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The Firefly Witch

Of all the Firefly Witch stories I've written and published, this is the one people remember. Seven years after its appearance in PanGaia magazine, I still get asked about it. I can't explain it, but I hope you enjoy it, too. (A.B.)

CROAKED

(c) 2000 Alex Bledsoe

" 'Scuse me, sir. Is this Lost Lake Road?"

The man beside the driveway had the solid, no-nonsense look of a lifelong farmer. He peered into our car, politely touched the brim of his cap to my wife Tanna, then looked at the envelope he'd just pulled from his mailbox. "Post office seems to think so."

"I'm Ry Tully, with the Weakleyville Press. Can you point me toward where the lake used to be?"

"Well, son, don't nobody know where it was, that's why they call it the Lost Lake." I smiled patiently while he barked at his own humor. "But I do 'member my daddy sayin' that, about six miles down past where the road turns to gravel, there's a curve that used to be a straight stretch of road with a bridge across the lake. Y'all might look there. 'Course now, I done lived here for fifty years and ain't never seen a sign of it."

After we started driving again Tanna, who's blind, said, "Was his head actually flat, or did he just sound that way?"

As a native rural Southerner, I bristled a little at her elitism. "Hey, he probably does more work before breakfast--"

"--Than I do in a year, and when he was a kid he probably walked to school barefoot through three feet of snow carrying his five younger brothers in his pockets; yeah, I know," she snapped. Then she shook her head apologetically. "Sorry, he just reminded me too much of some of my Dad's friends, the ones that whispered about me behind my back, which is-"

"--Not the way to keep secrets from a blind person; yeah, I know," I replied, imitating her tone.

She grinned sideways at me. Because I tend to think of her as a college professor and expert in her field of parapsychology, always and thoroughly in control, I forget that she was raised in the same rural-south environment where 'different' wasn't cool. She tried very hard not to let that childhood bitterness color her adult perceptions, but sometimes things slipped out.

Half-bare trees arched over the road ahead. Their remaining leaves were deep gold, red and brown, and they rattled as cool autumn breeze shimmied through them. The crisp wind blew stray strands of long red curls around Tanna's face, and I felt a warm rush of whatever old married couples must feel at such moments.

We reached the curve described by the farmer. It made a hairpin "S"-bend in the road, and featured several white cross memorial markers. Given the local teenage predilection for prowling rural byways under the influence of various substances, it's no wonder this sharp-edged switchback had a death toll.

I stopped the car. Thick, dry woods lined the road on either side, which was odd enough in such a heavy, agricultural area. I wondered who owned the land, and why it had never been cleared for farming. And while I'm no topographical expert, it sure didn't look like any body of water could have ever existed here, not even a typical West Tennessee swamp, let alone Salamander Lake.

"Journalism is so exciting," Tanna yawned from the car.

"I'm going to grab some pictures," I said. "Just take a second."

"Sure, take your time, let me starve," she grumbled. I'd promised her lunch at Fuch's Catfish Barn, and that girl put away hush puppies like a vacuum cleaner.

"Hey," she called suddenly. "Listen to the frogs." A distant amphibian cacophony sounded through the trees. "Kind of late in the year for them, isn't it? Are you sure there's no pond or creek around here?"

"Pretty sure." I'd examined aerial photos of the area back at my office, unable to believe a lake could just vanish. "Could be tree frogs, I guess. You're right, though, they're usually hibernating this time of year."

"Can you feel the tension?"

I scowled, which was wasted on her. "We'll get to your damn catfish, all right?"

"No, not between us, between . . . everything." She opened the door and stepped carefully onto the road. Gravel crunched beneath her hiking boots. "There's something really wrong here."

I looked around at the trees, starting to turn at the onset of autumn, outlined against the bright blue sky. A half-dozen geese honked as they flew over, punctuating the steady, almost subliminal croaking. It was about as spooky as Disneyland. "I don't feel anything."

"Really? Then why are we whispering?"

She was right; we were. And I had no answer for that.

***

Okay, now I was really hooked. What began as just a four-paragraph filler feature on some obscure local folklore was now on its way to "obsession" status. As editor of the Weakleyville Press, I could assign myself any story I wanted, and I'd picked this one because it looked easy, harmless and interesting. You'd think I'd learn. So the next day, I began real hard-core research.

"This map was made in 1889," Eb Flecker said as he spread the large photocopy on my desk at the paper. An obsessive local historian, he was an invaluable source of information about Weakleyville and Martin County, but tended to be a bit intolerant of people who didn't find his tales quite as fascinating as he did. "You can see right here, there's a damn forty-acre lake, and Lost Lake Road goes right across it."

He was right; the thoroughfare shot straight across the lake's narrowest spot on a levee that, in the middle, turned into a bridge; no sign of that vicious curve at all. "Okay, once upon a time there was a lake," I agreed. "So what happened to it?"

