Toes Across the Ceiling
A tall shadow leaned over the caravan and scratched across the tarp. June sat up and looked out the back. The carriage was moving. Trees disappeared into blackness—low hanging branches must have dragged across the canvas and made the sound. The cabin smelt of boot sweat and the floor rattled up and down beneath her elbows. She rubbed crust from her eyes as they adjusted to the darkness. An empty jug lolled on and off the wall beneath the bench. The air tasted stale and smelt like pages of an old Bible. She gripped the bench and stood out of the sleeping bag, feeling the weight of cool sweat that had soaked her clothes.
The prisoner looked deflated on the square bottom of his cell with his back flat on the ground, knees strewn to the left across his body, and palms open at his side. His eyes were wide open but rolled back into his head. Blood shined black around his nose and lips; a fresh droplet slid out the side of his nostril and down his cheek, until eventually dripping off his earlobe into a small pool on the floor. She slipped through the front curtains. The Sheriff sat upright with four reigns in his hands, squinting into the weak orange globe the two torches threw against the blackness.
“Did you finally punch the prisoner?” she asked.
“Vesper thorn,” he answered, his voice was hoarse as it broke out of a long night of silence. “The sap will keep him stunned.”
“I thought we weren’t leaving for four hours?” she asked.
“You’ve been asleep for eight.” His cheeks hung off his blue eyes. “I figured you needed the sleep.”
“Shut up—you broke the law, drinking.” She curled her legs onto the seat and hugged her knees. “It’s good to see you’ve sobered up,” she said. “Wait… have you?”
The torches burned at opposite ends of the carriage. Their yellow light reached up the sides of rock banks as tall as ten men on either side of them. It had been a deep, deep river. Every now and then, a gnarled root would stick out over the trail and they would have to duck as the carriage pushed past it. Torchlight rubbed against a tangle of branches clasped together overhead. Her neck grew sore from looking up at it.
“Most of this trail has been carved from flowing water, back when the river still ran,” Kensington said, as if she couldn’t see that for herself—he had this way of explaining shit that was obvious. “Strange things would wash out of the Vesper...strange things. Bones that dogs wouldn’t to chew. We could only guess their story.” June looked at the smooth rock bed passing by on the ground. “We’ll know soon enough what mysterious are in this wicked place.”
It was painful to watch him make small talk.
“Sheriff, just forget about the alcohol incident earlier.”
She stared at the side of his face but he said nothing.
“What?” She asked, “I said I was sorry.”
“I failed to hear an apology in there.”
“Never mind then, just forget about that, too.”
“No-no, you follow the law very closely and I admire that. You’re as true as this compass,” he said, unfolding a square mariner’s compass. The arrow buzzed erectly to their right. “Alcohol is a tricky devil and can cloud the judgment of the best men. I apologize for drinking last night, it was unlike the behavior of a Sheriff.”
His breath was sour with gin.
“You broke the law,” June said. A mosquito landed on her knee and she smashed it with her palm, then flicked its mangled guts off the side of the caravan. A small blue streak of blood shined on her black pants. Kensington returned to the declarative tone of the Sheriff.
“But going forward, you have to understand, we’re to see a wide spectrum of unlawful activity, but it is not our concern. Our concern is getting this prisoner Kingdomside, and that will require us to ignore the trivial ugliness. It’s crucial that we blend in, not just for this escort, but for our lives. The book of law does not apply out here. Savages are not influenced by pen and paper—that’s what makes them savages.”
“I saw a savage drinking out by the fire last night.”
He ignored her comment. Putting the reigns in his left hand, he leaned backwards in his seat and reached into the cabin. At that moment she realized jester silks of blues and orange hung off his frame. He looked fit to be juggling axes with clown makeup on.
“We’re to travel disguised as a band of entertainers,” he said.
“Entertainers,” Sheriff said.
“Gypsies,” June grumbled.
A dark shape waited at the light’s edge. They both half-stood and leaned over the dash board to get a better look. She covered her mouth with both hands. A body reeled at the end of a long rope. The rope was at least twenty strides long and disappeared into the canopy above. She gagged at the stench as the face came into the light. It was Mr. Talmai, the exporter. A fly landed on the white of his eye and remained there.
“That would explain our last fishing shipment being late,” June said, looking up at the bloated toes as the carriage passed underneath. She plugged her nose.
