Rural Pennsylvania. Present.
I was hunched over the driver’s seat of my pickup truck, a pocket flashlight protruding from my lips as I carefully assembled a gift in the darkness. A small, metal tin rested on the faded upholstery as I meticulously collected a series of contents. Buttons, three or four pairs of old and mismatched earrings, refrigerator magnets, some coins, a roofing nail, a glittering silver necklace, two hair ties, and a children’s flip book. I picked out what belonged and added it thoughtfully, before depositing the remainder to my pockets, or dashing them across truck’s cab.
Once satisfied with the small, square tin, I close the lid and discard the flashlight to the side. It provided enough ambient light to keep working. I removed a switchblade from one of my pockets. The tips of the handle were faux pearl and the metal was quality, not cheap Pakistani steel that broke on bone. It was, genuinely, one of my favorite knives. I flipped out the blade and slashed open the palm of my right hand with practiced ease. If you’re quick, you don’t leave blood on the blade.
I closed the knife, and reached for a length of sky blue silk, wrapped it around my palm, flexing my fingers, clenching a fist, to force yet more blood into the fabric. Once I was satisfied with the blood, I dropped the silk to the truck’s seat and grabbed the roll of gauze bandages to wrap my hand. I glanced around, calming my heart, letting the bleeding slow. The forest around me was quiet and lit by the faintest of moonlight. A cracked, rural road next to my truck was barely visible from the turn-off.
After a few minutes passed, I reached for the small, tin box and started to truss it up like an ornate gift, using the bloody blue silk as a ribbon, complete with bow. Finally, I held the small box to my chest, directly below my breasts into the concave of ribs, and dug under the driver’s seat for an old hunting knife. Dull and rusted, it was little more than a jagged piece of metal. I pocketed this dull knife, turned off my flashlight, and turned away from the truck, using my right foot to kick the cab door closed behind me. The sound was clamor and noise in the silent woods.
I began walking away from the truck, into darkness. Darkness was the key. I’d driven these roads for hours, looking for the right location, the right spot, the right kind of darkness. A place where trees were so thick that the moon couldn’t penetrate, so deep that reflections from the road couldn’t sneak in.
It went without saying that a few limbs bumped me. I tripped, and nearly fell on some roots, but this was part of the journey, an expected inconvenience. The deeper I went, the fewer obstructions were found. I finally stopped, mid-stride, withdrew the rusty knife, knelt, and began stabbing at the earth with my left hand, right hand still cradling the tin under my breasts.
This sort of digging needed to be rhythmic, pulsing, you must let your hindbrain take over and set your breathing in time with the movements. Despite the chill of the night, I broke a sweat before finishing, then drop the tin, with its neatly tied ribbon of bloody, blue silk, into the fresh hole. I raked loose soil back with my left hand, favoring the bloody right palm.
Finished, I stood, turned my back, and walked away slowly. Very slowly. I meandered, even whistled a little tune once or twice. I was waiting.
“For me?” The voice was feminine, distant, and muffled as if it was being forced through water. “I need not share?” The voice moved around me, accompanied by a sound somewhere between a satisfied lover and an amused child.
I caught glimpses of motion and soft blue light, a blur of color in my periphery. For a moment, I could make out a skeletal form, bleached white bones wrapped in tattered clothes, that moved in a haphazard dance, somewhere between a skipping step and a meandering walk. There was pressure in my chest; the power of something like this, penetrating my world.
I spoke, smiling, with a laugh in my voice, as I welcomed her. “My Lady of the Dry Arms, I’d never ask you to share your treasure.” We’d known each for many years, and the last several hours had been dedicated to finding Her Lady of the Dry Arms.
I heard her walking around me, bones grinding softly, veils writhing, caught in a wind that existed only for her. “I know you,” Her Lady of the Dry Arms said slowly.
“We’ve met, many times before.”
“Ah-ha! Yes.” She drew out her syllables as if she was talking in her sleep. “You gave me the egg, the colorful little egg. So pretty. It’s still my favorite.”
“I’m sure you tell us all that, my Lady.” I had, in fact, once given her a ‘colorful little egg.’ It was exceedingly difficult to find, made by the House of Fabergé.
“No! I would never.” She paused, thoughtful and serious. “Oh. Yes, I would.”
“I am seeking your favor once more.” I felt her sidling up to me as icy breath brushed my ear. I felt her veils and shawls move around my coat and my hair brushed aside.
“What was your name? Maria? No, you don’t like that. Maggi? Yes, Maggi.” I felt teeth touch my ear, the bones of her jaw moving as she spoke. Her Lady of the Dry Arms was in my mind. I could feel her digging, testing me, pushing and pulling at my defenses. I paused and pushed her back, gently but firmly, focusing my thoughts and avoiding distraction.
“I seek your boon. I seek power.,” I replied.
“Power? Is that all?” She speaks as if this were a tiny thing, barely worth her attention. That was how she set the trap. If I wasn’t careful, she’d offer more, and it would never seem as high a price as she’d ask for.
“Do you want the flames on your fingers to kiss flesh? Melt the bone?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Do you want to bite, to gnaw, to rip and rend with your mind?”
“Yes,” I whispered, again, pressing calm into my heart, afraid I would betray a degree of excitement, unseemly at a time like this.
