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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-six PROMISED LAND



he dark man was right, Wyldewood was a beautiful town filled with the best looking people Steve had ever seen. He always thought the mountains were littered with isolated pockets of half-wits and banjo-twanging inbreds like in “Deliverance,” but this place was different. The people here were hip to what was possible. You could touch the sky and call down the Gods in a place like this. Learn to carve your own dinnerware. Grow your own food. Be naked outside like in Eden. You could learn to live on your own terms without any bullshit from The Machine.

It was heaven-on-earth for a guy like Steve. Not that he was a sad or mopey or a square. Lots of people had families like his: Dads who only had time for random discipline and jobs that kept them away from home most of the time; a dead mom and absent relatives and no birthdays. Steve learned the guitar, wrote bitter lyrics and at twenty-one, finally saved up enough money to get the hell out of Reno. He made a beeline for LA to take a shot at the big leagues. He played a string of clubs and met a lot of smiling assholes in scarves who promised him record contracts. Nope. Three bad years on Sunset Blvd.

But he didn’t need to “work through things” like Bethany kept saying.

“I think you’re really hurting,” she said as she clutched a small purse. He remembered looking at her in the blinding morning sun of his dirty apartment. Bethany, with her tidy manners and secretary school diploma. Bethany, with her church Sundays and once-a-week sex allowance. He thought dating a “nice girl” was the right thing to do.

“You wanna be a man or just a bum?” his father used to say before punching him. Steve’s answer was Bethany, for a while.

But one drunken night, after playing the final slot in a half-empty club that smelled like puke, he met a strange looking dude with a flowery shirt. Another record producer?

“Levi Dee, is what they call me. But I’m nobody, man. A wanderer.” He never took his sunglasses off. “I just came from the top of the world, brother,” he said between longs sips of whiskey. The multi-colored stage lights shined on his long, black hair. “Butterflies in the spring, stars at night. The most beautiful souls on this planet live there. It’s a place you can breathe easy,” he smiled as he lit a cigarette. “Wyldewood,” he whispered.

Steve hadn’t heard of it.

“Almost nobody has, my friend. The info gets to those who need to know,” he nodded.

Two days later, Steve put his shitty furniture on the curb, mailed Bethany a postcard goodbye, got into his beat-up Jeep and blew out of L.A. with a cagey series of directions and a blotchy map Levi had hand-drawn on a damp, paper napkin. After taking the freeways that led him into the San Jacinto mountains things got cryptic. Left at the rock that’s split in the middle — left at the cedar struck by lighting. Look for the old grave. Left just after that. You’ll get there.

All the roads were actually paved, but they were in terrible shape, and the jeep rocked and bounced and groaned until he arrived. But when Wyldewood burst into view, it also burst Steve’s heart. Even in late winter, the light was warm and sweet. The air was scented with cedar and pine. The smiling residents were dressed in variations of hippy comfort as they walked with off-leash dogs. They were helpful and welcoming, too. Steve quickly found a cheap cabin and got a job bartending at The Big Hush where he met the free thinkers that made up the population of the sky-high hamlet.

“Lucky Lager, please” said a scruffy, dark haired lunk in the corner.

Steve cracked a cold one for him. “You don’t want a glass, right?”

“I do, actually.”

Steve raised a brow. “Want me to pour it too?”

“If you’d be so kind.”

Steve didn’t expect the gorilla to be so tactful. A fullback with a degree or something.

“You visiting?” Steve asked as he emptied the can.

“Nope. Been here a long time,” he smiled, recalling his journey...the growth, the changes- losing his accent. “I was here well before Carly and Jasper and Glory Rise or whatever that guy is calling himself now,” he said as he glanced at the pool table, where there was a match of ladies vs. gents. Steve knew all of them. Caftans and loose army jackets and patchouli and easy smiles. Neighbors. This guy though- the one who needed a glass for his beer- was new to him.

“Hey George,” said a curly haired pool player. He brushed a stray lock out of his eyes and put his arm around a really pretty girl who looked too young to be in a bar. She was just having a Pepsi though. Steve had made sure of that.

“Yeah, hey,” said the girl, who smiled.

George gave a little salute and turned away. “The kid call’s herself Butterfly,” George muttered. “The times are still a-changing, I think. But some stuff always stays the same, man.”

“What’s that mean?” Steve asked as he chucked the can into the trash.

“Everyone wants to become something better.”

Steve got called to the other side of the bar. The new group wanting Jack and Coke’s and did he have any Chardonnay? Sorry, babe. Fine, then beer. Then there was small talk and intros, and he got invited to a little bonfire next weekend where there’d be some Mary Jane and would he play guitar for them? Steve had only been in town for a few months, so he got invited to lots of stuff. And the women liked his golden hair, straight down to his shoulders. That was the ticket to pussy town. He took better care of it than his last dog.

Low murmurs and “You’re No Good” playing on the jukebox. Everything was cool. The old wood shack was glowing under the weak light of beat-up sconces and a neon Coors sign. The locals were trickling in the drinks were flowing. Another groovy night in paradise.

Steve glanced down the bar and was surprised to see that chatty George had left. His empty glass was still coated with a thin layer of beer foam that clung to the bottom. He had left a five-dollar tip though. Nice, Steve smiled. He picked up the cash- it was soft- like it had been in and out of pockets for a long time but also strangely cool. It tickled his fingers. He looked at the date on it: 1954. Twenty years in circulation was a long time for paper- probably good luck. Steve dropped it into the tip bucket he kept under the counter, failing to notice a little drawing on the reverse side- a curious circle, bound by numbers and letters and filled with a mix of squiggles, black as pitch.


It had gotten foggy and conversation had run dry. Steve had sidled down the hill to the Golden Dawn Cafe because he had made good money the night before. George wasn’t the only one who left some decent cash for him. He drank too much coffee while chatting up the redhead who served him eggs and extra bacon. Steve let the good Karma flow and tipped her a fiver, the very one he got the night before. “You deserve it, darling.”

“It’s Zyra.”

