Let me take you back in time, town folk! With a little story that transpired this week, but has tendrils reaching back over 70 years. Take a deep breath! This is a doozy!
Last Wednesday, Maud Ffelder was going through her attic, aiming to pull together some things for the white elephant sale in aid of the Big Horns little league trip, when she came across a real piece of town memorabilia. Lucky for us, she gritted her teeth and brought her grim discovery right here to the Winsome Meddlar. Best weekly paper this side of Big Fall!
Now, every long-time resident knows, rule of thumb, never hike the valley below the Lookout. It’s such a known known, I’m not even sure we talk about it enough to newcomers anymore. That said, the Ffelder find is going to change the channel back to mucho info.
Okay, where do we start? Perhaps Little Jonny Gwenn is as good a place as any. He turned 10 that far away October. Avid about the outdoors, like most kids round here are. Knew how to use a compass. Make a shelter. He was finally in the double digits. He and his trusty pooch Wiener were now allowed to go hiking on their own.
Back then, in '51, folks were more cutoff from the world. Especially the world of science. Stories only reached our town if they made a big, big splash elsewhere. Since we have been blessed with an abundance of hills, it’s natural that some were less travelled than others. And also, perfectly natural, if some folks died after spending time in a particular valley. No one put two and two together. Back then we didn’t tend to cut up our friends and family once they pushed off this mortal coil. We were busy washing and baking and mourning. Comforting each other as only a close-knit town can.
For example, no one was at all suspicious when Dave Hann died in '48, coughing and choking. Poor bastard. He’d been smoking forever. Worked the Delle Coal Mine for at least a decade. Plus, who knew what he inhaled during his stint in North Africa?
Same with Suzy Wolz, way back in '45. She made the best soups in these parts. Everyone knew she foraged these hills. She could tell the deadly from the delicious with zero worries. When she started hunting plants at night. That should have been a clue. But no one paid attention. We sure weren’t thinking: light sensitivity! She was an odd duck that got odder. That was the common opinion. She fell real sick on a Sunday, died in fever on a Tuesday. Folks sure were sad. Especially for her three daughters, left to be raised by their dumbass of a father. I’m not saying anything that the town wasn’t thinking!
People just did not see what was happening. Folks were busy. There were other explanations. No smoking gun. You know how it goes!
So, back to Maud and her discovery. She walked into my office, still in her house dress. That said a lot all by itself. Clutched in her hands was the jar containing Wiener's pickled lungs. Little sticker with his name. Date of dissection. Wee doggie lungs in preservative. Creepy as all get out.
You see, Maud’s grandfather was the town amateur vet for a spell after the war. On account of being a medic and all. And I guess when word of Jonny’s fate circulated, old man Ffelder must have taken an interest in the inner workings of Jonny’s faithful companion. Maybe too much interest.
But you have to understand that no one really understood much about the unseen world back then. Ffelder probably thought he was doing the town a service. He likely scooped up that pooch in the sad days after the boy’s body was shipped off to the city. Story goes, the dog was running wild.
That shed, out back of the Ffelder property, was outfitted to set a bad paw or deliver pups, wait for a wedding ring to pass through some animal’s gut. That sort of thing. I guess it also included some formaldehyde and surgical tools. Haha. DIY all the way back then. What’s that word the kids today use? Maker! Yes, everyone was a maker!
Ladies and gents, that jar was a wonder. Seventy years old. Murky as heck. But not at all ambiguous. Preserved for all the world, and his somewhat delicate granddaughter, to see. Choked with Cryptococcus gattii. Now translucent, clinging forever to the dog’s right lung. Just like the tufts reportedly pulled out of little Jonny’s chest, when that big city doctor conducted his autopsy.
For those of us of a certain age, our school years were marked by rounds of late night campfires. Tales of how that kid had a forest growing through his sternum. Some thought it was the too healthy food his mama baked. Report was it tasted like crap, made from sprouted this and raw seed that, so it was a reasonable guess. Others applied a heavy layer of local cryptid lore. Creating ever more embellished stories of the beasts beyond the town limit sign. But those of us who could read and wanted to, we learned later on that C.gattii is just a teeny tiny spore. Fungi. It loves those trees down under the Lookout. Loves them.
You can’t see it. You can’t taste it. It just wafts through the air, free as you please. Going down the gullet like a summer breeze. Like the smell of lilacs. When you’re laughing. Except it doesn’t stop there. This minuscule organism plants itself like seedlings inside the lung tissue. Human and beast alike. We are the perfect temperature. It gets happy. It buds. Buds some more. Pushes its way through the alveoli, the bronchioles. Lobes fill up like fertilized grass. And soon you are wheezing. Coughing. If you’re lucky that kills you. In some cases it gets into your nervous system. Your brain. Things are too bright. Before things go very dark. Yeesh. Makes a grown man quiver!
Maud, to her credit, manged to get that weird treasure safely from her place to the Meddlar. But she doesn’t want it back. No surprise. We are all scratching our chests now. Wondering if little forests may be sprouting within. I’m sitting here with Wiener's last remains on my desk, waiting for Darla to take a good snapshot of this lung-choking monster. After that I’m not sure what I’ll do. Bury it? Call up some university, see if it brings them joy? Build an educational diorama out front of the Meddler? Keep it on my shelf as a grim reminder of how none of us are truly safe if the world sincerely wants us dead?
Tell me, dear reader, what would you do with the pickled remains of a killer?
Read by J. Squires.
About the Author
From Canada, Ren Pike lives on the edge of many circles. Birds know her by the water she chooses to carry. Visit her online at rpike.mm.st.