Aaron Teel: “The Quality of Mercy,” a short story for Haunted Passages

Haunted Passages: Aaron Teel

The Quality of Mercy

When I was boy no older than you, but taller of course, and squarer of jaw, I came by moonlight on a fortune teller’s wagon parked alongside a smallish river or creek, stopped short of ascending the three wooden steps that led to the wagon’s candlelit window, and eyed its proprietor where she sat weaving her silken hair and softly singing. Her wagon was covered in elaborately painted swirls of the deepest red and green and blue, made visible in the gloom by iridescent Christmas lights that lined the roof and hung down on strings along the sides.

In codpiece and cape, I stood as silent and still as a statuary saint and listened to her sing. Presently, I fell partway into a waking dream of the merciful tree merchant whose fate had lately haunted me. This reverie was interrupted by the fortune teller who finished her song and asked if I planned to go on staring all night, or what. She fiddled with her jangling bracelets and said with all my mumbling I’d scare her customers away.

Do you believe she said this to me? In the darkening woods by a misting river or creek? I’m sure I hadn’t thought she could see me where I stood and was taken aback, though I can’t say why, exactly, since I was standing directly in her line of sight, not twenty yards away, six feet tall even without the delicately plumed hat I constantly wore, and though she was couched in shadow and gathering gloom, I could see her clearly in the window of her elaborately painted cart. At any rate, I had no plan. But should she not have known what it would be, if and when one finally occurred to me? I hazarded to ask, “Shouldn’t you know, good madam?”

The line came out softer than I’d intended, more of a whimper than a manly demand, so I said it again, much too loud this time, and several woodland creatures croaked their reply. The fortune teller sighed and said, “This isn’t one of your plays, boy,” then intimated with further words or witchy gestures that I would have to come closer if I wanted to talk. I was startled by this proof of her divination, but I see now how she might have guessed my profession from my attire, or otherwise gotten word of my commanding performance atop the sideshow stage—a blend of scholarly critique, solo scenes, and transcendent recitation of soliloquies delivered in brief, ecstatic bursts between other shows altogether more vulgar and boorish than these.

Bravely, I called back, “I’ll come up when I’m ready, by God!” She said to suit myself, quieter than before, and started in on another song.

I should say I hadn’t come upon the fortune teller’s wagon by chance, on a drunken stroll, but had been given detailed directions to its whereabouts by a heavily tattooed child of four or five who worked the carnival and sideshow circuit. He’d spoken in hushed and reverent tones of her enchanting songs, and of the poor misbegotten creature she kept for a pet. I wondered whether this wasn’t the selfsame fortune teller I’d been so long searching for, the very mystic who’d seduced my father with her witchy singing and, according to my mother, transformed him into a dog she kept in her wagon to torment at will.

Under the spell of the fortune teller’s second song, I dreamed again of the morning I’d met old Everett Green.

I’d passed a miserable night alone under a giant pine that lightning must have struck, or wood-boring bugs partially eaten, since its peak hung down like a finger pointing directly at me. How long had I been searching fruitlessly for my father’s captor by then, sheltering in gutters and subsisting on acorns or fistfuls of grass gathered along the highway? Years, maybe! I’d resigned myself to die while staring up in frozen amazement at a threesome of tender stars over the busted finger of that tree. If I’d had a happy dagger in my bag or a vial full of poison instead of the useless collection I carried, I might have helped myself along.

