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Stories

By Tom Jolly

The Witch And The Two-Headed Boy

Matthew Herschel has two heads, but with twice as many brains as the average person, he comes to a solution.

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Historical, Humour, Magical Realism

Story Details

  • Title : The Witch And The Two-Headed Boy
  • Author : Tom Jolly
  • Word-Count : 4752
  • Genre : Humour, Historical

About The Author

Author

Tom Jolly’s short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Something Wicked, and Fox and Raven, among others, though he’s best known for his published board games (such as Wiz-War, Drakon, and Cavetroll) and his wooden puzzle designs. He lives in California with his wife and numerous demanding pets. He also finds zombies amusing, but not as pets

Matthew Hershel was born with two heads. His father, always a bit of a layabout, finally got off his drunken rear for the sole purpose of departing Georgetown the day Matt was born, leaving his mother Anne to take care of him. Their already modest home became more modest as they sold off furniture and sought handouts from the local church and their good neighbors to make ends meet. This aid, however, dried up when the local preacher started to speak regularly of abominations in the eyes of God and creative ways to deal with them. While the age of enlightenment was upon society by the mid-1800’s, the enlightenment was not so bright and well distributed as to exclude some local clouds, so Anne sold their modest home and moved north from Kentucky into southern Ohio just before the war started, and settled near the very small town of Ripley. Anne, who had skills as a seamstress, found local work and managed to squeak by on the meager earnings she could garner.




They avoided most company and schooled at home, and when Matt was old enough to start becoming restless and expressed a desire to “see the world”, he traveled with a bag of potatoes on his shoulder, actually an artfully stuffed sack with the other Matt’s head tucked neatly inside. Matt-right and Matt-left, as his mother referred to them, would take turns being the guy in the bag, as it was not a pleasant experience and quite stuffy in the summertime.

There were the expected questions, such as, “Why do you carry those potatoes all the time?” for which the Matts and their mother had devised a hundred nearly believable answers, such as “I’m building up for the annual potato-bag-toss at the fair next year.”

Naturally, the day came when some town rowdies pulled the bag off his shoulder and got the first look at Matt’s other self. Matt-right made a horrible face, and the bullies screamed and ran.

The Matts knew they were no longer safe, and they and their mother packed up their belongings and made the brief journey north to Chillicothe, where they settled yet again.

In distress at how restricted the boundaries of their life would be, the two Matts looked into the possibility of becoming a regular human being. They argued vociferously about whose head should be cut off, which would usually boil down to selecting the ugliest of the two heads to excise, and one might guess how that conversation ended. They eventually settled on seeking out a witch who could offer some more balanced wisdom.

Inquiring about, they learned of a witch who had supposedly helped other unfortunates and decided to visit her. She was reputed to be living in a shack in a swampy area just off a broad turn of the Scioto River. Her house was said to be on a small island in the middle of this lowland swamp, apparently avoiding more pleasant environs because even in the enlightened north witches were frowned upon and oftentimes sought as a potential source of kindling.

The Matts tossed a coin to see who would be in the potato sack, and then left for the two-day hike to the edge of the swamp. They located and rented a small skiff to visit the witch, stating that they had a bag of Ohio’s finest potatoes to deliver. The gentleman with the skiff to rent asked, “What’s so special about your bag of potatoes?”

“Why, sir,” the exposed Matt replied, “they are talking potatoes.”

The other Matt cried out in a high voice from inside the bag, “I’ve been a good spud! Please don’t let her eat me!”

With his hair standing up straight as a picket fence and eyes like twin moons, the man quickly departed, leaving the skiff and the Matts alone. They soon embarked into the swamp, and following the meandering directions they had been given, marking the odd rotten oak stump here, or a decaying horse skeleton there, shortly found themselves at the witch’s shack.

The so-called shack, however, was in fact a large and well-kept white house sporting a couple of healthy and well-fed servants. Upon setting startled eyes on this hidden yet stately manor, Matt-left said, “Oh, dear, this is going to be expensive.”

“I hope we brought enough gold,” replied Matt-right. He squeezed the few coins in his pouch in case their meager clinking might give away their paupery.

They approached the house and were met by a comfortably rotund white-haired woman who smiled and greeted each Matt independently without a twitch of fear or disgust displayed on her face, introducing herself as Mildred the Witch. The Matts were delighted with her. “Come in, come in!” she said, “I just made some tea.”

