Caleb Warner

A Taste of the Number 15

Shamrock, Indiana
1934

Jacob Blake’s Daddy, the greatest Shine maker in the whole Midwest, often told stories about the old wood spirits that roamed the Blake acreage. They weren’t mean as long as they had their drink. Old ghosts like a strong drink, better than most livin’ men, Daddy had told Jacob once. Daddy loved his stories, but he loved one especially, told it to Jacob only once, but he knew it was Daddy’s favorite.
      “This was before you were even moon dust. I was making my haul, from Turtlerock Cabin,” the story had begun. Daddy told it sitting on a stump next to one of the copper stills. “Course it wasn’t Turtlerock then, and this cabin was nothing more than a few pieces of canvas, strung up to keep the weather off the still. Anyway, I was making my last run from here up to the farmhouse. I should mention that it was night. I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again, the best time to make moonshine is when the gawdamn moon is shining. Your Grampa never did get that.
      “And boy was the moon shining that night. I carried that crate of shine without a torch or nothin’. Could see a good hundred yards. Now I’ve told you ‘bout them spirits before, the way they kind of push and pull and tug when you’re walking the trails. Well this night, I could see em! Their eyes, gold and red, peaking out at me like a coon’s might, but these eyes floated in the air. Like I said, the moon was bright. I could see that there was no raccoon with them eyes. No possum neither. Just eyes, and little black tentacles that moved like smoke.
      “Then I saw the lights. A glow from up over Widowmaker’s Hill. Now that’s on opposite side of the ravine from the farmhouse, but I went anyway. Clumb that horrible hill to see them lights and get away from the tentacles. My first thought was ‘Intruders, I need to go chase em off’, but as I got closer to the lights I started feeling less mean, like everything was going to be okay. Peaceable I think would be the best way to describe it.
      “And at the top of the hill there they were. The woods spirits, walking around on two legs. Some looked like real people even, carrying lanterns and pushing box carts full of clay and glass jars. Others looked stranger, like bad imitations of people. Too many arms here, not enough legs there. Eight eyes. Six faces. It was enough to creep a man right out, but like I said I was feeling peaceable.
      “They were laughing happy, most of em red-faced drunk. I could tell that much. That was the place, Jacob, where your Daddy had the best Shine of his life. I drank with the woods spirits, and the shine they drank was something from the moon herself I swear to the almighty God, and it takes a hell of a drink to make me blaspheme. That stuff was so good I must a drunk damn near all of it. I been trying to make our brew taste like that ever since. No shine has ever tasted as good. I’m afraid I’ll die before I taste anything like that again.”
      Jacob thought that the story a load of manure, until the day he spilt some of the shine in a creek bed and the glow led him to the very same lights in the forest. It hadn’t been normal shine he’d spilt neither. This was it, the best stuff to ever come out of the Blake woods. Any closer to perfect and it would have evaporated. And Jacob had brewed it. This time he would take his work to Daddy, and Daddy would get the far off look in his eyes again, the same way he looked when telling the story about the spirit night, and he would clap Jacob on the shoulder and smile.
      That’s all Jacob wanted really, a smile. Everything on the Blake acreage turned to frowns and sorrow after Daddy’s fall in ‘32. Daddy broke a leg tumbling off the roof of Turtlerock cabin, and in recovery he caught pneumonia. Then ‘33 came along and people suddenly could get all the liquor they wanted. Shamrock didn’t need its shine anymore. Daddy hadn’t walked, breathed right, or brewed shine since.
      Jacob had done it, though, he had brewed it. He was sure this would be the stuff that reminded Daddy of his story, of better years, of the liquor that he swore tasted like the moon’s light. It wouldn’t save Daddy’s life, it wouldn’t resurrect a dead business, but it might make the last few months, or weeks, worth living for father and son.
And now Jacob watched it dribble out into the creek through a cracked glass. There had only been one jar’s worth of the stuff.
