just walked away. This ulcer's from too much coffee and too many cigarettes, maybe a little extra booze as well, and I don't care where my wife thinks I got it. It calms down when I leave those things alone, and that's good enough for me, only I don't leave them alone often enough.

Back before he'd gotten mixed up with Blunt, Longbull's borrowing had that run-down old place of his fixed up the way he'd wanted it, and he'd decided to go into cattle. He went around and borrowed a cow from each of his neighbors, and then went out and borrowed a bull. After a while the cows had calved, and he returned them and the bull to their owners. That left him with about twenty calves, mostly heifers. He borrowed a castrator and a crew to work it, turned all but one of his young bulls into steers, and sold them to a feed lot. A few years later he was breeding his heifers to his bull and getting along fine; then he got ambitious to improve his herd.

Old Blunt had about the best bull on the Reservation, so one day during Clinic, Longbull came up and asked to borrow that bull. Old Blunt just laughed and told him to go peddle love potions, and Thomas Longbull stood there staring into Blunt's belly until Blunt actually pushed him away.

Well, Blunt started having stomach pains -- most of us learned that only later -- though it was maybe as much as a year before he got the cancer diagnosed: a big, ugly sonofabitch tumor that had already spread its poison all through his guts.

None of us knew about that tumor the day Blunt came out of the doctor's office looking madder than hell; we figured the doctor had told him something he didn't want to hear, maybe that he was sixty and it was natural his body would slow down a little bit.

Blunt came stomping out of the doctor's office, and then he stopped and looked around until he saw Longbull, who'd been sitting in the waiting room, not even bothering to borrow anything from anyone. Blunt came over, his shoulders hunched and his face red, looking like he was going to punch Longbull first and talk to him later. The rest of us were kind of hoping he would, and kind of hoping he wouldn't. But before he got there, Longbull stood up and asked, like it was what he'd been waiting for all morning, "You about ready to loan me that bull?"

Now I don't think Longbull had any idea what was going on. He'd probably been waiting for someone who hadn't shown up, saw Blunt coming out of the doctor's office and thought he'd take credit for whatever bad news Blunt had gotten. He must have figured to make himself a little more fearsome; any damn fool would have known Blunt wasn't going to loan him that bull. And if he'd stopped to think, Longbull'd have realized that if Blunt did loan him the bull, he'd have to come through with a cure. Even a real witch -- if there is such a thing -- is too cautious to promise a cure before he knows what's wrong. And nobody messes with cancer.

Well, when Blunt heard that question he just stopped -- stopped cold, you might say. His face came back to its natural color, and then it went pale and he straightened up and the tension went right out of him. Instead of saying anything, he just stared at Longbull for a long while, like he was looking to see where Longbull could be hurt the most. Then he turned away and walked out, just like that, without saying anything.

Nobody said anything -- witches' business isn't something people like to talk about. Pretty soon Longbull left, too, got into his pickup -- he owned one, by then -- and drove home. I don't think he had any idea what he'd gotten himself into, even later when word went around that it was cancer Blunt was so angry about. Longbull was probably just thankful that Blunt hadn't offered to trade the bull for a cure.

But Longbull should have been expecting trouble. Blunt had a good deal of money, and he had already settled his kids on places of their own, so there was no reason not to spend a little of that money getting even. And to tell the truth, a lot of us wanted to see someone put the squeeze on Longbull, just once.

Blunt's first move surprised everyone: he bought the ranch next to that place Longbull had been so long fixing up, and he flew in a high-priced lawyer. Most of us figured he planned to start suing over things like boundaries and water rights, but a few thought he'd burn Longbull out, with the lawyer on hand to keep him out of jail long enough to die at home. Some said Blunt planned to settle a witch on the new ranch, with the lawyer here to draw up a deed conditional on the witch keeping after Longbull for the rest of Longbull's life.

