It all started with a simple schoolyard rhyme. No one knew the original incarnation, only a fragment of it survived and was circulated amongst our school. “A pail of snails lifts the veil to Blackbart the Frail.” Blackbart became an amalgam of the boogeyman and a wish-granting genie. Lara was the first one to suggest the rhyme as literal instruction, and then it spread amongst the rest of the school children. I don’t know who added the instruction of salting the snails, I don’t know if it was sheer coincidence or implanted in a young mind with sinister intent.
It had rained for a week straight the day we brought it home, the first summer rains breaking the month-long dry spell. Sunbaked and water-parched snails had begun to peek out from their shady hiding places at the first sign of moisture and had overtaken our small trailer park. All of us had done our part in bringing them in, My little brother Mark and I used old Tupperware. Others used cups and boxes but we brought them to the same place, a rusty old metal bucket on the outskirts of the nearby forest.
Terry had kept watch over the bucket using a stick to push any snails that had tried to slither out back in. Thomas was the one to bring the can of salt and Jeremy had been the one to open the can and salt them. I had seen the way snails had ruptured and spilled out in sudden bubbling agony when salted. But even then I couldn’t have foretold the sight of hundreds writhing in panic, and the frothing fluids that rose to the top of the bucket and spilled out in one long sloshing drool. Lara gagged, some of the boys jeered, Mark pressed close to me and I was entranced by the vileness of it all.
Something shifted from within the still-writhing mass and my stomach lurched at the realization that something had peeked out from the liquid. It was a small digit, but it was wrong, looked both frostbitten and semi-translucent. It felt as if the world was falling away as if time was slowing to a crawl, the moments between heartbeats stretched out into an unbearable eternity. With a twitch and vivid motion, a diseased hand reached out from the slop, gripped the side of the bucket, and hauled itself up. Another hand followed by the head and shoulders of what might have once been human or something that had formed itself in the rudimentary shape of a human. Its face was smooth and featureless, only stained splotchy flesh.
Everyone witnessing this otherworldly birth was paralyzed by primal fear and forced to watch as the thing adjusted its hold around the bucket, and tried to find leverage to pull itself out. It had managed to free its torso when the bucket tipped over and spilled the creature out, a naked thing the size of a toddler, the irregular patterns of its malformed flesh repeated throughout its entire form. Its head jerked up to face the group and the skin where its mouth should have been shifted, stretched, and thinned until it tore open, like an amniotic sac, and from within dull white teeth grinned at the group.
“Hello, little children,” it croaked out, almost pained.
“Blackbart?” Jeremy asked.
The creature tilted its head and aimed its eyeless glare at Jeremy and the boy tensed.
“Blackbart? Is that the name you know me by?”
The silence answered in lieu of any word or movement and Blackbart settled his lipless grin into something more passive. A collectively held breath eased out and some of the others dared to take a step closer.
“I know you all have something to ask of me, so get on with it and ask.”
Some might wonder how we could ask for something so wicked. Often some kind of greater moral virtue is attributed to children of a young age as if innocence only exists as a harmless wonder. But I’m going to tell you a harsh truth, children are cruel, even in innocence. There was a casualty in our cruelty that would be diagnosed under a myriad of psychological afflictions had it manifested in adulthood. But we also had our reasons, every one of us. Jeremy’s father was an angry drunk and inebriated most days, the bruises faded with time but the memories didn’t. Lara’s parents, like countless others, spent most of their time in a drug-fueled stupor and neglected the basic care for their children. Mark and I had a Ma that ran out on us and a Pa that never wanted us in the first place, and he made sure to let us know.
“We want you to get rid of anyone over the age of ten,” Jeremy said.
“In the whole town? The world? Or just here?” Blackbart asked
“Just here,” Jeremy said.
“That’s easy, consider it done. When you greet the sun tomorrow it will be without any of the old folk.” Blackbart said, in that same strained croaking tone.
The creature peeled back its lipless mouth to flash one last smile and bounded off into the woods, through the translucent portions of its body something inky squirmed against the prison of its flesh. I gaped at it until Blackbart had disappeared into thick brush. There was excitement in the other kids but I couldn’t help but feel like I was teetering on a thin line suspended over a chasm filled with the horrors of the void and I just had taken the fatal step that would send me tumbling headfirst into its maw. I went home that day with the first taste of existential anxiety, the type that lingers for days and weeks.
The screams rang out at midnight, a deafening cacophony of wails sustained for a few seconds and then silence. I lay in bed frozen in fear, unable to will myself to get up and look, and so hours passed before I fell into a sudden and dreamless sleep.
