Beneath the Briar Patch
- by Craig Laurance Gidney -
The war between Fox and Rabbit ended with a man made of tar and a briar patch.
Both of them just loved jokes. Real showboaters, that pair. Two centres of attention. Life of the party, times two. Mostly good at making themselves laugh, audiences were just collateral damage. But what they liked even more was being the best at something. If Fox made a funny face, Rabbit made an even funnier one. If Rabbit learned how to interpret a song with a series of burps, then Fox learned how to make his farts sound like a symphony. If one could juggle three balls, the other would do for six knives. On and on it went, each trying to out do the other. Oh, they wrote the book on competitiveness. They were Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau.
But then one of them took it too far. It was inevitable. Things are always funny until someone loses an eye. It was Fox that did it, but it could just as easily have been Rabbit.
See, Fox got it in that pea-brain of his to make a fool out of Rabbit because:
1. Rabbit had done something to piss him off (even Fox had forgotten exactly what that was).
2. Rabbit always gave good reactions (he was the Patron Saint of Butt-Hurt).
3. Because Fox was an asshole.
So Fox went down to the swamp, where a pool of hot black tar bubbled. He mixed the tar with a crude figure made of sticks and bones he’d dug up from graves. Dressed it in raggedy clothes he’d stolen from laundry lines, and gave the tar-thing glass eyes stolen from a little girl’s doll, a maggoty potato for a nose, and a slice of watermelon for lips. A gator’s over-ripe heart, bound with wire, was placed in the thing’s gloppy chest. Fox knew some Hoodoo, so he put the whammy on the thing and presto! Blammo! It lurched behind him, a man-sized poppet.
Everyone hung out at the Briar Patch. It was a kind of speakeasy. You hung around and shot the shit with your pals on nights when Sister Moon wore her silver dress that made her look round, and the sky was full of stars. The thorns of the Patch were as sharp as nails, but fireflies swarmed in the branches, lighting it up like a cotillion ballroom. Everyone was there: Bear, Dog, Cat, Hog, Hoot-Owl, and Magpie. They drank corn liquor that burned their throats and made them cross-eyed. They all flirted, fought, and gossiped. Of course, Rabbit was there. He was always there, laughing too loudly. Fox, meanwhile, hid on the other side of the Patch, and sent the tar poppet into the crowd.
“Well, hello there,” said Sister Goose. She waggled one of her false eyelashes at the dashingly dark figure.
The poppet said nothing.
“Wanna wet your whistle?” said Hoot-Owl, and the poppet wordlessly lurched away.
In fact, the Tar Poppet didn’t speak to anyone. It lumbered along silently, just as Fox wanted. And, as Fox predicted, everyone thought the poppet was rude and sullen.
Rabbit was the centre of attention, in a cluster of folk, including Badger, the Hen Triplets, Bear, and Dog. Presently, Hoot-Owl joined them.
“What’s with that uppity so-and-so over there?” he said to the group. “I gave him salutations, all gentleman-like, and that fool just up and ignored me. Why come to the Patch if you ain’t gonna be sociable?”
Everyone’s eyes drifted over to the shambling figure, which had apparently affronted Madame Buzzard, who was being consoled by Sister Goose.
Madame Buzzard was a drama queen for sure, but still; enough was enough. No one owned the Briar Patch, per se, but Rabbit was, in an unofficial manner, its proprietor. It was Rabbit that arranged the shipment of moonshine, and Rabbit who spread word about the gatherings hither and yon. So, Rabbit felt a certain responsibility for the Patch, and, just as Fox had hoped, Rabbit left his clique and approached the poppet, who now slumped by the bushes that surrounded the glimmering patch.
“Say there, Sirrah,” said Rabbit, “I hear that you’re causing quite a stir in here.”
What do you think the poppet, now hiding in a snare of shadow, said?
This incensed the imminently insensible Rabbit. “What’s wrong? Sister Cat got your tongue?”
“. . .”
“Just nod if you can understand me!”
“. . .”
