The Scratch

Danny Lee Brewer’s body was finally found by an old tinker woman on the road three miles south of the Scratch. She came into Castro’s store with her wares dangling on the wooden frame pack she wore, battered pots and tin cups clanging, and announced, “Dead body down south. You wanna buy a cup, maybe?”

Well, maybe he did – travelers were few and far between – but the mention of a corpse soured him on an immediate transaction. “What’s it look like?”

“Don’t look like much. Like raw meat. Sandstorm had its way. Maybe you spare a pone for an old lady, I can go show you.”

Normally he would have ignored this beggary – it was a store, not a charity – but he knew well that Danny Brewer had been missing from his home last night, when the storm winds had been shrieking over the canyon walls of the Scratch and the townspeople had been huddling in their cellars with their finest breathing masks tied across their faces. Hadn’t Ella Weaver come to this very shop in tears, braving the stinging sand, to ask him if he’d seen Danny, because Danny wasn’t at home?

Well, Castro hadn’t seen him. But he had an idea where he was now.

“All right,” he sighed, coming from behind the counter. “One pone, and you show me.” He ducked his head in the back room, said to his son, Segundo, “Watch the shop. We may be a while.”

When he handed the old lady the pone, she cradled it reverently. “A little paste?” she said hopefully. “No paste, no good, right?”

He sighed and got a jar of beejum from under the counter. It was a salty, fermented paste made from the bodies of bloodbeetles (minus their poison glands, full of bitter ink-blue toxin), and it and swordgrass pones were the staples of life in the Scratch. The beetles lived in the swordgrass, and the grass was nearly all that grew unprotected in the wild anymore.

He got out a knife, too, and cut the pone in half for her, then spread the beejum himself. If he’d let her do it, no doubt she’d have spooned up half a cup. Still, she grinned a happy gummy smile, and he had no doubt the calories would do her good. She was a withered doll beneath her rags, old leather stretched across a frame of sticks.

He made another pone sandwich for himself, and put it in a bag along with two plastic water bottles (worn gray with use, but still serviceable), put on his woven grass hat and ancient boots, and they set off.

Along the way they stopped first at the well, so the old lady could fill her own bottles. She grinned and waved at the other townfolk she saw, proffering a little painted clay bear to the children. “Ask your parents, it’s not much, five pones and he’s yours.”

“What’s your name?” Castro asked.

“Mayfair Mary. What you need, I carry.”

“Except food,” he observed sardonically. “You don’t carry that.”

“That I carry it in my belly,” she cackled. “Whenever I can.”

On the way out they stopped at Mason’s, because Mason liked to know such things. Cormac Mason was the mayor, as much as the Scratch had a mayor, or anyway people tended to do what he said, because he was a builder and it was always good to be in favor with a builder. Also he was the strongest man in town, even at nearly fifty years of age, a consequence of lifting stones all day, and people naturally seemed to respond to physical strength and size. It fit their preconceptions of a leader.

Mason wasn’t there, but his wife told them where he was, and it was on their way. They found him making a foundation for a new room for the Weavers, toward the southern end of the canyon. He was pounding a heavy stone mallet up and down on the dirt, packing it firm, shirt off, big arms flexing. His bushy beard came halfway down his chest, and his bald head was covered with a grass hat against the devilish sun.

Briefly Castro told him about his task and Mason frowned, eyes flicked to the window of the Weavers’ house. “Quieter, if you don’t mind,” Mason said. “Don’t want to upset her.” Belatedly Castro realized that was Ella Weaver’s room, and everyone knew she’d been seeing Danny. No point in upsetting her needlessly.

“Go see if it’s him,” Mason directed. “If it is, I’ll get Derrek and Braun with a cart and go get him. If not, it’s food for the flies.” He shook his head. “Saw him just yesterday, at noonday. Shared a meal. Then the same night he wanders off and dies. That’s the problem with brewers. Always sampling their own stock. ” Mason, Castro knew, was a Straightaway Evangelist, and didn’t approve of drinking, but of course the alcohol Brewer made from the swordgrass flour had many uses besides intoxication, and so Mason couldn’t oppose it too vociferously.

The road south was a strip of ancient asphalt through a wasteland of red rock and scrub bushes. Once there had been pines covering the hills, but the trees were long gone, known now only by precious scraps of scavenged wood. They had been killed, like everything else, by radiation, by endless drought, by the scorching sun pouring unimpeded through the damaged sky.

In places the road was drifted over with sand, and they slogged through it silently. Forty-five minutes on they left the asphalt and turned east. Squinting Castro thought he could just make something out. “You must have good eyes, to have spotted him,” he observed.

Mayfair Mary laughed. “You need good eyes, to live in this world.”

The body was at the very edge of a swathe of swordgrass, that hardiest of plants. Maybe the wayward traveller had thought to take shelter beneath it, somehow, or maybe he had been confused, thought he was at one of the patches closer to town.