But I woke up alive and heard him coming. The sound of his singing rang clear and true over the clatter of an ancient truck pulling a wooden trailer piled high with tiny pines tied down with twine. On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, and Exchange it some day for a crown are the only lines I remember, but it was the sound of his singing that struck me. He sang blindly, beautifully, and with all his heart. I’m surprised the giant pine above me didn’t heal up whole right there on the spot! So thoroughly rusted was his truck that its original color was impossible to discern. It shook and rattled and coughed up smoke while sputtering to a stop. Or possibly it was old Everett Green who coughed. At any rate, the holy old minstrel asked if I was looking for work. He had a patch over his left eye and his right eye was cloudy at the center, a milk-white marble that twitched and winked. Who knows what he saw with that thing? He called me “son” and showed me his rotten teeth. I stood, looked him full in his whiskery visage, and, portraying Portia portraying Balthazar, quoted the bard thusly:

The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

With plumed hat in hand, I bowed and awaited the old man’s applause, but he just clucked and asked whether or not I was coming. I clambered up into the tobacco-smelling cab and placed my pack safely at my feet.

The name he gave was Everett Green, but my guess is that Everett Green was not his given name. Names in those days were ephemeral things, freely taken and easily discarded along the way. Everett Green was utterly befuddled by my attire and manner of speaking. I know because he said so. I explained that I was an actor, classically trained. He laughed at me and made it plain that he did not at present have any use for a man of my trade, but that he could offer me a transitory job as his assistant—loading, unloading, and night-guarding his trees. He drove with one hand and rummaged around in his own pack with the other to retrieve a baggy full of toasted bread nubbins, which he handed to me. I nearly wept from gratitude. He said I should forget about that blasted profession and asked of what use an actor was in times like these. Can you believe he said this to me? I might have said the same for a seller of sickly trees but that my mouth was just then full of nubbins. He offered me a canteen of water from that selfsame pack, which I likewise emptied. Presently he recommenced his singing, the sound of which settled my stomach and soothed me. With my delicately plumed hat doubling as a makeshift pillow, I pressed my face against the frosted window and let old Everett Green sing me to sleep.

We must not have gone far since the sun was still low on the horizon when I woke up in Purgatory. It was a joke name too, probably, since the sign was handmade and nailed to the trunk of a blackened oak on the outskirts of town. We stopped in front of an empty lot beside a fairly large, decrepit building which looked to have at one time been occupied. The lot was full of holes where stakes for tents had been driven over the years. Everett Green hobbled out of the cab and shouted “Unload!” Just the one word, but loud. He could have been shouting at the sky or trees for all I knew. He shouted “Unload!” then limped awkwardly away. I reasoned finally that he must have been shouting at me, so I unloaded and stacked the pines while he sat smoking a pipe in the shade cast by the boarded-up building.

When I’d finished, I asked what else he wanted me to do, and he pointed one knotted finger toward a large metal toolbox bolted to the bed of the rusted truck. Inside the box was a heavy hammer, a pair of large gardening scissors, an endless supply of sturdy twine, and dozens of sharpened metal stakes as long as your arm. Who knows how many hours I spent cutting the twine that bound the trees, then fluffing and pruning each while Everett Green smoked and sang an occasional hymn at me?

By the time I’d finally finished sticking all the stakes in the ground and tying each pine to a stake, the sun had come fully up, and the lot was crowded with Purgatorians milling around. I am inclined to think every person in town was there, weaving in and out of that improvised forest. I walked aimlessly among them, nodding and smiling and doffing my cap.

Believe it or not, I heard a child singing a carol and found her trying to untie a tree from its stake. Her little red fingers worked at the knot. I helped her untie the tree and a spectacularly freckled woman who might have been her mother spoke kindly of my codpiece and cape. I bowed and removed my delicately plumed cap and explained that I was an actor, classically trained. She asked to hear a few lines, and I was set to oblige when Everett Green limped up behind her with his fists on his hips. With one hand across my chest and the other extended toward the heavens, I stood and stared. He raised one eyebrow at me. I said, “Alas, madam, I am but an errand boy in the service of Everett Green.” He took the woman’s money and stashed it in his pack, and we watched the woman and her child drag the tree away by its pointed tip.

