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Jim Towne Hollow and the Skinwitch
A Guest Quarters story
There's a snake in my garden.
I catch the whisper-quick flick of its tongue, the glitter of its eyes... and then it's gone in a ribbon-rustle through the squash vines.
I press the heels of my hands to my eyes and swallow past the rising tide of terror.
How does he always know?
My knees creak as I shove to my feet and the ache in the small of my back digs gnarled fingers into my hips, but I force myself to straighten. I cross the yard with purpose but without haste, pretending I am unconcerned.
The snake might still be watching.
Muddy Creek was still a cow town, just a glorified camp along the cattle trail, when Jim Towne rolled in with his wagon of patent remedies for sale. He was a slick, spit-polished city man in an improbable suit, and his strange tinker's wagon drew folks like flies to rancid fat.
He parked in a dusty lot at the end of Saloon Row, but Sheriff Woodruff feared whiskey and whatever might be in that wagon would make a volatile mix. Woodruff chased the stranger to the hollow at the north edge of Muddy Creek and told him to stay out of trouble.
Jim Towne's been there ever since.
I'm sitting on the porch listening to crows bicker over a rabbit carcass out in the pasture when an old sedan, more rust and Bondo than original body, grumbles along my gravel road and crunches to a stop. A boy in black cranks the window down and leans out to call, "Hey, can you tell us how to find the Hollow?"
He reeks of booze, drugs and desperation. The girl beside him twists a coil of cherry-red hair around her fingers. She's wearing so much dark eyeliner her eyes might as well be holes in her face.
I close my eyes and pinch my lips, clenching my jaw until my muscles cramp. But the words escape, hissing between my teeth. "It's just past the railroad tracks, first gravel road on the right. Go over the bridge and park by the cedar trees. There's a path marked to the Hollow."
He turns to the girl and they exchange a clumsy high-five before he thinks to thank me, but I'm already heading inside. His words drift aimlessly at my back until I close the door against them.
I wander to the kitchen and pour myself a drink of lemonade. The icecubes clink against each other as condensation mists the glass, but I'm suddenly too tired to take a sip.
I used to ask them their names, where they came from. What they hoped to find and why they were looking. But I've seen too many to care that much anymore. After all, the end is always the same once they've made it this far.
Mine is the last house before the Hollow.
Jim Towne called himself a doctor, and who would question his credentials? His sophisticated accent and slick-glass words were convincing enough for credibility.
He sold snake oil for joint pain, ointment for saddle sores, and Dr. Jim's Special Salve for everything from blisters to bee stings. He even offered a collection of brightly colored elixirs in tiny bottles for "lady troubles."
In a town of wranglers, robbers, rogues and prostitutes, Dr. Jim's remedies caused quite a stir.
And they actually seemed to work.
When Old Bill climbed back on a horse for the first time in three years, swearing that the snake oil had cured his rheumatism, every cowboy in three counties wanted to try some, too. And when Golden Bess discovered that a dose of blue elixir cured morning sickness by eliminating the accidental cause, every whore in Muddy Creek bought a bottle just in case.
Dr. Jim had a cure for everything and everyone. Children with tempers took a dose of honey-flavored Rascal Remedy and turned docile as lambs. Women with nervous cases took a sip of Soothing Syrup, which tasted of berry cordial and worked like a charm.
He sold luck, in little boxes of green mint pills, to gambling men. Lonely women found love with rose petal potions. Dr. Jim carried containers of courage, contentment, beauty, and anything else he could package and peddle.
By the time the first side effects started to show, it was already too late.
Gus slips into the booth across from me and mops his face with a napkin. "Blast it, but it's hot out there today."
I drown my fries in a pool of ketchup and fish them out one by one. They're limp and taste of disappointment, but I swallow them anyway.
"How many?" he finally asks.
"Two," I answer, spitting the word out like a pit from a piece of bruised fruit.
He sighs and reaches across the table to pat my hand, but before he can say anything a group of kids breezes into the diner on a cloud of stale cigarette smoke. "Don't they live in, like, cities and subways and stuff? I mean, why would vampires pick a corner of nowhere like this?" one of them is saying as they pile into a booth.
"Shut up," a girl warns, rolling her eyes toward the rest of us.
I scan the lunch crowd. I don't have to see the too-sharp teeth to know that the two men smirking at the counter belong to Jim. The woman near the back looks like one of his, too, with her golden eyes and porcelain skin. No one else seems to have noticed.
Leaning forward, I whisper, "Vampires?" with my brows raised.