It was a pitiful sight, curled up in a fetal position with its arms raised. He had taken off his shirt in an apparent effort to protect his eyes, wrapping it completely around his face, and the sandstorm had abraded most of the skin off, leaving raw red flesh embedded with grit.

Kneeling for a closer look, Castro saw that the dead man wore no shoes, and what’s more, his feet were strangely unaffected by the storm. Obviously someone had taken them. He raised an eyebrow at Mayfair Mary. “Know where his shoes are?” She shrugged innocently. No doubt stashed in her pack somewhere, to be traded at Harrisville, or Norton.

Tenderly, Castro extended a hand, lifted the head, and unwrapped the shirt. Sure enough, it was Brewer. His nose was crusted with dust, his eyes blood-red, and there was dark blood at his mouth. His skin was pale white, though, and his lips had turned dark blue with death. Having confirmed it, Castro covered his face with the shirt again.

Probably he’d died of suffocation, or dust inhalation, as was common with such storms. It was hard enough to breath inside the houses in the Scratch, and they were well-protected from the worst of it by the high canyon walls. That’s how come the Scratch even had survived, being a location protected from storms, easy to defend, and with good water at hand.

That night they had a funeral. They had it in the square outside Castro’s store, under the bare remnants of an oak that had grown there, long ago. Everyone who wasn’t too sick showed up, all hundred and twenty or so of the town’s residents. Ella May Weaver cried inconsolably.

Mason said some words. He said Brewer had been a fine man, fun to be around, always with a joke ready. He was sociable and everyone liked him. But there was also a lesson to be learned from his death: that this life demanded discipline. It demanded sober decisions. It demanded self-sacrifice. They all knew that Brewer liked a drink, or several drinks, and now it seemed it had caught up with him. Probably he’d been a bit tipsy and had gone out of town a ways, to look at the stars, because he was that kind of dreamer. Then he’d gotten turned around, somehow, and started walking the wrong way, and the storm came up and he was blinded. One mistake was all it took.

From now on, Mason decreed, alcohol would be used for the purpose God intended: as medicine and fuel. Anyone found drinking would be spoken to. Meanwhile Jephrie Piller, the apothecary, would take over the brewery.

But for now, let them remember the Danny they’d all known and loved, recognizing his virtues along with his faults. Solemnly they bowed their heads to pray.

The silence was interrupted by the low raspy cackle of the tinker lady, Mayfair Mary, laughing from the edge of the crowd, where she sat on a large stone. Despite her mirth, Mason began his prayer, but still she kept laughing, and after a few words he stopped, glaring at her. “If you can’t keep silent, leave.”

“No, no, I’m sorry,” she said, still smiling. “Go on, please.”

He did, but again she started laughing. “Do you want to share with us what’s so funny?”

“Well, you say this fellow laid out here was a jokester,” she said, eyes twinkling, “but it seems to me that you’re the really funny storyteller here.”

Mason’s dark eyes glinted in the lamplight beneath his heavy brows. “I’m not amused. And old lady or not, I’ll happily escort you out of this community, if you can’t manage to respect it enough to wait to laugh until this man is buried.”

She nodded, and stood up, bones almost audibly creaking. “Fair enough,” she said. “But don’t you want to let everyone in on your joke?”

His expression turned hard. “That’s enough. It’s time for you to go.”

“Oh, I will, I will.” She turned and lifted her pack up to the stone, preliminary to putting it on. “But look at Mr. Brewer there! Doesn’t he look like he’s grinning, too?” Involuntarily the townspeople looked, and indeed his lips were held in a grim rictus. “Why, he’s laughing so hard, he’s blue in the face! Literally!”

“I’m not laughing,” Masons said, stepping down from the platform, obviously intending to make good on his word and escort her away.

“Wait,” Castro said to the old woman. “What are you saying?”

“Look at his lips. Blue as can be. Bloodbeetle blue.” She shook her head. “This man didn’t die in the storm. Didn’t die of drink, either. He was poisoned.”

An astonished murmur from the crowd. “To my knowledge, ” she went on, still smiling, “it takes about ten hours for the poison to work. So say he ate it around lunchtime. It would have be a concentrated form, though. It takes knowledge to prepare it like that… someone who knows how to extract it.” Her eyes fixed on Jephrie Piller, the apothecary. “And why would someone do anything like that? It would take motive. A desire for property, say. Or a pretty girl between them.” She looked at Ella May Weaver. “And a determined man to do it.” And finally her eyes returned to Mason.

“Get out,” the big man demanded, closing the gap between him and Mary in a few angry strides, all politeness gone from his tone. For a second Castro thought he might actually strike the old woman, but then Mason seemed to remember the others there and restrained himself. “You come to our town, spreading lies, accusing people falsely – we ought to string you up, you, you witch.”

“No need,” she said, turning her back on him. “You won’t see me again, I promise. But –” she turned a knowing eye one last time to the crowd – “I just think people should know what they’re really living with.”

With that she trudged away, heading north into the wastes. Mason stared after her, big fists clenched, face tight with rage. Then he turned and faced his neighbors.

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