Hello, Coffin Hoppers! It’s only day 3 of the Coffin Hop but already awesome things are brewing. I’ll be posting something every day until Halloween, so keep checking back, but so as not to forget about my Coffin Hop Contest, I’ll keep linking to it and reminding you to enter!
CONTEST #1: Enter either by subscribing to my blog, commenting on any post, or submitting to Contest #2. Each thing you do gets you an additional entry to win a free copy of Indiana Science Fiction.
CONTEST #2: Respond to my Halloween writing prompt in 50 words or less. Click here for the prompt and respond to win a free copy of Alternate Dimensions (my story in this one is even Halloween themed!).
And now for today’s post: a short story I wrote way back in high school and recently spruced up a bit. I hope this offering appeases the Samhain gods.
THE FINAL INGREDIENT
© Joanna Parypinski
It was a fine autumn day: the whisk of the dead leaves, like the ruffle of old parchment, sang through the honeycrisp air of the orchard. Rhian wound around the apple trees as the breeze whispered into the knitting of her sweater. Her long curls of dark hair lifted in the wind and then settled again over her eyes.
Rhian knew the owners of the apple orchard—just like anybody knew everybody in a small town like this—and they knew she liked to wander among the gnarled trees in the quiet of a Sunday morning. The sun beat down hotly on her back in a strange contrast to the cool air, and she zigzagged all the way to the edge of the orchard where the property ended and the forest began.
She kept going. Other kids her age were out making Halloween plans for the following weekend and getting their costumes ready, but not Rhian. She preferred the scenic beauty of an apple orchard in the fall stretching out to the forest at the edge of town. The leaves were changing, lighting up in the sun like fire.
Ahead was a small clearing that she wondered if the orchard owners knew about. Within were several decrepit headstones jutting crookedly from the earth, the names worn off with age, but some of the dates were still visible, going back to the 1800s. The weatherworn stone crumbled, and many of the graves were marked with no more than a shapeless rock still stuck into the earth.
There was something like nineteen graves in the forest, and local legend said they were the graves of the nineteen witches who supposedly lived there long ago. They were bad witches, too; some said their dark magic had left the town cursed.
Rhian liked the old cemetery. There was something eerie but peaceful about it. She almost wished she’d stolen an apple to munch on as she walked, but she knew her conscience wouldn’t have allowed that.
As she stepped into the clearing, she noticed that something was wrong.
The air was hazy here, and it didn’t take long for her to spot the source of the mist: a huge black cauldron sat in the center of the graves, radiating vapor from its simmering depths. At first she considered that it was a Halloween decoration someone had put here as a prank, but it looked old, as if it were made of heavy pewter.
“Hello?” she called, stepping further into the clearing. A twig snapped underfoot. A sense of foreboding washed over her in the emptiness of the forest, and she felt as if she were being watched, but there was no one else around.
Maybe the orchard owners were cooking up some cider… but way out here? Why would they do that, surrounded by the moldering remains of witches lying just under the rocky dirt?
When she got close enough to the cauldron to peer inside, she saw an awful grayish liquid that smelled of rotten meat and she turned away quickly, heart beating a drum solo in her chest.
“Is anyone here?” This time her voice trembled, and as she looked around again she noticed a scroll of yellowed paper lying rolled-up on the patchy grass. Retrieving the paper, she unrolled it carefully and read the cursive script.
It was a list. The ink was smudged, but she managed to make out some of it: powdered bone of rat, eye of newt, tongue of snake… the list continued until it came to the final object, which made Rhian’s insides run cold. Blood of human.
She dropped the scroll. These were ingredients. Someone was brewing some sort of awful concoction in the cauldron; that was why it was in a cemetery.
But wait, she thought, looking around at the old graves. These bodies are just skeletons by now. There’s no blood.
Whoever was brewing the potion needed blood from a human, and they wouldn’t find it here among the stones.
Rhian started backing up until she was out of the clearing, then turned and ran to the edge of the dense forest with its spindly branches reaching up to the sky like skeleton arms, into the orchard and down the rows of apple trees, and finally to the farmhouse surrounded by bushels of picked apples in wicker baskets.
Heart hammering, Rhian pounded her fists on the door, shouting for the owners to let her in. “Open up!” she cried. “Please!” There was some lunatic out there looking for a human victim, and Rhian felt panic rising in her throat as she looked wildly about her at the desolate orchard, waiting for someone to pop out and drag her back to the clearing where she would be gutted and drained into the cauldron.
At long last, the door flew open, and out stepped the eldest daughter of the owners: a tall woman with deathly-pale skin, coal-black eyes, and equally dark hair. Rhian’s fist paused in midair as the woman appraised her before saying in a calm, velvety voice, “Rhian Wakanda.”
“Please, let me in,” she begged, and the woman stepped aside as she tumbled through the open doorway into the kitchen of the house, breathing hard. “I think there’s some kind of crazy person in your orchard. They’re going to kill someone,” she tried to explain.
