THE DREAD QUEEN
The ticking of a gold pocket watch beats like the cadence of a gallows drum. Repetitive, precise, an ear worm that seems to grow louder the more one listens to it; like a steel bucket catching droplets from a slowly-dripping faucet, it drones increasingly until it cannot be ignored.
Here, even in the brilliant sunrise of a quiet, misty morning, the sound is a steady reminder that death is always on the fringe of every moment. For most people, though, such an idea exists only in the abstract.
For Blake, the idea of lurking death is his reality.
Before him, the hangman’s noose. Out there, on his tail, in the fields and the forests and the horizon beyond, chases Persephone.
Or Cora, as he knows her. The gorgeous creature who stole his heart.
She has a thing for hearts.
“Still no sign of her,” says Blake, his voice cutting the stillness of the early morning air. He senses Wilmore standing behind him. “But she’s close.”
Wilmore clears his throat.
“I’m telling ya, Blake. She ain’t coming back.”
Blake snaps the watch closed, places his black Stetson back on his head.
“I wish that were true,” he says. And he means it. “But when the world seems as if it might never bloom again… she’ll show.”
Blake looks back to the man behind him, musters a miserable, bittersweet smile.
“Just like the spring.”
Blake eats, the warm fire in front of him the only glow of light for miles. His shackles, at wrists and ankles, hinder him only slightly. The soup is potato, one of Wilmore’s tried-and-true dishes Blake’s had a thousand times over since the two of them were teenagers. It’s delicious every time.
Wilmore sits across from him on a log of his own, watching the fire and packing a pipe with fresh cut tobacco. Blake knows that one eye sits on him always. He can feel the weight of it, that look of brotherly protection, half love and half trepidation.
“I’m glad your appetite is back,” says Wilmore.
Blake keeps eating, no response.
Wilmore lights his pipe and takes a few puffs, leans back comfortably, as much as one can while perched on an upended log.
“Do you know what way she might have headed, Blake?” Asks Wilmore.
Blake never looks from his bowl.
He looks to the woods around him then, studies the darkness beyond the reach of firelight, where shadows become living, breathing things.
“Maybe I’ll keep watch tonight.”
Blake grins, humorlessly.
“Thought you said she wasn’t coming.”
“Well,” says Wilmore, in that drawn out way a man speaks while trying to buy time. “You can’t be too careful out here.” Wilmore hugs himself a little tighter then, scoots an inch or so closer to the fire. The cold of the night is creeping in.
“We’ll be in town in a day or so,” he says, if only to reassure himself.
“We shouldn’t be going back at all,” comments Blake between bites. “Too dangerous.”
“For you?” Questions Wilmore.
Blake looks up finally, his eyes meeting Wilmore’s.
Wilmore frowns, and a heavy silence falls between them.
“You stopped her once,” offers Wilmore after a bit, grasping for anything to keep latent fears at bay.
Blake nods, the dull pain in his fractured, bloodied knuckles singing out to him then, reminding him of altercations not that far removed. He sets the spoon in the bowl, clenches and unclenches his right fist a couple of times, trying to rid his skin of the sensations of memory.
“That I did,” he concedes.
“So you can’t again?” Wilmore asks, a hint of desperation in his voice. Blake picks up the spoon again, takes a bite and chews, contemplating.
“She’ll be stronger now,” he says, looking Wilmore again in the eyes. “It’s her season.”
Wilmore barks a weary scoff into the night air. “Quit speaking so mysterious-like, Blake.
“No other way to say it,” says Blake. “She’s nature, Wilmore. Moves with the sun and stars.”
“So what would you have us do?” asked Wilmore, rhetorical, his agitation rising. “Go on the run, like you did?”
Forest. Trees. Nothing but branches and leaves, green and brown. Blake runs, his face and arms caught by the underbrush, split open like so many cracks beneath desert suns, each a reminder that nature always catches up to us.
Blake stops eating, his eyes growing distant.
“Yea. Sounds about right.”
He kicks the lead ball shackled to his foot.
“Too bad you slowed me down.”
“Someone was gonna,” says Wilmore, “Better that it’s me.”
