Bait – AJ Comsti

Plants told better stories than people.

            Virn liked to collect their tales like bugs in a jar. He’d often show them off to the village folk who came to Ma’s hut for her special remedies. Oh yes, the sap of the axebane tree would cure your bad illness. What now? You want the pretty girl from the village to fall in love with you? Hide an everknot vine under her bed. And what was that, you want your son to grow into a strong, handsome young man like Virn? Mix some pieces of palegrass in his food.

            But Virn wasn’t looking for any of those plants tonight. No, Ma had sent him out to find something far more special. A Moonveil Lily. This plant’s story was probably the weirdest one that Virn knew of. Ma told him its scent was so pleasant that even the dead rose to smell it. Sounded silly. But the plants never lied to him before, and if it was true, then… Virn took a deep breath. Well, he had to find the flower first. 

            The marsh was beautiful tonight. The pale light of a full moon reflected off the water, making the wetlands look as shiny as polished metal. A few lightning bugs danced in the moonbeams around the tall grasses, making Virn feel like he was walking through the stars above. Even the air itself felt more pure tonight. The mists had lifted and there was a faint wind that carried away the usual gross smells of the bog. Cattails and reeds swayed gently in the breeze, and Virn brushed his hands through them as he trudged past. 

The mud at the bottom of the marsh clung to his boots and trousers, begging him to stay and enjoy the view for a while, but he had to keep going. Moonveil Lilies could only be found under the light of a full moon, when their petals opened up to bask in the rays, so he couldn’t waste time tonight. Virn and his mother had been looking all over the swamp for a lily for months now, but had never been able to find one. There was only one more place to look: the heart of the swamp, where the land sank deeper into the water. It was a bit dangerous for Virn to go out here alone, but Ma had to do the rest of the work for the ritual at home. He could take care of himself out here better than some of the adult village folk could, anyway, having spent all thirteen years of his life in the marsh. And besides, Virn knew the middle of the swamp well. Pa used to take him out here to go fishing. 

            “See this?” Pa had said the first time he snuck Virn out here. He pointed at a fallen tree, a big old axebane that had fallen from some storm a long time ago. 

“Feel under the log,” Pa told him. “You’ll always find some critters to use as bait.”

“Gross!” Virn had laughed as Pa pulled out a handful of bugs.

            Pa winked and dangled a long worm in front of his face. “The grosser the bait, the better the catch, kiddo.” 

            It looked like the fallen tree was still there. Lightning bugs fluttered around the log, almost making it look like a beacon that let Virn know he made it. He hurried over, but the water level rose just as quickly. It started at his shins, but soon came up to his knees and thighs. It was like one last challenge before he’d be allowed into the heart of the swamp. Had it always been this deep? Maybe. Virn never knew; he always used to sit on Pa’s shoulders. 

            Virn fought through the now waist-high water until he was right next to the fallen tree. Over the years, the water seemed to have bled all the color out of the bark, leaving the gnarled wood grey and dull. The only hints of life on it were patches of moss and lichen. 

            “I’m here, Pa,” Virn whispered. He put a hand on the log, and flakes of bark cracked and fell away under his touch. How long had it been since he last came here? Two years? Three? Enough time for Virn to grow from a boy into a young man, at least. Enough time to understand that his father’s boat wasn’t just late on his way back from the village. And enough time for Virn to realize it was his fault Pa would never come back.

A tiny splash. Virn sniffed and wiped the wetness from his cheek. He looked down and saw the small ripples where his tear had fallen into the swamp. Virn stared at the water for a while, gazing into the murky depths. Were there still bugs down there? Or were they gone too?

Virn’s chest crushed itself as all too familiar emotions began to drown him. Regret. Loss. Loneliness. Virn cried out and without thinking threw himself down into the bog. The water rushed into his clothes, threatening to drag him under the marsh and drown him for real. It was cold. Virn gasped as another ghost of his past came to haunt him. The hazy memories of an illness that had kept him shaking in bed with terrible icy sweats for days and days. The dryness in his mouth, the constant spinning of his head.

