By Logan McConnell
A mile up the staircase I collapsed. Around me were stars that provided little light, frigid desert gusts that chapped my skin, and the staircase —the only man-made structure in sight. They didn’t warn me how high up it went. Though, if they had, perhaps I would not have agreed to go. After a rest, I heave myself up and trudge on for another mile. Right as I was losing hope, I saw the end. I saw the door.
Once at the door, I gripped the knob, then let go as if the metal scalded me. I remembered in my sweaty, disoriented panting that they had warned me to knock first. Very important. So, I did, then put my hands on my knees and closed my eyes. A tooth loosened out of my mouth, then fell down between the boards. I watched it drop.
At that height, I couldn’t see what lay below in the dark. If the staircase was elongated over the desert, my tooth would land in sand, likely never to be found. If the staircase stretched above what lies beyond the desert, as I suspect it does, there was no telling if it would ever strike a surface, likely doomed to fall forever.
The door opened. She was a little too on the nose, for what I was expecting. All black clothing, wiry unkempt hair, sallow skin with warts. If she had a broom and pointed hat I may have laughed. She gripped the door handle, tapped her fingers on the threshold, and squinted at me.
“You're the first visitor I’ve gotten in quite a while. There were many who tried, of course. But they didn’t make it.”
I nodded. “Yes, I know. I passed them on the way up. Well… parts of them.” I waited for her to step aside, invite me into her home, but she remained still, watching me gasp for air with her stoic gaze. “Please,” I whispered, “I don’t want to be like this. If you can’t help me…” I looked down below. “I just can’t do this anymore.”
She stepped back and swung the door wide open. I thanked her repeatedly as I entered, grateful for the chance to rest somewhere that wasn’t coated in radiation, blast debris, or body parts. Her hut was a cozy circle, complete with a lit fireplace warming the chilly air, the flames heating an actual cauldron. Some stereotypes are true, I guess.
The kitchen area had no food, but instead contained vials of neon liquids lining a shelf I would have used as a spice rack. Many had skull and crossbones or other macabre monikers on the labels. In the center of the room was a stack of old books, the spines creased and broken.
The witch stepped closer to the fire, the flames illuminating her gray hair and face. Every part of her looked mid-60’s except her eyes. They appeared ancient and wise, even omnipotent, from certain angles, but as she sat down in a chair I swear wasn’t present seconds before, her eyes changed. They became youthful and fierce.
“I suppose,” she started, “you're here for a cure. To go back to how you were before Armageddon.”
She leaned forward then stared at me, studying all my lacerations and warped features. Without looking away, she reached her arm out toward the bookstack. The topmost book floated up a few inches then coasted to her grip. She opened it, a cloud of dust rising from the yellow pages, wafting over to my mouth and nose. I coughed as she comfortably perused her text.
As she read, I saw beside an open window, a piece of parchment tacked on the sill, its curled edges rising and falling with the wind. This was a map of where others like her lived, with black ink depicting the constellation of mid-air bungalows that housed the witches living above the damned below.
Outside the window a distant candle in another cabin flickered. I watched it dance until she spoke. “Yes, I have something here,” she muttered, still hunched over her book. She rolled her eyes up to face me, “but there’s a price to pay.”
“A deal,” I sighed. “Yes, I figured that would be inevitable.”
She rolled her eyes back down. “Nothing in life is free.”
I squeezed my hands together, feeling a pinky fingernail snap off and click onto the floor. The witch didn’t seem to notice, her attention devoted to preparing my cure. “So, what do I have to do?” I ask.
She lifted her head and tapped her chin. “Hard to say. You have virtually nothing to offer me in exchange. Your land is gone. Your possessions are obliterated. Humankind has forced us witches to the only place you haven't contaminated.” She paused, gesturing to the sky.
Dropping her finger, her head slowly turned to face out the window to her fellow witch, her nearest neighbor, and smiled. “I lived in a beautiful cave before Armageddon. There was so much nature, teeming with frogs and fauns and woodpeckers tapping the trees.” Her hand lifted, as if to caress dangling vines only she could see or stick her fingers through a rushing waterfall in her mind.
