The Sloan Men
By David Nickle
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License.
Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails. If Judith hadn’t been looking, she wouldn’t have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan’s hand.
“Tell me how you met Herman,” said Mrs. Sloan. She turned away from Judith as she spoke, to look out the kitchen window where Herman and his father were getting into Mr. Sloan’s black pickup truck. Seeing Herman and Mr. Sloan together was a welcome distraction for Judith. She was afraid Herman’s stepmother would catch her staring at the hand. Judith didn’t know how she would explain that with any grace: Things are off to a bad enough start as it is.
Outside, Herman wiped his sleeve across his pale, hairless scalp and, seeing Judith watching from the window, turned the gesture into an exaggerated wave. He grinned wetly through the late afternoon sun. Judith felt a little grin of her own growing and waved back, fingers waggling an infantile bye-bye. Hurry home, she mouthed through the glass. Herman stared back blandly, not understanding.
“Did you meet him at school?”
Judith flinched. The drumming had stopped, and when she looked, Mrs. Sloan was leaning against the counter with her mutilated hand hidden in the crook of crossed arms. Judith hadn’t even seen the woman move.
“No,” Judith finally answered. “Herman doesn’t go to school. Neither do I.”
Mrs. Sloan smiled ironically. She had obviously been a beautiful woman in her youth — in most ways she still was. Mrs. Sloan’s hair was auburn and it played over her eyes mysteriously, like a movie star’s. She had cheekbones that Judith’s ex-boss Talia would have called sculpted, and the only signs of her age were the tiny crow’s feet at her eyes and harsh little lines at the corners of her mouth.
“I didn’t mean to imply anything,” said Mrs. Sloan. “Sometimes he goes to school, sometimes museums, sometimes just shopping plazas. That’s Herman.”
Judith expected Mrs. Sloan’s smile to turn into a laugh, underscoring the low mockery she had directed towards Herman since he and Judith had arrived that morning. But the woman kept quiet, and the smile dissolved over her straight white teeth. She regarded Judith thoughtfully.
“I’d thought it might be school because you don’t seem that old,” said Mrs. Sloan. “Of course I don’t usually have an opportunity to meet Herman’s lady friends, so I suppose I really can’t say.”
“I met Herman on a tour. I was on vacation in Portugal, I went there with a girl I used to work with, and when we were in Lisbon –“
“– Herman appeared on the same tour as you. Did your girlfriend join you on that outing, or were you alone?”
“Stacey got food poisoning.” As I was about to say. “It was a rotten day, humid and muggy.” Judith wanted to tell the story the way she’d told it to her own family and friends, countless times. It had its own rhythm; her fateful meeting with Herman Sloan in the roped-off scriptorium of the monastery outside Lisbon, dinner that night in a vast, empty restaurant deserted in the off-season. In the face of Mrs. Sloan, though, the rhythm of that telling was somehow lost. Judith told it as best she could.
“So we kept in touch,” she finished lamely.
Mrs. Sloan nodded slowly and didn’t say anything for a moment. Try as she might, Judith couldn’t read the woman, and she had always prided herself on being able to see through most people at least half way. That she couldn’t see into this person at all was particularly irksome, because of who she was — a potential in-law, for God’s sake. Judith’s mother had advised her, “Look at the parents if you want to see what kind of man the love of your life will be in thirty years. See if you can love them with all their faults, all their habits. Because that’s how things’ll be…”
Judith realized again that she wanted very much for things to be just fine with Herman thirty years down the line. But if this afternoon were any indication…
Herman had been uneasy about the two of them going to Fenlan to meet his parents at all. But, as Judith explained, it was a necessary step. She knew it, even if Herman didn’t — as soon as they turned off the highway he shut his eyes and wouldn’t open them until Judith pulled into the driveway.
Mr. Sloan met them and Herman seemed to relax then, opening his eyes and blinking in the sunlight. Judith relaxed too, seeing the two of them together. They were definitely father and son, sharing features and mannerisms like images in a mirror. Mr. Sloan took Judith up in a big, damp hug the moment she stepped out of the car. The gesture surprised her at first and she tried to pull away, but Mr. Sloan’s unstoppable grin had finally put her at ease.