      “Dammit,” Jacob cursed, “no no no.” He yanked the bottle up out of the creek. He had tripped, something had snagged at his ankle, and when he looked back to see what it was, nothing was in the trail. It was night, and the moon shined full. Jacob could see well enough.
      Pulling a bandanna out of his back pocket, Jacob plugged the hole in the mason jar. He’d just been lucky it hadn’t shattered. Out of his other pocket he pulled out a little roll of duct tape and administered a battlefield bandage. The leaking stopped.
      Jacob tried to relax his shoulders. His body felt physically weighed down by what seemed like a life held together with old duct tape, like the jar, like the still at Turtlerock, like everything else.
      “Can’t just be me,” he whispered, and then “fuck it.” Jacob unscrewed the cap of his one jar of moonshine and had him a sip. He had earned it, and there was still half a jar left.
      That was when he knew it was perfect. In that moment. In past batches, Jacob would bring the test bottle up to his Daddy. Never had Jacob had a taste before his daddy, until this night.
      Jacob’s vision blurred. The night colors of the forest turned purple for a half a second. “Gawdamn.” Jacob wiped his lips, and, looking down, nearly pissed himself.
The creek water at his feet glowed silver and white. Jacob replaced the cap to the jar. He knew he wasn’t drunk when the silver ebbed away from his feet, creek returning to the black color it was before. The silver traveled down the stream only a little slower than the creek water itself.
      Out of instinct more than thought, Jacob followed the disappearing silvery glow. He galloped through dirty creek water, winding and turning with the flow of the earth. Cut through the ravine bottom until the stream crossed the trail again. The silver fell away out of sight, and Jacob stood on the trail, heaving heavy breath.
He stood at the bottom of Widowmaker’s Hill. Jacob saw a golden glow creeping through the summer tree tops. He climbed Widowmaker’s Hill, and at the top he found a festival of drinking and lights.
      Men carried paper lanterns, marching down a trail in front of Jacob. Others pushed carts full of sloshing jugs that sang throaty songs. Jacob walked among them, Mason jar clutched to his chest, feeling anxious and happy at the same time. Anxious because he was wondering if he had busted his head when he fell and was either in a coma or hallucinating, happy because . . . well the light and the red smiling faces of the men around him just made him happy, like a warm church where no eyes judge, or seeing a group of friends around the campfire after coming back from a cold morning’s hunt. It was all those feelings and none because it was nothing like Jacob had ever felt before. Peaceable was the best way to describe it.
      Jacob walked over to where a group of men beneath an ash tree crouched over an open book, pointing at a diagram with green twigs. He continued, observing others that sat around fires burning in barrels, roasting potatoes and foreign meats on spits. Some men sung songs in indistinguishable voices. And faces, some strange, others painfully normal, blended together. A single, sharp voice drew Jacob back to some semblance of reality, stopped his steps.
      “You have a jar of the shine, boy?” A man called. He sat cross-legged on a square of green carpet, jars and boxes surrounding him. He pointed a wiry walking stick right at Jacob. His skin was dark, but his eyes were a blue so bright they almost looked silver.
      Jacob walked up to him, unsure that his voice would work when he tried to speak. “Um, what?”
      “That jar! You got the shine? What’ll you trade for it?”
      “Trade?”
      The man smacked Jacob’s shin. It didn’t hurt, but Jacob took the hint and went to sit cross legged across from the man. “Trade,” the man repeated, “I got all kinds of writings on the Moon Tree. You look like one of the understudies.”
      “I don’t—” Before Jacob could say another word, another voice spoke up from behind.
      “Cutting raw deals, Raz?”
Another man stepped between the trading man and Jacob. Tall with thinning white hair and a grey trench coat, he would have been non-descript, if not for the 8 bright green, pupilless eyes on his pale face.
      “Ah death to your kind, Leif. Now what do you want kid? The night is almost as old as me at this point.”
      “I don’t recognize you,” Leif said, ignoring Raz.
      “I’m…” Jacob swallowed “new.”
      “Hey!” said Raz. “I’m in the middle of a transaction here!”