Gus rubs a hand over his mostly-bald head and grimaces. "Jim needed a fresh draw. Vampire myths have become popular, so..." he shrugs. "He put a few stories on the internet and waited for the bait to take hold."
"Hey, can you tell us how to get to Jim Towne Hollow?" one of the teenagers calls.
Gus gives me a sympathetic glance, but I shake my head. I'm not bound to answer unless I'm asked directly.
"Jim Towne Hollow?" the waitress laughs with genuine amusement. "Honey, that's just a story. There's no such place." She laughs again and shoves the kitchen door open with her hip, balancing a tray on one arm. She's a regular local – not one of Towne's. She doesn't know.
The boy's face falls and I hold my breath. Give it up, I think. Just let it be. Please. Go back where you came from.
But when his companions start teasing him his expression hardens and my heart sinks. I know that look.
His eyes fall on me and something flickers in his face.
Shit. I start pawing through my purse for my wallet. "Go on," Gus says quietly. "I'll get this."
"Ma'am?" the boy is walking toward my table.
I leap to my feet and force my creaking joints to carry me to the door in a clumsy rush. "Can you –" The door slams on his words and I lean against the brick wall, trying to catch my breath.
Two are already too many today. I won't be responsible for another.
Heat curtains shimmer above the broken pavement of the parking lot. The rippling distortion reminds me, somehow, of a snake shedding skin.
Don't think about it.
A rusty jangle clangs against my breastbone as my heart skips a beat. Cool air feathers out of the open door before it slams shut. Why are they so determined to find their own destruction?
But it's just Gus, easing his bulk into a crouch beside me. He's wearing a stern expression as he pats my shoulder. "Rosalee, you need to be more careful. You're being watched."
"I know. I've seen the snakes around my house." Every time I think I can't possibly go on like this, they're there to remind me why I must.
A fat black fly buzzes past my face. After a moment, Gus says, "It's not your fault, you know. It's still their choice."
"They don't know what they're doing. Most of them are just kids, Gus. And I'm the one who has to..."
The bell jangles again and I choke on the rest of my words, a gulp of ash and damnation.
"Good afternoon, Skinwitch." It's one of Jim's snakemen. His voice slithers in my ears, crawls down my skin. "Looking forward to seeing your daughter this evening?" He laughs and steps off the curb without waiting for my answer.
Magic coils in my palms as fury blazes in my belly. I could strike him dead without a moment's regret. I could burst his skin...
"No! Rosalee!" Gus grabs my wrist. "Lillian..."
But I don't need his warning; I've already let the magic go. Jim and his snakes have my daughter, have kept her for years. Her captivity has purchased my cooperation.
To save her life, I have sold my soul.
Janie Mitchum was the first. She was a pretty little thing, with cornsilk curls and blue-angel eyes. Her papa played the piano at the saloon and, every Sunday, the organ at the small clapboard church across the creek. Her mama was a seamstress and washerwoman. When Janie caught the fever, they weren't sure they could afford any of Dr. Jim's remedies. He took one look at the china-doll face on the pillow and offered to treat her without charge.
Three days later she was cured, praise God and Dr. Jim.
And then she started changing.
Her parents noticed something strange about her lovely blue eyes, first. Her pupils looked... different. Narrow and slitted, like a wild creature. Sometimes, if the light caught them just so, her eyes turned to shining silver mirrors.
Her teeth grew, becoming sharper than was quite usual. Her papa whispered to his wife, in the quiet shadows of their room, that it was almost as if little Janie had fangs.
They caught Janie sticking out her tongue to "taste the wind," as she explained, and were disconcerted to realize she really could.
But the day they saw her catch a mouse and swallow it whole was the worst.
The purple ink of evening is seeping across the sunflower fields and the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay tickles my nose as I grab my walking stick. The dull roar of distant engines throbs in the stillness and I can see headlights glowing like wild eyes along the sweep of interstate to the west. A convoy of semi-trucks growls through the twilight, eating miles.
I step off the porch and head for the Hollow, taking a shortcut I know too well as darkness deepens around me. The pool of pale light cast by my lantern swings in dizzy circles with my steps.
I feel ill.
Muddy Creek is a little place lost in the folds of the map, a corner of forgotten history. The town itself has dwindled to a cluster of slowly crumbling brick buildings: a postage-stamp post office, an old train depot, a tiny grocery, a gas station with a single pump and a greasy-spoon diner. Two churches. A couple dozen houses around a central park with an old wooden gazebo covered in bird splatter.