“Right, yeah. Zyra the writer.”

She smiled and walked away. Shy, he guessed. She was more than happy to chirp on about her poetry but man, beyond that she was boring. The girl didn’t seem to know anything about flirting. Steve needed an introvert like a hole in the head. Bethany had been an introvert. She liked to knit ponchos and went to a book club and had a dream of running a cat shelter. Yawn.

Steve took his last coffee in a to-go cup and headed outside. The world had gone silent.

A dense fog had descended and the mountain was a ghost. Giant pines loomed along the side of the steep road that led further into the higher elevations. Their branches poked through the thick air like hands. The lights of the café had faded almost immediately. He looked back for a moment, thinking he should maybe sit his ass back down but he knew that would make him look like a wimp.

Anyway, he was a man of the woods now, a guy who didn’t need city bullshit or block-head values because it was all about being authentic. He squared his shoulders and set off with a puffed up chest, and that’s when he tripped. Steve howled. His ankle was throbbing. A massive root had reared its way through the earth before plunging back beneath the pavement, continuing its run to who knows where. The trees were old and thirsty.

He cursed as he pulled himself upright and gave the Styrofoam coffee cup a kick- which nearly sent him to the ground again. More cursing. He limped forward, wondering how he was going to make it down the road and onto the uneven path that led to his one-room home. What was initially ruggedly charming now seemed like a perilous and uncertain journey. Steve drew his lips together and breathed through his nose like an angry horse. Bethany said he pouted when he didn’t get his way. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be so stingy with making me happy,” he had told her.

He thought about how he should have ditched Bethany sooner as he gingerly made his way along the empty street. It was a little after 12:30 in the afternoon, but you wouldn’t have known it. The center of town was just a quarter a mile further down the road, and Steve’s place was in between there and the café, but no one would budge from wherever they were in this weather. Steve was on his own.

The sudden sound of jangling dissonant bells came as a surprise. In the fog, their unwieldy clang seemed to come from all directions. At one moment they were full and clear and seemed nearby, and at another, it sounded as if they had drifted into the woods and were singing amongst the trees.

“Hey!” Steve yelled. “Hey- I need help!”

The bells continued their dizzying course unabated.

“God damn it,” he spat. Silence.

Steve blinked and held his breath. The mist had crept down the back of his neck and left a cold, damp layer in its wake. Breath of the devil, his grandmother had once said while he visited her in a dumpy nursing home. She was batshit crazy.

Then, a voice from someone unseen. It was deep and weathered and certain, like old leather. Like a moss-covered monument. Like the woods. “What’s wrong, Steve?”

“What? I’m… I fell. Who is that?”

The afternoon was birdless. The world was swallowed in gray.

“I think I’m the one who’s going to rescue you.”


The wolves came first. One black and the other a mottled, dusky color. “Lefty and Righty are just mutts,” George said as they hobbled down a trail Steve had never noticed before. It wound into the forest where the trees were bigger and older and ran with thick, fragrant sap.

“I didn’t know anyone lived back here,” Steve huffed as he kept an eye on the dogs. They were fitted with bells, and they trotted alongside their master with tongues out and shiny teeth on view.

Through the big old tree trunks, there came a fretful glow- small and yellow like the eyes of George’s big dogs. (Wolves. Fuck this guy.) A fine, stone cottage appeared in a tidy clearing, with a peaked roof and a spray of mullioned windows across the front. A flicker of candlelight winked from within the dark interior. It was a relatively small house, but it was a hell of a lot more polished than anything else Steve had seen in Wyldewood.

“We built it,” George said offhandedly. “My wife, Annalise and me. We did have some great help though.”

“Yeah. Real cool,” Steve muttered, feigning nonchalance.

As they approached, the dogs charged ahead and nudged the open the red, front door. “This area on the left is my shop,” George said as he and Steve plodded in. There were books everywhere: on the floor, on rich, walnut tables with iron trestles, on the leather, wing-back chairs that sat in front of a handsome desk covered in papers. Most of the books, however, filled floor-to-ceiling shelves that took up three of the four walls. The bindings ranged from flawless to nearly savaged. Most of them were foreign, emblazoned with writing that was totally alien to Steve. The air was thick with incense.

“It’s a mail order business,” George said. “Mostly.”

“Neat,” Steve mumbled as he glanced around. Across from them was a seating area with a large, carved stone fireplace. It looked well used. A chunky bundle of extra logs was stacked nearby, at the ready. A few heavily carved, occasional tables glimmered in the light of candle sconces that twinkled in the gloaming.

Lefty and Righty slurped water somewhere further into the home, where the weak daylight faded into complete shadow.

“Sit here,“ George said as he cleared off one of the leather chairs. “Put your foot up on these books.”

Steve hesitated. The topmost cover, embossed with gilded symbols, looked expensive. George saw him pause. “It’s fine. I read it already.”

“What about your customers? Won’t they want a clean one?”

George waived his concerns away. “They’d be grateful just to get their hands on it at all.” He pulled up a stool and had a look at Steve’s ankle. His hands were big and fast and deft.

“You a doctor too?” Steve heckled.

“Me and Annalise used to hang out with an acupuncturist who lived up here for a while. He knew all about the body. Energy too. That was the key to everything.”

“Oh. Far out.”

Lefty and Righty padded back into the room and quietly took up a place on both sides of George. All three of them looked at Steve.

“It’s a sprain. Bad one, though. It’s going to swell for a seven to ten days and be painful.”

Steve swallowed. He felt like he was on display. “They always do that?”

“You mean follow me around? Don’t all dogs do that?”

Steve looked at them again. Twins with different coats. They even blinked at the same time.

“Ice will be your new best friend. And Tylenol. But I can do a little work on you too. It’s…esoteric but it won’t hurt.”

George had a way of saying things that made declining him seem impossible, or at least unwise. His cheeks were wind burned, and he had a jaw that was set hard and fast into the base of his skull. His smile was the worst part. George had the whitest teeth Steve had ever seen.

“You can say no.”

Steve said yes.