“Do Something! Wave your hand! Stomp your feet! Anything!”
The tar poppet was still unresponsive. It just stood there, glistening darkly.
Hiding in the bushes, Fox laughed silently.
If Rabbit hadn’t been such a hothead, he would have noticed how the poppet’s posture was poor, or the weird, sulphurous stench it exuded. But by now, Rabbit’s head was hot enough to fry an egg.
“Didn’t your mama train you right? Are you crazy?”
To which he received an infuriating, “. . .”
If Rabbit had been an engine, steam would have been pouring from his ears and nostrils. He went into the shadows after it, and you know what happened. First, a slap across the thing’s face, then another, both of his paws sticking to the poppet’s skin. Then one swift kick, followed by another. Fox revealed himself from behind the bush and gasped with laughter that brought tears to his eyes. Everyone at the Briar Patch gathered around, gradually figuring out this was but one more battle in the endless prank war. Some joined Fox in laughing at Rabbit’s misfortune, but a sizable group just rolled their eyes in disgust and moved away from the scene.
“You got me,” Rabbit said, and sighed. “Now, have your boy here let me go.”
Fox wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and nodded. He pulled out a candle whose wax contained most of the things he’d made the tar poppet out of: pieces of potato, a vein from the gator heart, and of course, tar. When Fox lit the candle, it stank something awful. He then said the words of power to end the spell.
And nothing happened.
Rabbit struggled some more. “Hurry up. I gotta pee.”
Fox tried again, taking his time to avoid making a mistake. Hoodoo demands precision. But still it didn’t work.
“What the hell,” said Fox. He wasn’t laughing anymore.
“Ha ha,” said Rabbit. “Very funny. Let me go. Now.”
“I’m trying, dammit. I’m trying.”
Fox performed the spell a third time, carefully enunciating each word, modulating his voice to its loudest pitch. He did all of the gestures in slo-mo. And still, nothing.
“I’m getting irritated, Fox.”
“I don’t know why it’s not working. Let me try something else. Can you reach into all that tar? In there, you’ll find a gator’s heart—”
“Ow!” said Rabbit. “It stung me!”
“Careful there. I bound it with wire . . . Now if you can just pull it out . . .”
Rabbit was—awkwardly—attempting this operation when something mighty strange happened. The tar poppet began absorbing Rabbit at an accelerated rate until he was swallowed whole, from ear tip to hind leg. The poppet grew prodigiously pregnant with Rabbit’s body. Madame Buzzard screamed. Sister Goose fainted. Fox cursed, horrified. Then Rabbit’s face appeared in the middle of the poppet’s belly. “Help me,” he croaked. And the poppet jumped right into the briars, taking Rabbit with it.
It was Sister Magpie who took control of the situation. No one noticed her arrival; she appeared and vanished like a thief in the night. She was a sneaky one, with a penchant for snagging shiny little things. But she had a streak of wisdom bright as the white feathers fringing her dark face. It was she who helped Goose after her fainting spell, and she who quieted the crowd.
“Brother Fox,” she said when the hush had settled, “just what, exactly, did you do?”
Fox hemmed and hawed.
“Out with it!”
“Well, ma’am. Sister. See, I thought I’d play a little trick on Brother Rabbit. You see, last week he—”
“We all know about your tomfoolery. We ain’t interested in hearing a bunch of Who-Shot-John stories. Just what was that thing that took our brother into the briar patch?”
Fox reluctantly told them about the poppet, how he’d made it, and how he’d lost control. “I don’t know what happened.”
Hoot-Owl had been silent until this moment. He swivelled his head toward the briar patch, then back to Fox, who had his head in his hands. “Hoodoo calls to hoodoo,” he said. “Them that practice it, that follow its ways, always know when hoodoo is done. Hoo! They smell it, they taste it. In the air. Most hoodoo is small work. Tending to an ill one, fixing a broken heart. But big spells. Hoo! Big spells always get noticed. And sometimes, them that notice mischief like to have a little mischief themselves. Hoo!”