I was jolted awake by a knock at the door by an eager Lara. I ran to pa’s room first but it was as empty as it usually was on workdays. Any delusion that the previous day had been a feverish dream was dispelled the moment I opened the door. Lara was holding baby Mikey, his mother was very protective and would never let Lara play with him, let alone carry him around like this. I stepped out, judged by the sun that it was nearing noon, old man Norris should be blasting classic rock by now, but the trailer park was strangely devoid of any sound but the passing breeze and occasional child’s giggle.
“They’re all gone?” I asked.
“Everyone but us kids.”
She led me to the others, they were in the midst of systematically looting the trailers of any food or valuables. Jeremy was leading the largest group, he looked ridiculous with this plastic crown on his head and blanket tied around his neck as a makeshift robe.
“He declared himself King early this morning, his friends and some of the other boys sided with him, the rest of us didn’t have much of a choice. His first decree was that all the big kids gather all the food so we can split it, you have to pay for it of course.”
“Pay? With what money?” I asked.
“Snails, of course, the smaller kids were sent out to find more so we can start a bank.”
“I think he disappeared, no one has seen him since he went into the woods but that’s why Jeremy wants snails,” Lara answered.
A chill crept through my body at the thought of seeing that thing again.
“I need to find Mark,” I said.
He was in a dense patch of wood with three other kids his age, they had a few containers with a couple of snails in each. We trekked back to the trailer park where Jeremy had a picnic table piled high with the spoils of his first decree. He said that tonight we would feast in celebration of our first day of freedom. That night was something every kid dreamed of, we gorged ourselves on our savory and simple delights of sweets and sodas and whatever else we desired. After all, what kid hasn’t yearned for a world without the authority of adults, the bliss was short-lived, fading out over a few months.
But the first month went along smoothly, snails were kept in terrariums looted from a reptile enthusiast’s trailer. We spent our days in a dream-like haze, moving from one activity to the next, a child’s fantasy. No school, no chores, no one to tell us no. There were injuries, of course, Junior burned his hand trying to make a grilled cheese, Corey bruised his leg after falling from a tree, and the list goes on. But there was never any real danger or fear, food, and snails were abundant, and cuts and scrapes faded over the days. For that first month, any doubts I harbored faded to the back of my mind and I was happy.
The first trouble came at the beginning of the next month when food had dwindled or spoiled. snails had become a rare sight around the trailer park and woods edge and a mailman had left a pile of bills at the mailboxes just outside the trailer park. King Jeremy called a group meeting and it was decided that we would summon Blackbart. The king’s stash of snails was gathered, a bucket was filled, and salt was poured in.
As I stared into the violently effervescent sludge and waited for Blackbart to emerge. That same cosmic anxiety crept back in and I wanted nothing more than to run away. Mark pressed in close again and held firm, held me in place, forced me to watch. Blackbart’s hand shot out this time, with enough velocity to fling a long gooey string of slime onto a crowd of screaming children. Shrieks died down as Blackbart found purchase and he hauled himself out in one horrific motion. Seeing him a second time I could better ascertain his form, his skin was translucent, and all the splotchy black and white variegation came from whatever strange liquids sloshed around inside him, it was like someone had filled a clear balloon with muck. Blackbart stood up and swiveled his head around at the crowd, lipless grin ever present.
“Hello again little children. What’s the occasion?” it spoke.
No one dared move and after a lingering moment of hesitation, Blackbart gestured for an answer aggressively enough that Jeremy took a step forward and spoke.
“We ran out of food, we would like some more,” he said.
“That can be arranged quite easily. But I won’t do this for free. See I got to eat too, so who will you give me in return?” It said, tapping its nailless finger along its teeth.
“We have some more snails.”
“The snails are nothing more than a medium for my traversal, for a trade to be made you must give me something much more substantial. Last time you traded everyone but yourselves, what will you give this time?” Blackbart spoke.
In the moments of silence that passed each heartbeat came with a thunderous fury, slow and stretched out. When the finger was pointed it was with a cold and impassionate cruelty known only to children. Nathan’s eyes went wild at Jeremy’s decision, casting glances at the other children as if asking for them to intervene. When he looked at the savage grin on Blackbart’s face the seven-year-old let out a yelp, a puddle of piss forming around his feet, and sprinted towards the woods. Later, when asked why Jeremy would only say that he found the boy boring, no hint of malice in the answer.