Moments later, they were listening to an eight-track of “Dark Side of the Moon” as George ran a bronze disk over his ankle for a few moments. It was an old looking thing, carved with circles and dots and incomprehensible diagrams. It seemed to pull at Steve like a magnet.

“Weird, man,” he said. “What is that?”

“It’s just something cold to help the swelling.”

“Feels strange though.”

“Relax- all done with that part.” George put the disk in his pocket and then held Steve’s throbbing ankle in his hands with his eyes closed. Lefty and Righty had closed their eyes too. Steve felt like the only one there, which wasn’t so bad. When the song “Time” began, with it’s ringing and buzzing, Steve thought he might jump up and declare the whole thing over, but that’s when the heat came.

It was a pulse of warmth that moved through his ankle like a hot whisper. It was thick and alive and strong. And then, George opened his eyes. They were as yellow as his dogs and Steve fainted.


In the woods, people tend not to come running when they hear a scream. It could mean so many things, including an animal in pain and there’s very little to be done about that unless you have a gun and some real sympathy. Also, a person might get himself killed bumbling around in the flora and fauna with things that are made to live there full-time. Teeth, claws, thick skin. Bad news.

But someone did come for Steve, and he was grateful. Basically. Still, when he awoke in his own modest little cabin later that same day, he found that hours had passed. It was evening now. A fire had been lit in his wood stove, and the first thing he saw when he woke up was a flash of yellow- the color of George’s eyes, and his wolf-dogs. It was too much and Steve began to panic.

“George has this effect on people sometimes,” said a woman who pulled a kettle off the stove. “You’re not the first. I helped him bring you home.”

Steve panted and swiveled his head around. “Who the hell are you?” The fire crackled and hissed.

“I’m Annalise.” The air filled with a spicy, musky aroma as she finished pouring hot water over a muslin bag of herbs. “I’ll leave shortly; I was just making sure you’re alright. George and I carried you here ourselves.” She was a soft presence, with long, brown hair and a slightly amused expression. Mona Lisa- if she had lived to see the 20th century.

“So, you two broke in here while I was unconscious?”

Annalise came toward him with the tea. “We assumed you’d be more comfortable in your own bed. I was actually surprised the door was locked. Most people around here don’t do that. Drink this. It has cardamom in it. Good for circulation.”


She nodded impassively and placed the mug on a wobbly, Formica kitchen table. The light from the dull, overhead light caught the side of her face and Steve noticed she had no wrinkles.

“Why haven’t I seen you before? I never even met George until last night.”

Annalise remained in profile. She rested her lean fingers on the back of one of the mismatched chairs that huddled around the table. “We’ve just tried to help you, Steve. It may seem odd, but here in the mountains, things run a little differently. Wasn’t that the reason you came here in the first place?” She turned to him, and her face moved into shadow. “Didn’t you want something more than what you had?”

Steve frowned.

“Or,” Annalise continued, “did you come here just to boost your ego and fuck all the pretty, hippy girls before heading back to Los Angeles in a year or two feeling proud of yourself?”

He stared at her.

“I think you’re meant for something much more than that.”


Steve drank half of the rich, flavorful tea and fell into a heavy, dream-ridden sleep. He felt like he was floating and bobbing along on the undulating waves of a warm ocean current. It was peaceful until he realized it wasn’t water beneath him; it was hands. He was being held aloft, moving at a steady pace toward a light that wasn’t a light. How does black become visible? It could be seen but not understood. Discerned but not known. Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to go. But there was a pulse that came from the distance, from the lit-up darkness. It was more of a possibility than a reality- but what an insistent possibility it was — humming and throbbing, calling yet quiet. The hands passed him toward it. Toward the-


The pretty redhead who worked at the café had a name she never used. She liked Zyra better, and so she went by that. Her new identity was a gift from the fairies, and she had received it on a powerful acid trip in Sonoma while camping with her ex-boyfriend. She felt gathered in the arms of the forest itself, as beings of light held hands and sang songs of incomprehensible beauty and complexity. Harmonies tripled and quadrupled and quintupled and on and on. They told her she had been born for a special mission. She was chosen for a holy reason. They sang songs dedicated to her wonder and fed her sweet lemon cakes. It was only later, when she woke up in a hospital, that she found out she nearly died.

“No, I was nearly dead before. Now, I’m alive completely,” she told her boyfriend who vehemently disagreed by talking about how scared he was watching her foam at the mouth. She immediately dumped him.

Zyra, a precocious nineteen-year-old, felt entirely liberated from patriarchy, from normal, human constraints- from history itself. She sketched in her diary and wrote poetry that didn’t rhyme, so she knew it was good. She toyed with people’s hearts and even slept with a few women as she meandered down the California coast, hitching rides and breathing in the fresh air of freedom. One night, in a roadhouse south of Barstow, she met a kindred spirit. The woman introduced herself as Dee Levi, “A person of no importance.”

Zyra learned only a little about the raven-haired lady as they drank vodka and smoked a joint. Dee never took off her sunglasses or her wide-brimmed hat. But she smiled a lot and made Zyra feel at ease.

“I just came from the top of the word, sister. A place where people like you and me can be understood. Bit of magic up there- the real deal, I think.”

“I believe in magic. I know it’s real,” Zyra nodded.

“I can see you have the gift, friend.”

Dee vanished after ducking into the ladies room. Zyra had wanted to ask her more, but no one had remembered seeing the woman leave. No one remembered seeing her at all, for that matter. Still, Zyra had enough to go on. A rough drawing on a napkin….. One week later, she made it to the mountains on the back of Harley with a lanky Hell’s Angel who didn’t stick around. “Strange place, Z. Hope you like it, he said.” After a farewell roll-in the hay, he was gone. Perfect.

As for Wyldewood- it was like a fairy tale except this one was all true. Why, this very morning she was being orally pleasured by George while she did the same for Annalise. They were at the sacred Circle of Gathering, deep in the woods. A large fire chased away the chill of a damp and gray morning. A fire always was burning here- it was the very heart of Wyldewood. Nearby, a few people played drums and chanted. Others sat quietly in meditation. A person could really be herself here, and Zyra was feeling both fully authentic and fully satiated as she climaxed for the third time.