As they approached the house, the white paint on the porch resolved itself into smaller segments that the Matts finally realized were bleached bones. They stopped at the bottom of the steps and stared at the house. The entire thing was either made of or covered with bones. Human skulls topped the endposts of the stair railing, each endpost made of sturdy clusters of femurs and each newel a rib, all held together with finger-bone dowels. A wind-chime made of ribs hung from the porch and tink-tonked a dirge in the dank breeze moving slowly across the swamp. The Matts gasped together. “Bones!” Matt-right said.

Mildred look up as though surprised. “Oh, yes, of course. I forget to mention that whenever I have visitors. My house is made of bones, very good for my reputation as a witch, you know. You’d be amazed at how many bodies get dumped in the swamp. And at how good the bones hold up to swamp rot.”

“But bones!”

She shrugged. “Almost finished. Just a bit of the chimney left. And then…” she sighed wistfully.

“And then?” The Matts leaned forward.

“Let’s go inside and see about that tea. It’s likely steeped long enough.”

When they had both settled into comfortable pink-leather easy-chairs, with steaming teacups held carefully in hand, Mildred asked, “Now, what can I do for you boys?”

They looked at each other, bumping noses, then back at her. “We would each like to live our own lives as a normal person, with only one head.”

“And,” she said, “I suppose you have not made up your mind on whose head that should be, have you?”

“Perhaps,” replied Matt-right, “you could merge our heads into one, combining our thoughts?”

Mildred chuckled. “Each of your thoughts are your own. Mixing them up would be a bad idea, as you would find yourself quite disagreeable and never able to make up your own mind. I’m sure you two disagree on some things, don’t you?”

The Matts nodded together, an action that succeeded in moving their entire body.

“Well,” Mildred continued, “I do have a small spell in mind that might help you out. I’m guessing that each of you actually wants his own body and his own life. Am I right?”

Matt-left said, “Of course” and Matt-right, “Yes.”

She got up and grabbed a small pendant off the fireplace mantel, as though the pendant might have been placed there just in preparation for their visit, and brought it back to her easy chair. She showed it to them, pointing to the small gem in the middle. “You have to be careful with this, because crushing the glass gem in the middle will cause the spell to be released, and you most certainly want all the right elements available to enact it. You have two heads. What you need are two more arms, two more legs, and a body to complete yourselves. This spell, in the presence of these things, will make you both independent and whole.”

The Matts stared in wonder at the object, reaching out to touch it. In a croaking voice, Matt-left asked, “How much will this cost? I’m not sure that we can afford to pay you what this is worth.”

She slapped the boys on the knee, and said, “I’ll tell you what, you come back here after the spell has performed its work, and work for me for two years. After that, you are free to live your lives as you wish. Independent and free of each other.”

Matt-right raised a questioning eyebrow and asked the obvious question, “What’s to make us return, besides our honor?”

She grinned, showing clean, white, straight, unwitchy teeth. “If you don’t,” she said, “then the spell will stop working a year after it is cast, and your body parts will cease to be quite as well connected as they should be. I can cast the second half of the spell, but you will have to be here for that. Stay out of prison, if you can.”

The Matts left shortly after that, with the pendant hanging around Matt-right’s neck. As they paddled through the swamp, Matt-right commented, “Did you notice anything peculiar about the servants?”

“Such as?”

“I noticed that they both wore bands of green around their necks, like braided grass. What do you think that meant?”

Matt-left shook his head. “Who knows? Perhaps the witch made some other deal with them.”

“That bone house makes my skin crawl, if you will pardon the expression. Perhaps she means for us to help finish off her chimney.”

“Well, then, why didn’t she just take us then and there with some spell and kill us on the spot? She’d have our bones and her pendant, and perhaps the meat on the bones to feast upon. Why wait until we return, and then another two years on top of that?”

Matt-right thought as he paddled. His brother made a very good point. Why would she wait? “Perhaps,” he suggested, “our bones are too skewed to fit into the structure of the house, and her magical spell will thus provide her with two sets of straightened bones.”

“Consider, dear brother,” Matt-left said, “If she killed everyone who came to the house, there would never be a soul left to spread her good name about, and she would cease to receive any visitors at all. If, indeed, our service to her is to conclude with our fine bones imbedded in her chimney, she would be better served if we went into the world first, told of her good will and magical talents, returned and served her for two years, and then were killed and fitted into her skeletal white house.”

“I must admit, I am curious as to what will happen when the house is finished.”

“Perhaps a guest house will be in order,” Matt-left said dryly.

They paddled in silence for awhile, passing the horse skeleton they had seen on the way in. Matt-right broke the silence again. “If we intend to use the pendant at all, we must have some sort of a plan.”

“We will consider that, then, when the time comes.”

