Shock stomped his foot and hollered, "Haint haint," at a short brown and white dog coming up close to his property. He wore a white tank top undershirt and brown pants, was close to 90 years old, and it was far past his usual time of settling in and readying for bed.
He stomped and shouted until he was near the unfrequented road and saw Sam the neighbor girl fetching letters from the mailbox. She was twelve and often talked to "Grandpa Shock" at the fence.
"Hey there, Sam!" he hollered and motioned her over to where he stood near the road. The girl came over carrying her letters. "Did you see that dog?"
Sam shook her head.
"It had bad markings," he said, staring up and down the street. "So you be on the lookout for it. The type of dog that's apt to bite." He waved his hand and said, "Come have a seat and tell me a story."
Sam wore jeans and a t-shirt that were covered with dirt, grass stains, and guts from where she picked up a dead bird and wiped her hands on her pants.
Shy with her tongue—Shock said it was thieved by a cat—Sam sat quiet, often laughing as the old man told of his adventures back when he had solid legs. But they weren't mocking laughs, only playful ones.
"Do you like cats?" he said.
"I saw a cat out west. A big white cat."
"What did you call him?" she said.
The old man sat back in his chair and crossed one thin leg tightly over the over and began flicking his hanging foot. His expression changed as he picked up a salt shaker and poured the white grains into the palm of his right hand.
"Nostradamus!" he said, and held the hand up to his mouth and dabbed his tongue into the salt.
Then, after smiling at the salted memory, he said:
"A very healthy looking cat, a good and fat white cat," he said. "And there I was just full of hot blood on the western plain where I watched many many suns go down and many many more come up to make my blood even hotter."
"A cowboy!" said Sam.
The man laughed, "I don't know about that, but I had, still have, a good gun. And I could get that gun very hot with my right hand."
It was in an orchard, on his horse, that the young Shock first saw the white flash in the dark beneath the apple trees. Dismounting, he saw that it was a white cat and watched it wrestle an apple in the fall dusk, sometimes falling on its back and becoming still before rolling and jumping at the ripe, mottled-looking braeburn.
Old Shock licked the salt from his palm like a deer and said, "With the sun going down fast I took some Sterno out of the saddlebag and built a rowdy fire there in the middle of the orchard. How good it felt as I read a little of my Western book as the water for coffee boiled and I was on the best page in the entire book where a cowboy shot this rotten ass Indian in the head.
His stomach shook. It was his quiet laugh.
"But the white cat, I no longer saw it anywhere," Shock said. "Hey, do you like apples?"
The girl nodded.
"I love apples, you know, and when my horse, Jack, was snapping into those apples—on just one fine snap of the bunch—an idea came to me. I ran and fetched that apple the cat had been wrangling—mottled and blushed, firm and very big, unmatched, that apple—and, by damned, if that fat white cat didn't come from the dark, took the apple straight from me, and rolled with it in its arms like a monkey."
Sam looked over at the old man and saw his stomach shaking again.
"Isn't worth a damn now, Sam, but I used to have a fast right hand. I took the apple from the cat easy and put my idea into action. I cored it—but not all the way, left a bottom—and poured in some molasses from my saddlebag, some cinnamon, and corked it with a pecan. Then I just shook the straight piss out of it and roasted it over that fire. The juices poured from where the cat had scratched it. My!"
Sam started laughing and the old man held his head back and closed his eyes, stopped flicking his foot for a moment, and said:
"All so sweet! Oh god yes, we're going to wake snakes tonight!" he thought aloud, the taste of the past in him. "Some pumpkins! Some real pumpkins!" he said and laughed. "A true winner no matter how much it burned the shit out of my mouth!"
So easy it was to get the girl laughing.
"But it did!" said Shock with his high-pitched laughing way of talking, "And it was so good I forgot the beans. I kicked the can out of the fire and the cat went running after it, smacking it, finding it was too hot and laying in its belly to stalk it."
The old man must have been considering something because he stopped his story to look at his right hand. He held it up and began wiggling the fingers, and then lowered the hand to the armrest, intentionally looking out at the street to forget about it.
"But all the time the white thing watched me as it ate the burnt beans," said Shock, "I dosed off and woke in a panic to Jack snapping on those apples and saw the cat, with the fire reflected orange on its fur, licking the bean juice from the dirt and watching me, just deadly watching my ass."
From the next house there was a shouting of Sam's mother.
"I'm over here, Mom, at Grandpa Shock's."
"Alright," her mother hollered, "But get in here soon or you'll miss your show."
The screen door slammed shut and Shock said, "It is getting dark, isn't it? I don't think I've ever sat out here this late."