Virn kept reaching, and the memory grew more vivid as he dove. Da had kissed Virn’s burning forehead and promised he’d find better medicine in town. Ma’s remedies weren’t working, so they had to try something else. 

“I’ll be back soon, alright?”

The last words Virn would hear from his father. 

Only Virn’s neck and head remained above the water as he fumbled about in the silt under the log. Eventually, his fingers wrapped around their prize. Virn stood up, shrugging off the weight of the wetlands, and opened his palm. Amid the mud, pebbles, and bits of seagrass was a gross, slimy worm.

            Virn stared at it for a while, watching it writhe and twist in his hand as he caught his breath. He expected to feel satisfied, happy even that Pa’s advice was still good after all this time, but looking at his catch, he just felt… hollow. Empty. All that trouble for this pathetic worm. Nothing more than just a few inches of pale pink flesh, covered in mud and refuse. Virn almost laughed. By the spirits, what was he doing? He was wasting time. He hadn’t come out here to chase memories. Virn shook his head and put the worm in his pocket. He’d feed it to Ma’s bird at home. But for now, he had to find that Moonveil Lily. 

            Virn grabbed the log once more and pulled himself up onto it. Thankfully, it didn’t break under his weight. He shivered and wrung some water out of his clothes, then started to scan the heart of the swamp. It looked mostly the same as everywhere else around here, except the water was darker and the trees bigger. Their twisted trunks bent this way and that, and their roots stuck out of the water in little arches. There were a few small islands in the water between them covered with overgrown patches of weeds, but no Moonveil Lilies.

            Virn looked upward. Ma said the flowers opened up to bask in the moonlight. So he just had to follow the moon, right? He traced its pale light as it came down from the skies, filtered through the branches of the everknot trees, and hit the surface of the swamp. Most of the time, it touched down on the water. But there was one ray of moonlight that perfectly illuminated a small island just a little ways away.

            Virn hopped off the log and back into the marsh with a splash. The bugs flying nearby buzzed off in fear as he rushed forward. Come on, there had to be a lily there. The loose, wet bottom of the marsh soon hardened out into dry land. He scrambled up the edge of the island, then flopped down among the weeds. And in the middle of them all, he saw it.

            A white flower so bright it was nearly glowing, as if a chunk of the full moon had fallen to the earth. It had six delicate petals, each one with a wide round base that tapered to a thin triangular point. Little golden bulbs protruded from the center, the sun to the petals’ moon, that danced in the gentle night time breeze. And by the spirits, the smell. Virn knelt down reverently and put his face next to the Moonveil Lily. It smelled like… like perfection. It was so strong his mouth and eyes alike began to water and his nose became runny, as if to free up more space to smell more of the intoxicating aroma. As Virn breathed more of it in, he almost recognized something. Was that… cooked fish? Almost like something Da used to make? 

No, he was just imagining things. But this flower was real. He’d finally found one.

            Virn kept his eyes locked on the lily as he reached for his waist, where the small glass jar Ma had given him was strapped to. He felt like if he dared look away, if he even blinked, the lily would disappear. He freed the jar, then set it on the ground beside the flower. The dusty browned glass was nowhere near worthy enough of a container for this beautiful specimen, but he had nothing else. Virn carefully stuck his fingers into the dirt beside the lily, then with shaking hands, grabbed the base of the stem and lifted.

            The lily came out of the ground with ease. The dirt crumbled away and Virn lowered the flower into the container. The light bouncing off the petals reflected again inside the jar, almost making it glow like a lantern. He locked the lid on tight, then started to hook it back onto his belt. Actually, on second thought, he didn’t want it to fall underwater at any point. So Virn took it off and cradled it in his arms instead.

