The Mortmain

Henryk Król was washing dishes, looking out at the setting-sun light shuddering through the trees—considering, without real conviction, whether the trees should be trimmed to let more light through; whether he had any right to trim the trees, as after years of residence he was still unsure where his yard ended and the forest began—when the boy knocked on the edge of his screen door and came into the kitchen a moment later. Henryk had fallen out of the habit of locking his door during the day; here, it was unnecessary. And locking your door at night was only because of the animals, raccoons with their thieving ways and curious deer, occasionally a bear. Not boys with bare feet.

“What happened to your shoes?” Henryk asked. Even little boys did not run around barefoot like they used to. And this boy existed in the grey area between boy and man, slight enough to be a teenager, wiry and solemn enough to be a young man. He wore ripped trousers and a grey hoodie worn so thin in patches Henryk could glimpse his ribs; no shirt, no shoes. The boy seemed unreal, like a preview of his usual unsettling dreams.

“Nothing,” the boy said. “Are you the surgeon?”

Henryk dried his hands, keeping the boy in the corner of his eye. “I was a surgeon. Why do you ask?”

The boy tugged his hoodie off, scattering pine needles across the floor. The scent of the forest moved into the kitchen. Using his skinny hands to frame the area, he indicated a patch of skin on his stomach that looked exactly the same as the rest. “There’s something hurting me,” he said flatly. “It needs to be taken out.”

Henryk moved slowly as he picked the hoodie up and handed it back to the boy, who took it reluctantly. He felt like he was in a room with a wild animal. Didn’t want to spook it. “What is your name?”

The boy glanced over his shoulder. “Mort.”

A blatant falsehood: the forest behind him was the Mortmain Forest. Henryk let it slide. “Mort, I am several years retired. Also, you must be examined before you have surgery. Have you been examined?”

Mort scowled. “I don’t need it. I know what’s wrong.”

“How?”

“I feel it.” He touched the place again, gently. “I know when something’s wrong. I just can’t fix it.” He looked at Henryk imperiously. “Aren’t you supposed to help people?”

“I am supposed to help my patients. There is a process to becoming a patient. I would not want to hurt anyone by rushing into something.”

Mort’s scowl deepened. “Didn’t you take an oath?”

“The Hippocratic? That would have been foolish of me. It prohibits the use of a knife, among other outdated stipulations.”

I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity. That one.”

Henryk looked at Mort with new interest. “The Declaration of Geneva. It’s less well-known.”

Mort didn’t provide an explanation, just gestured at his stomach, get-to-it-then. Henryk sighed. “It still does not mean I must tend anyone who comes to me. You may need help, but unless you are examined I cannot tell whether you need the help of a surgeon or . . . another sort of doctor.”

With an angry huff of breath, Mort pulled the hoodie back on. “I don’t need another doctor. I need your help.”

“You don’t know—”

“I know what I need.” Mort turned and went out, looking back as the screen door shivered in its frame. “I’ll be back,” he said. “You’ll change your mind.”

“Unless you come back with paperwork from a doctor, I shall not.”

“You have to,” Mort said. The hoarseness of his voice made it either a threat or a statement of desperation. He turned, then, and half-ran into the trees. Henryk watched until night swelled up—as it seemed to in these parts, rising up from the ground like mist—and made every tree a shadow in the dark.

Henryk often questioned why he lived by the Mortmain. The trees were lovely, if old and tangled, but he preferred cities. The convenience, the bustle of life, never being quite alone. His husband—Simon—had liked the forest. Bought this house. Maybe some lingering superstition had drawn Henryk out here; his mother always said ghosts haunted the places they loved the most.

No ghosts out here, unless Mort was one. Seeking eternal help for a hernia that had killed him in the days before medicine advanced. He looked nothing like Simon—Simon had been taller, dark-skinned and vibrant. No better word to describe how alive he felt to Henryk, right up until he wasn’t.

Late afternoon, a day later, Henryk walked to the nearby town. He argued with himself, like always, over how whether he should get a car. He had learned to drive once, and he chose to believe that, like riding a bicycle, it was muscle memory. But the process of buying one, the noise and intensity and all the myriad little things that had been added to cars since he had last owned one—it daunted him. Better to walk, until he could no longer.

He asked the young woman at the grocery store if she knew anyone who looked like Mort. She shook her head. “Could be a couple different boys from around here. Probably someone messing around, trying to scare you.”

“Then they did not succeed.”

She laughed. Henryk was reminded, uncomfortably, that he had become what certain young women see as a cute old man. Soft-voiced and nonthreatening and slow, with a funny accent.