Sam looked up at the old man, saw his bottom lip was trembling and his eyes were opened wide. His eyelids closed some and Shock said, "I best get this story done with." He uncrossed his legs and stomped his foot on the cement. "But, yes, that cat's stare! Wouldn't you know it, Sam, I had the worst dream of my life," said Shock. "Christ, I wish I could be rid of it. The cat knows. It very well knows, Sam. Predicts the future."
He told her how just before he fell asleep he felt the gun burning at his right leg as it absorbed the heat from the fire. "Like a dragon," Shock said, "to protect me from all the bastards and sonofabitches, but now I can barely pick it up, it is so heavy." And he looked at his right hand on the chair's armrest. Sam saw him lift his index finger and he said, "Sonofabitch," disgusted at its trembling.
"A witch?" Sam said.
"A witch or a bitch or whatever," said Mr. Shock, after he had told the girl the first part of his dream where he heard a laughing sort of cackle as he came upon a lake with orange and red leaves on the surface. A sunny fall day when the day and night struggle one against the other. The view was what he liked about that time of year when the insects slow down their night squeals and the light of the sun is warm on the skin but never provokes a sweat. The dryness and cleanliness of that time.
He had walked over to a place in the woods perfumed with a cinnamon sweetness, and, as he pushed a bough to the side to enter the wood, he noticed the laughing had stopped. And standing in a clearing of the woods was an old woman. Shock told the girl all of the nasty details of the woman, the twisted lip, the stabbing chin, the dull yellow complexion as though she had "powdered her face with oak pollen." He told her about her thin black mustache, black robe, and heavy hood over her head that was wrapped in a red cloth.
The girl had started to laugh but said, "But it's only a dream witch, right?"
"You will see," said Shock. "You ought to have seen her head. The only unwrinkled thing about her was her eyelids that stretched out to keep her eyeballs from falling out."
The old man told Sam how the witch hissed as she attempted to talk, and hacked mucus up into her mouth and spit it before she said, "Meeeeee-ow. Myaw. Meeeeeeee-ow." And when she stopped the corners of her mouth would again turn up into a grin. "Come, come," she said with a voice that was male and female all at once.
"Here puss, here puss puss," the witch said and…
"She grabbed it," Shock said, "And, oh, did the white cat wail and wail before the witch squealed, "ACK," and she squeezed the cat's neck as tight as she could until urine began pouring out."
Shock threw the salt shaker and it busted when hitting the porch column.
"Cock-eyed yellow faced bitch," he said. "I reached for my gun but something was wrong. I couldn't take it from the holster. No matter how I tried my true right hand was numb like gelatin."
He didn't relate to the young girl that he felt both neutered and disemboweled. And he didn’t tell her that somehow he had been stripped naked.
"And she rode me back and forth," Shock said.
"Rode you?" said Sam.
"The witches do that," he said. "They ride you and you feel all desire to stand but you cannot stand, while the hags shout like a whore, 'HEEE HEEE HEEE.' She rode me this way and that, that old bag did, and the sweet smell of the air turned into a smell like trout guts."
"But they aren't real, the witches," said Sam. "It is just dreaming."
"No," said Shock, "the witch is very real."
"But it's only a dream. You have not seen a witch really."
The old man acted as though he would get up but faltered and fell back into the seat. "No," he said, "Not yet. But maybe."
"The witches," Sam said, "they are not real, Grandpa Shock."
The girl greatly wanted the old man to agree but he, instead, continued the story.
"The cackling crone rode me like a horse far back into the woods and at a place where the moss was thick she stopped me in front of a skull surrounded by hedge apples, the biggest skull I had ever seen. Giant sharp teeth."
"But it was fake? A dream?"
"A reptile," said Shock, "and inside its jaws was the white cat. Trapped. I could do nothing."
"You woke then, didn't you?"
"No," Shock said, "not yet. Not yet, not yet, not yet."
"I would have," said the girl. "I always wake when it gets too bad."
"Do you?" said the old man, this time successfully getting to his feet, wiping the salt off his hand on his pants. "I don't know if I ever wake up."
"But you did then?" said the girl.
"I don't think so," Shock said, "Or the cat was wrong. But I might have woke by the fire with the white cat's paw on my mouth. I am not certain." He pointed to his head with his trembling finger,
"The mind tricks you. I believe the white cat more. Many real things I have forgotten. Nostradamus sticks like a bur."
"The mind tricks you. I believe the white cat more. Many real things I have forgotten. Nostradamus sticks like a bur."
He walked to the edge of the painted cement porch and looked far up the street. "I think that dog was marked by witches. Have you seen it while I was rattling along?"
"No, Mr. Shock," said Sam, who now was looking up the street too. "Marked by them?"
"Very certain of it," he said.
"But there are no witches," said Sam, as the old man opened his screen door, the screen ripped in places. "But how did you wake, how did the dream end?"
