Tom realized he was running out of time when the consumption came back. It coiled around his lungs like the anacondas that twisted through his backyard. The faded calendar confirmed it, the dreaded June had come. A last breakfast was served but they were barreling down the backroads within the hour.
He broke into a wheezing cough as 42, his pig, leapt out of the van. He was cutting it close. The leash was left behind, unneeded in these deserted woods. Sunlight filtered through the redwoods as he sighted the old trail. His pet ran free from tree to tree sniffing the new scents. Tom let him enjoy his last day. He shouldered a backpack, feeling the heavy stone shift and press against the fabric and started down the path.
The hike to the ritual site remained treacherous, snarling roots and wayward branches littered the way. A challenge even when the witch still lived nearby but now it was just Tom who made the journey. “Come on, 42, this way—yes good piggy.”
A squirrel squeaked in annoyance, but the pig moved on from the tree it had been trying to climb. 42 might have been the smartest pig he had ever raised, he thought, always listening to Tom’s commands. The sickness twisted in his gut, souring his mood. They had made good progress, but as he tried to quicken his pace a rotten root caught his ankle and sent him tumbling down.
A sharp pain radiated from his leg and when he tried to stand his traitor of an ankle cried out failing to hold his weight. “42, come here!” Using the swine’s flank Tom leaned into the pig managing to share his weight so they could continue. His gaze darted towards the sinking sun and an anchor seemed to hang from Tom’s throat. Their speed slowed with the new awkwardness of their gait and Tom felt like molasses creeping through bowels.
Finally, a pink sky greeted them as they entered the clearing and Tom hurried to use the last of its light. He grabbed the headstone from his pack, sighing in relief as the strain on his back vanished. The headstone was planted next to its forty-one predecessors, and he could feel the incantation come unbidden to his lips as it always had. Some fairy tales told of witches being wicked, and while her looks had left much desired, this gift was not one that could be forgotten. The ritual called for his beloved swine’s sacrifice under the leap year’s sixth moon, but this was the trade for his life unending.
“Hark Thee, Unholy Night,” he yelled, startling the pig. “I call this ancient rite of sacrifice.” He held 42’s collar tight and brandished a knife from his bag. As the light shined off the steel the pig jerked almost upending Tom. In hushed tones he said, “It’s going to be okay, don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” His lies managed to coax 42 back into a calm state and he continued the incantation.
“I call to the spirits of the land, hear me now. I, Tom O’Brian, sanctified by the crone Harkess the Wise give unto thee the blood of a swine. Raised from bairn, beloved as mine own blood, and never was he thrice removed from my sight.” Lights began to gather, small but growing in number as the words sang out from his lips. “Forty-one unholy moons have I been blessed and may there be forty-one more. The love for my dearest beast, 42, falters only for the blood that runneth in my veins. I bless my vitality with the fruits of this nurturing love I now cut short. You, 42, I slay thee this night.” Tom shifted his weight and swung the knife down, but this motion caused a panic in the pig. Twisting in his failing grip, the pig bolted into the wilderness and Tom was knocked off his feet.
He felt his wrist snag and looked to find the sharp edge of his knife pressed under him. His curses rang out as his lifeblood pooled around him. Those curses were superseded as phlegm was hacked up in greater and greater amounts, tinged with blood. The woods lay barren of help. His strength failing, all he could do was watch the lights in the sky blink out one by one. 42’s squeals had long since retreated into the forest and the only sound left was his slurping breath. Soon that too ended and the wind cackled with laughter as the life of Tom O’Brian winked out.
Emmitt Henkel was hatched in the pastures of Nebraska. Previously working in finance, he currently works as a marketing director in Central Florida. Follow him on Instagram @funkyemmitt3.