Most of the inhabitants are ordinary folk. Poorer than most, but happier than some: a motley collection of retired farmers and old military men, women in flowered blouses who still can their own vegetables and bake with lard.
They don't know the truth about the Hollow outside town, and if they suspect... well, folks around here have learned the value of silence.
I wish it would stay that way, but strangers keep wandering here. Drawn by fate, far-fetched schemes or fanciful stories, they come to find... something that shouldn't even exist.
Bobby Haymow was next. Dr. Jim cured his consumption, but within the month his skin had taken on a bizarre, scaly appearance. His teeth elongated to such sharp points he quit speaking altogether to keep from puncturing his lips.
Marlo Jessup and both her daughters soon exhibited similar effects. And then Don Hartman and Jake Longford.
Customers still came from miles away for Dr. Jim's miraculous cures – mostly saddle-sore cowboys and the desperately curious -- but the local folks grew concerned.
Muddy Creek residents were beginning to realize that Dr. Jim had sold them more than snake oil medicine.
He'd sold them some sort of dark magic.
And there was no cure for a bad spell.
I pick my way across the railroad tracks and ease down the slope toward the Hollow, leaning heavily on my walking stick. My bones protest the hike even as my heart withers in the dreadful knowledge of what's to come.
Tonight is the first full moon after the Summer Solstice. Tonight is the one time all year I am allowed to see my daughter, my beautiful Lillian.
Tonight someone will die.
A coyote howls somewhere to my left and the hair at the back of my neck shivers in response. His cry is answered by a fading chorus; even coyotes avoid the Hollow.
I trudge along in silence then, hearing only the irregular scuff of my footsteps. Every year I swear I'll find a way to free my daughter, and every year Towne finds some way to snare us further.
But he can't keep us forever.
A thread of toneless chanting tangles on the wind and I quicken my pace. They never start the skin-shed without me; for all his power, Jim Towne cannot seal the transfer that maintains near-immortality.
I stumble as a sudden coil of suspicion winds its way along the base of my skull. Maybe he's found another skinwitch.
The good people of Muddy Creek – those who'd built homesteads behind barbed wire or picket fences, growing permanent roots in a tumbleweed town – grabbed their six-shooters and cattle prods to wreak justice on Jim Towne.
He met the mob at the edge of the Hollow, soothing their tempers with a silver tongue and the calming charm of snake magic.
"You came to me for cures and I delivered," he told them, his words slinking through the crowd. "If the after-effects were unexpected, I apologize. But I assure you they can be reversed, and in the process you will gain something more precious than healing."
He threw his arms wide with a showman's flair and announced, "I can share with you the secret of immortality, if you grant me your trust."
There were those, then, who called him devil and would have driven him back to the gates of whatever hell he'd crawled from. But hadn't his remedies worked when hope was lost? Hadn't he saved the lives of loved ones?
One by one they set their weapons down and shook his hand. And when the snakes sank poisoned fangs in flesh, when venomous snake-songs writhed about them, when the skinwitch came with traded youth, they clung to promises of life eternal.
Those who chose not to participate were never seen again.
Flames already lick the stack of logs in the middle of the stone circle when I arrive. The others have gathered beyond the range of the hungry fire, their figures blurring in the smoke and shadows. I lean on my walking stick to catch my breath, but the musk of magic is so strong it nearly chokes me.
I wrinkle my nose and realize it's not the bitter tang of snake magic. This is dark earth magic: the weave of life and death, growth and decay, transformation.
This is my sort of magic, only I'm not casting it.
A wild surge of hope leaps from my belly and bubbles in my chest. If Towne has found another skinwitch, I will be free to go. Free to take my daughter far away from this poisoned place.
Free to beg forgiveness for all the lives I've ruined.
Jim Towne's voice rises in an odd, sibilant cadence and the gaunt figure of a girl sways beside him. A log shifts on the bonfire, tossing a shower of sparks in the air. I catch a glimpse of reflected flames from the girl's red hair. The boy she came with is already crumpled on the ground.
I lurch closer, looking for the skinwitch who will take my place. There are many witches hiding in the world – weather witches, hedgewitches, charm witches – but none so rare as skinwitches. I want to thank her.
Towne beckons the others to step forward, holding the girl still as one after another they embrace her. My stomach churns at the thought of their teeth on her smooth skin. They will sip her life until she's left an empty shell, and when she wanders home her friends and family will hardly recognize her vacancy.
