by N.M. Nichols
Things have consequences.
This is what the fur trader is thinking as he crouches atop a tree branch, watching the mire below him rise. His deerskin clothes and furs do little to deter the sudden cold. His musket rests on his knees. He uses it to help maintain his balance, having lost the rope he’d used to lash himself to the tree to avoid falling over.
The mire consists of water, blood, and shit, and it churns around the trunk of his tree along with bits of homes, animals, and people. The village he’d left behind in disgust has been drowned in all this, and deservedly so, the trader thinks. The people there had cheered and thrown things as their neighbors drew and quartered the native man in the middle of the village. The trader didn’t know which of them thought that up, but does know it’s an old punishment from places he’s heard of but can only visit in his imagination.
The trader had worked hard at establishing a good relationship with the tribes this far out. He’d found most of them to be good and honest people, which was why he was repulsed by the unwarranted execution. He’d neither said nor done anything to help the man, though. No matter what he told himself, he’d done nothing because he was thinking of his own skin, and how the townspeople who prided themselves on their hard work and God-fearing ways would have gladly flayed it off him. It was what happened to potential voices of reason in rough seas of pitch – they were snuffed out before they were even born.
He thinks now that this was a mistake.
The trader only knew about the coming of the mire from the townsman who’d come running up behind him. Several miles out from the village, he’d been cresting a hill, giving his horse a rest from his weight and leading her along the road with the reins bunched in his left hand. He’d been trying not to think of the man and his agonized shrieks. He heard pounding footfalls and whirled around, tucking the stock of his musket into his shoulder and looking down its length at the filthy, bloodied man running towards him.
The outhouses had overflowed, he said. The river, too. Everyone’s waste had bubbled to the surface and then mixed with the water as it swept through the town, burying it. There’d been something in the woods, too, the man added. Another native, maybe. He thinks he (she?) was dancing, but couldn’t be sure. The trader thought the man fevered, and left him to rave in the road. Once again, the problems of another were not his own.
That same man had bumped up against the trunk of his tree not long ago. White-eyed, blue-lipped, and gray, his face held no recriminations as the impact jarred open his mouth. Right away, it filled with red and brown slurry, and the trader had closed his eyes, lifting his face to the sky and begging for forgiveness. The sky overhead was an eye clouded over, not hateful but not loving, either. It holds the same indifference on this day as the mire touches the trader along the backs of his legs and buttocks, and he gags from the sharp tang of feces and the iron reek of blood.
Things have consequences, he thinks one final time before the mire gently takes hold of him and bears him away in its cold, muddy embrace.
N.M. Nichols has a Master’s degree and has published 11 short stories (Sepsis makes it 12) to date. He lives in southwestern Ohio.