Maybe it was the corn liquor, or the shadows, but Hoot-Owls lambent eyes were darker. And the shape of his head was more devilish, with tufts of head feathers looking like horns.
He whispered (and the Animal Folk gathered closer): “I think the Conqueror caught him a whiff of Brother Fox’s hoodoo witchery, and took the poppet to see what was stinking up the patch.”
A gasp rose like wood smoke from the crowd. Madame Buzzard fainted this time, falling on the woozy Sister Goose. And Buzzard was not a small creature.
Fox, and the surrounding Folk, were stunned to silence.
That name, and the face it conjured. The Conqueror. All of them knew him—the stories and campfire tales. No one had seen him, ever. But all knew where he lived. Where he reigned.
And who was the Conqueror? There were various conjectures, rumours, tall tales, and theories:
1. He was the worst kind of animal: a man, sorcerer-king of some long-dead kingdom banished to the briar patch from where he ruled a fiefdom full of demons, witches, and various undead creatures.
2. He was no man at all, but a living plant, growing from the poisoned earth underneath the briar patch, where he radiated his evil influence over all who encountered him.
3. He was neither man, animal, nor vegetable; rather, an evil spirit trapped beneath the briar patch by some eldritch spell that could end at any moment.
“I hear he eats souls,” said Brother Bear.
“He eats bodies and souls,” said Sister Weasel. “He cooks ’em up in a stew. Okra, onions, your blood as broth, and you as the meat.”
“I’ve heard worse,” said Hoot-Owl. “The Conqueror is a god from some black region beyond space and time as we know it. A place with many fanged and tentacled monsters.”
Fox squeaked. “What’s a tentacle?”
Sister Magpie said, “Enough of this . . . speculation. We all know what must be done. We have to go beneath the briar patch and rescue Brother Rabbit. Who will join me?”
No one stepped forward. They looked at the ground, or sipped moonshine, or preened their feathers or their fur.
“No one?” She glanced at the cowering crowd. “Then it’s just you and me, Fox.”
“Hold up,” he said.
“Don’t even,” she said, marching toward the tangle of thorns. “You were the one who started this. You need to make this right.”
Fox followed, tail between his legs.
There was no way to avoid the thorns. Sister Magpie and Fox did their best, but in the end, their entrance into the Conqueror’s realm was clearly marked by the tufts of fur and clumps of feathers left on branches. You can bet there was much cursing. When they finally got to a clearing, they rested, nursing their scratches and scrapes.
“Damn!” said Fox, “I hope we can find another way outta here. I don’t think my hide can take any more abuse.”
“Shh!” said Magpie, “we ain’t the only folks here.”
Both fell silent, listening. Above them, Sister Moon was in her full glory, wearing a gown with just the slightest tinge of blue. Her fullness was caught by the snares in the branches, and the light she cast was slashed into celestial ribbons. Branches creaked, without wind, while the two Animal Folk stood back to back, peering into the latticed gloom. They saw movement in the branches, shiverings and quiverings. And they saw eyes. Eyes of yellow and eyes of green. Red eyes, like dots of blood, and blue eyes, circles of sky. Eyes with centres like black stones and eyes with barbed thorns at their hearts. Eyes that looked at them with malice and mischief, curiosity and hunger.
“Let’s walk,” Magpie whispered.
“Hell if I know.”
Fox sniffed the air. Did he catch just the faintest whiff of tar? Or was he imagining it? Did it matter, considering their current circumstances?
“Come on,” he said, chasing the scent. Sister Magpie followed.
They walked in silence. It was tough going and required some measure of concentration. The briar branches grew wild in all directions. Some were low hanging and had to be ducked under, others required stepping over—gingerly, to avoid further cuts. As they walked, the smell of tar intensified. The night was hot and humid, and the two decided to rest before carrying on.
Fox said, “Do you think he’s dead?”
Magpie stayed silent.
“I never meant for it to go this far. It was just a joke. It was just a game.”
