Some time back I wrote a novel called THE CRAG. My first agent came very close to selling it to a couple of major publishers. But, in the end, it was a lost cause. After I left that agency I dug the novel out of storage, rewrote it and gave it a new title: HISSMELINA. My new agency has been shopping it around, trying to find the new version a home.
Here's a chapter from that novel.
By James Robert Smith
Allegra watched the cat-thing bound across the swatch of grass that cut them off from the forest. It pounced, weasel fashion, eating up the space in a series of bounds. At the edge, it paused, and then slithered into the shadows, away from the sunlight. It was gone.
“Where is she going?” Allegra turned to the old woman, the question etching her face. Hester had commanded Hissmelina to go, taking control of the demon.
“I have sent her to kill. She must kill if we are to succeed. The last time that I sent her to do it, she failed. We must have blood. You know that.” Although Hissmelina was no longer in view, the matriarch continued to strain in the direction she had last seen her.
“Who will she kill?” The girl clasped her hands beneath her throat, held them close to her chest.
“Someone. It doesn’t matter.” She paused, breathing the good, clean air. “A child, probably.”
“Are Cousin James’ children safe?”
There was a spark of anger in Hester’s eyes. They snapped wide at the suggestion. “Of course they’re safe!” Her old hand lashed out, striking home in a fierce cuff upon Allegra’s skull. “No Keener blood will be shed. Why do you even ask such a foolish question?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you. I was only worried about the children.” She wanted to rub the place where her grandmother had slapped her, but she knew better.
“Don’t be crazy. I’d sooner kill myself. Or you.” Her twig-tough hand reached out to stroke the smooth flesh of Allegra’s fingers.
“What will the killing achieve? What is the purpose?”
She slid from one tree to the next, never leaving the cover of each shadow, never allowing herself to be seen. The sun did not touch her. She laughed. The command to kill had come again, at last, and she was hungry for it. Long weeks had passed since her claws had pierced flesh. Hissmelina had studied these humans, knowing that she could open them up like bags of blood. Anxiety hummed through her like a current, nervous energy firing her every movement.
Scents came to her from down the mountain, away from the clan that was Hester’s. Those she must not touch, must not harm. Indeed, she felt a kinship to them, a maternal stirring that she must even take them under her wing and protect them. But not the others. Not the untold numbers who dwelled past the outskirts of Hester’s range. Those were fair game; they were fuel to fire the magic.
A small bird flicked its wings where it perched on a limb six feet from the forest floor. It flashed brown feathers, preening. Hissmelina saw it, leaped. In the span of a thought, she touched lightly down, spitting out the fleshy lump of bird meat. All the way down the mountain she went, practicing. A junco, a crow, a grouse, a fox. Practicing, she left a dozen twitching corpses in her wake.
The little deaths did not satisfy. They did not fulfill her hunger nor serve much of a purpose. Only the killing of a sentient would suffice to stifle the need that gnawed, and to spark the reaction the old woman sought.
Hissmelina darted past a narrow stream that bubbled up from beneath a scattering of moss-grown rocks. She crossed it, knowing that she had reached the limits of the Crag’s boundaries. No longer did she feel the buzz of weird power. Hester’s presence, too, was gone. She was on her own.
The stream widened as it trickled downslope, growing till it began to speak and tumble on its way to the lowlands. It seemed a good idea to follow it, so she did. The uncut stands of old timber were left behind, on Keener-protected land. Here, the forest thinned, was merely scrubby expanses of anemic poplar and young, green pines that pushed up from amidst tangles of blackberry thickets.
Hissmelina chose to ignore the rabbits that she surprised in her slithering tour through the underbrush. Ahead, the sun grew broth; she reached the edge of the woods, peering from beneath cover at a stretch of pasture that opened for her. She crouched, sniffing. Within easy reach, a heavy cow stood chewing, oblivious. It raised its tail to allow a prodigious stream of urine to arc away, striking the grassy turf in a frothy fountain.