“You are very lovely,” said Mrs. Sloan finally. “That’s to be expected, though. Tell me what you do for a living. Are you still working now that you’ve met Herman?”
Judith wanted to snap something clever at the presumption, but she stopped herself. “I’m working. Not at the same job, but in another salon. I do people’s hair, and I’m learning manicure.”
Mrs. Sloan seemed surprised. “Really? I’m impressed.”
Now Judith was sure Mrs. Sloan was making fun, and a sluice of anger passed too close to the surface. “I work hard,” she said hotly. “It may not seem–“
Mrs. Sloan silenced her with shushing motions. “Don’t take it the wrong way,” she said. “It’s only that when I met Herman’s father, I think I stopped working the very next day.”
“Those must have been different times.”
“They weren’t that different.” Mrs. Sloan’s smile was narrow and ugly. “Perhaps Herman’s father just needed different things.”
“Well, I’m still working.”
“So you say.” Mrs. Sloan got up from the kitchen stool. “Come to the living room, dear. I’ve something to show you.”
The shift in tone was too sudden, and it took Judith a second to realize she’d even been bidden. Mrs. Sloan half-turned at the kitchen door, and beckoned with her five-fingered hand.
“Judith,” she said, “you’ve come this far already. You might as well finish the journey.”
The living room was distastefully bare. The walls needed paint and there was a large brown stain on the carpet that Mrs. Sloan hadn’t even bothered to cover up. She sat down on the sofa and Judith joined her.
“I wanted you to see the family album. I think –” Mrs. Sloan reached under the coffee table and lifted out a heavy black-bound volume “– I don’t know, but I hope… you’ll find this interesting.”
Mrs. Sloan’s face lost some of its hardness as she spoke. She finished with a faltering smile.
“I’m sure I will,” said Judith. This was a good development, more like what she had hoped the visit would become. Family albums and welcoming hugs and funny stories about what Herman was like when he was two. She snuggled back against the tattered cushions and looked down at the album. “This must go back generations.”
Mrs. Sloan still hadn’t opened it. “Not really,” she said. “As far as I know, the Sloans never mastered photography on their own. All of the pictures in here are mine.”
“May I…?” Judith put out her hands, and with a shrug Mrs. Sloan handed the album over.
“I should warn you –” began Mrs. Sloan.
Judith barely listened. She opened the album to the first page.
And shut it, almost as quickly. She felt her face flush, with shock and anger. She looked at Mrs. Sloan, expecting to see that cruel, nasty smile back again. But Mrs. Sloan wasn’t smiling.
“I was about to say,” said Mrs. Sloan, reaching over and taking the album back, “that I should warn you, this isn’t an ordinary family album.”
“I–” Judith couldn’t form a sentence she was so angry. No wonder Herman hadn’t wanted her to meet his family.
“I took that photograph almost a year after I cut off my fingers,” said Mrs. Sloan. “Photography became a small rebellion for me, not nearly so visible as the mutilation. Herman’s father still doesn’t know about it, even though I keep the book out here in full view. Sloan men don’t open books much.
“But we do, don’t we Judith?”
Mrs. Sloan opened the album again, and pointed at the polaroid on the first page. Judith wanted to look away, but found that she couldn’t.
“Herman’s father brought the three of them home early, before I’d woken up — I don’t know where he found them. Maybe he just called, and they were the ones who answered.”
“They” were three women. The oldest couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. Mrs. Sloan had caught them naked and asleep, along with what looked like Herman’s father. One woman had her head cradled near Mr. Sloan’s groin; another was cuddled in the white folds of his armpit, her wet hair fanning like seaweed across his shoulder; the third lay curled in a foetal position off his wide flank. Something dark was smeared across her face.
“And no, they weren’t prostitutes,” said Mrs. Sloan. “I had occasion to talk to one of them on her way out; she was a newlywed, she and her husband had come up for a weekend at the family cottage. She was, she supposed, going back to him.”
“That’s sick,” gasped Judith, and meant it. She truly felt ill. “Why would you take something like that?”
“Because,” replied Mrs. Sloan, her voice growing sharp again, “I found that I could. Mr. Sloan was distracted, as you can see, and at that instant I found some of the will that he had kept from me since we met.”