Magpie cocked her head to the side. “Shh,” she said. “I think I hear something.”
Fox heard it, too. Something sweeping on the dirt and over the branches. Something that slithered. A snake emerged from a particularly dense crosshatching, unravelling from an aperture like a rope made of green mint with patches of black soil. It was immense, with eyes the reddish green of rhubarb. It could easily swallow Sister Magpie whole, and wrap itself around Brother Fox and crush his rib cage with ease.
“Greetings,” it said, covering its syllables like moss over muddy stones. “Welcome to my father’s realm.” The voice was androgynous and mellifluous. It promised slow death and the bones of its prey hung beneath the briar patch like ornaments.
Both Animal Folk stepped closer together.
Sister Magpie, pressed against Fox’s fiery fur, said, “And where is your father? Might we have an audience with him?”
The snake’s forked tongue flickered in and out of its mouth, tasting their fear. It said, “Why would you need an audience with him? I do not recommend it. He is not . . . agreeable.”
This time Fox spoke, perhaps encouraged by Magpie’s boldness. “We have some business with him. Did you happen to see a man made of tar pass this way?”
The snake stayed quiet, as if considering the question. “I may have,” it said at last.
“Which direction did it go?” asked Magpie.
“Why,” said the snake, sidling up to the pair, “would I tell you?” His green and red eyes flashed.
“Because, “ said Sister Magpie, “if you don’t tell me, I will take your eyes. My, how they shine. You know how I like sparkly things, don’t you?”
The snake paused. Its reptilian face was unreadable. But maybe—just maybe—it gave her words some consideration.
“Forgive my insolence,” said the snake. “We get so few visitors down here, we have forgotten our manners.” The snake crossed the dusty path. Both Fox and Magpie watched its progress carefully. The serpent’s length was seemingly unending, inch after inch of mint green and soil-black scales. It took its time. When its head reached the other side of the tangle, it turned toward the pair and said, “You were going in the right direction. That hoodoo thing was headed to the Conqueror. You are either very brave or very foolish. Devouring you would have been a mercy.”
Sister Magpie ruffled her black-and-white raiment in fury. She fluttered off the ground and darted toward the snake’s brightly evil eyes. The snake hissed and dove into the brush.
When they were sure the snake was gone, both of them collapsed in a heap, trembling.
“You were magnificent, Sister,” said Fox, after they had regained some measure of fortitude.
“I don’t know if I can do that again,” she said. “Let’s go on. I would like to be out of here as soon as possible.”
They were heading to the centre, where the Conqueror lived. They did not talk about what would greet them once they arrived. There was no need. They said that John the Conqueror scared the Devil himself. Haints turned even whiter than they were after meeting him. Beautiful witches turned into decrepit crones after dealing with him. Fox and Magpie knew that any deal they made with the Conqueror could go wrong, horribly wrong. He did not abide by the laws of man, or of the Animal Folk.
“How are you gonna convince him to let Rabbit go,” Sister Magpie said, maybe to fill the silent gloom that had descended beneath the briar patch.
“I reckon I’ll be straight-forward,” replied Fox. They had settled into an easy pace. He loped on all fours, and she flew when the way was clear. “I’ll say, ‘Mr. Conqueror, I hope I didn’t bother you with my little hoodoo spell. I promise not to work any more mojo again. But, if you wouldn’t mind, please let Rabbit go. It weren’t no fault of his that he’s here. He just caught up in my foolishness.’”
“That sounds mighty nice, Brother Fox. It just might work.”
“Or, it could fail horribly.”
The voice came from nowhere, and everywhere. It was a screech, scraped against their eardrums. Fox stopped dead in his tracks and Magpie landed on the red fur of his back. The air in front of them thickened into blurred pearls of moisture until a shape the colour of Sister Moon in her finest white gown hovered in front of the pair. The shape was formless and cloud-like. It had two almost symmetrical globes of reddish-green that suggested eyes.
“Who are you?” said Fox. His hackles were raised.