Blake shakes his head. “I said ain’t no one safe around me, Wilmore.” He looks at his brother then, true regret in his eyes.
“Not even family.”
Wilmore falls silent again, his mind in thought.
Finally, he dares to ask the question that’s been dancing on his lips, ever since the night of the murders, ever since Blake went on the lam.
“Blake?” He begins, timid. “What… is she?… really?”
Blake smiles, sadly, but cannot answer.
“Happy Anniversary,” says Cora with a smile.
“Best seven months of my life,” returns Blake. They clink their champaign glasses together, a toast of things to come. It is summer, what seems like ages ago, before the winter came to take what was beautiful and warm, and the two lovers are sharing a picnic. Blake is clean-shaven, his wild hair pulled back. He looks, in the memory, like gentlemen should. Cora smiles then.
“I got you something,” she says.
“What?” Blake exclaims, incredulous.
“You want it now?” says Cora, excited. “You want it now.”
“I thought,” says Blake, finding the words. “I thought we weren’t doing that. You didn’t need to spend money on me.”
Cora grins playfully, her tongue between her teeth like a devilish child. “Who said I paid for it?”
She reaches behind her, opens the wicker picnic basket, and pulls from within it a gold pocket watch. It dangles from its fob like a lure dangles from a fishing line, irresistibly shiny in the sunlight. Blake’s eyes go wide.
“Oh Cora, it’s just like my father’s,” he says, taking the watch gently in his hand.
“I know,” says Cora. Blake looks at her, drowning in her sea-green eyes, his heart swelling with love for her.
“I love it,” he says.
She returns the gaze, her devotion equal.
“And I love you,” she says.
And she means it.
Sunrise. The ticking of the ever-present pocket watch lulls Blake awake before the dawn. He sits in the field, the watch in hand. The minutes march continually on, each tick the hope of things to come, each tock the pang of what’s been missed. It happens this fast. Blake knows as much. Failure and fortune balance on the edge of the second hand. It’s this way for everyone.
Wilmore appears behind him again, as he always does. Watching at first before speaking.
“You’re up early,” he comments.
Blake doesn’t look back. “Figured I wouldn’t bother you.”
Wilmore comes forward, a pewter mug of coffee in his hand. He offers it to Blake, who gladly accepts.
“Thanks,” he says.
Wilmore nods wordlessly and turns his eyes to the horizon, the rising sun an egg yoke on the surface of existence.
The brothers sip their coffee in silence, taking in God’s creation, hoping this moment of serenity will last; knowing in their hearts that it won’t.
Finally, Wilmore breaks the silence.
“We’ll be in town by nightfall.”
That same day, under the cover of dusk, Blake enters the town he had left behind. Walking down the dusty middle road—his shackles scraping gravel, the lead ball in his hands—Blake can’t help but think of the last time he was here. It’s all he ever can think about, truly, but returning to the scene of the crime as it were brings with it fresh pain, new memories.
In his mind, he’s walking down the same road, all those many weeks ago, trying to keep his composure, his legs wanting to run but his mind not wanting to draw the attention. Not yet, at least. Such attention, he fears, is inevitable.
He reaches the O’Brien’s place, the house next to the livery. Already he can see the door sprung open; already he can see the first body splayed upon the porch, all torn skin and marrow beneath the moonlight.
“God no…” murmurs Blake, though God seems nowhere to be found. He can tell by the color of the skin that it’s Henry, the O’Brien’s servant boy. Slave or not, that’s no way for any man to die. He chokes back the bile and presses on.
Blake had been a settler since there was land to settle, had been an explore since his first few steps on earth; had travelled to the coast in search of gold; had gambled and drank with whores and bandits from every corner of the world; had seen his fair share of highway men, of double-crosses, of thing gone wrong and murders most foul. And to be frank, he had taken a life or two himself, and wasn’t opposed to doing what needed to be done.
Still, nothing prepared him for the horrors waiting inside the O’Brian’s house that night.
Through the foyer, into the dining room, the table set as if dinner had just been interrupted. Another body, that of a young woman (most likely beautiful Betsy O’Brian, not yet eighteen), sat pitched forward into her dinner plate, half her skull missing, her grey matter on display for all to see.