They returned home, and began the process of locating an individual with extra limbs to spare, or perhaps some poor unfortunate missing a head. They sent out subtle queries regarding circus freak shows, a likely home for those with a surfeit of appendages.

In Dayton, a travelling circus advertised Jeremiah Townsend, The Fastest Man Alive, a man with four legs. Anne loaded up a wagon with the Matts hidden in back and went off to visit this circus act. There was some concern that the circus kept him captive, but to their surprise, Jeremiah was his own man and could come and go as he pleased. He could, as it declared in bold text on the circus poster, run almost twice as fast as a normal man, and jump twice as high.

When the Matts described their plan and the spell-pendant, Jeremiah was delighted. The circus manager, when notified that Jeremiah would be leaving with the Matts, grumbled and complained, but when he saw the Matt’s two heads, his eyes lit up like a king’s hearth on a winter night, and he spent the next hour trying to talk the Matts into staying at the circus, describing the riches they could earn in his employ. They declined, but promised to return if things did not work out as they intended.

The Matts and Jeremiah returned together to the home in Chillicothe, and started the search in earnest for an extra two arms.

From a traveler out of Columbus, they heard of a dockworker, Maurice Levant, who could carry twice as much as a normal man and whom no one could beat in a fight because of his four arms and four large fists. Not caring to join a travelling freak show, and willing to do twice the work of a normal man, and more than capable of assuring that ridicule would only occur once from a given source, he had found a job in a coarse portion of society that still honored tough individualism.

When the Matts, their mother Anne, and Jeremiah approached him, he was at first reluctant to give them more than a grunt to acknowledge their presence. They pleaded and cajoled him for him to join them, but he only replied, “I enjoy what I do. I’ve found a place where they accept me, and I mean to stay here and do what I do.”

The Matts’ mother, Anne, incisively asked him, “And what does your wife think of this?”

Maurice twisted his lips and snarled, “I’m not married. Don’t expect to marry.” He held up his extra arms as though they were an explanation.

“Wouldn’t you like to marry someday?” she asked.

He grumbled and hemmed and hawed a while longer, but Anne had found his weak spot. He finally gave in and went with them back to Chillicothe. There, they discussed where they might find a person with two bodies.

“Well, that’s just ridiculous,” Jeremiah argued, “how could one human have two bodies?” They didn’t even know where to start looking.

Maurice counted up all the bits they had present, and said, “Between the lot of us, if we add a body, and just a body, we’ll have four complete people. So we don’t need a person with two bodies, we just need one body with no person attached to it.”

They all nodded sagely at one another, and headed straight for the local mortuary to see about acquiring just one body. There they discovered that the bereaved were quite unwilling to let go of their departed loved ones by having their legs, arms, and head cut off and the torso reanimated. There was no “nice way” to even suggest it, in fact.

There was also no guarantee that a deceased body part would work effectively with the spell, and when the group thought deeper on the subject, they decided that this particular necromancy was, in fact, an unwise path to follow.

In 1861, Confederate forces and Union forces engaged, after bickering with each other for years across the border states using a refined form of communication, that of leaving corpses on one another’s doorsteps. The Matts suggested they should all stick together and do their part for the Union, and the others agreed. They tried to join the Ohio Volunteer Infantry at Camp Dennison.

The army recruiter looked at each of them dubiously, but Jeremiah boasted, “I can run twice as fast, and jump twice as high as any man! I could breach the enemy’s lines like a dust devil!” Maurice held out his stocky arms and boasted, “I can hold four guns or four swords, and use them all at the same time. No one can beat me on the field.”

The recruiter nodded and smiled. “And you?” he asked of the Matts.

“We can see everything happening around us all the time. No one can surprise us. We, too, shall be unbeatable in battle.”

The recruiter snorted and said, “I doubt any company will have you, though the shock value to the enemy would be invaluable. We can, however, make an entirely new company of you. Johnson!”

From out of the back of the tent came the ugliest man any of them had ever seen. One ear was raggedly torn off as though a cat had eaten it while he slept, and the other was a gnarled imitation of a mandrake root. His nose had been clipped off at the end by some wicked blade, and scars laced his face like cracks in mud. His teeth were black and rotten when he smiled, only the few wooden ones appearing somewhat intact, except for what might have been termite holes. A moustache consisting of no more than ten twisted wiry hairs attempted unsuccessfully to hide a fraction of the damage. “Yeah?” he grunted.

“Got a new command for you, Johnson, since you got the last lot killed off.”