Remaining under cover of the matted weeds, Hissmelina gave the big animal a wide berth. On the other side of the pasture, she had spotted a house.
Kathleen Day was busy, as usual. For fifteen years—since she had married Venson—they had lived in a deteriorating house that had been little more than a shack. In the winter, the cold had seeped up through the cracks in the floor and in the walls. You could stand in the kitchen, if you knew just where, and could see outside through a bit of a gap near one corner. In the summer, the place had sweltered beneath layers of tarpaper that did little to hold out the rain. During frequent showers, they were hard pressed to find enough pots to collect the water that dripped through the roof. It had been an uncomfortable existence that she had stomached with single-minded resolve. They had saved their dollars well.
As she had known he would, Venson had (finally) built her fine house. Patiently, she had waited as the new place sprang up, slowly growing till the last brick had been planted. She had cried, briefly, before packing up for the move across the pasture.
Kathleen loved her new home. She loved it almost as much as she loved her husband. Cleaning it, and decorating it during her every waking hour. She loved it almost as much as she loved her children, vacuuming up the dust and dirt that her family tracked in over the wall-to-wall carpet that she’d picked out in Asheville. In the morning, she stood at the stove with a towel to catch errant spatters of grease that sought to stain her shiny range. In the afternoons, she dusted, swept and scrubbed, eager to keep the house as spotless as it had been the day they had moved in. The evening found her busy with mop, brush and bucket, going over each inch she may have missed ruing the day. Her friends thought that she was obsessed. But she knew that they were all just jealous.
Now she finished up her daily chores in her kitchen. Breakfast had been made—under her watchful eye—and Venson had gone off to work, pausing only long enough to complain about how she had placed newspaper under little Pat’s high chair. After all, her husband had complained, he wasn’t an animal. She shrugged him off, wondering how he could think to risk the shiny green tile to bits of food that might stain it. Men knew nothing. Vicki, their fourteen-year-old, and Ben, their fifth grader, had been shooed out the door to await the bus. Then, at least, she and little Pat were alone. Then, she was ready for some serious cleaning.
In the kitchen, at the door that led to the utility room and then to the back yard, Kathleen knelt to draw Pat’s hood tightly about his little face. “Are you ready to go outside?” She buttoned the hood with an efficient snap.
“Out!” His little mouth enthusiastically shouted the word. “Out! Play!” He flapped his encumbered arms.
Kathleen lifted her boy, patting his bottom with her free hand. “It’s a little chilly out today. Don’t unbutton. Don’t!” She pointed to his hood.
“Out!” His pink fingers flexed. His mother took him out, placing him in the fenced yard. Her husband’s redbone hound uncoiled from where he lay for a quick look before tucking his nose back between his paws. Kathleen eyed the big dog, made sure that the gate of the chain link fence was latched, and retreated to her house. There was ironing to do while her son played under dog’s watchful eye—it was all a routine that allowed her a little bit of free time to get some work completed.
Eyes very like those of a cat peered out from cover at the clumsy tyke. They watched the dog, who was ignorant of the menacing presence. There was very little between Hissmelina and the child--only the low fence and a line of newly planted shrubs lay as obstacle. One could easily be leaped, and the other was possible camouflage. The child’s mother, she sensed, was out of the way, not watching. Only the dog was a danger.
Hissmelina plotted the course she would take in her attack, making room for options should the dog prove to be more than a hindrance. She doubted that there would be any trouble, but it was good to plan for the unexpected. Her perceptions told her that the dog was a borderline sentient, levels below her or the humans.
Her claws drew up as she sheathed them. Head low, she inched forward on quiet pads, moving carefully. The wind blew from the direction of her prey, and she kept it between her and dog. If possible, she wanted to take the big animal out of the picture before she turned to the child.
The fence caused her to reveal herself as she dashed form cover so that she could leap it. Only Pat saw the elongated shape flash over before it concealed itself behind a row of azaleas. “Kitty cat,” he said, pointing. The hound sighed and twitched.