“Sick,” Judith whispered. “Herman was right. We shouldn’t have come.”
When Mrs. Sloan closed the album this time, she put it back underneath the coffee table. She patted Judith’s arm with her mutilated hand and smiled. “No, no, dear. I’m happy you’re here — happier than you can know.”
Judith wanted nothing more at that moment than to get up, grab her suitcase, throw it in the car and leave. But of course she couldn’t. Herman wasn’t back yet, and she couldn’t think of leaving without him.
“If Herman’s father was doing all these things, why didn’t you just divorce him?”
“If that photograph offends you, why don’t you just get up and leave, right now?”
“Herman wouldn’t like it,” Mrs. Sloan finished for her. “That’s it, isn’t it?” Judith nodded. “He’s got you too,” continued Mrs. Sloan, “just like his father got me. But maybe it’s not too late for you.”
“I love Herman. He never did anything like… like that.”
“Of course you love him. And I love Mr. Sloan — desperately, passionately, over all reason.” The corner of Mrs. Sloan’s mouth perked up in a small, bitter grin.
“Would you like to hear how we met?”
Judith wasn’t sure she would, but she nodded anyway. “Sure.”
“I was living in Toronto with a friend at the time, had been for several years. As I recall, she was more than a friend — we were lovers.” Mrs. Sloan paused, obviously waiting for a reaction. Judith sat mute, her expression purposefully blank.
Mrs. Sloan went on: “In our circle of friends, such relationships were quite fragile. Usually they would last no longer than a few weeks. It was, so far as we knew anyway, a minor miracle that we’d managed to stay together for as long as we had.” Mrs. Sloan gave a bitter laugh. “We were very proud.”
“How did you meet Herman’s father?”
“On a train,” she said quickly. “A subway train. He didn’t even speak to me. I just felt his touch. I began packing my things that night. I can’t even remember what I told her. My friend.”
“It can’t have been like that.”
Judith started to get up, but Mrs. Sloan grabbed her, two fingers and a thumb closing like a trap around her forearm. Judith fell back down on the sofa. “Let go!”
Mrs. Sloan held tight. With her other hand she took hold of Judith’s face and pulled it around to face her.
“Don’t argue with me,” she hissed, her eyes desperately intent. “You’re wasting time. They’ll be back soon, and when they are, we won’t be able to do anything.
“We’ll be under their spell again!“
Something in her tone caught Judith, and instead of breaking away, of running to the car and waiting inside with the doors locked until Herman got back — instead of slapping Mrs. Sloan, as she was half-inclined to do — Judith sat still.
“Then tell me what you mean.” she said, slowly and deliberately.
Mrs. Sloan let go, and Judith watched as the relief flooded across her features. “We’ll have to open the album again,” she said. “That’s the only way I can tell it.”
* * *
The pictures were placed in the order they’d been taken. The first few were close-ups of different parts of Mr. Sloan’s anatomy, always taken while he slept. They could have been pictures of Herman, and Judith saw nothing strange about them until Mrs. Sloan began pointing out the discrepancies: “Those ridges around his nipples are made of something like fingernails,” she said of one, and “the whole ear isn’t any bigger than a nickel,” she said, pointing to another grainy polaroid. “His teeth are barely nubs on his gums, and his navel… look, it’s a slit. I measured it after I took this, and it was nearly eight inches long. Sometimes it grows longer, and I’ve seen it shrink to less than an inch on cold days.”
“I’d never noticed before,” murmured Judith, although as Mrs. Sloan pointed to more features she began to remember other things about Herman: the thick black hairs that only grew between his fingers, his black triangular toenails that never needed cutting… and where were his fingernails? Judith shivered with the realization.
Mrs. Sloan turned the page.
“Did you ever once stop to wonder what you saw in such a creature?” she asked Judith.
“Never,” Judith replied, wonderingly.
“Look,” said Mrs. Sloan, pointing at the next spread. “I took these pictures in June of 1982.”
At first they looked like nature pictures, blue-tinged photographs of some of the land around the Sloans’ house. But as Judith squinted she could make out a small figure wearing a heavy green overcoat. Its head was a little white pinprick in the middle of a farmer’s field. “Mr. Sloan,” she said, pointing.