The blood was everywhere.
Blake gagged again, but managed to cry out.
Blake covers his mouth, passes by the table and into the sitting room, searching for what he fears—what he knows—he will find.
There in the center of the room stands his love, donned in white, crimson stains dotting her dress like puddles in a field of baby’s breath. At her feet, the body of yet another victim.
In her bloody hand, a human heart.
“Cora…” Blake breathes, barely a whisper. “What have you done?”
She cocks her head to the sound of his voice, like a bird-of-prey might; a strange, animalistic rasp escapes her lips.
“Cora is gone,” she hisses and turns towards Blake.
Dread pours over Blake’s heart like a black wave capsizes a boat—he staggers even, as both his balance and his breath are pulled beneath the flotsam.
Cora stands before him, her lips, jaw, mouth, nose painted in blood. She’s torn into something raw and red the way a lion would devour a gazelle. She smiles a sickening smile, her rictus a crimson nightmare.
“There is only Persephone.”
The ghoul before Blake howls in demonic glee, a sound not fit for this world, and Blake finds himself screaming back, stricken with the grief and the horror of it all.
As Persephone charges, her eyes full of hunger, Blake (whose knuckles had never graced a woman but had pummeled many a villainous man) clenches his fists and braces for the impact.
He’s spared the memory of the fight itself—a flurry of fists, nails and teeth—as the jeers from his former townsmen as they gather along to the road to see the return of the murderous fugitive. At least, that’s the story they told themselves. The blood had to be on Blake’s hands, a man of flesh and blood. Certainly it couldn’t be something more. Something hellish and carnivorous.
Wilmore and Blake reach the sheriff’s office, where Wilmore opens the door for Blake and lets him enter first, away from the maddening crowd, taunts and curses on their lips and rotted fruit in their hands.
Wilmore shuts the door on them.
Hours later, the fire in the hearth little more than a red-orange embers, Blake sits on a rickety cot in the corner, the shackles on his wrists and ankles replaced by the bars of a small prison cell.
He speaks as if thinking aloud, his eyes unblinking as he stares in the ashes of the fire.
“I knew what she was, Wilmore. That’s the worst part of it. But I never thought… I thought she had it under control… I thought I had it under control…”
“That’s the tricky thing about control, Blake. The harder we grip it, the more it slips between our fingers.”
Blake lets that sit in. A cliched sentiment. But it does ring true.
“I’m not sorry I met her,” he admits at last. “I wish I could see her again right now.”
He blinks finally, looks to the floorboards.
“But I am sorry I brought her here.
Wilmore is silent, just looks at Blake with a sadness swimming in his eyes. He feels for his brother. We can’t always control the one we fall in love with.
After a moment, Wilmore stands and goes to the cell, pulling a hunting knife from its sheath on his belt.
“Tomorrow,” he begins, extending the blade through the gap in the bars, hilt first, “if shit goes south, if she shows up and you ain’t yet hanging… you’ll at least have something.”
Blake walks forward to take the knife, but Wilmore kneels instead and slips the blade into his brother’s boot, tucking it away and out of sight. He stands again and manages a smile.
Blake looks at him, nodding, and says, “you could always just let me go,” in hopes of lightening the mood.
“Believe me,” he says with a grin, “if Cora walked in through that door right now I’d string her up myself. She’s the true villain here. Instead, I have to hang my baby brother.”
Blake and Wilmore meet eyes then, and Wilmore’s voice falters a bit as he continues.
“But I took an oath to be the lawman in this town, Blake, and these people need retribution. They have a right to it. And unfortunately, the blood’s on your hands, too.”
Blake sniffs back tears, shakes his head.
“I don’t blame ya, Wilmore,” he says. “A terrible thing’s been done. And someone’s gotta swing for that.”
Wilmore’s face cracks with emotion, the tears toppling over. There so much he wants to say, so much he wishes he could do. But he doesn’t. He can’t. He’s unable.
Unable to say a word.
The morning is a blur, out of focus.
A small group gathers near a grove of trees, just a mile or so from the northern edge of town.
