The Coven
Possible Beginnings (to the Novel I will Likely Never Write)

The "Linguistics Professor"

There was nothing wrong with the hull of the boat that a ball-peen hammer to bang out the dents and a fresh coat of primer wouldn’t fix. Clearly it had featured an outboard motor of some sort at one time. Mangled remnants of the mounting bracket still dangled from the stern, but the vessel’s current skipper now piloted it with a single long oar, like a gondolier.

He wore a much-faded gray-blue suit, possibly a uniform, the pants of which were torn off at the knees and the jacket of which was essentially sleeveless, but a long, official looking, golden chain still looped from his belt to his back pocket. His mustache was large, but not entirely unkempt. His skin was raw red from the sun. This man had clearly known better days within a wider civilization. Even so, when he joined the conversation his tone was cheerful, even avuncular:

“Little known fact. The world ‘tailgate’ in its current usage is misspelled and mis-derived. Of course, back when such doings were permitted, the word was redefined to mean a social event held on and around the open rear gate of a vehicle, often at large sporting events, most especially football, but what very few people besides dedicated experts such as myself understand is that the first word of the compound is more accurately spelled ‘t-a-l-e’, as in a type of story. The ‘talegate’ was an ancient, quasi-mystical tradition, in which our forbears’ forbears believed that if enough of the right sorts of souls gathered in a circle, a particular portal would open, allowing stories to pour forth from the realm of the gods and the giants.

“I believe it is still possible to open such a gate, right here, right now, on this very lake, at this very hour, palpably witching as it is. And if you all will oblige me, I’d like very much to deliver the first offering.”

He smiled and his passengers – two couples and a single man – stared back at him. There is something sacred about the moment between the offering of the tale and its delivery, a caesura so immense that any true tale-taller almost finds himself regretting the violation of that silence. Therein lies the courage of tale-telling. Not so much, not even, the particulars of the tale to be told: the who did what to whom. And why. And how. Especially how. No. The bravery is in believing there is something better, something more beautiful than the anticipation you are replacing.


He froze. He peeked warily at the quintet before him: a little old man and little old lady swaddled in colorful windproof and waterproof pastels, a younger couple – also man and woman – though in darker, more weather-agnostic charcoal jeans and black fleece anoraks – and a single man who looked more like the skipper than he cared to admit.

And that’s where the buzzing was coming from. He looked down at the man: a short, spindly looking individual, a face that was all nose, cheeks, and chin, blue black peacoat, and a battered Navy blue Greek sailor’s cap tugged down to cover all but the final line of furrows in the man’s brow.

“Your pardon, sir,” the skipper began. “I didn’t quite catch–“

“I said, ‘ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ’. As in ‘God-ZZZ’,” the man replied.

“God-zzz?” the skipper asked. His mind raced, then, like a face full of briny sea breeze it hit him. “Gods. Gods! You mean ‘Gods’? Yes, the plural! Of course!” The joy that accompanied both his understanding of the strange man’s mumbling – and the likelihood that he would be able to get on with his tale-telling - could not have been more profound. “Indeed gods and giants!” the skipper said, almost shouting in affirmation. “Gods and giants!”

The man seemed not to share his enthusiasm. “Mmmm, hmmm,” he muttered, eyeing the boat’s pilot with that strange affect of raising his head while casting his eyes lower. “Well, I wonder … if you don’t mind me asking: just how many god-zzz you got in that tale of yours you fixin’ to tell?”

He looked at the man, who was measuring him with a half-lidded intensity that almost made him drop his grip on the oar. There are some folks who like to get a rise out of tale-tellers, like hecklers at a comedy club, and the skipper had his fair share in all his years of dragging bored couples and lonely men in long looping circles around the lake just about every weekend between Mother’s Day and the Autumn Equinox. That much comes with the territory.

And it just so happened that the tale he’d planned on telling today was a relatively simple affair involving more than a few giants, but really, only one god, as such. He scanned the plot of his story quickly to be sure: giants, yes. Loads of them. But only one god.

The man was still measuring him. The skipper thought he saw a slight tug at the corner of the man’s mouth, a twitch, a put-on! The skipper raised his eyebrows, ready to pounce with good-spirited laughter as his strange interrogator made his bluff known. “I was just pulling your leg, cap’n,” he imagined the man would shout with bright eyes and a broad toothy smile, slapping his knee while everyone, even the Charcoal Twins, laughed uproariously. HOW MANY GODS YOU GOT MISTER? HA! HA! HA!

But the man wasn’t laughing. The skipper smiled nervously back at the man whose mouth, while moving slightly, had yet to break into a smile, or a grin, or anything. He watched the man’s lips move in a flat, masticating oval hard once, twice, three times before launching a stream of mud-colored saliva into the salty air and over the side of the boat, vanishing into the thick blue that surrounded them as if it had never existed in the first place.