            He held the jar above his head as he slid off the island and back into the water. The mud tried even harder to hold him in place, to prevent him from stealing away with its precious lily, but Virn was determined. He tore his boots out of the muck with each step and practically sprinted his way out of the heart of the swamp with his prize. He turned back only once to get another glimpse at the fallen log. Its branches sticking above the water seemed to wave him goodbye as he rushed east, towards home.

            Virn’s feet eventually stopped splashing through water and instead began thudding on wet, muddy earth. He was back at the edge of the swamp now, closer to civilization. Even still, he kept the jar above his head. What if the tie slipped and the jar fell? No, he could only trust his own two hands. Virn’s arms burned in protest, but he ran and ran down the pitiful dirt path they called a road until he saw his home.

            It wasn’t much. Just a small wooden cube raised on stilts for when the rains made the wetlands flood over. A ladder hung from the side closest to Virn that led to a tiny platform that could maybe be called a balcony. Virn hugged the Moonveil Lily close to his chest with one arm, then started climbing with the other. The roughly cut wood was easy to grip, even with his wet hand, and he soon clambered over the top. He scrambled to his feet, then pushed open the door in front of him and stepped inside. 

For how small the building was, they really stuffed everything they could inside of it. Almost all of the space was full of some kind of furniture or storage. The walls were lined with shelves so full of jars and pots of plants and bugs and other oddities that the wood was warping in the middle from the weight. The big table in the middle of the room wasn’t much better, as it was home to the big books of apothecary and botany knowledge Ma used to make her mixtures. The far back corner of the room had their beds, a pair of woven cots made from reeds and other thin, fibrous plants from the swamp. A small cage hung next to Ma’s where her pet raven was fluttering inside. It squawked and flapped its wings in greetings as Virn walked into the room. He waved the bird hello, then turned to face the opposite corner. There was a small stone circle there that they used as a fire pit to cook their meals. A small flame was burning right now, over which hung a large pot. 

            Ma was hunched over the cauldron muttering to herself and tossing items into the mix before stirring with a large ladle. Her short, almost boyish hair was frizzled from the humidity and she was wearing only a thin overshirt and trousers. Sweat caked the fabric to her skin, revealing a skinny, near skeletal frame. Virn’s stomach growled just looking at her. Making potions and herbal remedies for the villagers didn’t quite bring in enough money for them to fill their bellies. Da’s fishing rounded out their meals before, but Virn wasn’t as good at catching fish as he had been.

But after tonight, maybe that wouldn’t matter. 

            “Ma!” Virn rushed into the room and set the jar with the Moonveil Lily down on the table. “Look! I got it.”

            Ma looked up, and when she saw the lily, her tired eyes bugged out of their sunken sockets. “Virn, you did it!” She squeezed past the pot and threw herself at her son. Virn hugged her tight, breathing in the varied smells from the rest of the ritual mixture. 

            Ma pulled back and wiped at her now wet eyes. “Thank the spirits. We’ve been trying for so long that I…” Her voice cracked and Virn squeezed her hands.

“It’s ok, Ma,” he said. “Come on. Let’s see Da.” 

            Ma planted a kiss on his forehead, then stared off into the distance. Her gaze became misty and under her breath, she whispered, “We’ll see you soon, Tani.” 

            She shook herself back to the present and walked over to the center table. “We’ve never gotten this far before. Let me check my notes to make sure we do this right.” 

            As if she needed to. Virn would bet Ma could do this summoning in her sleep. Every day since they realized Da was gone, they read the ritual over and over until it was committed to memory. Every month, when the moon was full, Ma would prepare the first steps while Virn went out to search for the Moonveil. And every time, they had to throw out the mixture because he couldn’t find it. 

But not tonight.

            Virn peeked from behind Ma as she picked up one of the biggest books on the table, an old, withered thing that looked like the swamp had vomited it up. The cover was covered in stains and tears, pages were sticking out of the insides at odd angles, and it smelled distinctly of rot. After just a few seconds of muscle memory-guided searching, Ma found it. The Rite of Awakening. 