By sunset, roughly half the trees were gone, and Everett Green let me rest while he set up his tent. He took a small propane stove from his pack and used it to prepare a hot meal of pine nuts and rice with a loaf of rye bread he’d miraculously pulled from some hidden pocket in that selfsame pack. I was amazed by the usefulness of what he carried. My own pack contained, among other useless things: a broken tape recorder, a faded flyer featuring my father in full regalia sauntering across some European stage, an assortment of pine cones, a dew-soaked and illegible letter I’d found on a byway covered with grass, and a waterlogged volume of the sonnets I consulted nightly. Can you believe I remember these useless, godforsaken things? Before he’d serve me, Everett Green insisted I hand over my cap and cape, claiming they were inappropriate for tree-work. In their place, he gave me a pair of sap-stained overalls, a fuzzy sweater embroidered with an elaborately decorated pine, and a floppy red cap lined with white fur around the base. He said, “Lord, no!” when I asked if I should also remove my codpiece and hose. They were hidden anyway beneath the ensemble he’d loaned me. I’m ashamed of the ease with which I made the trade, but I was hungry enough to hand him one of my own good eyes for a crust of that moldy bread.

Since I’d stayed awake most of the previous night contemplating death and celestial beauty beneath a pointing pine, Everett Green brewed a pot of strong tea made from powdered coca leaves and bade me drink. He watched me sip it and slyly smiled. The tea worked such wonders on my weary bones that I stood and recited my lines with a conviction and fervency I’d never known. Everett Green laughed and spat and shook his head. I asked which of the bard’s immortal works he’d seen professionally staged, and he explained to my dismay that his only exposure to the theatre had come when his mother had taken him to a clearing in the trees to see the life of Christ portrayed. The details of time and place were lost to him then, but he clearly recalled how he’d wept at the crucifixion and watched with wonder as the risen messiah ascended. When the production was finished, he ran to the stage and there saw the cables rising up into the canopy and caught sight of his savior canoodling in the trees with Mary Magdalene. He said that actors were the worst kind of liars, words to which I would have taken deadly offense but that I was filled just then with such a tender sort of love for old Everett Green that they washed right over me like the waters in the green ribbon of river I’d last bathed in weeks or months or maybe a year before, and like the gunk I’d scrubbed from my sodden codpiece, flowed harmlessly away. He crawled with his useful pack into his hand-made tent and bade me not to sleep. Perchance to dream! I shouted, Aye! There’s the rub! But he ignored me as was his wont and pulled the tent’s flap shut. I bowed to him anyway and added quietly that we were such stuff as dreams were made on, rounded with a little sleep.

I walked for hours among the remaining trees, sipping the tea and quietly reciting my lines. I think now that if I’d not had quite so much of it or been quite so sleep deprived, I might not have seen my father shrouded in smoke and draped in heavy linen or heard him demand to know what I’d done with my codpiece and hose. As it was, I dropped to my knees and tore at my breast to tell the delusion or ghost of how my mother had sipped stolen whiskey in the shade of the maple where she wept—how, with flaccid speech, she’d said, “I know you came from me, but I don’t believe that you are mine,” and how she’d looked me up and down and said that a man of her line would find and reap revenge upon the head of the shiftless witch who’d seduced and transformed her noble husband.

Brought on, perchance, by too much Shakespeare and strong coca tea, the vision of my father boomed, “How gullible are thee? How easily deceived? Transformed into a dog? What hog-swallow! What schemes! O conspiracy! Even now the strongman humps her silly beneath a mulberry tree!” Can you believe this spirit or delirium said this to me?

I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen any visions of me or heard my spectral voice like a giant’s cello bow scraped across a craggy mountain face, but by God seeing and hearing these from my own father, real or imagined—they filled me with a fear and trembling too terrible to describe! You think I exaggerate? That I misremember? This part is as near to me now as the breathy sounds your mother made when first I felt her fevered body pressing onto mine! So unsettled was I by the presence of the apparition or mirage, I freely wept, and yet it went right on berating me. “And here you sit!” he cried, “crying like a child in happy service to a gimp! The devil’s emissary! That gent hath taken thy cap and cape! Run him through! Take his truck and useful pack filled with ill-gotten gains! Find and reap revenge upon the head of the strongman—that traitorous, clay-brained knave—and equally upon the head of the mongrel wench that birthed thee!”

