There was an old woman, and there was a shoe. That’s what they said, at least, as the asphalt of those northern roads fell away, as the trees began to stand skeletal, as the life began to end.
The visitor passed the last real town at least a hundred miles back. He stopped at the last gas station perhaps five miles farther; the scarecrow old man who owned the single pump showed him a blurry picture of the boot, his papery hands shaking. The visitor smiled and shook hands and recorded a few of the old kook’s answers, then he moved on.
The town grows slowly as the visitor approaches it, his rented pickup hitching over the road’s washed-out hardpan. First the hill, then the low wooden houses below, spread out like an algae bloom around its base. There’s something atop the hill, a diffuse polygonal mass. He’ll believe it when he sees it.
He parks the pickup a mile outside the village, by a stand of diseased-looking apple trees along the side of the road. A man, dressed in thick wool and dirty canvas pants, trundles a cart full of yellowing apples between the trunks. Every once in a while he reaches up, knocks another of his wares to the earth.
The visitor readies his camera and his sound equipment, approaches the man with spry, confident steps, smiles his cheerful visitor’s smile, and soon he’s being led into town. He disregards the fruit-seller’s resigned sigh, the way he looks at the rusty old Impala as if sizing up how big its grave would have to be.
“Not me ma, en not me me-ma, but me me-ma’s me-ma, back when she was a gal, she said she seen the boot fall, right out of the heavens,” mutters the town crone (not, in fact, the eponymous old woman, as he’d originally presumed), casting a rheumy eye at the top of the hill. She crosses herself, starting at the wrong side of her caved-in chest and finishing by clasping her hands on her solar plexus. The creaking of her rocking chair resumes.
“Ol’ town hall use to be up there. Right shame, what happened.” The portly barman flinches at the procession that’s emerged from one of the boot’s gaping eyelets. He mutters a prayer singular to that summer-shy region and pushes open the tavern’s door, retreating to his dim refuge. The door thuds shut with an iron finality. Latches clank; a bolt is drawn. The visitor tries to raise his camera in time, but his limbs seem to be responding at half-speed, and he misses the shot. A good one, if he’d reacted in time.
“The children ain’t natural-born, right? Something off about them, all quiet-like. Ayuh, and here they are now.” The fruit-seller smiles weakly at the twin lines of boys and girls. Twenty total, their naked backs hunch; their feet drag as they trudge through the hoar-frosted mud. The visitor has stopped recording. The camera hangs limply on the his neck, the lens cap secured.
“That there’s Mary-Anne’s girl,” a midwife whispers. “The one she couldn’t keep.” The girl in question doesn’t look much like a girl. Her head is shaved; her bare breasts are sharpened nubs. A crude symbol, like a giant foot, brands the back of her neck. A heavy, fraying rope connects her to the boy ahead of her, alternately jerking—limp, taut, limp—as they shuffle forward.
“Up there… oh, mercy… a nightmare, pray…” Dark murmurings from the scant few left in the cold. A flame has spouted from the top of the great boot, red and candle-like against the darkening sky. A small, bent shadow, perched on the lip of that impossible manse, proffers the fire in her upraised palms. The air has gone a queer tint of yellow, clouds rolling in like spreading coffee stains.
“Ye shouldn’t’ve come here, mister,” a sooty newsboy says, shaking his head.
Another shadow has fallen across the boot, deepening to an amorphous black that leeches down the hill, swallowing the village. The visitor’s breathing quickens, crystallizes in the rapidly cooling air. He reaches for his inhaler.
A foot big enough to erase that forgotten village descends, catches on the wall of wood and canvas that makes up the boot’s heel, then slides in. The visitor looks for the shadow, for the old woman whose existence they skirted in hushed tones and downcast eyes, and blinks.
A tiny red flame, jittering and jumping up the rutted face of the thing’s ankle.
Impossible, but what isn’t?
The concussive shockwave that shakes the village nearly knocks the visitor off his Polo-clad feet. The newsboy offers him a dirt-hardened hand. His doleful eyes beseech him: Out. Away. Leave. You were not welcome.
A leg stretches up, up, impossibly up, vanishing into swirling clouds. Mats of hair hang off it, whole ecosystems of unchecked Spanish moss. The clouds blink open, revealing a sunless, jaundiced sky. Two more shadows descend: a pair of gnarled hands, floating down like avenging, god-sent jellyfish, tying the pylon-sized laces. The fingers’ movements are clumsy, slow, as if remembering something long forgotten. The little red flame has nearly reached the thing’s knee. She’s climbing to it, to whatever being for whom she’s waited, the deity to whom they’ve prayed.
“Where’d ye say ye were from, boyo?” asks the fruit-seller. He’s still watching the group of shaven children, the barrow of rotting apples lying forgotten behind him. They’ve stopped in the middle of the thoroughfare, chanting in a rudimentary, forgotten tongue, heads bowed. And as the visitor watches, frost beginning to edge his rimless glasses, he sees the picture on the children’s backs, made whole by their bound condition. A rope-scarred scrawl, carefully whipped into them by a little old woman. An arm snakes down three of their backs. Legs, a disproportionately elongated torso. And the head—
Their singing is much too loud for their number. Something—somethings, have mercy; pray to a god other than this—have joined them, glassy voices filtering down through the clouds, calling forth whatever vast intellect that lie beyond.
The visitor falls to his knees. His brain throbs, threatens to burst out of the confines of his skull. Madness, he finds, has a distinct odor, like smoke rising from frayed wires, singing his nose hairs. Like something burning back there, behind his eyes.
“Should’ve never left Cincinnati,” the visitor breathes.
Colin Lubner is a writer and math teacher from southern New Jersey. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Corvus Review, 365 Tomorrows, The Blue Route, and elsewhere. He owns, or is owned by, several cats. You can follow him on Twitter: @Colinization_L.