Mrs. Sloan nodded. “He walks off in that direction every weekend. I followed him that day.”
“Followed him where?”
“About a mile and a half to the north of here,” said Mrs. Sloan, “there is an old farm property. The Sloans must own the land — that’s the only explanation I can think of — although I’ve never been able to find the deed. Here –” she pointed at a photograph of an ancient set of fieldstone foundations, choked with weeds “– that’s where he stopped.”
The next photograph in the series showed a tiny black rectangle in the middle of the ruins. Looking more closely, Judith could tell that it was an opening into the dark of a root cellar. Mr. Sloan was bent over it, peering inside. Judith turned the page, but there were no photographs after that.
“When he went inside, I found I couldn’t take any more pictures,” said Mrs. Sloan. “I can’t explain why, but I felt a compelling terror, unlike anything I’ve ever felt in Mr. Sloan’s presence. I ran back to the house, all the way. It was as though I were being pushed.”
That’s weird. Judith was about to say it aloud, but stopped herself — in the face of Mrs. Sloan’s photo album, everything was weird. To comment on the fact seemed redundant.
“I can’t explain why I fled, but I have a theory.” Mrs. Sloan set the volume aside and stood. She walked over to the window, spread the blinds an inch, and checked the driveway as she spoke. “Herman and his father aren’t human. That much we can say for certain — they are monsters, deformed in ways that even radiation, even Thalidomide couldn’t account for. They are physically repulsive; their intellects are no more developed than that of a child of four. They are weak and amoral.”
Mrs. Sloan turned, leaning against the glass. “Yet here we are, you and I. Without objective evidence –” she gestured with her good hand towards the open photo album “– we can’t even see them for what they are. If they were any nearer, or perhaps simply not distracted, we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation. Tonight, we’ll go willingly to their beds.” At that, Mrs. Sloan visibly shuddered. “If that’s where they want us.”
Judith felt the urge to go to the car again, and again she suppressed it. Mrs. Sloan held her gaze like a cobra.
“It all suggests a power. I think it suggests talismanic power.” Here Mrs. Sloan paused, looking expectantly at Judith.
Judith wasn’t sure what “talismanic” meant, but she thought she knew what Mrs. Sloan was driving at. “You think the source of their power is in that cellar?”
“Good.” Mrs. Sloan nodded slowly. “Yes, Judith, that’s what I think. I’ve tried over and over to get close to that place, but I’ve never been able to even step inside those foundations. It’s a place of power, and it protects itself.”
Judith looked down at the photographs. She felt cold in the pit of her stomach. “So you want me to go there with you, is that it?”
Mrs. Sloan took one last look out the window then came back and sat down. She smiled with an awkward warmth. “Only once since I came here have I felt as strong as I do today. That day, I chopped these off with the wood-axe –” she held up her three-fingered hand and waggled the stumps “– thinking that, seeing me mutilated, Herman’s father would lose interest and let me go. I was stupid; it only made him angry, and I was… punished. But I didn’t know then what I know today. And,” she added after a brief pause, “today you are here.”
* * *
The Sloan men had not said where they were going when they left in the pickup truck, so it was impossible to tell how much time the two women had. Mrs. Sloan found a flashlight, an axe and a shovel in the garage, and they set out immediately along a narrow path that snaked through the trees at the back of the yard. There were at least two hours of daylight left, and Judith was glad. She wouldn’t want to be trekking back through these woods after dark.
In point of fact, she was barely sure she wanted to be in these woods in daylight. Mrs. Sloan moved through the underbrush like a crazy woman, not even bothering to move branches out of her way. But Judith was slower, perhaps more doubtful.
Why was she doing this? Because of some grainy photographs in a family album? Because of what might as well have been a ghost story, told by a woman who had by her own admission chopped off two of her own fingers? Truth be told, Judith couldn’t be sure she was going anywhere but crazy following Mrs. Sloan through the wilderness.
Finally, it was the memories that kept her moving. As Judith walked, they manifested with all the vividness of new experience.
The scriptorium near Lisbon was deserted — the tour group had moved on, maybe up the big wooden staircase behind the podium, maybe down the black wrought-iron spiral staircase. Judith couldn’t tell; the touch on the back of her neck seemed to be interfering. It penetrated, through skin and muscle and bone, to the juicy center of her spine. She turned around and the wet thing behind pulled her to the floor. She did not resist.