"Look at your topo." I compared the map to the aerial photo from the county zoning board office. The scale was different, but there were enough common reference points for me to recognize it as the same area. And in the middle of the photo, approximately where the center of the lake was on the map, stretched a very visible raised area, almost like a seam. The terrain pulled in toward it, as if someone had cut out the lake and then stitched up the hole.

"And?" I prompted.

"I think Salamander Lake went straight down, Mr. Tully. I think an earthquake opened up a big crack and it just fell into the earth. That's how Reelfoot Lake got formed, you know; big earthquake, the land dropped and the Mississippi River ran backwards filling it in. No reason it couldn't work in reverse."

I didn't mention the lack of evidence for that theory; Eb was the fourth expert I'd interviewed that day. State geologists and environmental scientists at West Tennessee University all agreed there was no way the lake could've just fallen down a hole. None of them offered a better theory, though; I think they hoped the whole question would just go away.

An hour after Eb Flecker departed, light fingers tapped at my office door. "Hey, big guy, give a lonely lady a ride to the library?"

I looked up in surprise; Tanna didn't usually visit unannounced, since her disability made getting places a bit difficult. I knew if she'd conned a ride out of someone at the University Psychology Department, it must be important. She had on her brown leather jacket and a deep navy flannel shirt, which brought out her blue eyes and red hair.

"You better not be lonely," I said as I kissed her, "or I've wasted a lot of time. What's up?"

"Did you know there's a worldwide decline in frog populations?"

I looked wonderfully blank, which of course she missed. "It's those Budweiser commercials, right? They're embarrassed as a species."

"I'm serious. I was talking to Winifred Jones in Biology about all those frogs we heard. They're just vanishing. Nobody knows why, and it's happening all over the world. And up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, all the frogs are turning up mutated, with extra legs and eyes and things. Environmentally, those are some of the cleanest lakes in the country, so nobody knows why it's happening. Oh, and he has no idea why frogs would be out and about at this time of year when they should be hibernating."

I took a quick look at the aerial photo again. Nowhere within ten miles of the mystery curve was anything large and wet enough to support the number of frogs we'd heard, but it sure hadn't sounded like a declining population. "Well, that's pretty interesting, but I've got my own mystery here."

"I think," Tanna said with certainty, "there's a connection."

"Between a modern worldwide ecological problem and a local geographic mystery from the turn of the last century?"

"Yes."

"Well, you're the parapsychologist. Do you know where the lake went or the frogs came from?"

"I think the frogs are in the lake. And I don't think the lake went anywhere."

***

At the university library, we dialed up turn-of-the-last-century microfilm records of my newspaper. I periodically stopped the blurry negative images on the screen to check dates. Finally, in the spring of 1902, I found a front-page story on the events at Salamander Lake, beneath a headline that bellowed LOCAL LAKE VANISHES!

" 'During last month's spate of tremendous thunderstorms,' " I read for Tanna's benefit, " 'Salamander Lake apparently vanished into the bowels of the earth. No trace of the forty-acre body of water could be found the next week, and repeated investigation has yielded no evidence of its whereabouts. According to government civil engineers, there is no evidence the lake ever existed.

" 'Tornadoes accompanying the thunderstorms destroyed four homes and two businesses in the area that formerly bordered the lake. Local experts suggest that the tornadoes set up landslides that filled in the lake, but this theory met with official disdain.

" 'Among those killed in the tornadoes were retired Colonel Jonas Little, formerly of Virginia; Felix Vantassel, owner of Salamander Lake hatcheries; and noted Spiritualist and author Kelso Mitchell.' "

The microfilm also showed a photo of a damaged building, with a huge broken sign that read "Vantassel Hatcheries" in foot-high letters. Under that, in smaller print, it said something really odd, which I noticed but didn't mention because it seemed irrelevant.

"Kelso Mitchell," Tanna repeated. "A Spiritualist."

"You know about him?"

"Never heard of him, but Spiritualists were as thick on the ground at the turn of the century. Most of them were fakes, like the Fox sisters, but a few were for real."

"You still haven't told me where the lake went."

She leaned close to me and bit her lip; she'd done almost the same thing, in this very microfilm room, on our first sort-of date. It had the same effect on me now.

"Tomorrow night's the dark moon," she said softly. "It's the best time of the month for doing the kind of magick I'm contemplating. If you're game . . . I might be able to show you where the lake went."

"Salamander Lake? The one that disappeared a hundred years ago?" I said dubiously.

She nodded, and smiled her sly witch smile.

***

At this point I should mention that my wife Tanna is a witch. Not temperament-wise, although that can be true on occasion, but in the classic sense -- she's a third-degree Wiccan high priestess, known in the Craft as Lady Firefly. And because she's such a good witch, I stood next to my car on Lost Lake Road a little past midnight and willingly let her blindfold me.