A preacher man, old leather Bible in his hands, reads scripture as a eulogy. Blake tries to place it, to dial in on.
Matthew 13. The Parable of The Weeds.
27 … And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn…”
Blake, his hands bound behind his back, listens the words of the preacher. His eyes sting with tears. He never thought his life would come to this. Truthfully, he had always been more bad than good, such was the way of things at times. But he never took an innocent life. And now he’ll swing for six.
The men with the rope shove him to a stool over which hangs a thick tree branch. The people gathered watch with cold dispassion, awaiting the numb retribution that comes with vengeful death, even the death of a man they call a killer. There’s rarely satisfaction in it. Not really, if they could be honest with themselves.
Blake steps onto the stool, elevated above the crowd. He sees a few men with rifles standing near the back of things, their eyes on the horizons. A horse grazes nearby as well, the cares of man little worry to him.
The Hangman, hidden in a foreboding black hood, his muscles thicker than the branches in the tree Blake will swing from, takes the rope from the men and throws it skillfully to the sky. It returns, dangling from the limb above.
The men put the noose over Blake’s head, check to see that the knot is true. The Hangman pulls the rope taut until Blake can only stand on tiptoes, and ties it off around the trunk. The noose feels tight already, kissing his skin like a viper’s teeth. Blake holds back his tears even harder. He won’t let them see him cry.
Wilmore stands near the preacher, unable to really look at Blake. But Blake looks to him, his eyes filled with fire and determination.
“You keep an eye out for her, Wilmore!” he shouts to his brother. “Day and night. You understand me? Just because I’m a goner doesn’t mean she won’t come looking. And if she finds out what’s been done to me… she’ll be even more vicious.”
Wilmore just shakes his head in silent apology, in bitter denial. The preacher closes the Bible and folds his hands in a short, final prayer. The words are lost on Blake, his senses already succumbing to that long, eternal sleep.
One of the men next to Blake nods to the Hangman, who steps over and kicks the stool out from under Blake.
Blake drops, but his neck doesn’t give. His legs kick, his neck red against the rope. Tears now stream down his face unhindered as he twists and struggles uselessly, life seeping from him with every attempt at a breath.
Wilmore looks away.
Blake’s vision clouds, darkness closing in.
There in the near distance, a figure coming forward form the field beyond the crowd.
It is Cora, dressed in white, the sun radiating off her like a pearl. Blake is at once elated and terrified.
His vision fades, oxygen cut off from the brain, and he screams inside, wanting to cry out in warning, for no one sees Cora approaching Wilmore from behind, the claws on her gnarled hand sharp and ready.
Blake crashes to the ground, sputtering and gasping for air, his fingers like hooks tearing at the rope now loose around his neck.
Wilmore is by his side, ax in hand, having just cut the rope, and he helps to the pull the noose from Blake’s neck. He pulls the knife from Blake’s boot and uses it to the cut the binding from his wrists. He hands the knife to Blake, who scrambles to his feet.
“What the hell!?” Blake cries, confusion rocking his foggy mind. “What the… where is she? What’s—“
Wilmore just points.
Blake sees her, kneeling nearby. Bodies lie around her. The Hangman. A few others. She’s perched over the preacher like a vulture.
She’s eating his heart.
“Persephone,” Blake breathes, barely a whisper.
She looks up, blood around her mouth and chin, and smiles.
“My love,” she exclaims, dropping the heart and rising. She rushes to him.
Wilmore staggers backwards; tripping on his own feet, he topples to the ground.
Persephone launches herself at Blake, wrapping her arms around his neck. Blake catches her as she plants a crimson kiss full on his lips.
Wilmore watches in horror as the two embrace.
Blake, gathering himself at last, the taste of rust in his mouth pulling him fully to coherence, pushes Persephone away from him violently. She stumbles back but doesn’t fall and looks at him with big, pained eyes. Blake spits.
“You are not my love,” Blake growls, bitterness setting in.
Persephone—or is it Cora in there? Blake’s mind is whirling—looks hurt, her brow furrowed in confusion.
“What do you mean?” she asks innocently.
“Cora was sweet and kind and wouldn’t hurt a soul. You’re a monster.