“So be it. But, I require a gift.”
“I’ve given you a gift already,” I answered hesitantly, unsure of where she was taking our negotiations.
“One day, this body, that which you wear, will die.” Instead of flanking me, breathing on my neck, or playing with my hair, she wrapped around me and leaned in. I could almost see the outline of her skull, next to my cheek. “You will have two eyes when you die. One of these eyes will not see as the other. I want that eye, one last gift.”
For much of my adult life, I have bargained and traded with entities like Her Lady of the Dry Arms. Ancient spirits, gods, or something in between. In all that time, this was a new request, and it set me on edge. My mind raced over her words and I wondered how could she benefit? More importantly, how could this hurt me?
I decided, after long minutes, that she had a deal.
Her Lady of the Dry Arms giggled, neither sinister nor mean. She sounded like a child who has been promised a day in the park. Her skeletal form wrapped around me, tugged at my clothes and armor, and pulled at my skin. It was hard to breathe, and just when I felt panic set in from the threat of suffocation, I was dropped to my knees, breathless. Her Lady of the Dry Arms was gone, exiting this world through me and leaving behind her gifts, her boon. For one like her to use my body as a doorway, it was considered polite to leave behind a gift. The actual value of the gift was unimportant, but in this case, she had left me exactly what I’d asked for.
The joints of my fingers burned, each a burning pulp of coal eating away at the sinew of my hands. My throat was raw, made worse by gasping at cold night air, the saturation of which felt like ice picks driven through my lungs. A strange kind of exhaustion set in, causing me to shiver, palms pressed against the forest floor, fingers clawing at the dirt beyond my will, in pain.
The power I requested, and now suffered from in consumption, was not something that just anyone could have bought. Her favor did not come quickly or easily. She punished those who brought her excessively extravagant gifts on their first visits. The first time I had met the Lady of the Dry Arms, I was much younger and far more arrogant. That night I had borrowed a small tin of mints from my teacher. That tin would end up containing a few rubber bands, some chocolates, two nickels, three pennies and a lock of my hair. My one advantage in dealing with Her Lady was that I had always known exactly what she would most enjoy.
Back then, of course, I’d never seen Her Lady of the Dry Arms. I had sensed her, and listened to my instincts, that blind knowing in the back of my head that hides somewhere between doubt and faith. It wasn’t until the Collapse, it wasn’t until the Veil faded, that I knew her with my own eyes. Heard her voice, felt her touch.
It took me perhaps a half hour to regain control and equilibrium, body and mind caught in the process of acclimating. Regulating my breathing, I calmed myself and swallowed hard a few times. I shook cold hands until they became merely numb and once I felt like I could walk easily again, I continued back to the road. When I returned to the cab of the truck, I replaced my rusted knife under the seat and searched for a pair of gloves.
The road I drove out on soon cut through grassy meadows, erupting like fountains from ruined cornerstones and burnt foundations, ghosts of rolling suburbs. I crossed forests and hollowed structures, rusting cars, all abandoned. Time passed, and I became drowsy, as miles continued, one after another. It would be hours before I finally curved around a stretch of road to see lights sparkling on the horizon.
As I drove, I saw tank-traps in jagged lines all along what were once foundations; basements, dug out to form sharp and abrupt drops. They were intended to play havoc on an invading army and would force a bottleneck into the main road.
On the main road, I drove past people, one or two would become five or six, and quickly a river flowing, lanterns or torches held high. My headlights illuminated men, women, and children sporting backpacks, boots, overcoats, cloaks, while handling baby carriages, carts, and mules. Many of them were traders, bringing wares in their wake, selling goods or services, mercenaries, and whores alike. Some sought a better life, others were simply passing through. I swept my mind over them, feeling the buzz of hope tinged with shades of greed, excitement, anticipation, and disgust.
I slowed when I saw the line of red tail lights waiting for entry. In front of me was a mix of vehicles, the smallest of which was a salvaged pickup truck bed, being pulled on wooden slings by two burly men, the bed filled with produce. The largest was a relic, old world remains of a tractor-trailer rig, complete with an armed escort.
Above the city gates hung a sign, stenciled neatly, tightly, reading “Crafton.”
I was there, many years ago, when Crafton was born out of Pittsburgh. Much of that city had burned to the ground, late in the Collapse. We had arrived here from California, and had saved part of it by carving a desperate firebreak along old Crosstown Boulevard. That slice of land, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, had transformed into a city-state over next two decades. I’d been a resident of Crafton, on and off, for the better part of those decades.
When I finally arrived at the checkpoint, an enclosed station with several men and a set of radios, I was approached by a soldier half my age. His fatigues were gray, save for body armor, flak vest over a chainmail shirt. The rifle slung over his shoulder had a fixed bayonet, and one of his front teeth was missing when he tried to smile at me.
“Where are you from?” I didn’t see him bristle, nor did I feel fear. The soldier didn’t recognize me and that was just fine.
“Returning resident,” I answered calmly.
“Sounds like a waste of fuel, ma’am.” The guard shook his head and waved me forward, stepping back a foot or so to let me pass.
The guard was right. Any normal citizen would be foolish to waste expensive petroleum on a joyride across Pennsylvania, late at night. However, I was neither a normal citizen, nor had I indulged in a joyride. I’d been doing my job.