The village burned before the stranger; the rictus of mad delight pulled back his countenance as his toes stretched like rubber, snaking out across the road. In the gloam the cracks and tears in his toenails looked like tiny mouths. Sunset boiled over the western tree line. Heat waves shimmered. The tall, gaunt stranger allowed his toes to carry him across the roadway further west. If there had been anyone close to him they would have heard a hissing, but whether it came from the stranger’s toes or mouth they would have not been able to tell. Almost all of the villagers had run off or had succumbed. Only Victoria with her silver blond ringlets tied in a topknot, and Daisy, the tomboy, remained.

Vic had spied the stranger’s westward approach from Harlow’s pasture, from where she had been picking flowers and wild strawberries growing near the old stones that stacked up like slack pillows. Vic watched her father meet the stranger at the gate. Vic thought the man had come from the eastern village with eggs or bread. Perhaps her father did too. Her father succumbed to sickness within minutes of hailing the man; he vomited until he puked blood, then finally threw-up a black haze, like flies, which flew up in a chaotic loop about him. Then, Vic watched her father beat and tear at his own face, before he collapsed and shriveled into a husk, something both liquefied and dissected, wet bloody leather in the shape of a skeleton. She had covered her mouth and hid behind the old stones until the stranger had moved on, and then fled and half buried herself under the front porch of her home, on the corner of Main and East, where field met township.

The Harrowing of West Village or How Daisy & Vic Awoke - Illustration
Illustration by Luis Aguirre

Vic only witnessed her father die, but Daisy watched her neighbors go mad with vomiting as they came into contact with the stranger propelled by his snake-like toes. The local constable fell within the first quarter hour, so no sirens rang out. Daisy watched Miss Wendy grab the stranger’s shoulder and then watched her yelp and shriek as the stranger’s toes, like an octopus’ appendages, wrapped around her wrist and arm and broke them in three places with a quick snap. Miss Wendy didn’t even have time to reach for her nightstick before she fell victim to vomiting and tremors and black haze. Daisy wanted to call out in warning, to help. She had gone climbing to eat her licorice in peace. Saved from her birthday the previous week, and wrapped up in a handkerchief, she had it in her back pocket, and her slingshot too, and ten small stones which she planned to fire at Rebecca, her prissy perfect neighbor, while she ate. But Daisy didn’t see Rebecca, but instead spied the stranger coming from the east, his black suit rumpled as if he had slept in the woods, his smile a cruel mimic, something a scary clown would crack back, revealing teeth that were all too sharp and yellow.  And when Daisy saw the stranger’s horrible truth from where she hung on the locust tree, her guts iced, and her brain trembled, a barely perceptible shiver, before all at once, her body grew and shrank and aged into curves, a pulsing growth that came from within. She had the sensation that there was an infant sized Daisy at the heart of her, sitting on the crotch of the branch balancing with all its might, but that there was also a toddler inside her, and an older child, and more of her, each year of her life present on the limb, in the moment. She could also feel her older future selves, shimmering and vibrating around her body as the stranger from the east passed under where she sat, frozen, in terror, as time warped inside her and around her. Daisy felt the tree too, and the air, existing in all of its ages, as she sat, transfixed. She would later retell it as living all time at once, that fear of the strange man from the eastern woods.

Vic would later recall the unzipping sound of wet skin and viscera ripping down as black flies came out of her father’s throat, the vomit still hanging on his lips as he tore his face. She would later describe how he looked like he was having fun, dying, blissed even, ripping at his eyelids. But that day she buried her face under her house and dreamed as if she was running in a forest, smacking against dark limbs that cut and roughed up her skin as she beat against them in a wild panic. But she did not run off, that she knew, but had trouble distinguishing between what she later called the dream, and the fear.  Vic didn’t come out from under the house until the next day. She soiled herself several times, laying there, stomach rumbling, body numb.

It was Daisy who fetched Vic.  Daisy had eventually come out of her fugue state having lapsed into sleep after sunset, after the stranger had left, still hanging onto the locust. She climbed out of her tree and just knew where to find Vic.

“I had a dream we met by a river; we wore white boots.” Daisy’s voice barely rose above a whisper as she squatted by Vic’s porch. “You and me in the woods.”

And Vic had dreamed she wore boots, running in the eastern woods.

“Come on out, Vic. We need to eat.” Daisy said,  taking her hand.

When Vic crawled out, only then did she see that half the homes were on fire. By then the smoke from the village filled the sky and coupled with smoke from the eastern village beyond; the whole blue above the forest filled with oily smoke, and what could have been clouds of flies, or fat ash flakes circling like crows.

Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review.  His poems have appeared in Fourteen Hills, Oxford Poetry, The Scores, Crab Creek Review,  & Third Wednesday, among other journals. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2020.