This is the Twelfth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 12 Title — Something Wicked… — was chosen by Perry. I’ll choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Perry’s submission.
Here’s the blurb for this story:
Nim is a Pacific Island girl in the 1940s. She finds a leaflet on the shoreline. One symbol resembles a Giant Bird . . . a bird that she believes stole her father; a bird she believes will return her father, if she delivers the perfect prayer. There’s only one man that can decipher the writing: an old Priest exiled to a neighboring island. This is the tale of her odyssey.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Copyright 2023 — Perry Broxson
(4,400 words – approx. reading time: about 17 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Nim climbed the coconut tree that loomed over the edge of the lagoon. She was not interested in the hard, hairy fruit; it was the view that she sought. From her 30-meter perch, she watched the Pacific sun crest over the horizon, its corona illuminating the endless ocean, spilling into the salty morning sky.
“Maybe today,” she thought. “If I offer my prayers perfectly – if I reach the ears of the Tovar, the Great Bird, perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . today will be the day.”
She shielded her eyes with a palm frond. Along with the scintillating light, the sun brought heat. Nim stared into its fiery eye, refusing to blink. If she blinked, she thought, she might miss it. If she missed it, Tovar might be insulted . . . and rethink its return to her island, rethink its promise. The Great Bird might simply choose to be aloof, to continue its hiddenness, to forever abandon the Island of Ku – to withhold its hostage, her father.
“Nim!” her mother shouted, “come for breakfast. Then you have chores.”
“Five more minutes, Ma,” she pleaded.
Her mother, a broad brown indomitable woman, shook the coconut tree from its base. “Down . . . down . . . climb down or fall down, your choice, Nim.”
Exasperated, Nim chafed, then she reversed her agile limbs and gracefully descended.
Back in the hut, her mother served her a breakfast of breadfruit and sardines, and coconut milk.
“Every morning, Nim,” her mother complained. “You go there. Every morning, you watch the sky. People are talking, Nim. They think maybe you’re coo-coo in the head.”
“Maybe I am,” she belched. “Do you think I’m coo-coo in the head, Ma?”
Her mother slid another sardine onto Nim’s clay plate and said, “Like mother like daughter.” She laughed bawdily, her mouth open, showing gobs of mashed yam.
Altering the jolly mood, Nim said: “For my father. For your husband. How many days is enough – how many years is too many?”
Her mother stroked Nim’s raven-black hair and said, “Only the Gods know, dear one.”
“Tovar took him,” Nim said. “But as we know, Tovar is not a thief. The Great Bird always returns what he has taken . . . so it is told.”
Her mother snatched the last sardine and ate it whole. “Your Great Bird,” Ma scoffed. “That was a dream, Nim. This giant, gray bird – it does not exist. Tovar is a myth. I’ve talked to the Elders . . . they have seen no such thing. A bird – as wide as the lagoon. A bird – as loud as thunder. It was a dream, Nim. A coo-coo dream.”
“Not true,” Nim snapped. “Jerella has seen it. She is an Elder. Why do you not respect her words?”
“You are coo-coo,” her mother laughed and crossed her eyes, “and Jerella is the Queen of Coo-Coo!”
Nim wiped her mouth with a broad leaf and said, “No. I saw it, Ma. It was three years ago on the Day of Truce, when everyone retreated to the south side of the island for merriment and feasting with the Wonatoo and” –
“Yes,” her mother nodded, clamping her hands over her ears. “The Day of Truce – when our tribe established peace with the Wonatoo. I’ve heard it so many times I can tell you your own story, daughter. Your father refused to join the festival, for his family was slain by the Wonatoo. Instead, he set out to fish the dark waters. You also stayed back, Nim – because you had started the cycles of moon-blood. I remember clearly. You were scared. I tried to help you but – you – you are so stubborn. You stayed behind. And when we all returned, you were chilled and wrought with fever. Delirious. Delusional. You pointed to the sky and spoke of a great gray bird. So great, that it blotted the sun. From wingtip to wingtip, you said, the shadow darkened the heart of the village.”
