To an outsider, our town’s sky might look peculiar, perhaps even dangerous. It looms in pale yellows of dying autumn leaves like the gaseous space of No Man’s Land. But if you spend enough time under the subtle glow, you come to appreciate the haze, back-lit by some indeterminable source. You stop asking if it is sunrise or sunset, because it is neither day or night that’s approaching.
Our town is surrounded by a fire. We call it the Delmore. It was once as distant as a star, but it has crept toward us over the rolling hills of time. Though relentless, there is no malice in the fire’s heart. This is how it has always been – so much so that the fire is as much a part of our town as our skies, our wheat fields, the scarecrows we’ve named for no reason at all.
On the third Friday of every month, the sound of wooden wheels echoes through stone alleyways and Father Stock arrives to try again. He wears a kind and warm facade as he attempts glamour magic with news of the outside world – what he calls the world of truth. The elders call him Laughing Stock and mock him, sometimes to his face, as he prattles about the Word of his Lord and the meaning hereafter.
We let him wander the streets, making his pitch, making the same jokes as he did last month, perhaps forgetting or figuring that we simply weren’t listening then, either. He asks us to follow him home. No one ever does. We know what happens in the woods to those who follow Father Stock.
After a while, he’ll try to instigate us. Then he’ll soften again. Offer to rebuild the old priory. Offer gifts of fulfillment, answers, and enlightenment. Like a child, he’ll tire himself, and eventually we will hear the sound of wooden wheels again, growing distant.
But he’ll be back. Every third Friday. Like clockwork.
From time to time, folks from beyond our borders will pass through. Some arrive frightened, some proud. Some arrive in a dream. The travelers who find themselves here over and again usually make this place their home.
Some of us are born here, like I was. Like my Aunt Doris. Aunt Doris once told me that those born in our town are born with a sickening freedom that worsens the longer we stay here and the more we explore this place.
I began exploring my home when I was quite young, first climbing the aching oaks as I tried to capture the clouds, always tumbling to the ground below. I eventually grew brave enough to wander the woods, always listening for the specter of wagon wheel or the crunching of leaves. In the shadows between the towering tree trunks was the fear – fear of the fate that befell my ancestors, the ones desperate enough to fool themselves into following Stock.
If you travel deep enough into the forest, you can hear them wailing. The elders call it the Suicide Scream.
Once, as I was meandering the outer edges of the moor, where the soil begins to dampen and the swamp becomes thick, the sickness overtook me. That dark sweetness twisted in my chest, syrupy like overripe fruit, like déjà vu.
Disoriented, I stumbled through the decaying mire until I came upon a stone cabin. As the nausea and fatigue overwhelmed me, I collapsed at the doorstep.
I awoke next to a gentle fire. The sickness was gone. It was only after they’d brought me a cup of hot tea that I realized where I was. Without trying, I’d found them. The one the elders referred to as the Bog Witch.
“Drink, darling. Before it cools.”
The old stories always spoke of the Bog Witch as the one with answers to questions that aren’t meant to be answered at all. Of course, they were just stories told to children. Stories like the ones Father Stock believed in.
“You’re the Bog Witch?”
“They still call me that?” The Bog Witch tilted their head. “Yes, I am.”
I sipped my tea and breathed in the warm scent of patchouli that filled the hut. I tried to inhale so slow that I could savor every molecule of it.
“May I ask you the questions?”
The Bog Witch smiled. “Of course, darling. But I have no answers for you.”
“They’re just stories, then…”
“Believe a story long enough and you can force it to mean something. The same can be said for old arguments. Old questions. They give us, all of us, even the elders, a momentary illusion of purpose. But even if we are aware of the lie, the lie remains.”
I smirked. “I don’t think an answer would have mattered to me, anyway.”
I set my empty cup down and thanked the Bog Witch for their kindness. They embraced me, held me close.
On my journey back to town, I thought of the power that the Bog Witch chooses not to wield. They choose seclusion, nothingness, motionlessness, while folklore bestows near immanence upon them. I thought, perhaps they did know something, as I imagined the ages that passed as the Bog Witch refused to construct a meaning for themselves, refused to embrace even the most benign white lies to sooth their weary, lonely mind.
In town, I passed some of the elders drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, scribbling away in their little leather journals. With no idea of how long I’d been away, I asked one of them what day it was. Before she could mutter the word Friday, I heard the bouncing reverberation of wooden wheel as it echoed up the alleys.
Third Friday. Like clockwork.
The elder gave me one of her cigarettes and a book of matches, and I continued up the cobbled street and to the abandoned priory. Though dilapidated, the ancient wooden doors were never locked. Once inside, I climbed the decaying stairs to the top of the tower.
On the wood and thatch roof overlooking the yellowed moor, I lit the cigarette and watched the Delmore fires, withering the outskirts of our world leaf by leaf, blade by blade, moment by moment.
Robin Sinclair (they/them) is a queer, trans writer of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Their debut full-length poetry collection, Letters To My Lover From Behind Asylum Walls (Cosmographia Books, 2018), discusses themes of identity, gender, and mental illness. Their chapbook, “Jeanette Killed Her Husband (And Buried Him Off Of Shades of Death Road)” (Ghost City Press, 2020), discusses themes of revenge and local folklore. Their poetry can be found in various journals, including Trampset, Luna Luna Magazine, and Pidgeonholes. Their fiction and nonfiction can be found in Black Telephone Magazine, The Daily Drunk, and Across The Margin. Find Robin at RobinSinclairBooks.com.