The captain drew himself up, finally recognizing the power of the adversary before him. He’d known men like this before, people with one sense of life and to hell with everybody else’s. People with a sense of surety so damn sure that they have no issue with telling a man who’d lived his whole live one way that it was time to live in another. Or worse, that the life he’d been living up to that moment was a lie, some fiction, and that he, some stranger from a strange place, was here to tell the true tale.

Sure, the tale he’d spent the past week memorizing had only one deity, to speak of, so to speak. But he’d be damned if he wasn’t tempted—if he didn’t more than halfway believe that maybe a point should be made. If not about tolerance, per se. Then at least about the liberty of a man – even a hired man – to tell the tale of his choice on his own boat.

In fact, it was all it took for him not to call upon another tale. Ah, dear sir, how many gods – god-ZZZ – in my tale, you ask? Do you mean the tale of the Quarrelling Gods – the seven gods! All brothers. Prettier than princesses and all meaner than a kick in the shorts? That enough gods, for you? Hadn’t planned on sharing that one but, given your concern about the number of god-ZZZ, as you say...

Or maybe the tale of the Weeping Gods? Only four gods in that tear-jerker, a quartet of celestial sad sacks lamenting all of Creation and their own increasingly tragic efforts at constructive intervention? Ha! What? Would You Think? About That?

The man was still regarding him, patiently as a poll-taker. The skipper offered a quick smile, realized immediately that his attempt at bait had backfired, and while the man continued to look impassively back at him, the would-be tale-teller felt himself shrink behind his outsized grin, a grimace of fake joy he couldn’t make fade fast enough.

Behind the man the skipper saw the undulating blue-grey green lake surface, flecked and frosted with wisps of spray and foam. Against the dark shifts of water, he could make out a black branch, a pair of branches, no, the arms, the arms of a man in the water. Splashing. Not drowning, but splashing. And screaming. Screaming at him. He heard laughter. The little old man and little old lady in the pastel-colored wind and waterproof gear converging on him, laughing and clapping their hands, pointing in the direction of the man in the water. Now the young couple was on their feet as well! They too were laughing at the man in the water. They’d hardly said a thing to anyone at all since they climbed on board. But now look them! Laughing at the man in the water.

Now they were patting him on the back, as well, and congratulating him. The skipper felt his cheeks broadening against his will as modesty overcame him. There was a voice in his ear, raspy, but clear as black ink on white paper: “You showed him what’s what!”

He heard a splash. Felt his eyes click into focus with a scratch that told him instantly that he’d been staring at nothing for too long. Some forty yards starboard, a woman was bobbing in the water, alternately clearing her eyes and paddling her arms in an absentminded-looking, but apparently very effective for floating fashion. She was laughing uproariously at a group of people in a nearby vessel who seemed alternately amused and terrified that she was not on board.

“Karen! For fuck’s sake! Will you get back in the boat?” he heard, then saw, a woman in a floppy hat and pair of sunglasses, shouting from the swaying sea craft. Two other women stood next to her on the deck. One waving. One shouting. Both in the same combination of hip-to-neck nylon and terry cloth swimwear as the woman who was both waving and shouting at “Karen.” All three were almost stereotypically local, he thought, watching them huddled on the deck: a little wide at the hip and narrow at the shoulder, middle-aged, skin white as pickling salt.

He looked back at the passengers in his own boat. The little old man and the little old woman – even the young man and woman in the technology costumes – were looking at him. He began to realize with a swiftly gathering remorse that they weren’t applauding any more – if they ever were. And they weren’t patting him on the back, either. Like his strange interrogator, who was very much not in the water, where the skipper – for a not-so-fleeting moment – had imagined tossing him. They were looking squarely at him and waiting for him to speak.

He looked back to the nearby boat. Karen was onboard now, a trio of women who looked too alike to be related surrounding her. The skipper watched as Karen endured their ribbing for a moment, then suddenly hit a full, double bicep pose in response. The women exploded in laughter. One of their party snuck up behind Karen with a cartoony, exaggerated tip-toe, grabbed her around the torso from behind, and hoisted her off her feet, carrying her toward the side of the boat. An explosion of shriek-laughter arched across the lake as Karen slipped from her shipmate’s grasp and began chasing the other women around the deck with the threat of her own soaking wet embrace in return.

The skipper regarded his passengers. He wasn’t in the trouble-making business. He was in the tale-telling business and, at least until the end of the weekend, the boat-piloting business as well. If there’s only one god in the story, then there’s no reason to just add in an extra god or switch to another tale just to prove a point. He looked into the face of his strange interrogator, the man’s eyes black and tiny beneath eyebrows that looked as if they once had a life of their own. “Rest assured, my friend!” the skipper shouted, “only one god in this tale. Only one! Indeed!”

The man nodded and looked away, punishing the shimmering grey blue water with his half-lidded stare. The old people were no longer paying attention. The skipper wasn’t sure, now that he thought about it, if the charcoal-colored kids ever really were.

“One god, indeed, my friend,” the boat’s pilot muttered to himself, steering the boat toward the deeper water near the lake’s center. “But many manifestations. Many, many manifestations.”



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