Blackbart got down on all fours, limbs twisting and forming themselves into something more bestial and suited for quadrupedal movement. His teeth lengthened and thinned until he had a mouth full of jagged fangs. It nodded at us before he set off full sprint in the same direction Nathan had run, a fiendish cackle trailing it. Mark burst out into tears and tried comforting him as a big sister should, but my eyes and attention were deadlocked on Jeremy. I had seen the look of disdain that had crossed his face the second Mark started crying. Lara, still carrying baby Mike, interrupted our bout with a question on everyone’s mind.
“What about the food?”
“Tomorrow,” was all Jeremy said.
Sure enough the next day at the center of our trailer park there was a mountain of groceries and there was some excitement. But as our group had shrunk from thirteen to twelve the dynamic had shifted drastically, many kids had played along with Jeremy’s boy-king act. Now they looked at him in fear, and their act turned to true reverence, everyone but me Mark, and Lara. Occasionally I would catch glances from Jeremy, darker and colder than I had ever known, but I tried to hold my glare whenever possible, with as much resolution as a nine-year-old could muster. That day I started siphoning off my snail supply into a divet in the woods, hid them with a well-placed rock, and would throw in the few snails I could scrounge from trades. At the very least food was no longer a concern as every two weeks a new pile of food appeared in the usual spot.
As the days passed we grew dirtier as the numbers that cared to groom themselves dwindled and so did those who cared for a world outside this child’s fantasy. I had started to miss school, to miss faces outside of this trailer park. I wondered why no adults had come to check in on us yet, now with the wisdom of adulthood, I know that we lived in a very economically disparaged area. Any figure of authority that could have intervened before the madness overtook us had likely given up on us long before we stopped going to school.
The second month came to a close and no ritual was held but a feast was, one late into the night with lots of whooping and hollering in honor of our king. I sat it out and spent the time cleaning Mark and helping Lara care for Mikey, he spent most of his time crying and had grown sickly pale in color. Lara had long run out of baby formula and was feeding him cow’s milk.
“He’s just got to get used to it,” she would say, but I knew she had grown sick of caring for Mikey, it was nothing like caring for her dollies.
One morning, a few days after the feast, while I was out looking for snails, Lara skipped up to me, a crown of dried flowers upon her head.
“Jeremy asked me to be his queen,” she stated unprompted.
“He wanted to ask you at first but he said you’re too much of a bitch,” she said then gasped. Looking around as if noticing for the first time that no one was there to reprimand her she started cycling through the list of curses. “Shit, fuck, damn…” and on and on.
“Where’s baby Mikey?” I interrupted.
“Oh, well when I woke up this morning he wasn’t moving or crying,” she said sheepishly.
“What did you do then?”
“Well, I tossed him in the ditch. It’s ok though, Jeremy says the next time we see Blackbart we can just ask for him to bring Mikey back, and this time not as whiney.”
I bolted off, not letting her finish, across the trailer park to the other side of the woods and towards the ditch. I looked in and started dry heaving at the sight of the bluish rigid body of little Mikey. Unable to purge anything but bile I calmed myself and walked back to my trailer, to Mark. He was unable to get anything out of me, and I could only think back to the time when Pa still brought us to church. The pastor had once said that all sins would be alleviated once confessed, but this was too terrible to confess, not to someone like Mark. I lay about in my trailer catatonic until the afternoon. Jeremy was shouting at the center of our park and I went out to see what the commotion was about.
He was holding up a distinctive envelope with big red letters, opening it up he read it out. It was a notice that a man would be sent to shut off our power by the end of the month if the electric bills weren’t paid.
“We have a King and Queen, and an evil witch and her henchman,” he said pointing at me and Mark.
“But, we’re missing something else, an evil empire! In 30 days, the adults will send one of their own to shut our power off and send us back to the old ways. I say we declare war and strike before they take us all away!”
The crowd of children erupted into cheers, and I could only watch as their screams reached a fever pitch. I didn’t see who threw the first rock, just felt the ridge of my left eyebrow explode in searing pain. I grabbed Mark and used my back to shield him from the barrage as I ushered us back into our home. A few rocks pelted our door and the kids chanted “stone the witch” but soon enough their interests shifted elsewhere. I should have been scared but with the arrival of the electric man at the end of this month, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
The third and final month was sheer madness, the other children further devolved into savagery, they could be heard all hours of the day screaming as they trained for *war.* I had to barricade myself in my house and block the windows since the kids had taken to throwing stones at me whenever possible, I had earned the moniker “Cassidy the Witch.” Mark and I went hungry often enough and we had subsided off scraps we could steal, the occasional basket of food left at our doorstep, courtesy of Lara. Every other day though the food pile was guarded by Terry and Corey, now wielding broom handles with large kitchen knives duct-taped at the end. Mark had grown distraught as the days went on.