      Leif continued to stare at Jacob. “New? That’s probably why Raz singled you out.” His mouth was lined with sharp little teeth that gleamed as he talked. “Have you had a sacrifice yet?”
      “I just got here,” Jacob said.
      “New ones are required to make sacrifices now. Keeps the Shine flowing. She won’t take it all don’t worry.”
      “Death to you and your kind,” Raz repeated, but he was smiling, barked out a laugh, “Don’t show em too many of the ropes there!” Raz winked at Jacob, “Lest you get rope burn, eh?”
      Jacob clutched at the bottle at his chest even harder. Leif led him away from Raz with a gentle push, moving him towards the center of camp. In silence they walked past more men on blankets, men with whole stalls set up in front of tents, and tables upon tables of people eating and drinking. Through all this Leif kept a hand on Jacob’s shoulder, the touch light but Jacob felt every command through the twitch of fingers.
      Leif spoke as he led Jacob through the winding masses of tents and spirits that blended together, “We like to keep things easy-going in camp. Everyone needs something here, so no need to be uptight about it. I been here the longest, so they kind of leave it to me to usher the new ones around and help keep the black away.”
      “The black?” Leif’s fingers pushed him around a group of card players hunched over a mass of shaggy carpet rolled out onto the dirt.
      “The trees teach less every year, I guess,” Leif sighed. “How much do you know about any of this? Have they told you what you are?”
Jacob couldn’t think of anything to say.
      Leif sighed again, but his exasperation didn’t feel pointed at Jacob. “You just got the Shine and was put on your way, huh?”
      Now Jacob nodded. This all felt like lying, but what did the truth offer here? Teeth, gleaming sharp teeth, and a thousand gangly looking demon things bearing down on you.
      “The sun, and to a lesser extent the moon, make the trees, and the trees make the folk. That’s the simple of it anyway. It’s more complicated than that. It has to do with the transfer of light through the sky and roots. See those around that scroll over there?” Leif tapped Jacob under the chin, moving his head in the proper direction. “Those are the folk that study the light particles and the refractory places that exist outside of this one where different folk live. The primary one is where the humans live. You know that much naturally, I would hope. Now the trees can keep them away, can keep any foreign object out really. Very sensitive our friends the trees. The Black is different. Trees can’t keep that away. There’s not enough sunlight in them for that.”
      “You keep it away.”
      “I help. It’s mostly the moon does it. I’m just one of the ones who drinks the Shine to keep camp burning bright enough.”
      “What happens if it doesn’t?”
      “Nothing nice, better just to give your shine up so the Moon can make more and don’t worry about it,” Leif said, and then he was silent, continuing to push Jacob through the camp with the lightest of touches.
      Through the center and towards another hill Leif led him to where the celebration bifurcated into two camps, leaving a single patch of darkness between. Leif didn’t speak again until they stopped.
      “And here we are. Make your offering here,” Leif pointed to two grey clay pots that sat in front of a silver birch tree that looked dead to Jacob. “It’s the same as any other Celebration. We’re no different here, even if some of us are more. . . coarse than others. Raz means well, but he was made to be greedy.”
      “What am I supposed to do?” Jacob couldn’t help but to ask. It felt too much like a dream for the fear instincts to take over entirely. Curiosity won in this instance.
      “You brought the Shine, so you must have known that you would need to sacrifice some of it right? The trees must have just given it to you. Just pour your offering in the pot on the left.”
      “Oh, okay.”
      “Now I have to leave you, other appointments to keep, busy night and all. Maybe after your offering we can catch up again. I’ll be playing the cup games at some point. Don’t make me have to rescue from Raz again” Leif laughed and turned to leave, and Jacob felt a twinge of fear for the first time. Jacob had put a lot of trust into the strange looking man, found a kind of shelter in his guiding touch. When Leif turned back Jacob he felt his stomach twist over. He wanted to tell him not to leave, but now his voice did catch and he couldn’t speak.
      “I never got your name, kid.”
      “J-Jacob.”