Do you know what I did when I was your age? He wanted to say. I crossed an ocean, moved to a different country—this unfriendly country—to be with the man I loved. I never thought I would grow old, but I have. Alone. It’s not amusing.

He smiled, with effort, instead. Time would talk to the girl in his stead, say things more eloquently than he ever could.

“Hey,” she said, sliding him his bags, “you need any help with those?”

“I will be fine.”

“The development’s not happening on your side of the forest, is it? Things are getting pretty hairy around there.”

“This is the first I have heard of it.”

She leaned her elbows on the counter and pointed out the window. “If you go up to the corner of Pine and Elm, you can see the smoke and dust. The government cut a deal with some company that wants to take a slice off the Mortmain and put something in—probably a luxury hotel or something stupid like that.”

“That’s terrible.”

The girl nodded. “And that’s not even the weird part. The weird part is, something’s been coming out of the woods at night and messing with the machines. Overturning them, scratching them up—huge machines! One guy tried to get a look at it—I dunno what problem they had with their cameras—and now he’s in the hospital.”

“Perhaps a bear?”

“It’d have to be a hell of a bear. My aunt says it’s karma. She was protesting down there before they shooed everyone off because of the whatever-it-is.” The girl sighed. “They’re probably gonna get a permit to shoot it, because God forbid the wildlife trespass on the bit of the forest they want to wreck.”

Henryk looked her over again, taking in her carved-wood earrings, the environmental pin on her apron. “You would prefer the creature chase them away, I imagine.”

“Who wouldn’t?” She shook her head. “But it seems like every forest’s being torn apart these days. If it isn’t us, it’s beetles, rot . . . .”

“Always something.”

She rubbed the pin with a tip of her finger, as if it were a magic charm. “That’s life, I guess.”

Mort was sitting on the steps when Henryk came up to the house, a still, dark figure in the twilight. He wore shoes this time—sneakers, the logo long peeled away, splitting at one seam—without socks, and the same grey hoodie and trousers.

“I can’t give you what you want,” Henryk said.

Without answering, Mort came forward and took a grocery bag. Henryk yielded it with only slight reluctance; his arms ached. Mort hefted it like a dead leaf. When he opened the door—which Henryk could not recall if he’d locked—and went into the kitchen, he didn’t bother to turn on the lights. He moved in the dark like he knew the place.

They put things away together, silently. Mort still smelled like pine and oak, but with a sour whiff of oil and smoke. His hands were striped with dirt. When they finished, Henryk pointed down the hall. “The bathroom is down there. You may use the shower if you wish.”

He watched Mort leave the room, wondering if he lived in the forest. Judging by the degraded state of his clothes, maybe he was a runaway; Henryk could, with some work, imagine a teenager being too stubborn to return to civilization even if they needed clothes or medical help. Perhaps he had fled an abusive home. Or maybe that was the wrong train of thought; maybe he had come to the Mortmain to join the protesters and chosen to go into the woods he loved instead of going back home when they were dispersed.

He made tea.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Mort said from the doorway.

Henryk had seen a lot of things in his life; he only blinked before saying, “I believe you forgot your clothes.”

Mort rolled his eyes, as if Henryk was changing the subject for foolish reasons, and wandered back down the hall. He left a pattern of water on the floor behind him, footprints that didn’t look quite right. When he returned he wore only his pants and shoes; his hoodie, ripped down a seam, was draped over his arm. On the lower left side of his stomach, there was a small dark spot.

“What is that?”

Mort glared at him. “The same thing it was yesterday.”

“The skin was unmarked yesterday.” Henryk beckoned him closer and examined the spot. Discolored skin, no break. “This may simply be a bruise. They sometimes look unusual.”

Mort sighed. “It’s underneath. It’s just starting to show now.”

“Mort,” Henryk said, keeping his tone casual, “do you have a family?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen my parents in a long time, but my younger brother lives with me.”

“Are you old enough to be living alone?”

“I’m plenty old.”

“You ripped your hoodie. Do you have anything else?”

Mort shrugged.

He was taller and a little thinner than Henryk, but one of Henryk’s old shirts fit him well enough. Henryk expected him to protest, but he accepted it—and the trousers Henryk offered—with a confused air. Like he couldn’t understand why Henryk would turn down his request and then give him something he hadn’t asked for. “Won’t you just trust me and take it out?” he asked one more time.

Henryk said, “Go to the doctor down in the town—do you need his address?”