"The last time we did this, we ended up covered with baby oil and you had rope burns on your ankles," I said as she cinched it tight. Thrown back on my other senses, I realized just how many frogs had to lurk in these woods to generate the soft, omnipresent croaking we heard. It had to be forty degrees, and frogs are cold-blooded; where the hell were they?

"We're after a different effect this time. We're trying to slip through the Veil between the Worlds. It's approaching Samhain, so it's thin anyway. And there was once a gateway here big enough to pull a lake through, so we ought to be able to locate it."

"So why am I blindfolded?"

I jumped at the sudden touch of her lips on mine. "So you can get lost. You can't find the path to the Land of the Fae, you have to stumble across it."

I vaguely knew the legends of people lost in the woods wandering into a land of elves and faeries, but I'd always thought of them as European stories; the idea that you could do it on a country road in Tennessee struck me as a little strange. Tanna twined her fingers through mine and gingerly pulled me off the road into the woods, the blind leading the blindfolded.

The distant croaking grew louder as we wandered through the forest. I felt the presence of trees all around me, but managed to avoid smacking headfirst into any of them. In a few moments I was, in fact, pretty thoroughly disoriented.

Tanna suddenly squeezed my hand, at about the same moment my feet squelched into mud. I smelled pond algae. "I think we're here," Tanna whispered.

I removed the blindfold.

We stood at the edge of a dark, placid lake bordered by tall pines, their branches twinkling with fireflies. Above me the stars glowed unnaturally bright, through the clear air. A bright full moon hung just above the treeline and cast its blue glow over everything. And the amphibian cacophony was deafening.

"I thought it was supposed to be a dark moon," I said.

"It is back in our world," Tanna breathed, almost giddy. "And look -- there are fireflies."

Fireflies magnify my wife's psychic powers, hence her Craft name. They also gifted her with genuine, visual sight in spite of her congenital blindness, so in their presence she saw things as well as I did. Maybe better.

"And just where is 'here?'" I asked.

"Why, where do you think? We're in the Land of the Fae," she giggled. "Okay, not really, we've actually just shifted to another dimension of reality. It's no less or more real than our own, just different."

"If it's so easy, why don't more people do it?"

"It's not so easy. I'm just good."

It was a lot warmer here, and I glanced down to unzip my jacket. Dozens of frogs clustered on the mud immediately around my feet, and when I squinted at the ground, I saw wall-to-wall frogs packed into every available square inch.

It made me a little nervous. "Damn," I said. "There are a lot of frogs here."

"And that's the man who brought them here," Tanna said, and pointed. A rowboat moved across the lake toward us, leaving a slow shimmering wake on the ebony surface. "Kelso Mitchell, the Spiritualist who stole Salamander Lake."

"Nope," I said smugly.

"'Nope,' what?"

"That's not Kelso Mitchell." She looked at me in surprise, not an easy look to get out of her. "Hey!" I called toward the man in the boat. "Mr. Vantassel!"

"Who?" Tanna exclaimed.

"Yeah, who're y'all?" the man called back. The light was too weird to make out his face, but he was a tall man, with long legs bent awkwardly in the small boat.

"We came over from Weakleyville to see how you're doin'," I answered honestly.

The boat eased into the shallows, scraped on the bottom and stopped. "We're doing fine here, buster. Now y'all just go back the way you came." He leaned forward to place his oar in the bottom of the boat, and when he raised back he held a long, old-fashioned but healthy rifle.

I stepped between Tanna and the gun. "Whoa, Mr. Vantassel, take it easy. Nobody wants to hurt you." I tried to sound jovial. "Man, I think you got every frog in the world here."

The rifle didn't lower. "I like frogs; y'all got a problem with that?"

"Who is this?" Tanna hissed.

"Tanna, this-here's Mr. Felix Vantassel." I exaggerated my already considerable Southern accent, hoping he'd realize I wasn't a threat. "Back when Salamander Lake was where it was supposed to be, he ran the hatchery. Only he didn't hatch fish, he hatched frogs. 'The southeast's only commercial supplier of gourmet frog legs,' right?" That was the odd phrase I'd noticed on the sign in the microfilmed photo.

"Woulda cornered the market. Woulda created the market," he said, and shook his head. "Didn't work out, though. Now I just take care of the frogs. And that's all right with me."

Tanna, still a beat behind on the uptake, said, "Wait a minute, this isn't Kelso Mitchell?"

"Naw, had to kill him," Vantassel said. "He wanted to take us back once the tornado finished up. But I like it just fine here. Got my boat, got food and water. Got my frogs. Don't need nothin' else. So I cut his throat. Didn't want him bringin' no strangers back to bother me."