She couldn’t have begun the day any better. After this though, she had marching orders: Talk again to Steve. George and Annalise wanted him to feel comfortable and safe in Wyldewood. “Stroke his ego or whatever else. Don’t ask why,” George smiled as he nibbled her thighs.

“Believe us, we know what he’s like,” Annalise said, cradling Zyra’s head before kissing her. “Stubborn and proud.”

“He’s special though, but not like you,” George added hastily as he hiked up her skirt. “We need you to bring him into the fold. That’s what’s best for everyone.”

Zyra didn’t disagree. George and Annalise knew best. They seemed to know everything.


-daytime was clear and hard and unwelcoming. Steve awoke with a snap and was immediately angry. He felt like he hadn’t rested at all, and his sheets were drenched in sweat. His ankle, though, was only mildly swollen and he could walk fairly normally. That made him even more irritated. George was apparently not a phony but he wasn’t exactly legit either.

Steve shook his head in frustration as he poured a glass of water and guzzled it down. His damp t-shirt clung to his skin, and it made him cold. He sort of wished he owned slippers but the only man he knew who had a pair, was his dad who was a Nixon supporter. No way, Jose.

Steve flicked on the radio and “Peace Train” warbled through the static. “Right on,” Steve said as he stared out the dirty window above the old sink in his kitchen. “Gotta get on that peace train.”

There were patches of sunlight piercing through the pine needles. He could see his neighbor’s house a few hundred yards away. The couple that lived there had a kid, maybe five years old. He was always smiling and playing happily on his own. He was the kind of child that made people want one of their own. Big eyes, silly gaps in his baby teeth, a voice that was lilting and sweet. They called him Briar.

Steve would always say hi to the kid and his docile, radiant, corduroy-loving, parents and they said hi back, and it was all very nice. He preferred them to George and Annalise. At least they keep to themselves. He polished off the water and then, promptly dropped the glass.

Briar suddenly appeared outside his window, less than five feet away. He wore a bright red jacket and carried a limp rabbit whose neck had been twisted. He looked at Steve and smiled.

Steve stepped back, cutting his already injured foot. He didn’t yell because he couldn’t catch his breath and-


Steve woke up to a knock at the door. His body was heavy, and his eyes felt dry and grainy, like old stones covered in earth.

“I have coffee, ” a man yelled from outside the front door. It was George.

Steve swallowed what little saliva he had and lifted his head. The air was dense, and the sun hid her face from the world.

“It’s pretty good. Italian. I ordered it special, “ George said. His conversational tone made Steve grit his teeth.

“I don’t feel good, man. Still in bed. Another time.” Steve’s own voice rattled his skull, and it hurt. He could feel a headache coming on. He definitely wasn’t dreaming anymore. Had it really only been last night that George worked his voodoo?

“It’s after eleven, Steve. Anyway, I got some whiskey too. Italian beans but we can make an Irish coffee. Let’s get international, my friend.”

Steve put his head in his pillow and sighed. Fine. The sooner I agree, the sooner he’ll leave. But before he could even get out of bed, Steve heard the clanking of mugs and a shuffle of boots on the floor. George had let himself in.

“It was unlocked, Steve. And I’ll make yours strong.”

George was bathed in a silvery halo from the obscured morning, light. He poured a steaming mug of dark coffee from a battered thermos. The vapors clung to his hands and swirled around his fingers. Snakes. Centipedes. Tendrils.

Steve sat up and threw his legs over the bed. “My head is fucked today. I’ve been, dreaming a lot. Too much. Why are you here?”

“Bet your ankle is good, though. Try it.”

Steve looked at his injured foot. No swelling. He rolled the joint around- a bit stiff, but nothing to write home about. “Yeah. It’s… it’s fine.”

“Looks better than fine to me, but what do I know? Sugar?”

“However you want to make it.” Steve glared at George while he sat hunched like a gargoyle, on the edge of the bed.

“I see you didn’t have much of my wife’s tea.” George nodded at the chipped mug that sat on the floor, still half full with the amber liquid. Overnight, it had taken on greasy sheen. “It probably would have helped you avoid this ugly morning.”

“You and your wife have a weird fucking way of being friendly.”

George nodded calmly. He had on a dark green sweatshirt rolled up to his elbows. Steve watched one of his powerful forearms flex and release as he picked up a coffee and took a big swig, then placed it back on the table with care. “You’re right. We’ve been up here in the woods for a really long time. We sometimes don’t read social cues too well. Sorry, Steve.”

A burst of Finch song punctuated the quiet. Steve’s feeder was empty; perhaps they were mad. “Just hand me the coffee,” he groaned.

They sat in silence as Steve massaged his temples and sipped the alcoholic brew. He didn’t have to work until the next night, and he had really wanted to enjoy the day off. Alone. He was going to-

“Go fishing.”

Steve stared at George. “What did you just say?”

“Go fishing. It’s the most relaxing thing I can think of. Since you’re out-of-sorts, that’s what I recommend.”

That was exactly what Steve had planned. Now he didn’t want to go. George had a knack for ruining everything, apparently.

“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”

“There’s a great spot at the north end of Lake Herald. Bunch of old oaks are on a little finger of land that juts right out in the water. Good shade. No people, really.”

Steve lit a cigarette. “I’ll look into that.”

“It’d be a good place for you.”

“Yeah? Why is that?” Steve asked, exhaling a Pall Mall. It obscured George, if only for a moment.

“Well, it’s just a good old piece of land. Peaceful. The ice sheets carved out all the inlets and what not. Ancient place, Steve.”

“As long as the fish aren’t fossils, I’m sure I’ll like it.”

George tipped his mug back and finished his Irish coffee. His cheeks were slightly flushed, but his eyes were as dark as ever. “Feel bad about all this… interference. Me and Annalise and last night and all.”

