Excerpt of Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire
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The House of Saint Glinda
SO THE TALK OF RANDOM BRUTALITY
wasn't just talk. At noontime they discovered the bodies of three young women,
out on some mission of conversion that appeared to have gone awry. The novice
maunts had been strangled by their ropes of holy beads, and their faces removed.
Her nerve being shaken at last, Oatsie Manglehand now caved in
to the demands of her paying customers. She told the team drivers they'd pause
only long enough to dig some shallow graves while the horses slaked their
thirst. Then the caravan would press on across the scrubby flats known, for the
failed farmsteads abandoned here and there, as the Disappointments.
Moving by night, at least they wouldn't make a sitting target,
though they might as easily wander into trouble as sidestep it. Still, Oatsie's
party was antsy. Hunker down all night and wait for horse hoofs, spears? Too
hard on everyone. Oatsie consoled herself: If the caravan kept moving, she could
sit forward with her eyes peeled, out of range of the carping, the
second-guessing, the worrying.
With the benefit of height, therefore, Oatsie spotted the gully
before anyone else did. The cloudburst at sunset had fed a small trackside
rivulet that flowed around a flank of skin, water-lacquered in the new
An island, she feared, of human flesh.
I ought to turn aside before the others notice, she thought; how
much more can they take? There is nothing I can do for that human soul. The
digging of another trench would require an hour, minimum. An additional few
moments for prayers. The project would only further agitate these clients as
they obsess about their own precious mortality.
Upon the knee of the horizon balanced the head of a jackal moon,
so-called because, once every generation or so, a smear of celestial flotsam
converged behind the crescent moon of early autumn. The impact was creepy, a
look of a brow and a snout. As the moon rounded out over a period of weeks, the
starveling would turn into a successful hunter, its cheeks bulging.
Always a fearsome sight, the jackal moon tonight spooked Oatsie
Manglehand further. Don't stop for this next casualty. Get through the
Disappointments, deliver these paying customers to the gates of the
Emerald City. But she resisted giving in to superstition. Be scared of the
real jackals, she reminded herself, not frets and nocturnal portents.
In any case, the light of the constellation alleviated some of
the color blindness that sets in at night. The body was pale, almost luminous.
Oatsie might divert the Grasstrail Train and give the corpse a wide berth before
anyone else noticed it, but the slope of the person's shoulders, the unnatural
twist of legsthe jackal moon made her read the figure too well, as too
clearly human, for her to be able to turn aside.
"Nubb," she barked to her second, "rein in. We'll
pull into flank formation up that rise. There's another fatality, there in the
Cries of alarm as the news passed back, and another mutter of
mutiny: Why should they stop?were they to bear witness to every fresh
atrocity? Oatsie didn't listen. She yanked the reins of her team of horses, to
halt them, and she lowered herself gingerly. She stumped, her hand on her sore
hip, until she stood a few feet over the body.
Face down and genitals hidden, he appeared to have been a young
man. A few scraps of fabric were still knotted about his waist, and a boot some
yards distant, but he was otherwise naked, and no sign of his clothes.
Curious: no evidence of the assassins. Neither had there been
about the bodies of the maunts, but that was on rockier ground, in a drier hour.
Oatsie couldn't see any sign of scuffle here, and in the mud of the gulch one
might have expected . . . something. The body wasn't bloody, nor decayed yet;
the murder was recent. Perhaps this evening, perhaps only an hour ago.
The foregoing is excerpted from Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire, pages
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