Nim nodded. “Darkened the heart of the village,” she repeated. “That’s poetic. Did I say it like that?”
Her mother drank from the coconut. With a white milk-stache, she said, “Yes, quite poetic. But coo-coo.”
Nim’s sour mood returned. “I don’t care what you think – what the village thinks. I saw it with my eyes. I heard it with my ears. I am not coo-coo. When the Great Bird returns – and brings my beloved father – I will be believed. I will be vindicated. And our family will be restored.”
“Until then,” her mother said, handing her the frond-brush broom, “sweep the hut.”
Nim huffed and took the broom.
Her mother kissed her forehead and said, “You have chores, dear one. Firewood from the forest. Water from the spring. Scallops from the shoal. Yams from the garden. And when you’re finished, take breadfruit to the Elders. Am I heard?”
Nim ground her teeth and nodded curtly.
“Am I heard, Nim?”
“You are heard, Ma,” she said.
When her mother left the hut, she whispered: “And so will I be heard . . . someday. Someday.”
Wading knee-deep through the mucky shoal, Nim felt for shells with her bare feet. Skillfully, she bent and plunged her hand into the shallows, retrieving a black scallop from the silt. She dropped it in the basket with the other burbling mollusks. One more, she thought. Then off to dig yams from the garden.
It was then that she noticed a peculiar leaf afloat on the churning waters. She strode toward it, gathered it in her hand, and examined it. It was not a leaf at all. It was flat, rectangular, and colorful. Red. With bold, black symbols . . . strident designs that seemed to scream its urgency.
Having never seen paper or a leaflet, or for that matter, the printed English word, she had only her instincts to prick her alarm. She studied the rectangle sheet, opening it, turning it in all directions. Within the fold, a bold image struck her. It was the stylized shape of Tovar, the Great Bird . . . a black silhouette, winged and regal. She stared in disbelief, straining her eyes and brain to make sense of the gibberish. Finally, in frustration, she called out: “Jerella! I’ll take it to Jerella, the Elder.”
With muddy feet, she sprinted down the beach, into a grove, finding the well-worn trail to her village. Breathless, she tossed the sack of scallops into her hut while simultaneously retrieving an armload of breadfruit her Ma had prepared. She announced her intentions to her mother, never breaking her stride. “Taking the fruit to the Elders.”
“Slow down,” her mother cautioned.
No answer, just the hot staccato of bare feet.
Jerella, she thought. If anyone could decipher the cryptic leaf, she could.
“Catch your breath,” Jerella said. “I can barely understand you, child.”
Nim placed a portion of the breadfruit in the old woman’s thatched pantry. “I said . . . I said . . . I found this. It’s important . . . I know it is. And it has the symbol of Tovar, the Great Bird. Please, Jerella, can you interpret it?”
The old woman took the leaflet in her knurled hand. She did as Nim had done, surveying it inside and out, turning it in all directions. “It is called writing, Nim. I have seen this before.”
“Yes,” she said, laying it out with care. “From the Isles of Elsewhere. Lands between and beyond the settings of the sun. These symbols are words. The words are a message. But the message is . . . unknown to me.”
“Jerella!” Nim cried. “The Great Bird. Do you not see it?”
“I do, child. It is as you have described,” Jerella conceded.
Nim relaxed. She had been validated – finally, and by the wisest of the tribe. “The Great Bird,” she said steadily, “abducted my father. Maybe, just maybe, if I pray perfectly, the Great Bird will bring him back to Ku – back to mother and me.”
“Tovar is no thief,” Jerella said. “The ancient tongues speak of the Great Bird’s mercy, of its justice.”
“This,” Nim said, poking the paper, “surely it is the promise of Tovar.”
Toothless, the old woman grimaced. “These colors,” she said. “They are danger colors – poison flowers, venomous fish, and stinging insects. I am fearful, Nim. So should you be.”