            “Prepare the first half of the potion, yes, yes. But where… aha!” Ma set the book down and grabbed the Moonveil Lily. “Take out the lily and grind the petals to a pulp. Then, add it to the pot and stir thoroughly while the flame is still burning.” 

            As she was speaking, Virn rummaged through the box where they kept potion making supplies and grabbed a pestle and mortar. Without looking up from the book, Ma opened the jar to the Moonveil Lily. As soon as the lid tipped open, Virn saw her wrinkle her nose. Her mouth fell open slightly and she finally tore her eyes away from the page to look at the flower. 

            “Spirits, they weren’t kidding about the smell, were they?” She shook her head and handed the flower over to Virn. “In it goes. Grind carefully, Virn. Just the petals.” 

            Virn gingerly took the lily from her hands. He put his fingers around the base of the flower, but that’s as far as he got. His arm felt frozen in place. Could he really destroy something so beautiful? The thought vanished almost as quickly as it came. This is for Da. Of course he could. 

With a sharp twist, Virn pulled the roots and stem off the flower, then lowered the petals into the stone bowl. He slammed the pestle down with no hesitation and began grinding. Surprisingly, the glow from the petals grew even brighter with each strike, as if every time one broke open, it was releasing moonlight back into the air. 

            “That’s good enough,” Ma said after a while. She took the mortar from Virn, then used her fingers to scrape all of the glowing pulp into the pot. When it hit the surface of the liquid, it sizzled, but stayed floating on top. Ma took her big ladle and started mixing, turning the splash of silver into a wide spiral which soon diffused through the whole pot until it was a vat of glowing liquid. It was almost like daytime in the house now, with how bright it was. The potion even outshone the flame beneath it, smothering the orange and red light with its luminous white aura. 

Ma gestured to Virn with her head without moving her eyes from the potion. “Hold me a cup, would you?”

Virn grabbed one from nearby and extended it out over the side of the pot. Ma lifted the ladle and gently poured out the silver potion. Once the cup was full, Ma set down the ladle and held out her hand. Virn handed it over.

She stood there staring at the potion for a while. Her knuckles were white and tense as they clamped around the cup. 

“Virn, if this goes wrong, I need you to run, okay?” Ma said quietly. “Go to the village. Find someone to protect you.” 

Virn suddenly felt like he was back in the marsh, frozen to the bone in the water, up to his neck about to drown. “What do you mean, wrong?” He nearly choked on the words as they left his mouth. 

“We haven’t done this ritual before. No one has, not for a long time. There’s a chance it doesn’t work…” Ma took a deep breath. “Or a chance it works too well.” 

Her hand started shaking as she continued, “I noticed this summoning lacks details. No way to reach out to Tani, your father, over anyone else besides calling for him directly. It might work, but if not, then who knows what spirits could come for us?” 

Virn wrapped his hand around Ma’s, steadying the cup and her trembling. “It will work, Ma. Da is coming, just wait.”

Ma exhaled. “Alright. But just be ready, okay?” 

She lifted the cup to her lips. “Once I drink this, my voice will be able to pierce the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead. If his spirit is still here, Tani will be able to hear my call, and it should empower him to manifest and show himself to us.” 

Just the idea of that made Virn nearly tear up again. He swallowed a cry, then nodded. “Let’s bring him home, Ma.”

Virn’s mother smiled, then slowly downed the potion. Virn held his breath as she drank. When she was finally done, Ma set the cup down and closed her eyes. 

“Tani, son of Lenal, show yourself.” 

            Ma’s voice wasn’t her own. It echoed like she was in some empty cave, and each word sent needles down Virn’s spine. Goosebumps raised along his skin and all of his hairs shot up. Around him, the air changed too, as if a storm was forming overhead. Virn’s ears started popping from a drop in pressure, and mist started to form and curl up from the floor.

“Tani, father of Virn, husband to Avria, show yourself.” 