“I miss Pa,” he would often say. I could sincerely say the same.
Once I had the chance to sneak out late at night, I crept past the trailers with a satchel full of salt and to the edge of the woods. Guided by the light of a full moon I walked past a group of trees with dozens of fresh cuts and stabs towards the divet I had been hiding my snails in. I was devastated when I found that the majority had died, all they had left was their shells. Picking one up I noticed the entrance was sealed by a thin film and realized that they had gone into hibernation. Water would rouse them from their slumber, realizing this I ran back to my trailer to get a cupful. But by the time I was ready to return, Corey and Terry were out on patrol, and my moment to converse with Blackbart was lost. By the time I had my next chance I had lost the nerve, I didn’t want to see that monstrosity again, I didn’t want to feed it another life. The day of the electrician’s arrival was close enough that I had laid my hopes with him.
It was early morning when the crunch of gravel awoke the trailer park, an unmarked white van had parked just outside of our little pocket of madness. The man that walked up was middle-aged and scruffy wearing nothing but a simple jumpsuit. Sleepy eyes went wide at the sight of nearly a dozen filthy children gathering to impede his path. I flung the doors open and ran out, calling out to the stranger.
“Mister, we need some help!”
Pain exploded from my side as a rock bounced off my flesh, another caught my shoulder and the cries of “witch” fell upon the lips of the crowd.
“Hey! What the hell are you kids up to? Where are your parents?” the worker interrupted.
His eyes locked with mine and I shook my head, he turned his gaze to the shoddily armed crowd, eyes lingering on the broom handles with duck-taped knives. Shaking his head murmured something about needing to make a phone call and turned to head toward his car. The crowd was frozen in place, no one willing to make the first move and for a moment I thought that this man had brought back some “old-world” sanity into this realm ruled by children. Jeremy was the one to make the first bounding step, charging forward with his weapon thrust forward with killing intent. I screamed as loud as I could for the worker to run, to turn around to do anything. The man spun on his heels to face the children, saw the kitchen knife’s deadly arc, and moved to dodge but the end still bit into his side, deep, and cut clean through. “Fuck!” he screamed and the crowd of kids should have relented realizing what they had just done but instead some barrier deep within their psyches gave way and the screaming began. They charged and circled and stabbed in all directions, no logic, just fury. Blood rained down on the sun-parched soil, my ears rang with screams and I couldn’t tell whose screams they belonged, maybe all our collective shrieks fusing into a call of the most primeval of sins.
As quickly as it had begun it ended and a man lay dead shredded to ribbons. Blood pooled around him, and the children were painted crimson, eyes darker than anything I had ever known. Jeremy pointed his bloody spear at me and screamed “kill the witch” and they charged toward me. I turned and ran back inside and slammed the door shut. I rushed to grab Mark, my satchel of salt, and a bottle of water and ran out the back door. A heard a voice call out, telling the others to come chase after me, Mark was bawling and my lungs were burning, but the edge of the woods was within sight, just a few more yards. Mark’s foot caught a stone and sent both of us scrambling to the ground, I sprang back up and tried to haul my little brother up but the kids had already closed the distance. A thrown spear cut deep into my shoulder and I fell back down in pain. They circled Mark the same way they did the worker and were starting to gather around me, thrusting their weapons. I looked up and saw these red dark-eyed devils, sneering and laughing at the havoc they wrecked. I rolled away, hauled myself up, and ran into the woods as Mark’s screams trailed me.
I ran until I couldn’t anymore, my body gave out and I fell into shrubbery deep in some shaded corner of the woods. I cried, the tears crawling across my cheeks in a slow and painful procession, and then came the bawling. The hyperventilating kind where every lungful of air is hard-fought but that too eventually faded in a weak keening. I spent hours hidden away in that foliage, waiting for it all to numb, and when it did I arose a different person. It was nearing dark, if the kids had tried finding me they would have surely given up but now. I trekked through the forest with more confidence than I had ever done so with anything in my short life, I knew what I wanted and how I would get it.