“I am not,” Nim said. “I will do anything to find my father. Tell me, Jerella, how is it that you know of writing and the lands of Elsewhere?”
Jerella’s white head dipped, either in shame or deep remembrance. “There was a man – a man as white as coconut meat – some twenty summers past. His broken wooden boat beached upon our shores. He came with other men, but they were dead. He told of a storm that blew them off course, then of starvation and dehydration and, Nim, of cannibalism.”
Nim gasped. “How was it that he survived?”
“His God,” Jerella said. “As he explained it, he was his God’s emissary – the chosen spokesman. A Priest. Much as our shaman intercedes for us. And for this reason, he was spared.”
Jerella’s old eyes seem to see something unseen. “He had with him, writings – such as this – only thousands, assembled and sorted and bound. He called it a book. And the book he called . . . the Bible.”
Thrilled, Nim clasped Jerella’s hands. “Tell me, Jerella, who is this man? Is it possible that he still lives? If so, I must find him!”
The old woman ignored the girl. Instead, she set about building a small fire. When it was stoked, she retrieved a poultice from her pantry and tossed it into the flames. “Breathe,” she instructed. “Breathe deeply, my child.”
Nim did as she was told. Soon, her eyes watered, and her head swooned. She drifted into an altered state – and with her, was the old woman, Jerella. They levitated, riding the wreath of smoke through the hole in the thatched roof. Floating above the island of Ku, the two held hands and observed the world downunder.
“He’s there,” Jerella said, pointing to an eastern atoll. It is the island called Abaddon. You must go to him. He is old . . . older even than I . . . and his time is short. His name is called Callahan.”
“How?” Nim asked. “The distance is too great to swim. And I have no boat.”
Jerella took her by the hand and flew toward the lagoon. There was a young man named Phang. He was dragging his canoe into the water, preparing for a day of fishing. “Go to him. Go to Phang. He will help you.”
“But he is not of our tribe,” Nim protested. “Why would he accommodate me?”
The old woman’s spirit looked lovingly upon the young girl’s spirit and smiled. “All will be revealed in the fullness of time, child.”
Still groggy, Nim tore through the forest, arriving at the lagoon just in time to catch the boy. “Phang,” she called, grabbing her knees. “Phang of Wonatoo . . . I need your help.”
The young man stowed his hooks and bait and continued his launch. “When I return,” he said.
“No,” she insisted. “I need you – and your canoe – now!”
He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “You are Nim. Daughter of the lost fisher?”
She nodded, catching her breath.
“My father still speaks of your father,” Phang said. “He was a great man and a great fisher. I am sorry for your loss, but the fish whisper . . . and I must go now.”
“Wait,” she cried. “Did my father not rescue yours from the vortex?”
Phang halted his oars and said, “Yes. As it is told, your father cast his anchor line and hooked my father’s bow, towing him from the sucking maw of the sea. We are forever grateful.” Phang placed his calloused palm over his heart.
“Then show it!” she shouted. “Show your gratitude with more than solemn, hollow words, Phang of Wonatoo. My father is alive, and he needs your help. He needs to be rescued. Will you not extend him the kindness and courage that he displayed to your father?”
Phang was torn. There was the whisper of the fish . . . and there was the roar of the maiden. He closed his eyes and sighed. “You have convinced me of my duty, Nim. Today, my boat and I are yours.” He offered his hand and helped her into the canoe.
“Thank you, Phang,” she said, suddenly aware of his kind eyes.
When she was secure, he plunged the oars and said, “When the sun sets, my debt will be paid. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” she said.
There was a serene silence as the couple skidded from the inlet, into the open waters of the emerald ocean. As the sea breezes misted their sun-warmed bodies, Phang turned to the girl and asked: “Where to, maiden?”
“The eastern ring of the atoll,” she said. “Abaddon.”
“Abaddon!” the boy protested. “The haunted isle!”
She laughed. “You Wonatoo . . . so superstitious . . . haunted isle . . . ridiculous.”
