Boils sprout along my arms during the night. I try to pop them over the fire in the darkness; long strands of pus dangle from my skin before they hiss down into the flames. My arm hair sheds itself over the fire. Heath and Mitchell remain asleep within our salt circle. For now, we are protected. I pop another blister and let the fluid course down my arm until it drips from the knot of my elbow into the heat. The forest around us is filled with oaks and older things. America—this is a new world slowly polluted by weaker faiths.
Cold embraces me as I lie down to sleep again. In my dreams, all I find are children with wet voices asking me why they couldn’t swim.
We filled your pockets with rocks, I tell them. We dropped you off the docks and waited until no bubbles broke the surface. We waited until the water was still.
You did not have a chance.
They ask me why we left them there to drown. They ask me what we wanted from their mothers. They ask for fathers who we locked up in churches and siblings we dragged behind our horses until they all confessed. Each village was the same. The wet children ask me why.
I tell them it’s a silly question before they drag me under once again.
“Dennis, do you want to eat?”
The sky above us is purple. Heath is shaking me with his scaly hands. Each of us has been afflicted in one way or another. Mitchell hides a tiny tail beneath his cloak. He won’t let us cut it off, afraid it will only grow back twice as large. Breakfast is usually just hard biscuits and salted pork. Each meal preserves our insides a little longer. After many mornings like this, I now carry rocks around inside me. We live off salts and preserves. I am being embalmed alive.
“No, I think I’m still trying to undo last night’s supper.”
Mitchell straps a pack onto his back. His pistol is tucked into a holster on his leg. The salt around us glows violet in this new light. He kicks at the circle.
Heath swallows a biscuit whole and spits a raisin out into the dying fire. We leave the coals to burn; our spoiled circle remains behind as a warning. We bring the fury of this new inquisition with us. We wear the broken crosses around our necks and rub salt into our fresh wounds. We lap up our mistakes.
My hands are wrapped in rags to hide the ravaged holes. Our craft is not one of half-measures. We are raised to remove the weed and all its roots. Every plant has its defense mechanisms—poisoned leaves and hidden thorns. These are the risks we take under the banner of the broken cross, of the hanged man’s tree.
We believe in the resurrection and the harrowing. We bring it to bear across new and old lands alike. We spare only the soil—only the dirt.
The first village was under the sway of a woman they called Altera Henderson, according to those who fled before her brief reign began. Their church was tilted and sinking into the wet ground when we arrived. No one emerged to greet the three of us. The town square and its pillories were empty. Only pigs and dogs lingered around its dirt roads. You can trust a pig. As we approached the well our horses whined and tried to pull away. The water down below shimmered with some unnatural tint. It blinked at us and we stared back down. We expected it to rise, but there was no response from below.
“All of it’s polluted with her craft,” Heath said. He wore gloves over his scaled hands. The gray scales came from some catacomb in Italy, some hidden hole beneath a church that had been corrupted. After three days of exorcism, Heath had emerged from below with one partially blinded eye and those dry, dry hands. They whisper whenever he rubs them together. He was selected by the older priests to bring about this new wave of reckoning. We followed his words.
“All of it must go.”
House by house, we broke down doors. We found them in cellars and under beds. We found them in sheds and in piles of hay. Some chanted curses under their breath, the words half-formed and benign. Novices and failures. Their faces were pale and their flesh sagged from the bones. We bound their hands—small children, fathers, siblings, grandparents. All of them were polluted, according to Heath. She had poisoned the well against them; she had spread her tainted water through their bodies and into their stomachs. They were all bile and piss now. None could be saved. This was a new and deep infection. The wound must be rinsed, Heath claimed. He had us herd the children toward the lake. A few small fishing boats bobbed on its ebbing tide. We dropped them off the dock one by one and waited. There was no resistance. A few hurled malformed words in our direction. We were protected by the broken crosses around our necks.
Heath found Altera sequestered in the swaybacked church. He did not bother drawing her out. He told us of her suckling a youngster at her breast, of the seeds she had planted in this town. The child’s mouth was a sieve. It was a wound. Heath spread his salt around the church and herded the men inside. There were only twelve. The women would burn individually. We would listen to their skulls pop and their fat sputter in the dark later that night. We would not eat.
I never saw Althea Henderson. No child from the docks recognized her name as we questioned them. Even so, Mitchell claimed she cursed him from inside the flames when he peered through the broken stained glass window—an angel bent at right angles. All the men were bent in supplication, according to his eyes. All were huddled in their pews and moaning as the flames rose around them all. Their faces were running wax. Altera caught Mitchell’s eye and spat some fluid through the air. He said it turned to steam as the fire rose inside the church, but flecks still reached his cheek. They burned their way deep down inside his open pores.
Mitchell still blames her for his tail.
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