            Her voice seemed to pull the mist up off the ground. The clouds began to form into small columns, like little tornados, at her call. One formed right next to Virn. Another across the room, by Ma’s raven. A third by the front door. All the while, the air grew colder and colder. Virn’s joints started to ache and he could see his breath fog in the air in front of his face. The fire under the pot sputtered and died out.

“There’s a lot of those,” Virn said, taking a few nervous steps away from the mist nearest to him. 

Ma’s eyes nervously flitted back and forth at the shapes, but kept going with the summoning. “Tani, show yourself!” 

            Another drop in temperature, and with it, more mist. The existing columns started to condense into something resembling people. Virn gasped. Spirits. He watched in a mix of fear and awe as the foggy figure nearest to him sprouted arms, legs, and even a head. It had no distinct features other than its limbs, but it was unmistakably human. 

            The spirit reached out an arm and took a shaky step forward towards Ma. The others did the same from across the room and started stumbling over to her. That broke Virn out of his frozen shock. He cried out and tried to grab the nearest spirit to stop it, but he passed straight through the mist making up its arm. His hand came out tingling, as if it had fallen asleep.

Virn hissed in pain and grabbed his hand. He couldn’t feel it. “Ma!” 

Her head whipped towards her son. Ma’s eyes were wide with fear, and for the first time since drinking the potion, her real voice rang out. “Run!” 

            The first of the spirits reached Ma. She screamed as it grabbed her arm and the mist wrapped around her wrist like a cloudy manacle. Her cup clattered to the floor. The other spirits meanwhile lumbered closer, groping for her with their misted arms. They walked with more confidence now, and were even phasing straight through furniture to cross the room. 

            Virn’s heart slammed against his chest. He tried to shout, but his voice was trapped behind clenched teeth. No, no! He whirled around and started looking for something, anything. But what could help? The spirits couldn’t be touched. They were moving through solid objects. They only seemed to react to Ma’s voice, and that was only because of the potion. If Virn tried, who knows what would happen? More spirits could show up and tear him apart. He scoured the room, knocking over books, jars, plants, even reached into his pocket but–


            Virn dove back into his pocket and pulled out the one thing he had in it. The worm from the swamp. Ma said the potion, the summoning ritual didn’t have anything to call to Da specifically. But maybe… 

            Ma screamed again. She’d ripped her arm free from the spirit, but had herself trapped in a corner now. The others were closing in. 

            No time to think. Just do! Virn closed his hand around the worm and threw himself down onto the ground. The cup, where? He scrambled around, knocking over everything. No, no… there! He snatched the cup Ma had dropped, then bolted over to the pot. There was still enough potion left. He dropped the worm in and it disappeared under the glowing white liquid. 

            “Sorry,” Virn muttered. He snatched the discarded ladle and started stirring. Was it his imagination, or did the potion change? Take on more of a glow? 

            He didn’t care. He just had to try. Virn lifted the ladle up and filled the cup again. He turned around. Ma was backed up even further now. She’d climbed up onto a shelf and was just feet away from the spirits.

            Virn threw his head back and downed the potion. Despite the smell of the Moonveil Lily, it didn’t taste like anything. There was just a cold, freezing sensation that traveled down into his stomach. The feeling lingered in his throat even as it passed through, and his neck started to tingle as if he’d touched a spirit again. 

“Da, help us!” 

            Virn’s voice boomed across the room, echoing with the same power Ma’s had. His breath came out in a foggy cloud that floated to the ground and merged with the mists. They began to thicken and swirl again. 

            The spirits approaching Ma stopped and turned to look at Virn with their faceless heads. He shuddered and took a step back. 

            “Da, please,” Virn pleaded. “Come back to us.” He didn’t bother with the whole ritual summoning Ma did. He didn’t need to. His voice was full of power already, power from all of the months and months of longing, all of the guilt and all the hurt. Power released from a broken heart and a broken son. And damn it, that had to be enough to bring Da back. He had to be enough. 