“It is not ridiculous,” Phang replied. “My grandfather told of a ghost there. A white specter cloaked in black garb, speaking in strange tongues.”
Nim swallowed her laughter. “That is Callahan,” she said flatly. “The man we must find. Only he can decipher the white writings.” She showed him the leaflet, and he was amazed.
“Call-a-han,” he said, parsing the syllables. “Is he man or spirit?”
She shook her head, thinking of her father. “It may matter to you,” she said, “but not to me.”
Three hours later, the couple arrived at the Isle of Abaddon. The sight of the contorted coral outcropping caused involuntary, visceral repulsion. “It’s hideous,” Nim said, douching her sour mouth with seawater.
“My grandfather called it The Wart,” Phang said, helping his passenger. “Careful you don’t cut your feet on the coral.”
“Thank you,” she said, accepting his steadying hand.
Phang winced at the gruesome vista. “I’m now certain that no man could – would – live here. This Callahan must be a ghost.”
“Coo-coo,” Nim scoffed, treading toward the black-sanded beach.
He bristled. “What did you say?”
“Oh, nothing,” Nim fibbed. “The island is small, but dense with thicket. We should separate – splitting the search time.”
Phang shook his head. “Search no more . . . I’ve found the man. For it must be a man, because a ghost does not require fire. Look, there,” he pointed. “Smoke.”
Nim looked up. The boy was right, a tendril of white smoke coiled up from the canopy. “Come,” she said, tugging his helping hand. “You’re mine until the sun sets.”
The two galloped into the mangroves, waded through shallows, and scrabbled over jagged, calcified coral. Upward, they ascended, finally reaching the island’s peak, exhausted and hot.
“There he is,” Phang said, pointing to a thatched dome. “In there – in the shelter. I saw movement.”
Nim boldly approached the shelter. When she realized Phang was not following, she gave him a stern gaze, reminding him of his oath. The boy gripped his obsidian knife and followed.
“You, in there,” Nim called. “Are the man Callahan?”
There was a groan and a fart and a stirring of bed-fronds. After some rustling, a white head poked out of the dome. “Callahan I am,” he said in their island language. “To whom do I owe the honor?”
“Nim,” Nim said. “And Phang the Wonatoo. I have come to request your help, Callahan.”
“Help,” he said. “Look at me, dear. Do I look helpful?”
Nim looked. The ancient thing had a point. He was as pale as sea foam. He was as thin as an eel. He was as fragile as a sand dollar.
“Your brain, old man,” Phang said. “Do your brain and your eyes still function?”
The man called Callahan laughed until his lungs bucked. “On a good day,” he finally croaked.
Nim produced the colorful paper, offering it to him, kneeling, her head bowed. “Is today a good day, Callahan?”
“Oh, my God,” he exclaimed in English. Then, in Island speak he said, “I’ve not had anything new to read in ages.” He looked at his battered bible on a stone next to the fire. He grimaced, having grown to hate the hateful but constant companion.
“White writings,” she said. “We need you to read the words that make the message. Tell me, will the Great Bird return my father to Ku?”
“The Great Bird?” he asked, examining the leaflet.
Nim poked the picture of the silhouetted image. “The Great Bird, Tovar. Its wings bring monsoons. Its caw quakes the islands. It is said to steal men . . . for they have hands to repair its nest . . . but only for a season. I saw it, Callahan, three summers past. The same hour that my father was lost. Read to me the words. Will the Great Bird return with him, Callahan?”
Nim clasped her hands, tucking them under her trembling chin, hopeful. Phang placed his hard hand on her shoulder, preparing her for the interpretation of the white writing.
The old priest tipped his rheumy eyes to the task. His wizened lips moved as he read the white writings. When he was done, he looked up at the brown-skinned girl and her companion and said, “You can never return to your island. Never!”
“You are coo-coo,” Nim said. “This cannot be the message.”