Mort shook his head. “That’s too far,” he said, and wouldn’t explain what he meant.

Henryk dreamed strange dreams that night; different from his usual stressed, repetitive dreams about strangers telling him Simon had died; or his whole life unwinding like a spool of thread until he was back in his childhood home, where nobody knew him. Simon came and sat on his bed, looking younger. He thanked Henryk for burying him in the woods—which was wrong; Henryk had seen him buried under a tree in the city cemetery. He tried to say this, but his tongue was dark and swollen, and when he pressed a hand to his ribs, his flesh gave way like overripe fruit. Simon frowned, the same sweet, concerned look Henryk had seen so many times, and said, “Honey, I think you’re sick.” He smelled oil and smoke.

When he woke, sweaty and short of breath, his stomach ached. He went out to sit on his steps, although it was pitch-black. The night air was sweet and cool; his shivering abated after a few minutes. Far away, he heard a machine start up and then die again. Start up, and die. The third time it choked and sputtered to a stop like an animal with its throat opened, and after that there were only the small noises of the woods.

Online, Henryk only found an article or two about the permission given to pass a road through and build something on “the edge” of the Mortmain; after some time he finally found an informal news outlet covering the protesters and “the large animal” that had disturbed the proceedings. That article questioned the government’s authority to give permission for the land to be used; the true ownership of the Mortmain seemed murky.

He had to go into town to hear that one of the machines had been flipped over and split like a cracked nut the night before. The people in charge had chased onlookers away but it only took one or two for the whole town to know. The man in the hospital had woken up and told a nurse that a “monster” had thrown him into a tree. On the local news station, a spokesperson for the project assured everyone it was probably a bear. “Clearly aggressive,” he said. “Probably sick with something. But there’s no need to worry, we’ll get it sorted out.”

At some point during the day, the feeling of Simon’s presence settled in behind him like a shadow. Henryk did his best to ignore it, then did his best to confront it. His mirror showed him nothing but himself, on the tired side of sixty-five but alive, relatively healthy. Not dying, not rotting, not haunted. He focused on the silent air behind his shoulder, tried to picture Simon there.

“Why now?” he asked.

There was nothing but silence and an answer from his own memories. Simon coming home waxy with hunger and weariness, red-eyed from smoke, bruised and battered. Simon going out again; every person counts, Henryk, we have to make our voices heard. Have to show them they can’t get away with this. There had always been another march he wanted to join, another group he wanted to support, another injustice to protest. Right up until he couldn’t.

“But there is nothing I can do,” Henryk told the mirror.

This time, the silence sounded like Mort.

That night, Mort did not come.

The next day, Mort did not come.

The third day, in the morning, Henryk was washing his coffee cup when a tree crashed somewhere outside, and shots rang out. He dropped the cup, it shattered into pieces in the blood-warm water, and he moved outside like a sleepwalker.

Somehow he expected to step into the past. Into a memory he did not have, because he had not been there the day Simon and his friends had been stopped by the police. He hadn’t witnessed the questions, if there had been any, or the word or motion that had made one man pull his trigger—the “accidental” shot that had clipped one of Simon’s more important arteries.

The past did not wait outside, nor even down the path. Instead, he smelled smoke and blood, and just beyond the first bend towards the town, saw a few men standing around a great humped form bigger than a bear. Bigger than two. The men were murmuring to each other, white-faced. The gunshots he had heard were only the latest; small dark holes spilling rusty trails of blood covered the beast’s side and head. As he drew closer, still moving as if hypnotized, he saw that the creature had brown fur and clawed feet, but its lolling head was like that of a malformed deer. Three eyes glistened up at the sky, sightless and beginning to cloud over.

He wondered if it had a small dark spot on its lower left stomach.

And before the men could look up and see him, he ran.

Back at his house, the shock and exertion struck him like a brick to the stomach. He leant against the door, holding his side, holding himself together, and wheezed with humorless laughter. Simon had always teased him about being a surgeon who did not look after his own body. Told him he’d regret it when he was old. Henryk had always agreed, but he had never got around to eating the right things or taking up jogging. Sleeping regular hours had never been anything but a pipe dream.

He thought maybe he should move back to the city, take a fitness class so he could better run away from dead monsters and the fools that shot them. With every ragged breath, he lost a bit of hope that this could be a dream. The dead . . . thing, whatever it was, whoever it was, remained seared into his mind.

On the news, later, they said they’d shot a large bear.