“And this morning,” Steve muttered. “Whatever. It’s fine. My ankle is doing good. Probably wouldn’t be without your…treatment so, we’re square.”

“Well, I’m glad about that. All the same, there’s a present outside for you. I hope you like it. Keep the mugs, by the way. I’ll leave the coffee too. And the whiskey. Enjoy.”

With a smile and nod, George took his leave. Steve heard his big, sturdy frame crunching down the gravel path as he headed back to the main road and presumably, back to his strange home.

Twenty minutes later, with brushed teeth and fresh clothes, Steve grabbed a small tackle box and his fishing pole, and gingerly stepped outside. The finches had retreated, but they still sang and flapped nearby. The clouds were silver and gray, like pearls, and the air smelled of rain. Steve’s beautiful hair hung heavy and limp. He looked around. There was no gift from George, as far as he could tell. Weirdo.

He walked over to his jeep and steered the fishing pole between the seats, tossing the tackle box into the back. He was looking forward to the five-mile drive and clearing his head near the water. He’d stop for a sandwich along the way and maybe some beer. It would be a good day, whether the sun wanted to show up or not. Steve turned the key in the ignition, and the radio came to life, crackling with Elton John’s, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” He was already feeling better.

Just after he hit reverse, with visions of large-mouthed bass dancing in his head, Steve heard a crack. “What in the hell?” He hopped out of the Jeep. Just behind his drivers-side rear tire, was a plastic bucket that had tipped over and gaped with a rough tear. Handfuls of rich, black dirt filled with tangles of glistening worms, spilled across the ground. It was George’s present.

On the side of the pail, “Gone Fishin’!” was written in magic marker with a smiley face below. From above, a gurgling cry echoed and was quickly followed by another. Crows had already seen the bounty, and were beginning to circle.


Zyra didn’t like the water. Back in grade school, her older brother and his friends used to pull at her bathing suit and make fun of her pale skin and freckles. One time, a boy stuck his tongue down her throat underwater. She choked on flesh and water and for an hour afterword, her mouth was filled with the taste of fish. Her mother didn’t notice Zyra’s tears and distress because she noticed nothing except the handsome lifeguard. Her father meanwhile, slept the day away, getting sunburned and talking to no one. And that was how summer Sundays were spent in Utah. She left at eighteen and never looked back.

Where are you, Steve?

She scanned the banks of Lake Herald, dotted here and there with a few, lone fisherman and someone walking a big, goofy dog with a stick in its mouth. Zyra looked for the thrust of land that George had apparently recommended to Steve. It was hard to tell exactly where that might be. The conifers ran thick along the trails that snaked around the big lake. The trees nearer the water, willows, and aspen mostly, were wispier and still leafless in the March air, but they clustered so closely together that their branches were a web of visual confusion. Steve could be hidden in plain sight.

“This will get colder the closer you get to Steve,” George had said when handed her a small bronze disc earlier that morning, after their sexcapade at the Circle of Gathering. They had gone back to the house to prep Zyra for her mission. The disc was carved with lettering and symbols she dimly recognized.

“Hebrew?” she asked as she ran her finger over the surface.

“Yes- don’t rub it too much. Steve’s vibe is on it. Keep it in your pocket, or you’ll break the flow.” He kissed her on her neck. Annalise smiled from the kitchen as she ground some dried passionflower and valerian into a fine powder.

“Did you make this, George?” Zyra asked.

“No. It’s very old.”

“Oh. I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess.”

“Good girl. So, go get Steve, ok?”

Zyra nodded. “Can you bring me a little more sun? It’ll make it easier.”

“Already done!” Annalise chirped. She pulled something wet and dripping from a tin. It wiggled a little, and she frowned for a moment, shaking her head. Then, she smashed a rolling pin onto the dark little beast. “The sky will clear soon. I did the weather-working an hour ago.”

“Oh, good. Thank you.”

“Something wrong?” asked George as he put his arms around his wife. “You seem a little blue, Zyra.”

“What do I do with Steve when I find him?

“Just spend time with him. Let him get a nice, long bath in your radiance,” George laughed. “Put some of this on when you see him,” he added, handing her a tiny vial of some reddish liquid. “It’s a perfume that Annalise made. He’ll love it.”

“Um, alright….”

“Now look, I want both of you to show up at the same time tonight before the celebration, okay?”

“Sure,” Zyra nodded with sigh.

“That doesn’t sound very enthusiastic,” Annalise chided. “We’ve chosen you. Out of all the boys and all the girls that come up and down this mountain with their guitars and patchouli, we’ve brought you close.”

Zyra nodded. Funny though, she never met anyone new in the seven months she’d lived in Wyldewood. Not until Steve that is. “I’m honored. It’s just…I’ve been waiting for a while. I do my meditations, run your errands and pay attention to people so you can know who’s up to what, but I can’t even revive a dying flower. I can barely make an herbal tea. When will you teach me the real stuff?”

Annalise clucked and George gave her a squeeze. “Our impatient little novice,” he cooed.

Zyra bit her lip.

“And to answer your question, you begin tonight, child. The Spring Equinox- a perfect time for new beginnings,” Annalise added with that strange trace of an accent that sometimes crept in. Usually when she was “very alive” as she would say, like during sex or during a celebration at the ritual circle or when she was mixing something potent. Or when she was being coy. Like now. “How does that sound?” Annalise asked with a wink as and began to stir her mixture in a big, wood bowl.

“Oh- wow. Groovy.” Zyra blurted. She had not expected that.

Just like she didn’t expect to find herself wandering a lakeside for a man she barely knew for a task she didn’t understand. She was puzzled and curious and anxious for the night’s festivities, so she hurried along the water’s edge in search of her target. Tiny waves lapped the pebble-covered shore.

She spied a path a few hundred yards ahead; it was surrounded by the arched bows of young trees that hugged the edges of the dirt trail as if they were about to close it off. It seemed to say, “locals only” by its obscurity. It seemed to say “secrets.” The disc in her pocket seemed slightly cooler against her leg. She set off at a quick clip, immediately regretting her choice of sandals for the task.