“That is entirely the wrong question,” said the cloud-like being. “The correct question is, ‘Who was I?’”
“All right then. Answer that question.”
“My name was Sapphira, and I was cursed with great beauty. My skin was dark brown and glowed with health. I had amber eyes, and a pleasing shape. I was also a slave and worked many long, hot hours picking cotton in the unforgiving sun. My great beauty caught the eye of an overseer. He was an ugly, cruel man, with skin the colour of a pig, and a pig’s jowls. I would see him leering at me as I bent down to fill my sack. I knew what he wanted. And I knew my fate, were I to deny him.”
The cloud-like being poured an image into their minds of a brown-skinned beauty with a muscular frame crowned with a glory of thick plaits.
She continued: “I prayed to the Lord and to the Saviour nightly to protect me from his advances. One night, my cabin mate, who was much older than I, laughed at my prayers. She called them pitiful. ‘That white bearded man and his blue-eyed son ain’t gonna save you, chile. Only one thing can.’ And she told me about the Conqueror, and how to reach him. I did as she instructed, making the offerings of blood, saying the right words.
“He took me to his lair, in the middle of the briar patch. Oh, he is fearsome to look at, as you will soon find. I told him my troubles. ‘What will you give me, if I help you?’ he asked. ‘What will you take?’ I said. He told me that my soul was his for five score years. That seemed a fair bargain. Oh, if only I had known! He lent me some of his power. It poured into me, into every inch of my being. It set every fibre of my being on fire. I was baptized with mojo.”
When she returned to the land above, the haint continued, she found herself imbued with wisdom. She knew which plants could heal, and which could kill. She could ease pain with a touch, and got premonitions. She also knew how to communicate with the Animal Folk. When the overseer came around and made his foul, lewd bid for her, she spoke a Word of power to his horse. The horse followed her command, and threw the overseer. The overseer suffered a couple of broken ribs. He never bothered her, or any other female slave, again.
Armed with new power, she became arrogant and careless. She became known around the plantation as the resident witch. Fellow slaves approached her for love potions, ailments, and, occasionally, revenge. Knowledge of her power spread, until even poor white labourers were asking for a spell or a tonic. When word of her witchery reached her owners, the punishment came swift and brutal. She found herself facing a lynch mob armed with rifles. Not even her newfound powers could save her from a crowd eager to see her demise.
“I been down here nigh on twenty years. Longer than I was alive.”
Her tragic tale concluded, Brother Fox said, after a moment, “Sounds like a run of bad luck. Surely, he didn’t cause you to die. Did he?”
The rhubarb eyes flared. “Not directly. But he could have warned me, you know.”
“Fair enough,” said Fox, “We will heed your warning.”
“Sister Sapphira,” said Magpie, “did you happen to see a poppet made of tar pass by here?”
“I did. It was a terrible sight to behold. It appeared to have something trapped in its gooey belly, something that hollered and hooted. I reckoned it was a victim for one of the Conqueror’s devilish plans. It went that way.” The phantom extended a cloud tendril in the direction of a tunnel of thorns. “But I would not go that way, if I were you.”
With that pronouncement, the spirit winked out like a snuffed candle. Magpie and Fox stared down the tunnel of thorns for a full minute. It was dense and dark, and the thorns in there looked sharper still than the patch’s. The worst thing, though, was that at tunnel’s end they could see a light: an ominous ruddy-green glow.
Brother Fox said, “If we survive this, Brother Rabbit will owe me, big.”
Sister Magpie said, “True, that.” She hopped up on Fox’s back and settled down.
They started down the tunnel, creeping stealthy. They didn’t speak—it seemed out of place here. They concentrated on the path before them, which was narrow. Fox carefully navigated around the fallen thorns. It was chilly in the tunnel, though it was high summer outside the briar patch. Magpie shivered on Fox’s back, and both their breaths misted out their mouths, beaks, and nostrils. Gradually, the shining end of the tunnel got larger and larger, until they emerged from the narrow path, and saw:
1. A nightmarish clearing filled with bloody green light that glowed from nowhere; the light was in the air itself, saturating and colouring everything it touched.
