California, United States
content warnings: Described Blood, Gore/Graphic Violence
I always enjoyed a summer night’s walk, especially under a crescent moon, thin as a cat’s claw, when the stars are still struggling to shine and every shadow is smooth and thick as black velvet. But tonight, my pulse quickens as I stroll through the gates to the weeping willow grove, rain boots soft on the grass and picnic basket heavy on my hip.
Up ahead, the patio lights of the park café are bright and harsh, but it’s deserted - even in summer, the locals are gone by midnight to escape the moths and mosquitoes - and the dark-eyed woman who runs it is about to close shop. Her door flung open to the balmy breeze, she likes to sweep, slowly, each stroke a tired, trembling sigh. I know her sounds; her ritual is my ritual. Forty nights like this will do that.
But tonight is my last picnic.
I skirt around the pool of lights, staying hidden until she turns away to play her favorite song on the jukebox. I love the clunk and whirr of the machine as it rifles through its innards, and I can’t help but glance at her bony silhouette, gently haloed in neon blue. Her face is shrouded but I’m certain she’s smiling, a kindred spirit, and I feel a sudden urge to walk over and say hello. But the song begins - Down in the Willow Garden - and I manage to stay the course. Down the path to the trailhead. She never sees me.
I breathe deep as my eyes adjust to the dark. The basket feels heavier and slivers of sweat slide down my back, sucking the fabric of my dress to skin. Behind me, the Everly Brothers croon their haunting harmony, disembodied voices floating through the salty, eggy air:
Down in the willow garden
Where me and my love did meet
As we sat a-courtin’
My love fell off to sleep…
I make my way towards the swamp, the voices echoing and blending with croaking frogs and the high whine of monstrous mosquitoes. I swat them away with my free hand, slapping my arm, my neck, feeling the soft gritty mush, the sharp smell of my own blood stinging my nostrils. I can’t get them all, but that’s all right. We all need to draw a little blood sometimes.
The stench grows thicker as the willows grow closer, their sagging, silvery leaves like dead ropes on my neck. White hemlock dances by my skirt. The earth begins to suck at my soles, wet and hungry, and each step sounds like a kiss.
I had a bottle of Burgundy wine
My love she did not know
So I poisoned that dear little girl
On the banks below…
When the water drips over the rim of my boots, I stop. Deep enough. The leeches smell blood and come crawling. I’m happy to oblige.
I flip open my basket, and pull out my husband’s head.
I drew a saber through her
It was a bloody knife…
He broke my heart in a thousand pieces: in turn, I cut him to pieces. Forty pieces, feet, shins, knees, elbows, and I’d brought one piece each night to feed the swamp, forty picnics, forty nights. Saving the best for last.
I threw her in the river
Which was a dreadful sign…
I cradle him now, staring into hollow eyes, pale lips lightly parted as though ready to speak or kiss. How I miss him calling my name.
It wasn’t my name he called in his sleep.
Abigail, he’d cried.
Oh Abby, I love you, Abby.
I hurl him into the swamp with all my hate. It lands in the water with a satisfying splash, and I imagine his hair mingling with swampweed, sinking into the mud next to his navel or toes.
I turn to leave, as tired as the dark-eyed woman. But then - something cold grips me.
“Ah there we go!”
I whirl around. There, rising from the swamp like mist, is my husband, hovering above his watery grave. His head teeters on his butchered neck, his body askew where I’d chopped him up, but his voice - I couldn’t forget it, ever.
He grins. “I can never appear without my head, can I?”
I want to run but my feet won’t budge and I fall, elbow deep, mud splattering me like blood. He sighs. “And you never remember, do you?”
“I remember what you said!” I spit out. “Abby, Abby - how dare you?!”
“Darling, I told you,” he says, eyes locked with mine. “Abby was my cat, my first, chewed up by a wolf when I was five. I had nightmares.”
“Liar!” My head hurts. Time shifts. The water is cold now, icy, I am shivering, snakes are slithering, the willow leaves are decaying and crumbling like ash, turning branches into broken bones.
“Darling,” he says again, calm and kind and cutting. “If I didn’t love you… why would I want you here with me, for eternity?”
I gasp as something grabs my legs and pulls me under. I flail and catch mud. I choke on the stink of sulfur and death and rotting insects as they pour down my throat. I jerk my head up but I’m dragged down again, deeper, my limbs tangling and something scratching, gnashing, all claws and jaws and teeth. Big clouds of mud and blood fill my vision, but beyond them, I can see him, waiting, patient, as a billowing cauldron of bats takes flight behind him.
All is still.
The water clears. Above me hangs the crescent moon, sharp as a cat’s claw, the stars struggling to shine on shadows thick as black velvet. How long have I been here? How long, with this beautiful view?
Slowly, I rise from the swamp-like mist, my memory as foggy as the night. There’s something I must do, something at home I must bring to the swamp. To the weeping willows. A picnic.
It’s time for a picnic.
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