Apparently Longbull expected the witch; people began to see him up in the hills, gathering herbs they figured he planned to use in the fight, and he even began to get strange-smelling packages at the post office, most of them mailed from Arizona and southern California. Then the lawyer started digging around in old records, and we figured it was going to be boundaries and water rights, after all. We were sure of it when Blunt himself moved onto the new ranch. Personally, I was disappointed he hadn't brought in a witch, since it probably would have scared Longbull to death to have the real thing living next door; but Blunt knew what he was doing better than any of us could have understood.

It didn't seem that way at first, though. Blunt had set out to haunt Longbull -- to really haunt him, the way a ghost would; he said he figured he was no better than a ghost now anyway. Blunt would come slipping through the brush just at dark, hooting like an owl well enough so Longbull couldn't be sure it wasn't real, and then he'd rattle the door and windows of Longbull's cabin and disappear into the brush before Longbull could catch him. Or he'd climb on the roof and whistle down the chimney; sometimes he'd piss down the chimney instead, putting out the fire and causing the devil's own stench. Other times he'd turn Longbull's irrigation into fields Longbull didn't want irrigated, or he'd let all the stock out, maybe break down a section of fence so Longbull would have some work to do before he could keep stock in that field again. Once he put the well bucket on the barn's ridgepole, then chopped up the ladder so Longbull had to borrow one somewhere to get his well bucket down. And whenever Longbull would leave the place, Blunt would break into the cabin and make a mess out of it -- everything taken out of its proper place and thrown on the floor, pillows slashed and their feathers scattered, eventually even the windows broken and the door wrenched off its hinges.

After Blunt had done all the things he'd ever heard of a ghost doing he made up a few of his own, like taking Longbull's machinery apart, motor and all, and scattering the pieces over the yard. It got to where Longbull couldn't leave the place, and couldn't sleep nights for worrying about what Blunt might be doing out there in the dark.

We all thought Blunt would give it up after a while, but he didn't. The pain was getting bad, I guess, and must have been a pretty constant reminder of why he was doing all this. Longbull tried the police, of course, but by the time they got a squad car up to his cabin, Blunt had faded into the brush so they could never catch him doing anything. You can hear a car coming for a long time up that canyon.

After the second time Longbull called the police, Blunt's fancy lawyer let him know there was some question about the water rights and even the title to his ranch, and if Longbull didn't want to be tied up in court for the next ten years he'd better leave the police out of it. That lawyer also let the Tribe know he was primed and ready to throw subpoenas and lawsuits every which way on charges of harassment, false arrest, interference with Blunt's civil rights, and every other damn thing. He wouldn't have won any of these cases, though he'd have kept the Tribe tied up in court for several thousand dollars worth if they tried to stop Blunt.

Longbull was still one of us, but he wasn't popular enough around the Reservation for the Tribe to put up for his sake with a lawyer threatened, and even if Longbull had called the police a third time they wouldn't have answered. A charge of malicious haunting against Blunt probably wouldn't have stood up in court anyway, even without a high-priced lawyer defending him.

By then we'd all heard that Blunt was practicing up for when he became a real ghost, wouldn't be limited by his body any longer, and could get down to serious haunting. Not right away, of course; it would take a while to find out just what he could and couldn't do as a ghost, and he thought he'd hold off until he'd found out how to go after Longbull's witchery. That was what he really wanted, because it was what Longbull had used to kill him, to make him a ghost in the first place, even though he wasn't dead yet.

Word was out: people began to use up or put away the potions and charms and things they'd bought from Longbull, and not many were coming around to order anything new. The whole thing was sounding a little strange to me, since Blunt had never been one to believe in witches and ghosts and all that sort of thing; that's why he'd refused to lend the bull to start with. I figured the shock and then the pain had driven him maybe a little crazy, or maybe he had to have someone to blame for his death. Anyway, I kept listening to the gossip about what was going on out there.