But without her lifeblood, all these people would die.
It's a monstrous exchange.
Althea Thorne was the first skinwitch Jim Towne found. It was never clear quite how he met her, but some believed his snakes traced the scent of her magic.
She didn't need persuading. Her peculiar talents had been noticed in her village and she was afraid of persecution. Jim Towne promised her a safe haven in the Hollow, so she gladly came.
For many years she helped the members of Jim Towne's strange group take turns trading skins with vagrants, cowboys, and restless wanderers to preserve, replace or replenish their fading youth. When the settlement in the Hollow was in danger of discovery, she helped weave the magic wards to protect it from unwanted attention. She taught Towne's people how to hide in plain sight, how to dodge questions, and how to attract the right sort of interest.
And then, the stories say, she fell in love and tried to leave the Hollow. Jim Towne tracked her down, killed her husband and dragged her back.
She never left again, but seven months later she gave birth to a baby girl.
I search every face for the familiar eyes and sweet smile of my daughter, but I do not see her. I call her name, beg every person I pass to point her out to me, but no one seems to know. What game is Jim playing this time? Why has he hidden her from me?
Gus would tell me, but I can't find him, either.
Frustration gnaws a hole in my chest as I come face to face with two men. They give me insolent grins and shift their weight, rocking backwards in their steel-toed boots. Their lips are stained with blood and their eyes bright with new vigor. I wait for them to move aside, but they pretend I am no one of consequence and maintain their mocking slouches.
This is no way to treat a skinwitch.
Even a retired skinwitch.
I thrust my walking stick between them and say my words of power. The earth answers, heaving beneath their feet until they've tumbled to the ground. Petty vindication can't satisfy my anxiety, but at least it clears my way.
I am near the bonfire now, so close its heat stings my cheeks and draws a haze of tears across my eyes.
I see Jim Towne through the tips of dancing flames, directly across from me. He catches my eye and a slow smile spreads like a dark seam across his face.
"Where is Lillian?"
He claps his hands and the chanting starts again, rising and falling in undulating waves. I am shoved forward, roughly.
Jim Towne swings sideways to catch me. "Where is my daughter?" I yell in his ear.
"But if you no longer need my services as skinwitch, I am free to go. Give me my daughter!"
And then he beckons to a man in a faded flannel shirt, an old man with glazed eyes and parchment skin. I have not seen Dewey Blackwood for months and now I understand why. He's been hibernating in Jim Towne's hidden complex, waiting his turn.
Now Dewey stumbles forward, his muscles weak and palsied. In the early days, I've heard, skin-sheds were held every month. But when law and order tamed the reckless frontier, too many missing people might have drawn suspicion. Jim Towne, on the suggestion of Althea Thorne, decreed that a shed could take place only once each year. The new skin would be given to the oldest member of his snake clan. In the meantime, everyone else would drink life from hapless strangers later left to wander home, drained and all but dead anyway.
I don't have time to wonder which of the lost souls I've directed here is meant to sacrifice a skin because Jim is already guiding a slender woman in a dark cape closer to the fire.
There is something familiar about her posture, the tilt of her head, the way she moves. She's so graceful she practically glides across the rough ground until she's standing in front of Dewey.
She lets her hood fall back and I see her face. Lillian.
"No!" I scream. Jim would never take her skin, not after all the years I've given him...
And then I look more closely. Her cloak is made of snakeskin, glinting in the uncertain light. Green swirls are painted on her cheeks and when she raises a snake-rattle on a thin wooden wand I begin to understand.
"Lillian, don't do this!" I cry.
Jim Towne smiles. "She has all her mother's talent," he says. "Are you not proud of your daughter?"
How is this possible? I rub my eyes, willing them to show me something different. Lillian cannot be a skinwitch. I deliberately chose the most mundane man I could find to father her – a truck driver without the faintest wisp of whimsy or magic in his blood.
As if hearing my thoughts, Towne says, "Your blood was stronger, Rosalee."
"You monster! You swore to me you would keep her safe if I performed your rituals! You –"
He interrupts me like a knife tearing flesh. "I have kept her safe. As you can see, no harm has come to her."
"No harm? You took my daughter and turned her into a demon like you!"
His laughter rips my heart to shreds. "Come now, Rosalee. You know this –" he waves his hand at her, pointing to the rattle-wand – "has nothing to do with me. This is your legacy. She is just like you."
Lillian watches us, a pucker of bewilderment punctuating the question in her eyes. "Mother, what's wrong?"