Persephone takes a step back; like a threatened cat, her hackles seem to rise. Her eyes narrow.
“Don’t be naive,” she coos, innocence vanished. “You knew what I was when we started all this. And you loved it.”
Blake sets his jaw, shaking his head. “Never.”
But somewhere inside him, he knows he’s lying.
“They all love it, Blake,” she accuses, her voice like liquid nails. “You sad little men. Cora is precious and light and tooth-ache sweet. But deep down…” Persephone’s eyes harden then, her anger rising, all trace of Cora gone.
“They always want me naughty.”
“Go back to hell, Persephone!” screams Blake, his control of the situation, however tenuous it had been, completely shattering. Persephone just growls at him, begins to pace like a lioness in a cage. Wilmore has yet to stand; he clings to the planet as if he’ll spin from it at any moment.
I love you, Blake,” Persephone spits. “Our hearts beat as one.”
There in the center of the room stands his love, donned in white, crimson stains dotting her dress like puddles in a field of baby’s breath. At her feet, the body of yet another victim.
In her bloody hand, a human heart.
Blake lifts the knife in his hand, as if remembering it only for the first time, and points it at Persephone.
“The only heart you have is in your stomach!”
Persephone cackles at this, a guttural, hellish sound, and tosses the idea from her.
“I am more than my desires, darling,” she corrects. “More than just my curse.”
“You are a curse!” cries Blake. “A curse upon this world. You’re anathema. You weren’t meant to be here this long! And it was my fault, I know that. I wanted you here, I needed you near me… But just look at yourself!”
Persephone, the Dread Queen, Bride of Hades, snow-white in skin and dress save for all that blood, clenches her fist and breathes deep, her chest heaving. Blake’s voice grows grim and dark, his eyes hardening, building up the strength to do what needs to be done.
“You should’ve stayed in hell,” he growls.
“I stayed here for you!” screams Persephone, her eyes burning with rage.
“I know!” Blake screams back, his voice breaking, tears rushing up to greet him. He shudders, an uninvited sob racking his chest, and breathes deep.
“I know,” he whispers. He lifts his shoulders back, though, strong; standing tall, he lifts the knife again.
His arm doesn’t even shake.
“But I almost died for you,” he says, his voice steady. “You won’t hurt anyone else again.”
Persephone grins, a terrible grin, all blood-red and bone-white, more monster than woman now.
“And who’s gonna stop me?”
Blake’s breath quickens, his heart racing. She’s called him out. There’s no going back.
She bares her teeth and nails and charges to face her former love. But right on her first few steps, a shot rings out. Persephone spins from the force of the blast, howling in pain.
Dirt and grass, she hits the earth hard and immediately begins writhing in pain, steam rising off of her.
Blake looks over and Wilmore is standing beside him now, a smoking shotgun in his hand. Wilmore looks at Blake and shrugs, almost apologetic in a way.
“Rock salt,” he says. “I… I had a feeling we might need it.”
Blake looks back to Persephone, screeching and rolling on the ground in pain. Pain cuts through him as well, unbridled. He knows it shouldn’t, but it hurts to see her like this now.
Still, he knows what has to be done.
“Give me the ax,” Blake says. Wilmore looks at him.
Blake just gives him a hard, silent look, and Wilmore understands. He bends down to retrieve the ax from near his feet, where he first fell. He hands it to Blake.
“Are you sure you can do this?” he asks. Blake looks at him again, sadness in his eyes, his teeth clenched.
“No,” he admits.
They walk over to Persephone, who has grown more docile now, whimpering like a wound animal.
The two men tower over her, resolute.
“I’m sorry, my love,” Blake says.
Persephone looks up at him, her face covered in blood and dirt, her eyes wet with tears. She snarls, her teeth a gritted grin.
“Oh you will be,” she hisses. “When my husband finds out what you’ve done.”
Wilmore looks to Blake, confusion on his face. Blake just shakes his head. Not now, says the gesture, but soon… we are in for a world of hurt.
Blake raises the ax over his head, his aim on her neck.
With a loud inhale, he fills his lungs.
And lets the ax fall.