“Hurry up!” Mrs. Sloan was well ahead, near the top of a ridge of rock in the center of a large clearing. Blinking, Judith apologized and moved on.
Judith was fired from her job at Joseph’s only a week after she returned from Portugal. It seemed she had been late every morning, and when she explained to her boss that she was in love, it only made things worse. Talia flew into a rage, and Judith was afraid that she would hit her. Herman waited outside in the mall.
Mrs. Sloan helped Judith clamber up the smooth rock face. When she got to the top, Mrs. Sloan took her in her arms. Only then did Judith realize how badly she was shaking.
“What is it?” Mrs. Sloan pulled back and studied Judith’s face with real concern.
“I’m… remembering,” said Judith.
“What do you remember?”
Judith felt ill again, and she almost didn’t say.
“Judith!” Mrs. Sloan shook her. “This could be important!”
“All right!” Judith shook her off. She didn’t want to be touched, not by anyone.
“The night before last, I brought Herman home to meet my parents. I thought it had gone well… until now.”
“What do you remember?” Mrs. Sloan emphasized every syllable.
“My father wouldn’t shake Herman’s hand when he came in the door. My mother… she turned white as a ghost. She backed up into the kitchen, and I think she knocked over some pots or something, because I heard clanging. My father asked my mother if she was all right. All she said was no. Over and over again.”
“What did your father do?”
“He excused himself, went to check on my mother. He left us alone in the vestibule, it must have been for less than a minute. And I…” Judith paused, then willed herself to finish. “I started… rubbing myself against Herman. All over. He didn’t even make a move. But I couldn’t stop myself. I don’t even remember wanting to stop. My parents had to pull me away, both of them.” Judith felt like crying.
“My father actually hit me. He said I made him sick. Then he called me… a little whore.”
Mrs. Sloan made a sympathetic noise. “It’s not far to the ruins,” she said softly. “We’d better go, before they get back.”
* * *
It felt like an hour had passed before they emerged from the forest and looked down on the ruins that Judith had seen in the Polaroids. In the setting sun, they seemed almost mythic –like Stonehenge, or the Aztec temples Judith had toured once on a trip to Cancun. The stones here had obviously once been the foundation of a farmhouse. Judith could make out the outline of what would have been a woodshed extending off the nearest side, and another tumble of stonework in the distance was surely the remains of a barn — but now they were something else entirely. Judith didn’t want to go any closer. If she turned back now, she might make it home before dark.
“Do you feel it?” Mrs. Sloan gripped the axe-handle with white knuckles. Judith must have been holding the shovel almost as tightly. Although it was quite warm outside, her teeth began to chatter.
“If either of us had come alone, we wouldn’t be able to stand it,” said Mrs. Sloan, her voice trembling. “We’d better keep moving.”
Judith followed Herman’s stepmother down the rocky slope to the ruins. Her breaths grew shorter the closer they got. She used the shovel as a walking stick until they reached level ground, then held it up in both hands, like a weapon.
They stopped again at the edge of the foundation. The door to the root cellar lay maybe thirty feet beyond. It was made of sturdy, fresh-painted wood, in sharp contrast to the overgrown wreckage around it, and it was embedded in the ground at an angle. Tall, thick weeds sprouting galaxies of tiny white flowers grew in a dense cluster on top of the mound. They waved rhythmically back and forth, as though in a breeze.
But it was wrong, thought Judith. There was no breeze, the air was still. She looked back on their trail and confirmed it — the tree branches weren’t even rustling.
“I know,” said Mrs. Sloan, her voice flat. “I see it too. They’re moving on their own.”
Without another word, Mrs. Sloan stepped across the stone boundary. Judith followed, and together they approached the shifting mound.
As they drew closer, Judith half-expected the weeds to attack, to shoot forward and grapple their legs, or to lash across their eyes and throats with prickly venom.
In fact, the stalks didn’t even register the two women’s presence as they stepped up to the mound. Still, Judith held the shovel ready as Mrs. Sloan smashed the padlock on the root cellar door. She pried it away with a painful-sounding rending.