The path wound around the north end of the lake and was riddled with thick, snaking roots and clumps of long grasses that tickled her feet. Along the way, she had to bend and stoop and pull her skirt off rude branches and grainy rocks. Everything seemed designed to capture her. But the disc in her pocket was getting colder. After rounding yet another bend, this one dotted with a few beer cans and a tangle of rotting logs being devoured by ivy, Zyra yelped. The disc had become burning cold, and she dug into the pocket of her blousy dress and flung it to the ground. It bounced down a rough embankment and onto a grassy outcropping. Steve stared up at her.

He was holding a worm, alive and writhing, about to hook it to his line.

“Hey,” Zyra said.


“You found my favorite spot,” she lied. “This place is amazing. Really good energy.” She quickly glared at the bronze trinket that brought her there.

Steve gave her a once over. “You want a beer?”


In the afternoon sunshine, the water was dazzling. Zyra’s eyes hurt as she squinted and pretended to care about Steve’s diatribe about the pleasures of life in the woods. He was even newer than her and she wasn’t impressed.

While he rambled and fished, she smiled and covertly dabbed herself with the liquid George had given her. It was viscous and heady with a spicy base and a sweet, floral finish. It smelled like history- all sex and death and new beginnings. Zyra quickly became drowsy and soon after, turned-on. The scent carried on the wind, and the wind kissed the water, and they both sang to the sky. Steve stopped talking, inhaled deeply, took his shirt off and grinned.

“I like you,” he said.

“I like you too.”

Suddenly he got a bite on his line and pulled in a big fish. Then there was another. He gutted them on a rock next to an early-blooming cluster of yellow cinquefoil. They giggled and talked and hugged. There were kisses. Steve’s voice seemed to vibrate in Zyra’s ears with the loveliness of a half-remembered song. She appeared to him as a dewy and languorous nymph. Time was flowing with a peace that is usually reserved for children playing or birds in flight- or patients etherized upon a table.

Zyra and Steve fell in love in minutes. It seemed the most natural thing in the world.

“Will you marry me? Under the moon? Tonight?”

He was a secret poet. A romantic in world of automatons. Lips so red-


“Like blood?”

She didn’t answer the question because she had questions of her own. Zyra was in the woods and barefoot. It was cold, and she was clad only in a pale, white shift that was as thin as breath. It was twilight but hadn’t it just been daytime and warm?

The pine needles stung her feet.

“I do. I like it.”

It was Briar, the little boy who lived near the coffee shop. Zyra was back in Wyldewood. “I need to go home,” she babbled, looking for the road.

“You want some?” Briar came out from the shadow of a tree. He wore a little jacket with patches on it, paisleys and stripes and denim. There was a dead rabbit in his hands; it’s neck a fountain of bubbling red, like the boy’s lips.

“You want some?” he asked again. “There’s more.”

Zyra screamed and-


George opened his eyes from meditation. The incense- wormwood, Rue and African ginger, still drifted through the air. He saw dragons turning in the smoke, devouring their own tails and delighting in their hunger. That was infinity: a writhing, irrepressible, black expanse beneath and behind all things, teeming with beasts. Hail, he whispered, saluting the Blank Ones. They are pure wisdom. They are the enforcers of dark order. They sit on the left hand of truth.

“What did the Masters say?” Annalise asked as she cleaned a knife.

Lefty and Righty panted nearby. Their eyes were bright and unblinking.

“They’re ready, as always,” he replied.

“As am I,” she assented. “And what of our Father?”

“The Lord is ready to receive us.”

Annalise sighed with pleasure. “We’re prepared. I have our guests in the shed. Zyra moans but is still. That stupid boy is like a dead thing.”

George nodded. A few exposures to Annalise's concoctions would do that. He took a deep breath and exhaled. He was still semi-entranced in a vision of wheels within wheels that shone in the eyes of his spiritual masters. Black and red; spinning; crackling with power; creating possibilities. It had become a familiar marvel to him over the course of more than a century. The beginning of his training, though, was decidedly less glamorous.

Giorgio and Annalisetta as they were first called, lived with their great aunt Giuseppina, a half-blind, wart-covered witch. Their parents had died at sea in a steamship accident, so they were trundled off to Giuseppina’s big, dilapidated house on a hill, filled with vermin and rotting furniture. She wasn’t really a bad woman; she just wanted to be alone with the devil. And for years, she was. But at 60, she found herself saddled with a five and six-year-old, whom she loathed.

“Maledizione della mia esistenza!” she would groan. The curse of my existence.

They were a constant, nagging afterthought- chores that were remembered at the most inconvenient moments. She managed to feed them now and again, screamed at them constantly and hit them occasionally. Still, she made sure they went to school- mostly so she could be alone with her conjurations. That however, proved unwise.

The moment Giorgio and Annalisetta could read well enough, things got far better for them and far worse for their ward. The children as it turned out, were rather clever, rather adept at magick and by the time they were twelve and thirteen, rather in love. That combination, plus access to Giuseppina’s treasure trove of spells and equipment in her crumbling library, and free reign of the hills and forests of Forli-Cesena, a place filled with flowers, herbs, and graves- was a disaster for the unwitting crone. Giorgio and Annalisestta pledged their lives to the infernal forces and on the summer solstice of 1845, they shoved the old woman down a set of worn–out stairs as an offering. “Accidents happen,” the local authorities concluded, especially to old women. The fledgling occultists were left to their own dark devices.

Two years later, and with an intense regiment of ritual work under their belts, they began to conduct séances at the house. It was going splendidly until one of their clients- a beak-nosed, buck-toothed, weepy nineteen-year-old named Norah, who was suffering from the pain of a string of romantic rejections, fell in love with a sinister angel of the Ancient Days.

“Greetings in Glory from the Supernal Abyss,” Gamaliel would say upon his, bloated windswept arrival into the parlour. “The unseen world celebrates your perfection oh, Norah.”