The boat drifted slightly, and the moon shone full on Vantassel's face: triangular, with eyes that bulged over wide, thin lips. His hair frizzed away from his head, making him look like a dandelion in the moonlight.

"You've got all the frogs, Mr. Vantassel," Tanna said. "The gate that brought you here is still open. The frogs are pouring in, and the world's ecosystem is about to collapse from it."

"The world's what?"

"The natural order," Tanna rephrased. "Frogs eat the bugs, fish eat the frogs. Without them, you've got too many bugs, not enough fish."

"Don't give me that. They breed, they leave. They go back if they want. Mitchell left the gate open so we could get back if we wanted."

"But the gate's not working right, they're coming back messed up." Tanna stepped out from behind me, and used her best therapist voice. "Mr. Vantassel, do you know how long you've been here?"

"Three months. Long enough to realize I don't want company."

Tanna took a deep breath. "Mr. Vantassel, you've been here nearly a hundred years."

He laughed. "That's crazy talk."

"Is it? You've had a full moon every night for those three months, haven't you? It never rains, it doesn't get any hotter or colder. Doesn't that seem a little strange? And really --" She waved her hands to encompass the whole lake. "-- even you have to admit, this many frogs in one place is just plain unnatural."

Vantassel frowned, and Tanna pressed on. "I know what Mitchell did, he made a bubble in time, that's outside of real time. You have to come back with us so I can take it down."

Vantassel's head snapped up. "I ain't goin' nowhere," he said with certainty. "And since you're another smart-ass like Mitchell, neither are you."

As a multi-generational redneck, I have that innate instinct for the moment another Southern male is finished talking and ready to shoot. I shoved Tanna one way and I jumped the other just as Vantassel fired, the ball making a big SPLAT in the mud between us. The recoil spun his boat slowly in place, as smoke from the blast twirled into the clear sky.

"Dang!" Vantassel shouted. The frogs croaked in sympathetic outrage.

"Stay down!" I ordered Tanna, and ran at Vantassel, betting that his rifle was a single-shot affair that would take time to reload. I tipped the boat over; Vantassel jumped clear and came up swinging. I ducked and body-blocked him into the shallows, surprised by his wiry strength.

Finally, though, I got him in a chokehold and twisted one arm behind his back. He couldn't get any leverage, and struggled mightily in the knee-deep water. I glanced back at Tanna. "So now what do I do with him?"

She stared at me as if I'd suddenly turned into Elvis. Then she pointed. Not at me, but behind me.

A frog the size of a tool shed, and I'm not kidding, rose from the water with barely a ripple. Its slimy skin glistened, and its gigantic eyes looked down at us with amphibian disdain. As if in respect, the other frogs in the immediate area fell silent.

The great slit mouth opened wide enough to swallow the national debt, and something shot toward me. I released Vantassel and jumped aside again, as the frog's enormous tongue sliced the air.

It smacked Vantassel right between the shoulder blades as he turned to run.

He screamed, that high-pitched panic scream you make when you know you've bought it, and flew backwards into that huge mouth. His screams carried through the frog's thin skin, and the sack under its chin bulged with his struggles. Then the frog made a big swallowing motion, the screaming grew more muffled, and the frog's throat swelled out in a huge bubble. The croak that washed over us rattled the leaves on the trees.

"Come on!" Tanna yelled. I splashed toward her, anticipating the thud of the monster's tongue at my back, but one victim apparently satisfied it. Tanna pulled me close, and with one hand drew a circle in the air around us. "Close your eyes," she whispered urgently, and I did, just as a great cold wind blew over us.

***

I didn't open my eyes again until I felt gravel under my feet. We emerged onto Lost Lake Road at almost the exact spot we'd entered the woods earlier. The icy autumn wind cut through my wet clothes as I unlocked the car doors. "I'm gonna be the hypothermia poster boy. What the hell kind of damn frog was that?"

"Something prehistoric, maybe," Tanna said. "The lake was out of linear time, it could pull frogs from the past, the future, anywhere." She turned back toward the woods, which she could no longer see because of the absence of fireflies. "By the Goddess, we didn't close it. The frogs are still there. I'll have to bring my coven out here as soon as I can; it needs more than just my magick." She paused. "Of course, the poor frogs that are in there will be trapped. They'll die off."

"Well, what happens if you open it all the way up instead?"

"Then the lake comes back." She scowled. "That'd make a mess, wouldn't it?"

"Might. Can we get in the car now?"

The dashboard clock showed that only fifteen minutes had passed in "real" time since we'd parked. With shivering hands, I worked my car keys out of my soaked pants pocket, started the engine and turned on the heat full blast.

And of course, immediately the radio greeted us with Three Dog Night singing, "Jeremiah was a --"

Well. You know.


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