"She's had no training, no experience. This could kill her, Towne!" I can't contain the shriek that flays my throat and screams off my tongue.
Lillian lays her gentle hand on my arm. "But I've read all Grandmama's books," she says. "I've practiced, Mother. There is nothing for you to worry about. You've earned your rest. I can do this now."
Horror leaves me hollow. "But... I burned them when she died," I whisper.
Jim Towne laughs. "Did you really think I'd let you throw away such power?"
"I cast them on the fire myself..."
"Snake magic may lack the depth of earth magic, but I am skilled in its illusions."
Dewey's cough rattles in his chest and for a heartbeat I am distracted. A shiver ripples through his skin and patches flake off, revealing scabrous scales beneath. Jim has already given him the snake potion. If he doesn't get his new skin soon he will die.
Lillian knows it, too, and with a cluck of dismay she lifts the rattle-wand to begin the ritual. Jim has turned away from me, reaching for a figure draped in soft green silk. He drags the skin donor within the circle of firelight and I close my eyes. I can't stand the sight of one I have condemned to death.
"No! You son of a bitch!"
The voice snaps my eyes open. Gus. He is struggling against his bonds, wrenching himself from side to side. I throw myself at him, tearing at the ropes around his wrists until my fingers split. "What kind of joke is this, you bloody bastard?" I cry.
But Jim Towne strokes his chin. "The other... specimens... you sent were not acceptable. They had families to find them, flaws..."
"But Gus is one of yours!"
Towne shakes his head sadly. "Oh, no. I'm afraid not. You see, he broke his oaths of loyalty when he began... supporting... your little temper tantrums. He is no longer one of mine."
Shock steals my voice and before I can think to act, Jim Towne presses one of his genetically enhanced vipers against Gus's solid shoulders. A thin scream pierces the relentless background chanting and Gus slumps to the ground.
Guilt rises in my throat and I fold, retching. I am responsible, now, for my only true friend's death as surely as if I had injected the venom in his system myself. How many have I killed to serve Towne's snakes?
I will not let my daughter carry the same sin.
I grab the wand from her hand and clutch her wrist. "Lillian, listen! This is wrong. This is..."
"This is what you and Grandmother Althea have done," she says, still puzzled. "This is what we are. Skinwitches."
"But you don't have to be! Earth magic is more than this, more than..."
"I think your mother is jealous," Jim sneers. "You are a stronger skinwitch than she ever was, and you had no one to teach you."
"Lillian, come away with me! He can't hurt us, now that you've grown into your powers. We can leave, start over..."
"But we belong here, Mother."
"No. No! I only did this to save you from him. I had no choice, but you do! Please, Lillian, come with me."
She shakes her head and hope shatters. "I can't. They need me here."
"You have a choice! Please..."
"I choose to stay, Mother. I choose to be a skinwitch."
She is so calm, so certain. I wonder if he's drugged her, but her eyes are dark and clear. When she takes the rattle-wand back I do not resist.
"What happens now?" I ask Jim Towne as she resumes her part in the skin-shed ritual.
"Whatever you wish, my sweet. Stay with us, watch your daughter grow and fall in love. We'll give you a new skin and you can wear your youth proudly. You've earned your retirement." He flicks his hand and says, casually, "Or don't. But I must warn you that if you leave, you will not live to tell a soul what you have seen here in my Hollow."
He points to my feet and I don't have to look to know his vipers are twisting through the grass around my ankles. They will follow me, and I will never be free.
"Lillian!" I call, and she glances over her shoulder. Irritation flashes across her brow. I am an interruption.
"I will always love you," I tell her. I gather magic, all the earth magic I can hold. I soak it in from the soil and the cinders and the rotting logs, from the grass and even from the snakes themselves. Lillian senses my draw and frowns, thinking, perhaps, I intend to perform the skin-shed myself. Still I fill myself with power, until my very skin feels near to bursting.
And then I step into the fire, where the snakes can't follow.
Jennifer Adam lives with her husband on a farm where fairies dance by the creek, coyotes sing spells at twilight, and the crows know more than they say. Her porch is guarded by a lazy Great Dane and an overzealous German Shepherd, and her hay barn is full of cats. When she's not riding three (formerly) wild mustangs or wrangling two (perpetually) wild children, she can be found beside a stack of books with a pen in her hand and a notebook across her lap. She loves magic, horses and history and is currently working on a novel about ballet and demons. Snakes don't bother her at all, but spiders... well, those are a different story entirely.
Story by Jennifer Adam, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011