The girl was smitten, and the angel fed off her desperation. Their bond was so strong, in fact, that he began appearing to Norah outside the confines of the protected séance room. And one night, he stole her from this world during a tryst, where he ravaged her with a passion that destroyed her body and imprisoned her soul. Her bite-ridden corpse was left on the steps of the local church to the horror of all.

George and Annalise were annoyed. They wanted more control over their efforts and were forced to recognize that they were merely eager amateurs. But supernatural glory approached, it was shown to them in every sign and omen; crows brought them stray, gold rings. During their private rituals, their candle flames burned blue with otherworldly light. Mice and deer stayed far from their sprawling and verdant garden they constructed after Giuseppina’s death.

The earthly authorities, however, seemed less than intimidated and curiosity had started to turn to questions. So in 1849, George and Annalise stole away in the dead of night with suitcases full of precious books, and money to spare. They made their way to the Port of Rome and bribed their way onto a rat-infested cargo ship bound for America. They arrived in New York, filthy and hungry, but free. Still, the throttle and hum of a city was a not part of their plan. In short order, they joined up with a small group of pious Christians seeking the bounty of pristine, California lands and joined them on the treacherous journey across the savage, New World in hopes of creating a savage, new future all their own. George and Annalise wanted privacy. They wanted power. They wanted a mountain.

It was in present-day Arizona that they received a revelation. In a secret midnight prayer session in the woods, away from the prying eyes of their racist, Protestant, travel companions who were suspicious of the “Latins” from the outset, George and Annalise were filled with divine darkness. Naked and dripping with sweat, Annalise was gifted with a total understanding of roots, flowers, herbs, and spellcraft, revealed to her in a blinding instant by a faceless beast with wings made of teeth. And to George was bestowed the Great Sight: the Gnosis of annihilation and the reality of the overlords of creation and destruction. The rulers of the human farm called earth- The Blank Ones. George and Annalise became their emissaries and their servants. They were anointed.

After the ineffable pleasure of their spiritual breakthrough, brother and sister returned to their wagon train that huddled around a dying campfire. In the dark of a void moon, they killed all the men, women and children, pulling them to pieces and singing- and feasting- as they went. As the sun rose, they consummated their hellish baptism by making ecstatic love in the carnage.

Thinking about their history filled George with pride. “Life is so wonderful,” he mused. He thought fondly of the final leg of their journey to Wyldewood. Demons had become their protectors and guides. Giorgio and Annalisetta slaughtered animals and people alike on their bleak, triumphal procession to the San Jacinto Mountains. Once there, dark spirits helped them build their home and over time, aided them in luring a colony of twisted souls to their side which empowered the scope and strength of their malignant efforts. Ensconced in their secret hideaway, far above the pitiful masses, George and Annalise toiled for the greatest prize of all, and tonight, their sordid scheme was about to bear fruit.

George smiled as he looked down at his feet; three-toed, jet-black and capped with talons. His legs were similar, except they were growing feathers. “We are the chosen ones.”

“We are the chalice and the sword,” Annalise answered as she played with the corner of her shirt. The dense fabric hid the shiny, gray scales beneath.

“Is everything ready?” he asked.

“Yes, my love. We don’t have to wait a moment longer.”


Steve awoke to Zyra babbling. More poetry was his initial thought. Then came the understanding he was bound hand and foot, and Zyra wasn’t spewing nonsense but trying to rouse him. He heard, “trapped” and “death” and “lies” and crying.

“They’re poison!” Zyra was sobbing but also trying to keep quiet lest Annalise pay them a visit with more liquids or powders or serums.

Steve remembered kissing her. Of seeing angels in her eyes. When was that?

“We have to get out of here,” Zyra bleated as she inch-wormed across the dirt floor. There were no windows and she kept banging into things.

“Why?” Steve croaked.

“Why what?” she hissed.

“Why are we tied up?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. It’s George and Annalise. They lied to me- tricked me!” Zyra moaned and wrenched her way to standing by leaning against a rough, wood wall. Her arm received several splinters on the way up. “God damn it,” she winced.

Hopping along the edge she smacked her knees into an old cistern and a few feet later, the handle of an axe. She didn’t care. She was going to find the door- even though it was probably barred. Everything else was secondary. “Get up, Steve. For fuck sake.”

He grunted and squirmed, using all his power of concentration to find a way to his feet.

Zyra was leaning on the wall every few inches because she knew from all her visits to George and Annalise’s place, the shed had a white, metal door and it would feel different. And no sooner did its cold, smoothness register on her arm, than she plunged to the ground. The door was unlocked, and it had swung open with no effort at all. Clearly, Annalise and George never banked on them waking up, let alone escaping.

After the dark, stale air in the shed, it was nice to see the light of the full moon and to breathe the fresh air. But there was no time to bask; they needed to get to the road which was a few thousand feet away. Once again, Zyra managed to get to her feet, this time with the help of a tree trunk. The ropes at her wrist and ankles burned, but maybe that was a sign of them getting looser. Steve wasn’t far behind.

The pair shuffled and jumped and shimmied along, taking a route that led them far south of George and Annalise’s cabin. At one point, they heard Lefty and Righty barking, but they sounded far away; a good sign. Still, the dogs were unnerving, and Steve froze for a moment then, keeled over. But he got up again, faster than the first time. Another positive omen. Together, they urged each other on. Branches clawed and bloodied them. They had to lean against each other at one point, resting briefly from the torture of the herky-jerky movements that limited their speed and power.

The hooting of owls and the scattering of pebbles and pine needles serenaded their flight. That and the sound of their own, labored breathing. It was arduous going, and twice they stopped to squint and look for the road. They hadn’t heard a single car yet, but that wasn’t unusual. It would have been helpful though. Then:

“Look,” Steve whispered. “There!”

About 100 feet away, a raven had flapped down and cawed its rough song. The bird had found some roadkill- a possum- and was preparing for a feast. Zyra was elated and crashed ahead. All they needed now was to find a driver- a Wyldewood resident heading out for cigarettes or wayward tourist lost in the mountains. It didn’t matter.