“He wasn’t transporting fish,” Kensington said, hopping over the side and landing with a hiss of spurs. She watched him swat at flies all around his ears as the darkness swallowed his stupid blue and orange silk costume. This was her future husband.
“It’s pitch bastard black up there,” she said.
“I’m half blind…” his voice came from ahead.
She let the mules forward a little, and the light pushed the darkness back. Kensington waded knee-high through what hopefully wasn’t poisoned ivy towards the wheels of an overturned carriage.
“We shouldn’t be stopping,” June said. She looked up the rocks for any eyes glowing in the tree line.
“Eck,” Kensington said, lifting a codfish by the gills. Its eyes had rotted from their sockets. She gagged, again, when he reached elbow-deep into its throat and pulled out a bottle with strings of mucus laced off its bottom. She stood, knocking her forehead off Mr. Talmai’s toes.
The Sheriff smiled.
“You ever wonder why our fish sell better than any other coastal town’s?” She must have been making a very entertaining face because the Sheriff laughed. “You know fish go bad right? You really thought our exporter was bringing them across the continent?” He spoke as if it was some big joke the whole world knew but never said out loud. “They’ve got an ocean on the other side of the continent, why would Kingdom folks order our fish? They buy our booze.”
“You’re a bootlegger,” she said.
He stuck a hand on one of his hips like some rough father figure, but looked damned ridiculous doing it in his jester outfit.
“Booze buys money,” Kensington said as he climbed into the carriage and set the bottle on her lap. “Money buys food.”
The hangman’s feet dragged across the tarpaulin as the carriage drew forward. She grabbed bottle’s slimy neck and dropped it into the passing brush.
“I saw his wife a little ways back,” Sheriff said.
It wasn’t tree branches that had woken her up.
June bit into her elk jerky with her side teeth and yanked a chunk off. The hangman grew smaller in the darkness. Sheriff tossed a heap of fabric on her lap. She lifted the purple mesh and scowled at the sequins. It was much shorter than any dress Mum tried to make her wear—this wouldn’t sit halfway down her thigh if she put it on.
The next scrap of the outfit was made of the same material with matching sequins of silver and gold. It was a pair of gypsy sleeves, meant to cover the breast and arms but nothing more.
“I’m not wearing this,” she said.
“I’m not wearing this,” she said, a few moments later. “Belly dancers that roll into Hastings for the autumn harvest wear more clothes than this.”
Kensington didn’t answer.
She tossed the fabric at his boots.
He picked it up with a finger and placed it on the bench between then.
“This kind of garb is sold at bazaars just off the Vesper trail,” he said. “That’s what I hear at least.”
“Yeah that’s what you hear—I’m not wearing it.”
“You want to end up like Talmai?”
A dragonfly buzzed past her ear, leaving a blue streak hanging in the air. It kept slow pace with the carriage. It was two dragonflies; one docked onto the other’s back midflight.
“Beautiful,” Sheriff said. She could smell a dank, musty smell. The fringes of a pond or swamp were somewhere nearby.
“Hardly romantic,” she said. “I used to watch these things in the marsh when Pops worked late. The male snatches the female, I’ve seen them drown and maim each other. What good is that?”
“It’s the natural way of things.” He lowered his hand on top of hers, rubbing his thumb on the back of her wrist. Her cheeks felt hot. The tangle of wings fluttered onto a black flower petal. She fixed the locks of hair behind her ears with her free hand. In the silence that followed, they listened to the droning of crickets.
“What about crickets?” he asked.
Her hand sweat in his.
“Crickets ain’t bad,” she said. “You never see ’em though. They’re just noise as far as I’m concerned.”
She chewed her thumbnail.
“A good noise,” Kensington added. “Nothing says a hard winter is over like the sound of crickets. Do you know that the hotter it gets, the more they chirp?”
“Yeah—I knew that—I know a lot of obvious shit.”
“You didn’t know our town exports liquor from other continents,” he smiled. “And it was your father who organized it—that’s how Hastings could afford all that corn seed.”
In the furthest shadows of the torch, black petals rose like a closing book and shut the dragonflies in its teeth. Sheriff had seen it. She looked forward. Kensington clasped her hand to comfort her, till her fingers went numb.
“You’re wearing the clothes,” Sheriff said, eventually.