“Help me lift this,” said Mrs. Sloan.
The door was heavy, and earth had clotted along its top, but with only a little difficulty they managed to heave it open. A thick, milky smell wafted up from the darkness.
Mrs. Sloan switched on the flashlight and aimed it down. Judith peered along its beam — it caught nothing but dust motes, and the uncertain-looking steps of a wooden ladder.
“Don’t worry, Judith,” breathed Mrs. Sloan, “I’ll go first.” Setting the flashlight on the ground for a moment, she turned around and set a foot on one of the upper rungs. She climbed down a few steps, then picked up the flashlight and gave Judith a little smile.
“You can pass down the axe and shovel when I get to the bottom,” she said, and then her head was below the ground. Judith swallowed with a dry click and shut her eyes.
“All right,” Mrs. Sloan finally called, her voice improbably small. “It’s too far down here for you to pass the tools to me by hand. I’ll stand back — drop them both through the hole then come down yourself.”
Judith did as she was told. At the bottom of the darkness she could make out a flickering of light, just bright enough for her to see where the axe and shovel fell. They were very tiny at the bottom of the hole. Holding her breath, Judith mounted the top rung of the ladder and began her own descent.
Despite its depth, the root cellar was warm. And the smell was overpowering. Judith took only a moment to identify it. It was Herman’s smell, but magnified a thousandfold — and exuding from the very walls of this place.
Mrs. Sloan had thoroughly explored the area at the base of the ladder by the time Judith reached her.
“The walls are earthen, shored up with bare timber,” she said, shining the light along the nearest wall to illustrate. “The ceiling here tapers up along the length of the ladder — I’d guess we’re nearly forty feet underground.”
Judith picked up the shovel, trying not to imagine the weight of the earth above them.
“There’s another chamber, through that tunnel.” Mrs. Sloan swung the flashlight beam down and to their right. The light extended into a dark hole in the wall, not more than five feet in diameter and rimmed with fieldstone. “That’s where the smell is strongest.”
Mrs. Sloan stooped and grabbed the axe in her good hand. Still bent over, she approached the hole and shone the light inside.
“The end’s still farther than the flashlight beam will carry,” she called over her shoulder. “I think that’s where we’ll have to go.”
Judith noticed then that the tremor was gone from Mrs. Sloan’s voice. Far from sounding frightened, Herman’s mother actually seemed excited. It wasn’t hard to see why — this day might finish with the spell broken, with their freedom assured. Why wouldn’t she be excited?
But Judith couldn’t shake her own sense of foreboding so easily. She wondered where Herman was now, what he would be thinking. And what was Judith thinking, on the verge of her freedom? Judith couldn’t put it to words, but the thought twisted through her stomach and made her stop in the dark chamber behind Mrs. Sloan. A little whore, her father had called her. Then he’d hit her, hard enough to bring up a swelling. Right in front of Herman, like he wasn’t even there! Judith clenched her jaw, around a rage that was maddeningly faceless.
“I’m not a whore,” she whispered through her teeth.
Mrs. Sloan disappeared into the hole, and it was only when the chamber was dark that Judith followed.
The tunnel widened as they went, its walls changing from wood-shored earth to fieldstone and finally to actual rock. Within sixty feet the tunnel ended, and Mrs. Sloan began to laugh. Judith felt ill — the smell was so strong she could barely breathe. Even as she stepped into the second chamber of the root cellar, the last thing she wanted to do was laugh.
“Roots!” gasped Mrs. Sloan, her voice shrill and echoing in the dark. “Of course there would be –” she broke into another fit of giggles “– roots, here in the root cellar!” The light jagged across the cellar’s surfaces as Mrs. Sloan slipped to the floor and fell into another fit of laughter.
Judith bent down and pried the flashlight from Mrs. Sloan’s hand — she made a face as she brushed the scratchy tips of the two bare finger-bones. She swept the beam slowly across the ceiling.
It was a living thing. Pulsing intestinal ropes drooped from huge bulbs and broad orange phalluses clotted with earth and juices thick as semen. Between them, fingerlike tree roots bent and groped in knotted black lines. One actually penetrated a bulb, as though to feed on the sticky yellow water inside. Silvery droplets formed like beading mercury on the surface of an ample, purple sac directly above the chamber’s centre.