Hissmelina glared out at the boy, then at the dog. She listened for thoughts, found the child’s mother concerned in some task within the house. The child was curious, the dog barely conscious. Like a shadow, she glided across the yard, covering the distance in the blinking of an eye. One claw pushed out of its den inside her paw. She drove it into the hound’s skull. Later, not even the veterinarian would notice the tiny entry hole. The hound was dead. Her wide, fleshy lips peeled away in a smile that freed her pointed teeth. She aimed herself at the child.
“Kitty cat.” Little Pat watched the thing fly at him, its bulk streaking past. As if an afterthought, tentacles wrapped about the boy’s torso, lifting him up like a bit of chaff, dragging him along. His breath whooshed out and he could not form the sound that would have brought his mother. With the load, Hissmelina was over the fence, running toward the woods.
It was ten minutes later when Kathleen paused from her ironing to check on her youngest. She was alarmed, but not to the point of panic, when she noticed that he could not be seen form the window of the utility room. Donning the slippers that she kept by the door, Japanese style, she descended the back stoop, casting about for some sign of the boy. Still, she did not become hysterical. There was a small gap in the fence where Pat could slip out, and she went toward it to see if that had been the case. She yet remained cool. She passed by Venson’s hound to get there, noticing, in passing, the creeping tendril of red that snaked away from its snout.
Only when she saw that the dog was dead did she begin to scream.
The thing that Hester had called did the work that it what been called for. The child died easily, quickly. The spilling of the blood, the cessation of the life, the presence of Hissmelina as she completed the ritual: all of that caused a spontaneous reaction, a kind of combustion.
Allegra gasped, nearly collapsed at the shock. Hester was there to steady her. The two stood on the lawn where they had remained since their servant had been sent.
“Heh, heh.” Hester chuckled. “You feel it, too.”
“The Crag. I can feel it.”
“Yes. Now it reaches as far as the place where she killed the child. I can see. I can see it all through her eyes.” It was true.
The girl smiled, understanding.
“Ours. All ours.” They watched the black edge of the forest and waited for Hissmelina to return. All three were happy.
Chief Wepner arrived on the scene a long half-hour before Venson Day had a chance to speed the distance between Elijah and the job he was working in Japser. He was happy for that fact on one had, but it caused him a bit of a problem on the other. From the instant he arrived, it was a full ten minutes before he could calm the hysterical Mrs. Day enough to get the story out of her.
Finally, with much difficulty and a complete taxing of his bullish patience, he got her to sit still long enough to give him an idea of what was going on. Between sharp gaps, she told him that her baby was missing—gone!
Wepner took Kathleen’s damp hand in his plump, rough ones, then patted her kerchief-tied head. “You just sit tight Miz Day. Sit tight right here. Venson’ll be here soon and I’m gone have a quick look around th’ place an’ see if I can find Pat.”
“But I already looked everywhere,” she gasped, eyes held wide. “I even checked th’ hay loft! Little Pat cain’t climb no hay loft!” She began, again, to hyperventilate.
“Miz Day! Kathleen!” Her eyes locked on his. “Now you calm down some. He cain’t have got far. I’m gone go out an’ look around right quick an’ see what I can see. Okay?” He took her silence as an affirmation and lifted his bulk up from where he knelt. Kathleen said nothing as he went out, not even when a small clod of dried clay dislodged from his boot to fall upon the carpet.
Outside, Wepner gazed about the empty back yard. Not quite empty. He went over the to hound and looked down at it. There was a little pool of gelid blood in font of its snout. He toed the animal with the hard tip of his right shoe. It was most certainly dead. He bent closer, hands on his knees for a better look. It was a good-looking hound; if he knew Venson Day, the man owned only the best dogs. Puzzling that such a stout, young animal would just up and die like that. With his right hand, he nudged it a bit, looking for some mark or wound. There was nothing. No wonder Kathleen had flown off the handle.
