Oak leaned back against the dusty brick wall with his eyes shut. Fire in the hearth popped and cracked. His nephew Jeffery sat beside him and across sat Maria.
“Let’s have the story, then,” the woman said.
Maria had strong hands. Rumour said she could peel kindling off a log like she was husking corn. Her leathery skin was toughened by wind and work, and ske kept her long, grey hair tied in a bun with a thick, abrasive cord of rope.
Oak opened his eyes. The mug of ale in front of Maria remained untouched. He’d heard she had a religion that forbid public consumption of drink, wary of judgment from long-dead ancestors. No wonder she’s still widowed, he thought.
Maria sighed and arched one of her thick, fuzzy grey eyebrows. The hairy mole under her left eye twitching. “I lost some investment in this, Oak. I want to know what happened. All kinds of talk going ‘round. You’re the town Teller,” she said, her voice scratchy like rough burlap.
Oak coughed and wiped his bald, sweating scalp. People in various stages of intoxication at nearby tables quieted. Oak nodded, sat up straighter, making a good show of clearing his throat. He eyed his nephew, praying to any gods, even Maria’s, that the damn fool would keep his mouth shut.
Jeffery stared at the ale between his hands and belched. Maria sniffed.
“Manners, boy,” Oak said. Jeffery blinked, his watery blue eyes bloodshot from alcohol. His shag of light brown hair clumped and sweaty. An angry pimple happily displayed itself on his nose. A pale yellow glob of pus perpetually about to burst from underneath a thin, tight layer of reddened skin.
Oak reached behind his chair, dimming the large, curved iron lantern. At this, a serving girl locked eyes with him, nodded, and began to dim others around the room. Oak leaned forward, clasping his fingers, looking Maria in the eyes.
“Jeffery is lucky to be sitting here,” Oak said, and then strengthend his voice. “An ancient and deadly spirit possessed your herd of pigs, Maria. And in an otherworldly frenzy, it ran them so hard their hearts burst.”
The patrons sitting nearby muttered. One pot-bellied man clutched a feathered charm around his neck, his lip twisting in revulsion.
Jeffery fidgeted. “No,” he began, “that’s not wha-”
“A ghost?” Maria said, her voice high.
“A wronged ancestor,” Oak said, he stared at her and did not blink. Maria shifted in her seat, her grey eyebrows furrowed and her lips forming a thin line. Oak clapped a hand on Jeffery’s shoulder. “On the eve of summer solstice, Jeffery was nobly herding the swine into the rolling hills with no idea what awaited him.”
“Last Thursday,” Jeffery said, nodding around to everyone.
Oak coughed, smiling apologetically. “No interruptions, m’boy.”
Jeffery’s face reddened. “Right, sorry, Unc. Summer Solsmice, Maria.” He burped.
“Anyways, on that grave night when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest. Jef-”
“I thnk I just left here actually,” Jeffery said, brightnening. “We was playin sink the copper in the tankard and I was winnin.”
Oak felt a vein twitch on his temple, he stepped hard on Jeffery’s foot.
Oak raised his voice. “On this harrowing night, the pigs were ruffled, Maria. Animals have a sense about them. They know things like we can’t.”
“Hang on,” Maria said.
“You don’t believeme ,” Oak said, leaning back.
People hushed suddenly and Maria glanced around. Oak smiled inwardly, interrupting a Teller was expected, but questioning them was taboo. The pot-bellied man with the charm glared at Maria. Even Jeffery managed to look shocked.
“I do believe you. Keep going please. It’s just the pigs, well they prize-winning. Meant everything to me.” Maria swallowed, looking down at her callused hands.
“What about your kids?” Jeffery said.
Maria’s face went red like a beet and Oak chuckled. A few more people laughed and finally a smile broke across Maria’s face.
Oak grinned, indicating his forgiveness. “So. Jeffery was bringing your pigs to feed near the oldest tree in Old Hallow in Old Valley. For that’s where the best mushrooms grow. The pigs started to feed. Not knowing, not daring to imagine the gristly fate.”
Oak leaned back again and swept his eyes around the room. “Now that tree. Why anyone can feel there’s something off about it. The branches twist like a crone’s age-warped hands. The bark smells foul, and even in spring, no leaves grow upon it.” He heard muttered agreements and saw rapt stares.
“Jeffery laid down a small distance away while the pigs crowded around the tree, feasting on the mushrooms.”
“Passed out,” Jeffery said in a low voice.
Oak ignored him. “Something in the tree, feeling the heat of living animals, began to remember what it was like to be alive. And it got jealous. The branches shook, not with wind, but with the spirit of one of our murdered forefathers!”
People gasped. A serving girl clapped a hand over her mouth. Maria gripped the table, knobbly knuckles white. Oak saw her lips murmur a silent prayer.
“Curdles the blood of virgins it does,” Oak said. “But the worst had yet to come.” He gave Jeffery a warning glance. “The spirit, sensing the pigs gnawing, snorting, and snuffling the mushrooms howled. A cry sharper than the cut of winter wind. Jeffery, terrified, like any one of us would be, tried to get the pigs away. But it was too late.”
“What happened?” Maria said, her eyes wide.
“The spirit possessed the pigs. Bloating them swamp green and veiny blue. Swelling them like rotten fruit.”
“Then what?” Maria said.
“The spirit wanted to run.”
“Run?” Maria said.
“Yes, but after being trapped in a tree for decades it was too eager. We’re all lucky that the spirit pushed the pigs so hard their hearts began to pop and rupture with the unnatural strain. As they died, the spirit had no vessel, and disappeared into the underworld.” Oak paused, staring right at Jeffery. “Our swineherd was lucky to get out alive.”
Jeffery rose and gave a teetering bow. “It was a close call, true,” he said. Noise of relief and agreement filled the room and Jeffery beamed. “Only left with a hangover,” he said proudly. “Almost ate a glowcap too, they’ll make you dead sick.” Jeffery began to speak solemnly, trying to sound like Oak. “You’ll turn green like a frog and blue as the sky.”
Oak stared at Jeffery as if he’d tried to pet a rabid, foaming dog. Maria’s face flushed, her eyes narrowed, looking up at Jeffery with glinting, steely eyes. She cracked her knuckles.