            The spirits turned back toward Ma. She screamed and yelled “Run!” again before one of the spirits reached for her.

            But then, the mist on the ground shot up. A fourth column burst from the clouds and planted itself right between Ma and the three spirits. They stumbled back, and their limbs started to fade away and lose definition. As they did, the new spirit grew them, and with even more clarity than any of the others. First came arms. Arms that looked like the ones that had held Virn as a child, that played with him and hugged him close. Then legs, the legs that carried him through the swamp and ran with him on the fields. And a head. A head with long, shoulder length hair, a big flat nose, and a smile that Virn could see even in the mist.

            The spirit of Tani held his arms out, and the other three spirits stepped back. They looked at each other, then suddenly dematerialized back into formless mist. Their clouds fell back to the ground and dispersed, seeping through the wooden boards and back out into the world. The air warmed up ever so slightly, and the room became clear again.

“Tani?” Ma whispered. She fell to her knees and reached a hand out for her husband. 

            The spirit knelt with her. “It’s me, my dear.” The misty form’s face didn’t move, and they didn’t quite hear him through their ears. It was like he was speaking directly into their minds, like a second consciousness in Virn’s head.  

“Da,” Virn croaked. The potion had worn off, and he was back to his normal voice. 

Tani turned around and looked at his son. “Virn, you’ve grown so much, kiddo.” 

            “Da, I’m sorry.” The words started tumbling out of his mouth, and once he started, Virn couldn’t stop. “It’s my fault you had to go all the way out to the village. If I hadn’t stayed out so long I wouldn’t have gotten sick, and you wouldn’t have… have…” 

            He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Even with the literal ghost of his father standing before him, Virn couldn’t say that he was gone.

            “Virn, you can’t blame yourself for being a child,” Tani said gently. “There’s no blame to be had. If the spirits were calling me and said it was my time, it would have been my time even if you hadn’t been sick.” 

“But, but-”

            Tani held up a hand. “Virn, I love you. I always have, and always will. You have Avria, your mother here, still. I need you to be strong for her too, all right, kiddo?”

Virn swallowed a sob. “I can’t do it without you, Da. I can’t even feed us like you did.”

            Tani looked over at the potion making pot. “Well, you still know how to catch bait. You’ll get better, I promise. You’ll be fine. And I’ll be watching over you.”

            He turned back to face Ma and reached out with an arm. He cupped her face from a distance, making sure not to have his mist touch her skin.

“Avria, my dear, we will see each other again. Take care of Virn, would you?” 

            Ma nodded and wiped away her tears. “I’m going to drag you back here every month, you know that right?” 

            The misty form shook, and Virn’s head filled with the memory of Da’s laughter. Rich and hearty as a home cooked meal, but with a hint of sadness. 

“It’s dangerous for spirits to make the crossing,” Tani said. “We’re not meant to be here. It was hard enough for me to manifest as is, and I don’t have much time left.”

            As if on cue, his limbs began to fade as the others’ had. The details of his face disappeared, leaving a faceless, formless head. The hand cupped near Ma’s face vanished too.

“I may not be able to come back again, but know I’m at peace. Especially now that I have seen my loves one more time.” 

More of the mist vanished. Tani’s voice was fainter now, and Virn could barely make it out over his own thoughts.

“I will always be with you, even if I’m not here like this. Always… here…” 

The last of the mist faded away. The temperature rose again and the clouds fled from the warmth. Just like that, Da was gone again.

Virn broke first. He sobbed and fell to the ground. Ma started crying seconds after. She made her way over to Virn and wrapped her arms around her son.

“He was here,” Virn whispered. “He was really here.”

Ma nodded stiffly. “And he always will be.”

She pulled him even tighter to her, and Virn buried his face in her arms. And maybe, just maybe, as the last of the mists were fading away in the rising sun, he felt another pair of hands around them too.