Crawling back to the ancient truck, I said the name Everett Green over and over, quiet and loud and variously emphasizing different syllables. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried this with your own name or someone else’s, but a name sufficiently repeated will finally lose its shape and meaning—a useful tip in times like these. I opened the metal toolbox bolted to the rusted truck bed and lifted the axe the old man kept there. I swung it to test its weight, but from just behind and over my shoulder, this phantasm or fevered hallucination thundered further, “Pin him to the earth where he sleeps! Amerce him with the menial task he hath made thee to do!” I dropped the axe and took the heavy hammer in hand, then pulled a treeless stake from the earth, entered the tent, and squatted over that weird old saint. I held the stake squarely above his remaining eye and watched his dreaming face. He twitched and whimpered like a wounded dog, and I wondered what he saw. O, from this time forth I whispered, then the delusion or apparition placed its hand on my shoulder and bade me do the thing.

The silence when the fortune teller finished her second song roused me again from my reverie such that the weirdly staged scene reclaimed its form, all densely treed, mist-laden and haunting. I took a long pull of Burgundy wine, spat, and approached her wagon in a crooked line, then climbed the steps and waved an unsteady hand at her Christmas lights, thinking I would comment, but in the moment before I spoke decided it better not to dither with the wretched woman. “I hear talk of a mutt,” I said. Up close, the vividness of her costuming overwhelmed and unsettled me: nails painted different colors, alternately red and green and blue to match the swirls on her wagon, gold loop earrings rhyming her ears on either side, eyelashes like upended garden rakes atop two deathless tar pools staring directly into me. I was afraid. She said, “Prince Albert? My pooch?” and then pulled open her shawl to reveal on her lap the misbegotten beast the child had spoken of. Leave it said that if I thought this were in fact a dog created by God, I would there and then have renounced Him for a cruel and unconscionable deity.

Understand, I’d spent my life in the company of oddities the likes of which would compel you to shove your thumbs knuckle-deep into your unbelieving peepers, but still I can say with some certainty that this would have been the most ill-conceived creature ever to pass from His lips into the belly of a bitch. I was likewise momentarily certain the beast had never been naturally born, since, for one thing, when I’d finally found my mother and the strongman and their vile crew of performers fleecing the peasants near that river or stream and ran to them weeping to tell of the accusations leveled against them by the apparition I’d recently seen, my mother held me to her chest and explained that I’d been half-starved, drugged, and sleep-deprived, that it hadn’t been my fault, really, and that the killing of a feeble old tree merchant had about it the quality of mercy in times like these. She said, “You failed, but I forgive you.” Think of your own mother! What would you have believed?

The mutt’s face was utterly flat, apart from his lower jaw, which stuck out obscenely to reveal diseased gums and a lolling, slime-soaked tongue. His fat, shapeless body was covered in coarse patches of dung-colored hair, spotted here and there with open sores and weeping fluids of the most foul and malodorous sort. I leaned in close to search his runny, oil-drop eyes for the besotted soul of my father, but saw only the reflected flickering of peripherally dangling Christmas lights. I don’t know whether you’ve ever looked into the eyes of a cursed mutt at night, by Christmas light, but the way they were fixed on me: tender, pleading and courageous—it was hard to take! The way he stared wasn’t natural! Not a whisker twitched! In his ear I whispered “Father?” and without warning he licked me squarely on the mouth. Repulsed as I was, I held firm, for here was all the evidence I required. Still, I was relieved when he turned away to seek refuge in the veil of his captor, and I noted with real wonder that his anus, though swollen and red and crusted with dried up feces, was, on the whole, a preferable sight to his face. I pressed on. “Might I hold him?” I said.

“Hold him?” she said, “What for?”