It might seem that a real witch could have done something to stop Blunt, but that's not how witchery works. If a witch kills at all, it's got to be something long, slow, and painful, like what was happening to Blunt. If Longbull had already killed Blunt that way, there just wasn't anything more he could do except maybe attack Blunt's family, and even that wouldn't have stopped Blunt toward the end.

The cancer got worse, of course; it had long since broken through Blunt's stomach lining to stick out from his left side. Blunt was in pain all the time. He couldn't sleep, couldn't even talk coherently, but just raged through the brush day and night, cursing Longbull at the top of his voice, and scaring the livestock so Longbull's hens quit laying, his cows quit giving milk, and one that was carrying a calf aborted. No one would come near the place for any reason, for fear of meeting Blunt on the road, white with the pain and gibbering and moaning like a real ghost already. He didn't even move like a human that last month, but kind of scrabbled sideways, doubled up against the pain in his side, his left arm bent across his stomach, his right arm acting like a third leg to help him along. He slept, if at all, wherever he happened to be when exhaustion overcame pain for a while.

All around the Reservation, those spells people did buy from Longbull were going wrong. It wasn't that they didn't work, but that they worked too well. People began to say that the last divinings Longbull did before Blunt scared his few customers away not only found what he'd been after, but also turned up things his customers would have preferred to keep hidden; then a baby whose mother had gotten a protective charm from him was born without birthmarks, all right, but missing a couple of fingers as well; and two boys who'd used his love charms found themselves having to get married. Every spell Longbull cast went like that, as though something had upset the balance; and Blunt wasn't even dead yet, though that wasn't far off, as things turned out.

One of a sanitarium's duties here is to look after any dead bodies left lying around the Reservation, so it was natural Longbull would come to me when he found Blunt. He didn't call, but came into my office in person; I was struck by how bad he looked -- pale, tired, downright gaunt. And his voice was raspy when he told me he'd gotten up that morning to peace and quiet for the first time in weeks, and after a while he'd realized that something must have happened to Blunt. At first he didn't want to go looking, but about noon decided he'd better. He'd found the body lying across a path Blunt had worn between their two houses, just on Blunt's side of the property line. He said it looked like Blunt had been crawling at the last.

I'd have thought Longbull would have looked at least a little relieved to finally have it over with, but he didn't; he just looked like a man who'd finally seen something he'd been watching for too long.

Longbull took me back to Blunt's place. We were standing over the body when I noticed for the first time that faint second shadow, the one I still think was caused by the sun's reflection off that chalk butte out there. I didn't think much of it at all until Longbull suddenly looked down and kind of jumped. About then an owl hooted off in the trees, which was a funny sort of thing to happen in the middle of an afternoon, and Longbull took off like something was chasing him.

It wasn't until later I learned he'd gone to that bar in town. And he did go directly from Blunt's into town; the people who say he stayed around the ranch for a while, and found out that Blunt really was still haunting him, are just plain wrong. I was there, and Longbull didn't wait to find out.

I'd called Blunt's kids before I left my office -- I shouldn't call them kids; the youngest is thirty, and all four have families of their own now -- and waited for them to show up before I did more than arrange the body so it didn't look too bad. Blunt's lawyer came along, too, with Blunt's burial instructions. Nothing about them was legal, but the kids didn't object -- they didn't say anything the whole time, as a matter of fact -- and I decided to go along with the lawyer.

We buried Blunt about where he'd fallen, in a coffin he'd kept on the porch roof where Longbull would see it from his own front steps every time he looked that way. We buried Blunt with no services, no embalming, nothing that might allow Longbull to hope Blunt's spirit might be at peace in the afterworld, wherever that might turn out to be; all that was in the instructions, too.

Then we all settled back to see what would happen next, and we're still settled. Longbull spent the week in that dim barroom, with people whispering and trying to see the shadows in the corner behind him. Sometime, they say, he's going to have to come back out into daylight. I think it no longer matters how many shadows he has; Longbull will take care of the haunting all by himself. All by himself: that's probably what he wishes he could be, but it's something Thomas Longbull will never be again.

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