The road was hard on their feet but still far easier to manage than the lumps and bumps of the woods. And while every jump jolted their bones, it also got them farther from George and Annalise. Steve thought they must be a quarter mile away from the cabin. They passed the coffee shop, which was dark and empty. The bulk of town was another quarter mile down, but they were making good time now.

It was the singing that made them pause- a rhythmic wave of sound that rose and fell, a call and response, a chant in a foreign tongue. The sweet, fresh, cool night air had taken on a vibration. Steve and Zyra looked at each other with panicked eyes. Each knew the other had no answer for the music; there was no use asking what it was.

But that answer came soon enough, via torchlight that showed through the silhouetted trees around a long bend. A band of roughly thirty people was marching with a slow, steady purpose. They wore red, hooded robes and crowns made of animal bones that peaked out from beneath their deep mantles.

“Hurry, back into the woods!” Steve yelped.

He and Zyra awkwardly leaped over a small ditch that ran alongside the road, the result of winter storms. Steve didn’t quite make it, though, and was wriggling along the ground when the zealots rounded the curve. They stood and sang as Steve desperately tried to bring himself to his feet. Their words had a strength that pulsed the air and weakened the would-be escapees whose minds became filled with disorienting visions of smoke and sparks and phantoms. Vowels abutted rough consonants in a way that felt scientific. Guttural, soaring and void of warmth, the people opened their mouths and called to powers infernal. Soon the chanting crowd was answered in kind by another group of torch-bearing marchers that arrived from the north. Lefty and Righty were in the lead of that pack, teeth bared, hair on end. They were fretful and fitful in their panting, growling rage.

Above them all rang out the soprano of youth. Briar stepped forward from the group of newcomers, in a little robe of his own. His circlet was made of dozens of tiny, bird bones, some of which dangled along the edges like macabre gems. The boy was flanked by his beautiful parents who were glowing with pride. George and Annalise stepped forward from the crowd wearing robes of black and no crowns at all. They had no need of accessories, their bearing spoke of command. The people bowed their heads in deference.

Zyra screamed as two women pulled her from the woods- women she knew. One was her boss at the café and the other a friend who she once kissed. Steve began to hyperventilate as two of his bar regulars gripped him hard. Zyra too, was held fast as the ceremony continued to unfold.

Briar finished the chanting with a note so clear and bright, the air rang like crystal. The majesty of his sound, however, failed to stop Zyra from crying and Steve from cursing. No one cared. George and Annalise moved with an elegant slowness, whispering intensely as they opened the invisible gates of power. Their eyes were glossy and their smiles, unshakeable. They were enraptured. They were in ecstasy. George pointed toward the earth and Annalise to the sky as they walked in a circle around Steve and Zyra. The world seemed to stiffen; rocks, trees, the unseen animals, the bank of thin clouds that drifted overhead. All things were bent toward the moment.

Including the bats. They poured out of the nearby trees in a silent torrent. Lefty and Righty, George’s familiars, knew they had completed their protective mission and darted forward. They howled as the bats swirled and clustered, consuming them in a living pillar of leathery wings, returning them to their essences. It was a frantic, unnatural column of writhing flesh.

Zyra screamed at the freakish sight, but her voice, already worn out from the panic and intensity of the recent, fraught minutes was torn and strangled and made no impact. The assembled crowd of worshippers- the townsfolk of Wyldewood- simply stared as the mass of bats were whipped into a frenzy, squeezing ever closer, helpless to stop the force that summoned them and that now, bound them together. In their whirling intensity, they soon became lost to themselves. Out the heaving mass of their hot, wiggling bodies emerged a being of an altogether different order- comprised of them yet completely itself- a God. Red eyes blazed amid the quivering lumps of flesh, and a hole formed, one with unsteady edges and a lashing tongue, which roared and stank and trailed smoke. With flailing, outstretched arms, the deity exalted in the power of its undeniable horror.

The worshippers raised their fires high and danced and sang in celebration for the coming of Yaldaboath, The Creator. The ruler of the earth. The jealous God. And lo, the people of Wyldewood had none other before Him. This was the rarest of pleasures, a manifestation that had not been seen in a thousand years. And as in nearly forgotten days of old, there was much rejoicing in the rending of flesh from bone. All those assembled feasted and drank and were revitalized. Steve and Zyra were far a more enjoyable meal than the goats and lambs and horses they normally ate during the more humdrum celebrations that marked their holy calendar. Moreover, their red and screaming demise was a gift that pleased the Lord of Hosts who also participated in the carnage, flinging the torn, wet and desecrated carcasses into his putrid maw. The ancient one was satisfied.

Annalise and George had remained still and prayerful throughout the meal, allowing their brethren to have their fill, but when it was over, they threw off their robes and approached their Master with bodies that were part beast and part human, marvels of a perverse transformation wrought by decades of foul magick. Yaldabaoth moaned in pleasure at the sight of them, then uttered a booming, gelatinous sound that caused George and Annalise to lose their final shred of humanity. They burst into blue flames only to emerge seconds later as huge, char-black, winged creatures whose red eyes matched their God.

Wyldewood cheered: “Irin we- qadishin!” Watchers and Holy Ones! George and Annalise were reborn. They had become The Blank Ones and would now reign as part of the Powers and Principalities who both governed and savaged the world; those who dazzled the stupid by appearing as angels of light; those who make signs and wonders in the sky; those who sew discord among the nations. George and Annalise were no longer those who contributed to the rank suffering and debauchery of a prison planet; they would now drink from it- an inspiration to all the devotees. Briar, who’s 70th birthday was that very night, was moved to tears as he saw the glory of his potential future. He wiped the blood from his cheeks and vowed to be a shining example of ruin. He could practically taste the despair on his tongue, and it was sweet.




Kevin Thomas Conroy has a penchant for all things occulted. His fiction is an exploration of forbidden realms, forgotten history, and sinister intentions. Kevin's work has been published in Devolution Z, Cyclamens and Swords, Everyday Fiction and most recently, in the May 2017 edition of Stranger Fictions 'Zine. He is a resident of Los Angeles.

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