I said, “I am a lover of dogs, madam, and this here—this is quite the spectacular specimen. I’ve never seen the like.”

She softened a little, smiled in the secretive way of the itinerant gipsy, and explained how most thought him ugly, how they shunned him and called him hateful names, then she kissed him on his snotty muzzle and gently handed him to me. I cradled him in the crook of my left arm and secured him with the right, in which hand I still held the half-empty bottle of Burgundy wine, and this beast who might have been my father shot his long slime-soaked tongue down its neck. I tipped the bottle somewhat, and he grunted with pleasure. Further proof, I thought. Clearly agitated, the fortune teller reached for the mutt. I considered running, but wondered what would stop her from transforming me into some equally hellish creature with a wiggle of her witchy eyebrows or nose. She leaned way out the window of her wagon to try and retrieve the beast, and I seized the moment to valiantly lift the bottle in my right hand and bring it down hard against her tender noggin.

Are my descriptions sufficient? Can you picture the scene? Will you remember this for me? Will you recall how the bottle, rather than shattering as expected, bounced out of my hand and rolled away toward the smallish river or creek? I don’t know whether you’ve ever smashed a witchy woman’s head with a half-empty bottle of Burgundy wine, or even observed the scene (or whether you’ve likewise felt the pop of an old tree-merchant’s cloudy eyeball as you sank your metal stake in, then, with another stroke from your oversized hammer, broke through the back of the skull and into the softer earth beneath) but O, the way she gasped and swayed! How she finally collapsed, hanging halfway out the window, then fell slowly backward into the wagon where a pitch-black puddle gathered silently about her head! I shouted, “Didn’t see that coming, did you good madam?” and then bowed to the trees and the smallish river or creek.

I stood for some while and quietly committed the scene to memory that I might regale my mother with the details of my heroic tale and later re-enact it on the sideshow stage, my father beside me in his rightful place, but when I found my mother in the strongman’s trailer, she just held her head in her hands and said, “Stupid boy, get rid of that awful thing.” Picture her there, still wearing the accouterments of her act, her chin and neckline stained with wine and chicken blood. Picture the naked strongman who laughed, shoved me out the trailer door, and slammed it in my face. It’s a wonder it didn’t fly from its hinges!

That night, years and years before you were born, I wept over the Prince. I called him Father and let him lick my hands and cheeks. I fed him scraps of chicken carcass coated in sawdust excavated from the geek show floor and beer pilfered from my mother’s stash. “You’re not an awful thing,” I said. But he was, really. He slept with his fat body tucked in my armpit and his head on my chest. His silent winds smelled strongly of sulfur and spoiled cabbage, but I refused to wrinkle my nose or wave them away.

The next day, I begged my mother to show him as a freak, a scientific curiosity or a hound of Hell, or, I suggested under my breath, the world’s greatest actor seduced and cursed by a gipsy queen, but she only held her head in her hands and smoked. I left the mutt that might have been my father along the side of the road leading out of town. Imagine him bravely chasing our wagons! I watched him a long time, his bouncing jowls all pocked and foamy, till finally I lost sight of him in the distance and rising dust.

Judge me mercifully, child! All my masks are fallen! I’m none of the men I’ve pretended to be. And though the details of these scenes come back to me now with limited certainty—though they turn to vapor when examined, to dust when touched—please believe each line is delivered nightly with skillful conviction by the troupe of demons who’ve taken up residence in my dreams, and likewise that the branches of every twisty oak under which I wake are for me but gallows I long to hang from. There is no question! Lord, give me the courage.

Aaron Teel is the author of the novella Shampoo Horns, anthologized in My Very End of the Universe, Five Novellas-in-Flash and A Study of the Form from Rose Metal Press. His short fiction has appeared in Tin House Flash Fridays, New South, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other fine journals. He is an associate editor at American Short Fiction and holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Washington University in Saint Louis.

Image: pinterest.cl

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