Straightening, he looked about. There was a small gap in the fence, but it didn’t look wide enough for even a small child to have squeezed through. Beyond that there was only more lawn that gave way to pasture. Surely the mother would have been able to spot the youngster if he had toddled out that way. He turned around. The forest seemed dark, vaguely menacing. Leaning in the direction of the woods, the thought of poking about in there suddenly seemed not so wise. There was a dense tangle of brittle blackberry bushes, thorny and dry in their pre-winter death. Pines grew thickly, making deep shadows. Better to just go back into the house and wait for Venson to get there.
Wepner took a step toward the house, ready to go back inside the warm walls and sit with the frightened woman. He thought of Kathleen cringing in the chair in which he’d left her and realized that he was somehow frightened of the woods. Frightened! Of what? Again, he turned for the line of trees that lay beyond the fence. His steps were heavy and ponderous; his keys jangled metallically at every step. Putting his hand to his holster, he unbuttoned the stiff flap that held down the .357 magnum. He had it loaded with 158-grain semi-jacketed hard point; the ammo could pierce just about anything and made a nasty wound. Thinking of that, he felt better.
At the fence, he placed his hands upon the nearest support and hefted his leg. With a grunt, he braced his weight and stepped up. The fence bent beneath his two hundred and seventy pounds, but it did not buckle. After a clumsy pirouette, he was over, landing solidly on the other side. He squinted, peering suspiciously into the shadows. Nothing stirred.
Moving up to the thicket, he pushed forward, picking his way through the thorny stuff. If it had been summer time, he would not have dared tramping through. But it was nearing cold weather and the blackberry bushes were all dead, snapping off where before they would have bent resiliently and snagged at his flesh. Too, they would have been full of snakes. Warily, he picked his way through the mess.
Beyond the thicket and its barrier of thorns, the forest was clearer, easier to walk through. It had been twenty or thirty years since the timber had been felled, and new trees had grown up everywhere—pines where they had been planted, oaks and poplar where they had sprung up, mongrel-wise. He reached out with his left hand and pushed aside needle-y branches that blocked his view. Carefully, he stalked through the rows of pines, trying to avoid treading on dry limbs that would snap and give him away. His eyes swept about, searching for some sign, some movement. There was nothing.
The land swept up from the fence, climbing in a slope that became steeper as it approached the flanks of the nearby mountains. Wepner moved up the incline, treading slowly, searching. At his feet, he saw where the carpeting of pine needles had been disturbed as if something had been dragged. The trail went in a straight line, farther up the hill. He followed it till it met with a wide expanse of worn granite. Continuing, he went across the twenty feet of pocked stone, crunching dry lichen beneath his shoes.
He looked down. There, in the forest floor of dead and gray-hued needles of former seasons, was a flattened space of perhaps five feet square, where something had lain. In the center of the spot were several tiny drops of crimson. Blood. The trail halted there. Nothing led away.
Wepner’s head jerked up, scanning the nearby area. He stared into the dappled forest that seemed to close in all around him. Squinting, he tried to see into the shadows beneath the trees. The forest looked back. He felt it.
Again, he gazed down at the spots of blood. There was no doubt that it was blood. Four or five little dollops of red shone back. The wind blew, sighing through the pines that surrounded him. Straining, he listened for the sound of something that might be watching, ready to pounce. Afraid, his hand went for the .357, feeling the hard lines of it against his waist.
He thought. Nothing had dragged the child into the woods to this place. This was nothing more than the spot where Venson’s hound had brought a rabbit and killed and eaten it, leaving a tiny sign of its meal. Or the animal had been stricken with some brain seizure and bled a few drops before staggering back to the yard. That was all that had happened. No need to stir up a panic over nothing. Eagerly, he left the place and went back to the house to await the arrival of Mrs. Day’s husband.
But before he did, he made sure to scuff his big feet about in the pine straw until there was no sign that something had lain there. Until the little drops of blood were gone, as if they had never been.