That night, Henryk heard breathing outside, almost lost in the wind; heavy, thick breathing like an animal in pain. Unsettled, he ventured out onto the porch. Something moved by the trees: to his unadjusted eyes, a formless shadow.

The breathing went low, gulping. The way you cry after you have cried for hours, when you’d stop if you knew how, because your eyes are sore and your throat gluey. Henryk blinked a few times, made out the shape of the shadow. “Mort?”

He barely expected an answer—part of him was sure Mort had been shot that morning—but the shadow raised its head. A moment later he made out Mort’s reddened eyes, the downwards slash of his mouth. He took a deep breath, then winced, and Henryk’s eyes went down to where Mort’s hand was firmly clamped over his left side. Something wet seeped through the fabric of his shirt, and an oily, rotten-fruit odour filled the air.

“Today,” Mort said, “they killed my younger brother.”

Henryk took a step forward. “Come inside.”

Mort made as if to move forward, then flinched back, catching at a branch to steady himself. “Can’t.” His voice was a croak.

“Mort,” Henryk said, desperate, “I don’t understand any of this. I can’t help you if I don’t understand.”

Mort was already turning, shuffling back into the woods. “Don’t have . . . to understand,” he said, almost inaudible. “Just . . . .”

Henryk wondered how he had ever thought Mort was young; he could recognize how another old man moved even in the dark at the edge of the forest. He stood gripping the railing until his knuckles began to ache, while the forest murmured and moaned and foreboding built within him like in one of his old dreams. When he moved, he went to find a knife.

He stood in the kitchen, staring at his knife block with the beginnings of despair. A thought struck him. A minute’s search and he’d located the scalpel he’d used as a letter opener, back when he got mail that wasn’t financial. The blade was dull, but it would have to do. The wind was picking up outside and there was a stink in it, apparent even through the windows.

Wrapping a scarf over his nose and mouth, he walked out into the woods.

He did not move into the trees so much as the trees seemed to leap forward and surround him, bending their heavy heads together, muttering at him in languages he couldn’t understand. Six yards into the forest he found Mort’s sneakers, decayed. Two yards more and Henryk glimpsed the shirt he’d lent Mort, now wet and torn, pierced by the limb of a tree. Mold-white liquid spattered the leaves underneath it, and the slow drip of it stayed with him until he could no longer see the world outside the forest.

A few yards ahead, a shadow rose up. “Hurry,” it said. For a moment, moonlight slid over the face of a woman: a face he’d seen on Missing posters in town five years gone. Her voice dry wood creaking, beetles gnawing. Her eyes wet and round, black, like a deer’s. “You have to go further in.”

“Which way?”

A half-decayed arm rose, then the body fell like a card castle. Henryk moved on, skirting the corpse. He wondered how many had gone missing in these woods, when the boy that the Mortmain had possessed had died here, and for a moment a hysterical laugh pressed at the back of his throat. It seemed impossible that something was killing this hungry, killing creature. That it was asking for help.

The wind cut through the heavy branches, making them groan, and stray raindrops pattered down. The clouds above looked heavy and wrong; he thought of acid rain, and quickened his pace. Further in; that was always the way, wasn’t it? There must be, somewhere, people who kept things neat and separate. Went to work and volunteered a handful of hours a week and got drunk with their friends, the mythic work-life balance. Simon and Henryk, though, had gotten along because they were all or nothing. Nothing Henryk wouldn’t do for Simon except give up surgery, the hard hours and the harder work. Nothing, vice versa, except Simon had his causes—all of them, because—well, he’d always joked it was because God had given him a heaping armful of it to deal with. Couldn’t just be black. Couldn’t just be queer. Couldn’t just be a tree-hugger. I’m just living, he’d say. Just trying to live with what I am and what I need. A job and love and air to breathe.

He had none of those now, and Henryk only had air; some days he felt as dead above the earth as Simon was dead beneath it. Not tonight. Tonight the air was electric and raw and rank with illness: the illness in Mort’s belly, and in the woods, and echoing, hollow and rotten, in Henryk’s own body. He might be dying, but he wasn’t dead yet.

The same could be said for Mort.

Henryk found him after he’d walked long enough to wonder if he’d come out the other side of the woods. He came out in a clearing instead, where Mort lay curled on the ground. He shucked his coat and unwound his scarf, despite the smell, and knelt down at Mort’s side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw animals among the trees: silent grey squirrels and dark birds he couldn’t name. A few deer, too, and a great hulk that might have been a bear. It felt like an old operating theater, with an audience following his every movement.