2. Brother Rabbit lying unconscious in the remains of the tar poppet, a puddle of tar spreading out round his body. He clutched the gator’s heart in his arms as if it were a baby.
3. And worst of all: the Conqueror himself.
The Conqueror grew up out of the ground, mingling human and vegetable parts at random. His legs and torso were naked bone enrobed in thick vines. Two stalks extended from the torso to make, evidently, his arms. His face was human enough, with a wide nose and thick, sculptural lips. He stood at least several hands tall, like a scarecrow. On every part of his body morning glories bloomed in an array of colours. This last bit was the most disturbing, for it made clear that the Conqueror was not a natural thing. He was something “Other” and unknowable.
They were unable to tell if Brother Rabbit was alive or not. Fox broke the silence: “Is he dead?”
The face of the Conqueror swivelled, and took the measure of the two Animal Folk. Its voice did not come from its finely shaped lips; it came the throats of the blossoms. You could see them vibrate with the effort. It was not one voice, but a chorus:
“Which one of you dared to make the creature of tar?” The sound rasped over feather and fur.
Fox stepped forward and the ghastly face of the Conqueror imprisoned him in his stare, a rhubarb glow gleaming wetly from its terrible eyes.
“Why did you do this thing?” the voices said.
Fox glanced to Rabbit, and saw that he was breathing. He licked his muzzle and spoke: “Oh, Great and Honoured one. I apologize for using witchery for my own petty mischief. I am sorry to have vexed you so.”
The vegetable man said nothing. The morning glory blossoms quivered like lips.
“Go on,” whispered Sister Magpie, “tell him why you made the tar poppet.”
“Oh Great One, the reason I performed such hoodoo was to trick Brother Rabbit. There was no other reason. See, Brother Rabbit is much better at tricking me. I thought that I would do him one better. Sir. Your Grace. Your Honour.” Fox glanced down at the earth.
A sound arose from the Conqueror. A rustling, as if a wild wind had crept into the clearing. It was underscored by a booming that shook the briar patch to its core, causing the thorns and branches to clash together. Fox looked up to see the face of the Conqueror laughing. It was a roots-deep sound, and his flower-mouths laughed along with him.
It stopped as abruptly as it started.
“You are foolish,” said the voices, “but I admire your treachery. Your love and hate for your friend and enemy must be strong. Still. Do not dare to use this Power again. I will know. And I will not be pleased.”
Fox and Magpie shivered at the harshness of the voices. The face of the Conqueror relaxed, his eyes closing. At once, the bloody green light faded, and—
They were outside the briar patch. The sun was just beginning to rise.
“What,” said Fox.
“Just,” said Magpie.
“Happened,” said Rabbit. He was awake now, blinking the sleepiness from his eyes.
Fox was so happy he could have kissed him.
“We saved your hide,” said Sister Magpie, after they regained their composure.
“After he almost killed me,” said Rabbit.
“Don’t facing the Conqueror count for anything?” asked Fox.
Sister Magpie began preening herself, plucking out the various thorns and twigs that had caught in her feathers. “You two, stop. Now’s as good a time as any to call a truce.”
Both Fox and Rabbit looked at each other abashedly.
“Come on, now. After all we went through, I’m not gonna leave until you two make up.”
Brother Fox and Brother Rabbit agreed to end the prank war. They both swore on their mama’s graves; Sister Magpie made them before she flew off into the dawn.
And did they keep their bargain?
Well that’s another tale, for another time.
© 2017 by Craig Laurance Gidney
Craig Laurance Gidney is the author of the collections Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories (Lethe Press, 2008), Skin Deep Magic (Rebel Satori Press, 2014), and the Young Adult novel Bereft (Tiny Satchel Press, 2013) and The Nectar of Nightmares (Dim Shores, 2015). He lives in his native Washington, DC. Website: craiglaurancegidney.com. Instagram, Tumblr & Twitter: ethereallad.