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Samuel sat beside the lit fireplace, woolly blanket draped over his slim shoulders, leather-bound scriptures perched on his lap. He squinted as thin shadows danced across the pages, forcing the words to bleed together. He pushed his mother's thick-framed glasses farther up the bridge of his nose and leaned forward. He was hungry, and he craved something other than stale oatmeal and bluefish. Snowy winds beat against the cabin, causing the wooden walls to creak as if they were in pain. All these things made it impossible for him to focus. But it was more than that. No matter how many times Samuel read the verses, he felt nothing.
His father leaned forward in his chair.
"We have company."
Samuel looked through the rattling window. Two white beams cut through the snowstorm. The twin headlights grew in size and brightness, and the icy ground crunched under the weight of the approaching vehicle. Samuel stood and set the scriptures on the wooden desk next to the tattered black-and-white photograph of his mother. She was eighteen when the photograph was taken, a few years older than he was now. Her sun-kissed skin showed she was no native to the whitelands. That, and her inviting smile. She was executed soon after giving birth to him. His father refused to speak about her, admitting it was all a transgression that had been covered by Azhuel, the one true god, and His holy roots. Samuel was living evidence of a forbidden act.
The headlights from outside halted, then vanished completely, causing the darkness of the night to return. An impatient pounding hit the door before Samuel had a chance to undo the locks. When he slid back the iron bolt, the door swung forward. Frigid winds and snowflakes flew into the cabin, and the sheriff of Haid scurried inside. Samuel pressed his shoulder against the door and sealed it shut, his face burning from the cold gusts. The sheriff pulled down his heavy hood and dusted the white powder from his thick coat.
The sheriff wiped his peppered mustache. Fresh new wrinkles were forming around his cheeks and forehead, causing him to seem older than he really was. He sucked in air through his large nostrils, stripped off his leather gloves, and reclined in the open chair by the table, across from Samuel's father.
"Sheriff. How can I serve?"
"Tea to start with."
Samuel's father nodded as Samuel habitually gathered the supplies. He boiled a pot of water over the fireplace and pulled tealeaves from a glass jar, ripping each one into little pieces. A few years prior, his father had stumbled upon a small patch of camellia shrubbery near the lake in the eastern woods. His father said it was a miracle of Azhuel that the tea plants managed to grow and survive in such a harsh climate. To Samuel, it was a miracle that anything or anyone lived in Haid at all.
"You know the Littens?" the sheriff asked.
Samuel's father scratched his beard. "The butcher."
"Old man's losing his body and mind. Dementia mixed with pneumonia and a handful of bad luck. Doc says he won't last the night."
Samuel mixed the crushed leaves into the pot, thinking of the butcher and his sharp tools. Once, from outside the shop's back window, he watched as the old man effortlessly gutted a pig beside the cackling furnace. Samuel had never seen a pig before, but that day he saw more of a pig than most. The butcher's skeleton-like fingers slit the animal's guts with ease, peeling back the flesh as if it were merely paper. Blood leaked down the old man's wrinkled arms as he yanked out the intestines and dropped them into a silver pan. Samuel didn't dare step inside the butcher's shop or try to speak with him about the finer points of his craft. No upstanding citizen would want to be caught socializing with a cleric's illegitimate son. That was Samuel's experience, at least. While there were citizens who believed in Azhuel, none of the faithful seemed keen on having Samuel's father as the town's stationed cleric. How could a lecherous, oath-breaking sinner like that hope to guide a spirit back to the holy roots? Samuel recalled a disgruntled logger saying something like that when his father performed the rites for his dead daughter. She was six. A fever took her.
"What about the shop?" Samuel asked while stirring the pot.
The sheriff loosened his gun holster, grunting as he slid the silver revolver on the table. He was the only person in town who never seemed scared or bothered conversing with Samuel or his father. But, as the sheriff of Haid, Eugene Black had certain responsibilities that most citizens didn't. Retrieving his father for the rites was one of them, along with keeping the peace.
"His daughter will run it, I suppose. Ain't like her husband's gonna quit his cozy little job for the mayor. Still, there's no way a family will be able to live on that salary alone. Not in this town."
Samuel nodded as he poured the steaming liquid into a cup and handed it to the sheriff. The sheriff reached into his pocket and pulled out a flask, adding a splash of liquor before taking a sip. "Perfect," he said, wiping his mustache.
Samuel set the pot back on the counter. He wasn't sure if the sheriff was talking about the tea.
"Anyway, the old man wants a cleric. Storm as it is? I'd let him croak. Do the ritual at the burial. But the law's the law. If he wants his dying fantasy, it's your job to give it to him."