The priest touched each inked word, mouthing it silently. When he raised his shaggy white head, tears had scored his ruddy cheeks. “Three decades ago, I thought it the end of times,” he said. “The Great War, they called it. As a chaplain, I watched men die on all sides – careful to pray only for the Allied. Millions of men, good and bad, fought for the abstractions of Gods and Governments. It was on foreign soil of a French city called Lyon when I first saw such as this.” He waved the leaflet like battle flag.
“It was a warning,” he continued. “The enemy dropped thousands of leaflets from the sky. A fleet of German Fokkers would destroy Lyon with bombs on August 13, 1915. Flee, the leaflet implored. For no structure would be left erect. No field not torched. No man or animal not destroyed.”
“German Fokker,” Nim asked. “What is this?”
Callahan caressed the symbol on the leaflet, then allowed his shaky hand to soar. “An airplane,” he said, sucking his wispy mustache. “A winged machine – birdlike in flight – that rains down death upon all in its shadow.”
“Not Tavor?” she asked.
“No,” Callahan replied. “Something far more dangerous. Man-made. Weapons of war.”
“These bombs,” Phang asked. “What are they?”
Callahan tapped the pamphlet and then pointed to the descending sun. “I left America in 1922. I saw history repeating itself. There was talk of another war – a war to end all wars – a war fought with bombs as strong as suns.”
“Is that why you are here?” Nim asked.
The old priest looked at his estranged bible. “I’m here . . . as punishment.”
“Punishment?” Nim asked. “From who? For what?”
Looking up, Callahan confessed. “I set out to warn Islanders, such as yourself. To tell them that God’s wrath was being poured out upon all the peoples of the planet. That unless they bowed their knees and worshiped Him, they would be remanded to a lake of fire . . . for eternity.”
“Twenty years ago, with a few sailors and fellow missionaries, we set out to convert the savages” –
“Savages!” Nim chafed.
“Sorry,” Callahan corrected, “the unchurched. The pagans yet uninitiated into Christendom.”
Nim said, “Jerella said you were shipwrecked twenty summers past.”
“True,” Callahan said, “only after being exiled from Tonga. You see, we brought the Tongans exotic nuts, jewelry, beer, garments, tools, and we brought the Holy Word of God. But we also brought the Tongan’s disease.”
Phang took three steps back.
“You killed them?” Nim asked.
Callahan nodded. “Not all. But most.”
“So, why didn’t your God protect them,” she asked, “from the white man’s disease?”
Callahan’s eyes watered, and his nose leaked. “Every day,” he cried, “I ask that very question. And every day, I receive a thunderous silence.”
“Have you seen your God?” she asked sincerely.
He shook his head. “Hidden. Invisible.”
Nim looked at the bible, at the leaflet, then back at the old priest. “Could it be that your God is not a God . . . that your God is not . . . anything?”
Callahan clenched his jaw and fists. “No. Not possible. Look at the ocean. Look at the sky. Look at the sun. Who made that? Who made you, me, the boy?”
“Who made the bombs?” Nim asked. “The bombs as strong as suns?”
Callahan composed himself. “We did,” he explained. “We, his children, have failed Him. Mankind is evil. We are filthy, fallen creatures . . . fallen from the Grace of God.”
“We?” she asked. “What did I do?”
Callahan reached for his bible, thumbing frantically through pages. “In the beginning, God created . . . created everything. And it was good. But then we – not you or me – but the first two people – they sinned.”
“Yes,” Callahan said. “They ate fruit. Forbidden fruit.”
Nim shook her mane of raven hair, baffled by the words. “Fruit that’s forbidden? Because it is poison?”
“No,” he clarified. “It wasn’t poison. The fruit gave them . . . knowledge . . . knowledge of good and evil.”
Phang laughed and said, “Nim, the villagers say you are coo-coo. This man Callahan is the King of Coo-Coo.”
Nim touched the old man on the shoulder and asked, “You left the Isles of Elsewhere to travel the open seas . . . to find us . . . savages . . . to tell us of your invisible God that could not or would not protect the savages – his children – from the disease that you brought?”