"Oh, the woods are crawling with them," Shock said, his old white face spookily inside the darkness of his home where a smell of oils of a thousands fried eggs haunted within and escaped down into the girl's nose. "The witch, the witch of the damned, I felt her dismount me, and when I looked up from my low place and saw her, I woke up."
"I would too!" said Sam.
"No," Shock said, "It wasn't the witch that I seen before."
"Who in the hell was it, Mr. Shock?"
"It was my daughter," he said "My daughter, Martha, who wasn't even born. I hadn't even met her mother. Looked just like she does now."
"Mrs. Park?" Sam said. "She doesn't look like a witch to me."
"They never do," said Shock, "Good night, Sam."
"Goodnight, Grandpa Shock."
But as she was halfway to her yard she said, "Mr. Shock?"
"When the witch comes I know you'll shoot the whore."
She saw the old man's stomach shake and then saw him lift his right hand and stare at it like a phantom.
Before she jumped up on her porch she looked and saw that Mr. Shock was still there watching, as though worried for her. The old man saw her look, raised his arm and hollered, "Nostradamus!"
"Nostradamus!" she yelled back before going in.
Martha drove with her younger sister Gail in the passenger seat and her brother Ted and older sister Kate in the backseat.
They had planned it all out.
Their dad had been acting stranger and saying things they had never heard him mention before. Obvious fictions. Hallucinations of a failing mind. Apparently, he was some cowboy. Sometimes he mistook them for neighbors or friends from his youth. Sometimes he would look at them eerily, like he knew their worst secret. It was very uncomfortable how he had gotten. The doctor had said he was experiencing sundown syndrome or "sundowning" which accompanies dementia or Alzheimer's patients.
They had it all planned out.
They would get to their father's house a little before nine, just before he would be readying for bed, and tell him that they were going to take him for some pie at his sister's in Sooleawa Township.
And when he was at the height of his nighttime confusion they would have him admitted into the Friendly Nursing Home, which was a sparse facility, but all they could afford they told each other. Even if they could afford better, the "home" would be good enough. Then, after their dad was safe, they would all go to the Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop at the strip mall. They had all dressed up for it.
Sam couldn't get into her favorite show and told her mother that she would like to go to bed instead.
"Are you okay, sweetheart?" her mother said.
"I am just tired," said Sam.
"Did Mr. Shock say something to upset you?"
"No," she said, "not at all," and she went into her room, laid on her bed with anxiety in her stomach, and she jumped up, opened the window, then the screen, and slipped out.
It was as dark as it would ever be that night and she crept up to hide behind a bush near the fence, looking this and that way for witches. It was under that bush that she lit a candle and made an incantation just last Halloween.
Dark though it may be, in front of Shock's home was a street light that cast a blue-white color over the short strip of lawn until it met the Shock's porch. As she was watching that light she saw headlights on the road, a new Buick came to a stop, and there was all of Grandpa Shock's children, led by Martha, the Buick's engine still running.
"Hi Daddy!" she said waving and there was a gunshot and the woman hit the ground.
"Dad, put…" said Kate, and Sam saw the old man pull the gun out of the holster hanging low on his right leg. So quick did the gun come out, so bright the flash of the powder, and Kate was down. The pistol circled on the old man's finger before it was reholstered. But before his other son and daughter could get to running, the gun was redrawn in a less than a second and—one, two—the remaining Shock children fell to the road.
The old man danced on the porch, spinning the gun on his finger over his head, then aiming at the streetlight, then reholstering to pull it out again and spin and aim at the Bell's house across the street. At last, he holstered it and stuck out his chest.
"Grandpa!" hollered Sam as she climbed over the fence and started running for his porch. She hollered it again and again. And from the corner of Shock's property, bounding down the road, was the white and brown dog that seemed to be heading for the girl. The old man drew the gun. The girl screamed as she saw the pistol aimed toward her, and then—as she was no longer than a few arm's reaches to Shock, before she could stop her run—she saw him uncock the pistol.
He lowered the gun and said, "Look, Sam, it is him!"
The girl turned and saw the dog with the thunderstroke down its face.
Shock made the sound he had made to slow up Jack the horse long ago, and the dog made the low slinking gestures of an omega canine. The old man bent forward quickly, forgetting his age, to touch the mark on the dog's face as though to wash it away, and he fell to the ground.
The old man made no sound although the pain roiled through his nervous system. His only reaction, Sam saw, was a beautiful toothless grin, the best she had ever seen, or would probably ever, as the dog licked at the old man's face and stood over him.
"Yes," Shock said, "This is what I was waiting to see. Perfect. Perfect. Above me now, Nostradamus, you are at liberty."
And the old man watched as the brown and white dog licked all of his right hand, even on the barrel pistol which burned its tongue.
See more by David M Morton at Banty Cock.