“Now that’s gone,” she said. The witch stood and flung her spell book back on the stack, where it teetered on the edge until an invisible force nudged it securely on top. “I want to make you an animal.”
“I miss the animals. I will make you ‘normal’ again if you agree to be my cat for fifty years. You’ll live here, with me. Sunbathe by the windowsill in the day and climb the walls at night. Your body will be healthy, vigorous. No more tissue decay, fading flesh or wayward fingernails,” she pointed to the pink, pulpy tip of my pinky finger. She had noticed. “After that you can be a human again, exactly as you were before the end of the world.”
“How do you do that?” I asked. “A potion? A curse?”
The witch waved her hand. “I’m saving my potion ingredients for the important stuff. And curses harm the target. This will heal your body and prolong your life, so it’s technically a spell, regardless if you want to be a cat or not.” She stepped closer towards me. “Do you accept?”
“Yes,” I said. She lifted her hand and raised her finger.
“Wait!” I cried.
“Can I be a songbird?”
She stepped back. “What?”
“Can I be a songbird instead of a cat?” I begged. “I can fly around, singing songs. All the birds are extinct. It’ll be nice to have one back.”
The witch paced in thought, wandering to a section of her cabin the dying firelight didn’t reach. In the dark I saw no part of the witch except her wet eyes floating in the black, shaking side to side, as if picturing my bird body whizzing about.
“Very well,” she whispered.
I stood, eager to begin the transformation. There wasn’t much time left, my body had been ravaged by every assault it could endure. Though I did my best to hide it, I was very much in constant pain, every tendon and bone tender and broken. For now, I’d submit to the witch, who’d replace my mutilated arms with immaculate wings.
The spell began, her voice growing louder then soft again, speaking some mysterious language. A plucking sensation arose in every pore on my body, soon followed by a painful growth of feathers seeping out of my flesh. A soreness in my nose erupted as it stretched into a beak. All the while I rapidly shrank.
I couldn’t speak, only chirp. She couldn’t speak, only smile and beam at me. If words were possible at this moment, someone in the room would whisper, ‘Here comes the catch… Here's the trick you didn’t see coming.’
The witch chuckled, completely beside herself. She stretched out a finger and lowered it towards me. I hopped on, perched atop her bony digit. “Now, don’t you feel much better?”
I did. I tried to nod, unsure if I was clear.
“Try flying. Go on, try it.”
My first attempt was a success. I glided and fluttered like a true natural. The witch laughed a warm, tender, almost childlike laugh. Once I grew comfortable with my new body, I circled over to the open window and faced her. Without words, she correctly interpreted my stare, peered past my aviary eyes to those thoughts of mine that are oh so human.
She gasped, too frightened to scream.
Yes, indeed, she understood.
I snapped the map between my beak, tearing it away to take with me. I’m going to fly down with my new vitality and share my knowledge of where these witches live. My fellow humans are waiting for me, some strong enough to soldier on, to discover more staircases to witches guilty of remaining available for aid to ailing humans; kindness is their fatal flaw.
We humans are running out of people to kill, space to colonize and worlds to destroy. Nuclear weapons can’t reach the magical, you need cunning for that. I will fly down with this map. We will continue our legacy of war and greed. We will seize and burn the witches in the sky.
I expect some of them will elude us at first and travel higher up, though I don’t despair. We will reach them all eventually. We will hunt them until they are forced to the thinnest layer of the stratosphere, gasping as we press them against the threshold of outer space.
In time my fellow humans will die, too. Then the world will be bequeathed to me, flying over a conquered wasteland, my human nature sated at last.
Logan McConnell is a health care worker and writer of quiet horror. His work is published in Dark Recesses Press, Coffin Bell, Diet Milk Magazine, Vanishing Point Magazine and others. He is influenced by the works of Shirley Jackson and Thomas Ligotti. He lives with his boyfriend in Tennessee. He can be found on Twitter.