Callahan closed the bible and stared at the girl. He was old and out of words. The subject, he knew, must be changed. He waved the leaflet like a surrender flag.
“The airplanes are coming,” he said. “This leaflet is a warning. They are testing weapons. Atomic Bombs, they call them. Dropping them on the Island of Ku. We may be safe here. Maybe not. Those on Ku are doomed.”
“My family,” Nim panicked.
“My people,” Phang cried.
“Doomed,” Callahan sighed, searching his atrophied brain for priestly condolences.
Nim took the leaflet and shredded it. “Damn you and your white tribe,” she shouted. “And damn your pathetic God. I will pray to Tovar, The Great Bird God. Tovar is truthful. Tovar will deliver us. Tovar will return my father and save us . . . savages.”
Callahan laughed. At first, it was a gurgling in his creped throat. Then it spilled over, bubbling into derisive mockery. “The only great bird,” he joked, “that you will ever see, my dear child . . . is an American Air Corp Boeing B-17 bomber. And there are no prayers loud enough to drown out the sounds of its turbocharged engines, and the explosions of its payload of suns.”
Undaunted, Nim scanned the craggy terrain for the tallest palm tree. Quickly, she scampered up the trunk and settled into a copse of fronds. She prayed, did Nim, prayed to Tovar, the Great Bird – the God that she had witnessed on the Day of Truce. The God that had abducted her father from his fishing boat. The God . . . so lore had it . . . that would return and restore harmony. She prayed, did Nim, for the first time in three years, perfectly.
Phang embraced his bare chest with his bare arms, suddenly chilled.
Callahan shuffled over to his dying fire, dropping pieces of the leaflet into its eager embers.
Nim prayed her perfect prayer once more, even more perfectly. And when she’d finished, a chilly wind buffeted the Island of Abaddon, causing her to sway in her perch.
“Look,” she shouted, pointing to the western sky, where the sun was decanting into the sea. “It’s Tovar! It’s Tovar! It’s Tovar!”
Phang looked westward, but did not see. His view was occluded by the island’s mangle of mangroves. Under his feet, however, he felt a rumbling.
“Where?” Phang called, throwing his voice upward.
“There,” she called down, gesticulating wildly.
“Delusional,” Callahan said glibly. Then he recalled a scriptural admonition: Worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
“I see it,” Phang shouted.
Nim shook the palm fronds, celebrating the return of Tovar, The Great Bird. “And look,” she cried, her voice ululating in the winds, “father returns.”
“The lost fisher!” Phang said, pointing and hopping and bleating. “The lost fisher that saved my father from the vortex!”
“Delusional,” Callahan repeated, refusing to look up. “Delusional savages.”
To the old priest, that may or may not have eaten human flesh on his exiled voyage from Tonga, it seemed suddenly to be dusk. A glowering shadow subsumed him, and a chill infused his bones. He lifted his Bible from the stone, shielding his heart with its bulk. “Father, oh, father,” he prayed.
“Father, oh, father!” Nim called. “At last you’ve returned. Our family is restored. Praise be Tovar, Keeper of Promises. God of Gods!”
This peon to false gods infuriated Callahan. He raised his fist and then, finally, his eyes. Prepared to curse the girl’s delusion, he saw what she saw, and he believed. For it was as the savage had said: A great bird, whose shadow blotted the sun, whose wings stirred cyclones, whose caw quaked islands. And at its helm, astride its feathered, serpentine neck, was a rider. A man, brown and muscled. A man grasping reigns fashioned from fishing ropes, guiding the Great Bird through the Pacific skies.
“Father,” Nim cried, waving to the avian God and its mighty pilot. “My prayers are answered. My perfect, perfect prayers.” Under the darkness of the heavens, Callahan calmly dropped his bible into the fire. As he retreated to his hut, he muttered the same word over and over: “Delusional. Delusional. Delusional.”
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