"I pray all men find comfort in Azhuel's roots," his father said.
"Knew you'd say that." The sheriff snorted, then took another swig of tea. "I like you, cleric. It's like you really do believe in your god and the damn roots. Whatever that's worth to you. A real righteous man."
His words slurred. He peeked at Samuel.
"Righteous as any man can be."
His father stiffened as the sheriff finished his tea. Samuel turned his attention to the window, watching the snowflakes as they crashed into the glass. Clerics were sworn to celibacy; they were banned from any form of human touch. To perform the rites for the dead and reconnect passing souls to Azhuel's holy roots, clerics of Azhuel had to remain pure, untainted by the sins and lusts of men. Samuel's existence would forever be the stain on his father's holy vows.
"It will take me a while to get there," his father said. "The storm is growing worse, and I'll need to watch my pace."
"You don't need to tell me about this storm. Mayor's got a crew of my patrolmen posted outside of his estate tonight."
Samuel readjusted his glasses. "In that?"
The sheriff snorted. "Entitled fool. Swears he got robbed a few nights back. Missing some cash and jewelry and ... a radio? Now he wants half my men posted by his gates at all times. Had us laying out gaming traps the whole day. Traps so nasty they could rip a bear's leg in half. Which reminds me. Stay clear of the western woods for now, if you know what's good for you."
Samuel went back to the kitchen and cleaned the pot. It was common knowledge the western woods had the best pine. What were the loggers going to do?
"Anyway, no thief in his right mind would be out there now. Most of my patrolmen will probably be frozen dead by morning. And don't be stupid, cleric. It'll be my ass if you don't get there in one piece. You'll ride with me."
Samuel did his best to mask his surprise. The town of Haid had five working vehicles: three large trailer trucks for the loggers to haul their lumber and two jeeps, one for the sheriff, and one for the mayor. Ordinary citizens were forbidden from owning vehicles; that right was reserved exclusively for the politicians, their sheriffs, and a select few businesses involved in multistate trade. Samuel's father had told him how, long ago, nearly everyone owned a motor vehicle, regardless of their profession or status. But that was before the blackout, before the technology bans, before the three states were formed, back when there were many religions and their conflicting moralities forced the old governments and their citizens into countless wars. Before, when praying to any god other than Azhuel was permissible, and when it wasn't against the law to touch a cleric. That was an offense punishable by public flogging, and in some cases, execution.
Like with his mother.
Samuel petted his shaggy hair to the side, brushing his bangs from his eyes. Touching a cleric was one thing; conceiving his bastard son was another. The penalty was death by hanging. The high council, a group of seven clergymen appointed by the states to govern over the clerics according to their own religious laws, oversaw the public execution, and ultimately decided to give his father a harsh beating before reassigning him to a logging town in the whitelands. Someone would need to raise the child, and they weren't heartless demons.
"Would you mind if the boy comes along?" his father asked. "He's getting near the age, and he'll be ordained soon. He could use more observation."
"Like I care." The sheriff scooped up his revolver and eased it back inside its holster. "I'll get the engine running. Be quick."
The sheriff put on his gloves and hood before exiting the cabin. Samuel dressed himself speedily, donning his coat and knit cap before his father had laced his boots. Samuel had seen the rites performed dozens of times, but he didn't know if he'd ever get the chance to ride in a motor vehicle again. He shuffled back and forth on his feet as his father went over to the desk and collected the scriptures, tucking the brown pages inside his jacket.
"Get the knife, Samuel."
Samuel climbed up the rickety ladder to the loft space that he and his father shared. In his excitement, he'd forgotten the most important tool for the rites, save for the scriptures. There could be no rites without blood.
Samuel reached under the mattress and retrieved the hunting knife, making sure the blade was secured inside its leather sheath before stashing it in his back pocket. As soon as he stepped outside, he could tell the storm was growing worse by the minute. Powdered snow swirled violently around him, and the gusting wind was so sharp it choked the air from his lungs. His glasses fogged, and he could only see white. He held his coat's furry hood tight against his head as he followed the hazed object he assumed to be his father. He tuned his ears to the strong hum of the jeep's engine, the wailing of the wind, and his father's voice beckoning him to keep close.
After twenty steps, Samuel's teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. The raining snow was seeping through his clothes, numbing his muscles. Before he needed to yell out for assistance, he found the inside of the jeep. The metal door slammed shut, and for the briefest moment, he felt his father's warm body against his own. His father casually scooted to the opposite side. They weren't supposed to touch, but every once in a while, it happened. Samuel curled his arms together. How do you raise a child without touching him? His father did his best to try. But in those brief moments when their skin would meet, his father would calmly retract his body and pretend nothing had happened. Had he treated his mother the same way after he spilled his seed inside of her?