Johnson looked over at the three of them and started laughing. “This is my new company? These abnormal freaks?” He laughed a bit longer and settled down, rubbing his course and damaged face thoughtfully, then said, “Alright then, we’ll be the Abnormal Company. That’s what they’ll call us. With my face and your…bodies…we’ll scare the pants off those Confederate bastards before they can get a shot off.”

As the Abnormal Company of the Ohio 8th Regiment Infantry, they were sent off to Grafton, West Virginia, and saw their first action at Worthington. The fighting was just as bloody as any soldier has ever sworn, but true to their word, the Abnormals were just as brave and unbeatable on the battlefield as they had bragged. Jeremiah moved too fast for the enemy to draw a bead on him, and was once seen to jump over an oncoming cannon ball and dance a quick jig upon it as it passed below him. Maurice could load and fire muskets twice as fast as any man, and in hand-to-hand combat was a whirling dervish of flashing steel. The Matts were never taken off guard, and dealt their share of death to the Confederate army while keeping an eye out for the rest of the Company.

A turn of luck for these discarded men was long overdue.

In the midst of the battle, a large explosion from a stockpile of gunpowder in a wagon rocked the battleground. The driver of the wagon, or what was left of him, went skyrocketing across the landscape and landed in a blood-spattered bush in the middle of the battlefield. The shock of the blast had sheared off both legs, both arms, and the poor man’s head.

It landed within twenty feet of the Abnormal Company.

Johnson shouted, “What’s that? Are they lobbing dead men at us now?”

Jeremiah shouted back in excitement, “It’s a body! It’s a body! Get over here, quick, it’s still bleeding! It’s still warm!”




Johnson, who knew nothing of the pendant or the compact between the men, twisted his ugly face up and said, “We’re not going to stop to bury it out here, you bleeding sods.”

But the others gathered around the squirting torso and Matt-right removed the pendant from his neck. The din of battle was slight around them; the enemy knew that death awaited any man foolish enough to approach the Abnormal Company. “This is it, then,” he said quietly. He put the magical pendant on a rock and crushed the glass gem with the hilt of his sword.

There was no flash of light or mysterious glowing cloud of swirling magic. There were, however, horrid screams wrenched from all of them as the limbs of their bodies were torn asunder and flew wildly about rearranging themselves, blood flinging every direction, a tornado of flesh. Johnson, who had seen the worst horrors that the Civil War had to offer, which were many, screamed and ran away. Other nearby combatants wisely followed suit, or merely fainted where they stood.

But, when it was all done, four complete men arose from the battlefield. Jeremiah, Maurice, Matt, and Matt surveyed one another, and laughed. They were, in fact, as normal as a man might be under those circumstances.

Unfortunately, they were also four normal men with badly fitting clothes sporting extra armholes, legholes, and neckholes in the middle of a bloody Civil War battlefield. One Matt stood there wearing nothing more than the shredded vest the torso had carried in its death-flight. The wonderful anomalies that had sustained them so well in battle now no longer existed.

Half-naked Matt picked up a sword and a pistol, looking at the disheveled and simple men around him, and considered the fact that they were still in the midst of a rather busy battle. He said, “We appear to have sat on a fire to keep our hindquarters warm.”

The other Matt nodded and said, “Chose to trim our toenails while being chased by a bear.”

Jeremiah piped in with, “Jumped in front of a charging bull to pick up a dime!”

Maurice snorted and said, “Fornicated ourselves.”

They looked across the battlefield and could see that others, both enemy and ally, were beginning to move in their direction, either from macabre curiosity or orders from their commanding officers to engage the enemy. Jeremiah said, “I have an idea.”

A few moments later, two huge men, each with two heads and four arms, splattered with their own blood and that of their enemies, ragged and gory clothing hanging loosely from their bodies, strode forth scowling and waving guns and swords wildly in the air. The enemy broke and scattered like rats from a hungry dog.

Reputation is everything.

Once the battle was over, Matt and Jeremiah dropped down off the backs of their comrades and returned to camp, where Johnson was cowering. He was astounded at the transformation of his men. They finally explained the spell to him along with their final stratagem to avoid being slaughtered, and he laughed until he fell over. “An incredible bluff! Even without your extra bits, you men are astounding. Speaking of which,” he said, nodding at Matt, “you should probably get some pants on before a Confederate boy sees you.”

Matt laughed and danced a little jig half-naked in the campground. Other soldiers backed away nervously.

The clothed Matt looked down at the naked Matt’s new torso and shook his head. “You completely lucky bastard.”

The four of them returned to Chillicothe where they were greeted with tears and hugs from the Matts’ mother Anne. They explained their deal with the witch to Maurice and Jeremiah.