Mrs. Sloan’s laughter began to slow. “Oh my,” she finally chuckled, sniffing loudly, “I don’t know what came over me.”
“This is the place.” Judith had intended it as a question, but it came out as a statement of fact. This was the place. She could feel Herman, his father, God knew how many others like them — all of them here, an indisputable presence.
Mrs. Sloan stood, using the axe-handle as a support. “It is,” she agreed. “We’d better get to work on it.”
Mrs. Sloan hefted the axe in both hands and swung it around her shoulders. Judith stood back and watched as the blade bit into one of the drooping ropes, not quite severing it but sending a spray of green sap down on Mrs. Sloan’s shoulders. She pulled the axe out and swung again. This time the tube broke. Its two ends twitched like live electrical wires; its sap spewed like bile. Droplets struck Judith, and where they touched skin they burned like vinegar.
“Doesn’t it feel better?” shouted Mrs. Sloan, grinning fiercely at Judith through the wash of slime on her face. “Don’t you feel free? Put down the flashlight, girl, pick up the shovel! There’s work to be done!”
Judith set the flashlight down on its end, so that it illuminated the roots in a wide yellow circle. She hefted the shovel and, picking the nearest bulb, swung it up with all her strength. The yellow juices sprayed out in an umbrella over Judith, soaking her. She began to laugh.
It does feel better, she thought. A lot better. Judith swung the shovel up again and again. The blade cut through tubes, burst bulbs, lodged in the thick round carrot-roots deep enough so Judith could pry them apart with only a savage little twist of her shoulders. The mess of her destruction was everywhere. She could taste it every time she grinned.
After a time, she noticed that Mrs. Sloan had stopped and was leaning on the axe-handle, watching her. Judith yanked the shovel from a root. Brown milk splattered across her back.
“What are you stopping for?” she asked. “There’s still more to cut!”
Mrs. Sloan smiled in the dimming light — the flashlight, miraculously enough, was still working, but its light now had to fight its way through several layers of ooze.
“I was just watching you, dear,” she said softly.
Judith turned her ankle impatiently. The chamber was suddenly very quiet. “Come on,” said Judith. “We can’t stop until we’re finished.”
“Of course.” Mrs. Sloan stood straight and swung the axe up again. It crunched into a wooden root very near the ceiling, and Mrs. Sloan pried it loose. “I think that we’re very nearly done, though. At least, that’s the feeling I get.”
Judith didn’t smile — she suddenly felt very cold inside.
“No, we’re not,” she said in a low voice, “we’re not done for a long time yet. Keep working.”
* * *
Mrs. Sloan had been right, though. There were only a half-dozen intact roots on the cellar ceiling, and it took less than a minute for the two women to cut them down. When they stopped, the mess was up to their ankles and neither felt like laughing. Judith shivered, the juices at once burning and chilling against her skin.
“Let’s get out of this place,” said Mrs. Sloan. “There’s dry clothes back at the house.”
The flashlight died at the base of the ladder, its beam flickering out like a dampened candle flame. It didn’t matter, though. The sky was a square of deepening purple above them, and while they might finish the walk back in the dark they came out of the root cellar in time to bask in at least a sliver of the remaining daylight. The weeds atop the mound were still as the first evening stars emerged and the line of orange to the west sucked itself back over the treetops.
Mrs. Sloan talked all the way back, her continual chatter almost but not quite drowning out Judith’s recollections. She mostly talked about what she would do with her new freedom: first, she’d take the pickup and drive it back to the city where she would sell it. She would take the money, get a place to live and start looking for a job. As they crested the ridge of bedrock, Mrs. Sloan asked Judith if there was much call for three-fingered manicurists in the finer Toronto salons, then laughed in such a girlish way that Judith wondered if she weren’t walking with someone other than Mrs. Sloan.
“What are you going to do, now that you’re free?” asked Mrs. Sloan.
“I don’t know,” Judith replied honestly.
* * *
The black pickup was parked near the end of the driveway. Its headlights were on, but when they checked, the cab was empty.
“They may be inside,” she whispered. “You were right, Judith. We’re not done yet.”