I fell to my knees when I reached the divet containing the snails, water was dumped in and I made sure to get all of them. I waited a bit for the snails to come back to life and undid my satchel, letting the salt cascade in. I felt no disgust as they writhed and bubbled and died, only fearless anticipation at what they would bring. I waited for it to appear but as the bubbling slowed I saw no sign of his arrival, I got down closer to the vile pit and looked in. Something shot out with incredible speed and gripped my throat tight. I tried pulling away but it was so much stronger than me, and before I could even scream I was pulled into the slop.
I shut my eyes and mouth in hopes of preventing any of the liquids from getting in. The darkness I was plunged into felt weightless, no burden of held breath pressured me to try to take a lungful and my descent down felt endless.
“Awaken,” a voice said, vast and booming.
I fought to keep my eyes closed but I felt the presence of something start seeping, it was all around me, gazing from all angles.
“If you wish to bargain with me you must open your eyes.”
Slowly I peeled away my eyelids, expecting the slime to rush in and blind me but it was clear like I was suspended underwater. Beyond my immediate vicinity ribbons of darkness encircled me like a cage made of black hair. Streaks of white stained the mixture in long fractal patterns. Within the white something opened up, a space different from the black and white and I squinted to make it out. I screamed when I realized it was eyes, dozens upon dozens within the swirling black and white fluid. I realized then that this amorphous thing must be Blackbarts true form, the thing that had moved within his translucent flesh, and I closed my eyes again to block out the maddening sight.
“Keep them open! And ask child, tell me what you desire.”
I forced myself to look and said “I want you to take Jeremy and make him pay for the things he’s done, I’ll sacrifice myself for this.”
“I’ve had my fill, I do not need more lives, your payment will be something much more substantial. When the time comes, you’ll know. Consider this contract complete.”
The liquid surged upwards dragging me with it, we accelerated faster than I had ever experienced and my head rushed with nausea. We crossed some threshold and I was freed from the liquid and launched into the open air. I saw the night stars for a moment before I tumbled onto the forest floor, dry and dazed but unscathed. In front of me, Blackbart had taken a strange serpentine form, dozens of clawed appendages sprouting from its side, it let out a cackle and launched towards the trailer park with dizzying speed. I was on its heels, trailing it all the way, needing to see what he would do.
It reached the children before I did, I heard the panicked shrieks and I ran up to see the carnage. Blackbart towered over the screaming children, its limbs held a bawling Jeremy. A hooked claw dug deep into each of his limbs and slowly began pulling him apart. I looked away, let my scream join the others, and shut my eyes tight as the sound of Jeremy’s agony reached a crescendo and ended with the abrupt squelch of rupture. The sound of raining blood and entrails and the soft thud of a life taken coaxed my eyes open and there before me stood a bewildered crowd, Blackbart nowhere in sight. There was a moment of collective confusion but as realization set in their eyes hardened.
“It was the witch!” Lara spat.
And soon the others joined, makeshift spears in hand as they waved them toward me with the promise of violence. I stood my ground, eyes locked on Jeremy’s discarded plastic crown, the
very one that had begun all this. If this was the end of me I was ready to make peace. A child, Corey I think, took a lunging step forward intent on plunging the blade deep into my chest but the flashing of lights and the whoop of a siren jolted everyone to look behind them. A police car, of course, the police would be called for a missing utility worker. Two cops stepped out of the vehicle, one with a blinding flashlight took in the scene. He called for backup while the other, a woman, asked what the hell had happened. It caused it all to come bursting out of me in one horrible bawling confession.
“It was me, I brought it here, I let Mark die and I killed Jeremy.”
We were all taken away of course and repeated my confession to anyone that would listen. I once heard that to confess one’s sins was to alleviate yourself of their burden but in the years since no relief was found, I think it’s because no one listened or believed me. We became wards of the state and were scattered around the country and it was all chalked up to the trauma of abandonment. All blame fell on our absent parents and theories from mass drug-induced psychosis to religious mania as a way to explain their mass abandonment. I’m in my mid-20s now and I don’t want to carry this around anymore, so I’m hoping someone out there will believe me and take some of the guilt away from me. Reflecting on all that happened I think that we became a microcosm of sorts, reflecting something deep within us, something that scares me to this day. One final thing sticks with me, the subject of payment, Blackbart never collected, or so I like to think. I don’t know what happened to the others after we split up, I like to think that his ritual died with our childhood, but in the same way that it crept in and poisoned us, I’ve retold his tale here. Maybe someone out there will read this and get a bucket of snails and a can of salt, and when Blackbart hauls himself back out into the world, I think my debt will finally be paid.
Credit: Santiago Del Mar
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