“I don’t understand,” said the woman in a strange, distant voice, and Rhian felt the hair on her arms stand up as her skin broke out in goosebumps. The kitchen was dark and smelled of warm apple pie and something else… something mustier, and something sickly sweet…
“I found a cauldron,” Rhian said. “There was something in it, it smelled awful. And there was a list of ingredients. Please, we have to call the police, or something.”
“Perhaps it is a Halloween joke,” said the woman, unaffected by Rhian’s panic. “Please show me.”
“I’m not going back there!” she shouted, pointing out the window towards the forest in the distance.
“Take me there. Now,” commanded the woman, and Rhian hesitated before leading her back out the door, hoping that with the older girl with her, she would be safe from whoever was lurking among the trees.
They walked in silence through the orchard and out to the edge of the woods. Rhian had to take a deep breath before gathering the courage to enter, and when she did, she thought she heard sounds coming from all directions: snapping twigs, dead leaves crunching, footsteps. She felt twitchy and skittish, like a spooked dog.
“There,” she said, pointing into the clearing as they came up to it. The cauldron was visible, still sitting in the center and sending wispy gray smoke to the treetops.
“Ah, yes,” said the woman as she walked into the clearing. She strode in a circle around the cauldron, a figure in black, then turned to face Rhian. “Come here,” she snapped.
Rhian had no intention of going back into the clearing. She shook her head.
The woman snapped her fingers, and suddenly Rhian was lifted into the air and pulled by an invisible force towards the cauldron, the toes of her sneakers dragging against the ground. She tried to fight against it, but the force was too strong, and she cried out for help.
Rhian realized what the sickly sweet smell was from back in the kitchen. It had smelled similar to the contents of the cauldron: rancid meat.
The witch bent down beside the cauldron and picked up a fraying, pointed black hat, placing it crookedly on her head. “That’s better,” she said.
Struggling against the invisible ropes around her, Rhian kicked and writhed, but the witch just cackled.
“Everyone in town wants to know my family’s secret recipe,” said the witch as Rhian drifted to a stop just in front of the cauldron. Her black eyes bore into Rhian’s. She sniffed, wrinkling her nose. “Don’t worry. Once the final ingredient is in the potion, it will smell much nicer. No one will even notice that it’s there when they come for a mug of nice hot cider.”
Rhian’s limbs were trembling. “W-why?” she stammered.
The witch smiled, her dark lips twisting into an ugly leer. “Because my ancestors are going to need living bodies once I resurrect them,” she said, motioning to the graves around her. “But before I can do that, I need to finish the potion.”
A long blade appeared in her taloned fingers.
“No! Please!” Rhian shouted, squirming against the hold of the invisible force.
“Thank you for being my final ingredient,” said the witch as she approached with the knife. Rhian kicked her feet out hard, and they connected with the cauldron, which rocked, the putrid contents sloshing dangerously close to the edges before it tipped over completely, splashing the potion over the witch.
She screamed as the liquid began to burn her skin like acid, and Rhian, now free of the invisible chains, turned to sprint out of the clearing, ready to run all the way through the forest to the orchard and away to town without looking back.
But a hand grabbed her by the ankle, and then she was on the ground, the breath gone from her lungs. She turned over just in time to see the witch above her, skin melting and bubbling and sloughing off. She raised the knife, which glinted in the sun, and then drove it down straight towards Rhian—
Her eyes snapped open and she sat up with a start, panting in time with the drumming of her heart. She sat there on the couch for a moment, brushing her curly black hair from her face. After a moment, a velvety voice broke the silence.
“Bad dream?” It was her older sister, busy stirring something at the kitchen table just off the living room. Rhian blinked and looked around the dim living room. It was evening already; the nap had taken her through the afternoon.
“It was really weird,” she murmured, rubbing her eyes.
“What was it about?” her sister asked, continuing to stir. Her long, dark hair fell over her face, hiding her pale skin from sight. She smiled at her sister through dark lips, her black eyes boring into Rhian’s. “Was it gruesome?”
Rhian shivered. “Kind of. You wanted to cook me in some kind of potion. I didn’t know it was you though, and I was afraid of you. But that’s not even the strangest part.”
“It’s not?” asked her sister.
“No. The strangest part was that I was a mortal,” said Rhian. A cackle escaped her sister’s lips.
“You? A mortal?”
Rhian looked up at the large black cauldron her sister was stirring and the pile of crisp red apples sitting beside it. “When will dinner be ready?”
“About twenty minutes,” said her sister, examining the simmering liquid.
Rhian hopped off the couch, straightening the tall pointed had on her head. “I’m going to go for a quick ride then.”
Grabbing her broomstick, Rhian headed out into the orchard, mounted, and soared off into the starry night sky, casting a strangely shaped shadow over the waxing moon.