“Said it would get worse,” Mort said, his breathing labored. Henryk would have deserved it if the sentence was angry, smug, but it wasn’t; it was simply resigned.

Henryk almost said, I’m sorry, but that would do nothing. “I’m here,” he said gently. “I’m here now. You need to move your hands.”

Mort’s hands were clamped, bloodless, over the purpled skin of his stomach. There was an unpleasant sheen of wetness, as if something was sweating out through the injured skin. The skin itself looked bruised from the inside. Henryk thought about wasps that laid their young in other creatures, alien implanted things that ate their hosts, and his stomach turned over. He swallowed, didn’t let it show. “Please,” he said. “I’ll help you.”

Mort breathed hard, his eyes finally moving to fix on Henryk. He was not young, but for a moment his power and arrogance gleamed through, showed like a challenge in his eyes, and Henryk knew why he’d seemed young.

Henryk took out his scalpel, and Mort drew his stiff fingers away from the infected center of the wound.

The skin was so thin and degraded it parted like wet paper under the scalpel’s edge, curling away from the seeping dark. Something moved deep within the opening, burying itself under flesh—earth?—and Henryk knew what he needed to do. Mort’s wide, white-ringed eyes were fixed on him, desperate, the challenge gone out like a flame. Henryk smiled at him, gently.

“It will be all right,” he said. “Close your eyes.”

The animals around them stirred restlessly, but Mort nodded and did as he was told.

Henryk plunged his hand into the opening.

His vision split: in one thin, half-transparent panel of reality he pushed his hand into the dry stomach cavity of a corpse, crouching in an empty clearing as the rain started coming down. In another he dug into the wet, dark earth and the trees thrashed around him as if they were in pain. In another he parted the hairy skin of a monster shivering and trying to keep its limbs still against the ground, and reached in among its organs. In another he knelt over the whole town, trying not to crush the buildings with his knees as he pressed his fingertips into the edge of the forest, and a man ran over one of his fingers, his feet tickling like an ant’s legs. In another, in another, in another—in half a dozen of his shattered visions Simon stood behind him among the trees. He was dead, he was not, there was blood on his pristine brown shirt, he smiled without smiling. But all of him stepped forward to put his hands on Henryk’s shoulders.

“You got this, honey,” he said, with one voice.

Henryk closed his eyes, shutting out all he saw, and focused on what was under his hand. Earth and flesh mingled, coexisting somehow—and a furtive, ugly movement underneath a lip of organ. Prying the opening wider, he reached in with his other hand and lifted a bit of Mort’s intestine. The thing hidden under it tried to retreat, but he caught it in his free hand; it stung, struggling against his palm. His hand began to go numb.

“Well done,” Simon said, so quiet Henryk could have imagined it.

When he opened his eyes, Simon was gone. He knelt in a small, natural clearing as the rain began to fall, and only one grey squirrel remained of the animal audience. The white tail of a departing deer whisked away into the darkness. His scalpel was rusted in his hand, as if it had lain out in the woods for years. There was a sunken place in the ground in front of him, almost six feet long.

“Mort?” he asked. There was no reply. But he felt something jerk hard in his right hand, though it was numb and purpled with bruises and clenched so tight he could barely open it. When he did, something greyish and small dropped to the ground and began to trundle away like a beetle.

He stepped on it. Smoke rose from the crushed remains, but the rain put out the tiny smoldering, and the foul smell faded from the air.

Henryk walked home, slow with pain, through the scents of petrichor and lightning, and when he got there he sat on the front steps listening to the woods. Through the rain he couldn’t see the thick smoke and the dust coming off the worksite—the place the worksite had been, because somehow he knew it had become a raw crater, a deep wound, but clean, ready to heal. The poison had been drawn out. His hand was numb. He thought, with tired amusement, of going to the doctor he’d urged Mort to visit in town. In the morning, though.

For now, he breathed the wet, clean air and felt the smoke, out in the distance, and the many-eyed creature that moved unsteadily through the forest, its belly healing, the human skin it had worn cast aside. Somewhere out in the woods, their dearest ones were buried side by side; somewhere out in the woods, the beetles ate and axes fell. But here, the Mortmain crooned to itself, like a cat purring or a child singing to soothe themselves when there was nobody to hold them after a hard surgery, and Henryk closed his eyes, pressed his good hand over his stomach and felt the rain washing away the sickness, unsure where he ended and the forest began.

mm

Sebastian Strange

Sebastian Strange grew up in New England and still feels like a New Englander, despite living in Ohio. His stories have appeared in Mythic Delirium and Glittership.

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