“The witch didn’t say anything about anyone but us going to work for her, so I think the two of you should remain here while Matthew and I return to her. She’ll cast the second part of the spell and all four of us will become permanently fixed the way we are.” Matt-right had taken to wearing a brown hat with a white band around the perimeter so as to distinguish himself from his twin, Matt-left, and now referred to themselves as Matthew and Matt.

Maurice and Jeremiah looked at each other, silently questioning the wisdom of this plan, and Maurice said, “What if all four of us are required at this spell? What if our bodies suddenly fall apart when the second half is cast because we aren’t present?”

“I do not particularly trust this witch,” said Matthew. He, too, wore a hat, but it was white with a brown band around the edge. “Her house is made of bones, and it looks like a few more might be required to finish it. If she does, in fact, keep us as servants for the next two years, we will find out what we can, and if we find that she means to do us harm, we’re hoping you two might be available with your Springfields to set things right. But it may be there is no second part to the spell at all.”

Maurice and Jeremiah grudgingly agreed to the plan, and Matthew and Matt went off to see the witch.

The witch greeted them with a smile. The servants that were there before were gone, and the chimney looked a bit taller. Matt and Matthew shivered. “I’m so glad to see you boys made it back, and in two pieces!” Mildred said, “I wonder who the poor soul is you had to destroy to make yourselves whole?”

The Matts looked at each other but didn’t say a word, not wishing to accidentally reveal that Maurice and Jeremiah were their backup in case of betrayal from the wily witch. Mildred took their silence and askance glances at one another as evidence of their guilt, certain that they had used the spell on the first unfortunate they had come across. How could anyone resist such temptation?

“Here,” she said, “you boys will have to put on these woven green necklaces to assure your service to me for the next two years as your payment.”

“And when we’ve donned these necklaces, you will cast the second part of the spell?”

“That was the agreement, of course!”

Matt and Matthew took the green strands from her and hesitatingly fastened them around their own necks. Upon doing so, each found himself unable to move, rigid as a cat waiting at a gopher hole, though they could still speak.

“Ah, dear boys! Mine at last. Are you ready for the second part of the spell?”

Matt flicked his eyes sideways at Matthew, standing immobile. “And this will make us whole, forever?”

“Well,” Mildred started, then she cackled just like a witch might, sending chills down their paralyzed spines, “not exactly. You see that my bone chimney isn’t quite finished?”

They both glanced up as well as they could under the circumstances, and indeed, the chimney was a few bones short of a full crown.

“The two of you,” she continued, “have damned yourselves by the willing destruction of another soul to serve your own interests, and by doing so, have made yourselves the perfect building materials for the finishing touch to my mansion of death! And then, when it’s complete…!” her voice rose like a storm.

“Yes?” they said in unison, curious despite their predicament.

“…then I’ll get no more backdraft blowing smoke into my house. A half-finished chimney is like having no chimney at all.” She then raised her hands in the air, speaking dark and ancient words into the moist air, which swirled and condensed about her like a tornado built of angry ghosts. Her voice screamed through the grey maelstrom, and all of a sudden her skin was stripped from her body in a blaze of red mist. Her bones flew upward to the chimney’s top, where they settled solidly in place. The wind dissipated, the house rattled, then settled on its foundation, creaking like an old man.

Matt and Matthew found they could now move, and they took off the green necklaces. “Perhaps we should have mentioned that we didn’t actually murder anyone to get our new bodies,” Matt said.

“I think not,” Matthew replied. “Does bone burn very well?”

They left the swamp with a house-sized bonfire behind them. Nobody would be visiting the witch again.

They returned home and lived life as normally as one might expect in those days. Matt, Matthew, Maurice and Jeremiah, all were eventually married to loving wives, and as fate had already had its way with the four of them and was quite finished battering them about, they all had wonderfully normal and healthy children.




And, you might wonder, were they considered deserters, leaving the war before the South was defeated? Not at all. For Johnson had solemnly and formally filled out their medical discharges, stating; “It is well worth noting that Private Matthew Hershel lost a head during battle with the Confederate Soldiers, as did his brother, Matt Hershel. Both were fine fighters, and will be sorely missed. Private Jeremiah Townsend lost two legs during the battle, and is hereby medically discharged with full honors. Private Maurice Levant lost two arms during battle and is also hereby medically discharged with honors. The Abnormal Company has acquitted itself well in battle, and these four men are due all the respect and honor that our government can muster for them.”

Johnson, however, was still thoroughly and remarkably ugly, but you can’t always have gravy with your biscuits.

 

END

 

Tom Jolly asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

 

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