Samuel took off his glasses and wiped the lenses clean with the tail end of his jacket. After he put them back on, he glared into the rectangular mirror hanging near the sheriff's head.
"You don't have a sensitive stomach, do you?"
The sheriff studied Samuel's reflection as he reached for the black rod sticking out beside the driver's seat.
"If you hurl, you clean it."
Two black wipers began to move back and forth across the windshield, knocking away the white powder that had piled on top of it. The engine groaned as the jeep dashed forward, and Samuel sank into his seat. The sheriff guided the rod down, forcing the speed to increase. He angled the wheel slightly and the vehicle moved to the right.
"I feel funny," Samuel whispered. His stomach bubbled. He had spoken too soon.
His father almost smirked. "Relax."
Samuel pushed himself deeper into the seat. The nausea didn't last long since the ride was short. Barely ten minutes had passed, and they'd already ridden over the train tracks and on through the neighborhoods south of the town square. The sheriff parked the jeep next to the house directly behind the butcher's shop. When he removed the key beside the steering wheel, the engine was silenced, and the black wipers froze in place.
"Let's see if the old bastard is still kicking."
Samuel and his father hopped out of the vehicle and went into the rowhome with the sheriff. Samuel was immediately impressed with its size. The living room was nearly as large as his father's cabin, but it wasn't luxurious. It was fairly dark and empty, save for a large sofa and several chairs seated alongside the fireplace and a lone mirror with cracked glass hanging on the left side of the wall.
The sheriff stripped off his coat and tossed it onto one of the chairs. His boots thumped as he kicked them against each other. He looked up, stretched his arms, and strolled down the hallway.
Samuel and his father followed. The narrow hallway was adorned with several lampstands mounted to the sides, the wicks from the candles lit and the flames dancing. Samuel had never seen working electricity before, but neither had most others in Haid. No one in town had access to the ancient power lines buried underground, except for the mayor. The use of electrical energy in the whitelands was expensive and only permitted on a limited basis for ruling politicians and their families.
Samuel thought about the burial rites soon to be performed. How had some of the ancient faiths practiced their burial rituals? Did they care for their gods? Were they as benevolent and kind as Azhuel? Did they, too, require sacrifices of blood?
Passing several closed doors, Samuel and the others came upon a back room with the door cracked open. The sheriff pushed the door farther back before entering the room. A large lantern dangled from the ceiling, and a woman stood near the corner of the bed. She wore a patterned dress and thick sweater tights. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun. With damp eyes and feeble steps, she approached the sheriff.
"Eugene. You're here."
"Of course." In his warmest tone, the sheriff still sounded cold.
"Harold hasn't come back yet from the estate. I'm worried."
"This storm is something else, Laura. Your man's probably just stuck inside the estate waiting for it to blow over."
"Or the mayor has him working overtime again," Laura said stiffly. "Well, if you need anything, something to drink or eat, my daughter should be near the kitchen. I didn't want her in here. My father is not himself."
The woman gave Samuel's father a tender look, which was odd to Samuel because many people never even bothered looking in their direction. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but decided against it, and turned away.
"You're late," a voice called from across the room.
The doctor stood up from the butcher's bedside, her medical tools resting on top of the nightstand. Elizabeth Tulsan. She was a middle-aged woman with plain features, not skinny, but by no means overweight. She patted away the creases in her white apron and crossed her arms. "You said an hour. It's been nearly two. He's been fighting to hold on for this long."
"Good thing I'm here now," the sheriff mumbled. He turned to Samuel's father. "Don't just stand there."
His father stepped cautiously into the room. Samuel followed. His eyes went to the large bed in the back of the room.
The old butcher was curled up on the mattress, wrapped in a bundle of sheets and quilts. His exposed skin was mottling and doused in sweat. His breaths were forced and unnatural, like a landlocked fish sucking in useless air. Samuel rubbed his fingers together. Working in his shop, the old butcher seemed so strong. But now he was just another dying man.
Samuel grazed the knife's handle with the bottom of his palm, knowing full well what was going to happen next.
"Cleric," the doctor said as she bundled her medical tools together and dumped them inside her leather bag. "It has been some time."
His father bowed, and Samuel followed suit.
The doctor gave her condolences to the butcher's daughter, apologizing that she couldn't do more to make him comfortable. She then went to the sheriff. "Are you going to be a gentleman, or am I going to have to walk home in this storm?"
"I'm not a chauffeur," the sheriff said in annoyance, but he gave a nod, nonetheless.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Demon in the Whitelands"
Copyright © 2019 Nikki Z. Richard.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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