Mrs. Sloan led Judith to the kitchen door around the side of the house. It wasn’t locked, and together they stepped into the kitchen. The only light came from the half-open refrigerator door. Judith wrinkled her nose. A carton of milk lay on its side, and milk dripped from the countertop to a huge puddle on the floor. Cutlery was strewn everywhere.
Coming from somewhere in the house, Judith thought she recognized Herman’s voice. It was soft, barely a whimper. It sounded as though it were coming from the living room.
Mrs. Sloan heard it too. She hefted the axe in her good hand and motioned to Judith to follow as she stepped silently around the spilled milk. She clutched the doorknob to the living room in a three-fingered grip, and stepped out of the kitchen.
Herman and his father were on the couch, and they were in bad shape. Both were bathed in a viscous sweat, and they had bloated so much that several of the buttons on Herman’s shirt had popped and Mr. Sloan’s eyes were swollen shut.
And where were their noses?
Judith shuddered. Their noses had apparently receded into their skulls. Halting breaths passed through chaffed-red slits with a wet buzzing sound.
Herman looked at Judith. She rested the shovel’s blade against the carpet. His eyes were moist, as though he’d been crying.
“You bastard,” whispered Mrs. Sloan. “You took away my life. Nobody can do that, but you did. You took away everything.”
Mr. Sloan quivered, like gelatin dropped from a mold.
“You made me touch you…” Mrs. Sloan stepped closer “…worship you… you made me lick up after you, swallow your filthy, inhuman taste… And you made me like it!”
She was shaking almost as much as Mr. Sloan, and her voice grew into a shrill, angry shout. Mr. Sloan’s arms came up to his face, and a high, keening whistle rose up. Beside him, Herman sobbed. He did not stop looking at Judith.
Oh, Herman, Judith thought, her stomach turning. Herman was sick, sicker than Judith had imagined. Had he always been this bad? Judith couldn’t believe that. Air whistled like a plea through Herman’s reddened nostrils.
“Well, no more!” Mrs. Sloan raised the axe over her head so that it jangled against the lighting fixture in the ceiling. “No more!”
Judith lifted up the shovel then, and swung with all her strength. The flat of the blade smashed against the back of Mrs. Sloan’s skull.
Herman’s sobbing stretched into a wail, and Judith swung the shovel once more. Mrs. Sloan dropped the axe beside her and crumpled to the carpeted floor.
* * *
The telephone in Judith’s parents’ home rang three times before the answering machine Judith had bought them for Christmas switched on. Judith’s mother began to speak, in a timed, halting monotone: “Allan… and… I are… not…”
Judith smoothed her hair behind her ears, fingers tapping impatiently at her elbow until the message finished. She nearly hung up when the tone sounded, but she shut her eyes and forced herself to go through with it.
“Hi Mom, hi Dad.” Her voice was small, and it trembled. “It’s me. I know you’re pretty mad at me, and I just wanted to call and say I was sorry. I know that what we did — what Herman and I did, mostly me — I know it was wrong. I know it was sick, okay? Dad, you were right about that. But I’m not going to do that stuff anymore. I’ve got control of my life, and… of my body. God, that sounds like some kind of feminist garbage, doesn’t it? Control of my body. But it’s true.” With her foot, Judith swung the kitchen door shut. The gurgling from upstairs grew quieter.
“Oh, by the way, I’m up at Herman’s parents’ place now. It’s about three hours north of you guys, outside a town called Fenlan. You should see it up here, it’s beautiful. I’m going to stay here for awhile, but don’t worry, Herman and I will have separate bedrooms.” She smiled. “We’re going to save ourselves.”
Judith turned around so that the telephone cord wrapped her body, and she leaned against the stove.
“Mom,” she continued, “do you remember what you told me about love? I do. You told me there were two stages. There was the in-love feeling, the one that you get when you meet a guy, he’s really cute and everything, and you just don’t want to be away from him. And then that goes away, and remember what you said? `You’d better still love him after that,’ you told me. `Even though he’s not so cute, even though maybe he’s getting a little pot belly, even though he stops sending you flowers, you’d better still love him like there’s no tomorrow.’ Well Mom, guess what?”
The answering machine beeped again and the line disconnected.
“I do,” finished Judith.