      Leif furrowed his brow and frowned. All eight of his eyes squinting. “Jacob, yeah,” he said, and Jacob did not like the way his voice grumbled, “see you later, maybe. . . Jacob.” Then Leif left. The retreating figure had his head down and hands deep in the pockets of his trench coat.
      Jacob looked down at the clay pots beneath the birch tree. The tree looked dead, and the pots looked like they were about shatter with cracks all up and down the sides. None of it, absolutely none of it made any sense, but goddamn if he didn’t owe Daddy an apology.
      Standing in front of that tree in the darkened patch of forest between the two celebrations, Jacob breathed a sigh of unease. That shine was his, but that Leif’s teeth looked sharp, and he was one of the more normal looking things in this forest tonight, others certainly looked more lethal. None of the spirits—that’s what they were, Jacob decided in that moment—paid any attention to Jacob. No one looked away from their own revelry. Jacob couldn’t run, though, a little twinge on the back of his neck told him that if he ran things with claws and things with teeth would chase after him. Maybe that was inevitable.
      The tree reached its silvery limbs up towards the night sky like a preacher reaching his hands up to God, but God seemed far away in this place to Jacob. The things celebrating behind him—all around him—looked like devils with their warping faces and gnawing teeth. The offering pots beneath the tree looked old, part of rituals that had gone on forever and a minute. There wasn’t a single silver birch on Blake property. They didn’t grow too naturally in this part of Indiana, but here one was, glowering over him, waiting for some kind of mistake to reprimand. The forest floor was cleared around the tree with hard packed dirt and the remnants of a thousand footprints, hoof prints, and prints Jacob couldn’t recognize. He was alone, but the shadows of the forest weighed over him, waiting for a mistake, waiting for their revelation. But he could do nothing else besides put his offering in the pot. The camp surrounded him. None of the spirits watched him, or seemed to care, but Jacob bet that they could see without their false eyes. They see through the trees. They see through the ants on the ground.
      To do anything besides pour the moonshine in the pot seemed ridiculous.
      So Jacob poured out what had been his best batch into the pot on the left just as instructed.
      The chanting began then, and the dark patch instantly filled with dark writing shapes.
      The moonshine glittered silver. As the chanting increased in tempo the pot started to drain, the silver getting lower and lower. The pot on the right began to fill itself from the bottom up with the same silver liquid.
      “Oh my God,” Jacob wiped drool off his chin as the silver liquid etched its way up the birch tree.
       Moon Tree, they chanted. Moon Tree.
       Moon Tree take his spirit,
      Moon Tree, give us yours.
      The silver reached the first fork in the tree and stopped.
      “Something’s wrong,” a voice from the crowd said. “Something not right!”
      In a starburst of light, the silver birch caught fire. Jacob shielded his eyes, the sense of inevitability closing in around him. His world became the hissing and popping of the birch tree.
      “What’s happening?” Jacob asked, hoping, praying that Leif would be there to explain, to put a hand on his shoulder and guide him away.
      “He’s back!” a spirit cried. “The human is among us!”
      “He’s here to finish what he started!”
      Jacob turned around.
      The spirits stood just at the edge of the fire’s light, red and golden eyes reflecting their burning tree. Human, they hissed, writhing as a single coagulant. A dark tendril shot out from the shadows and wrapped itself around Jacob’s leg, throwing him onto his back. Jacob kicked wildly in a panic, ripping off his boot in the process. The boot was pulled into the darkness, but Jacob’s foot was free. He bolted. Around the side of the burning tree and deep into the woods, as far away from the camps and the tents and the little swindlers on carpets as he could get.
      He heard their hisses close behind him, felt things reach out of the dark and push and pull and tug on him, but he kept running.
      The woods became unfamiliar, and halfway down a switchback trail, Jacob stopped. His breath had left him. He leaned up against an old oak, heaving in the night air. Maybe it had all been a dream. Maybe he would wake up soon. The woods, though unfamiliar, seemed normal, and he no longer heard the demons chasing him.
“I guessed it was you they were after,” a voice snapped the night.
      Jacob spun around, back against the oak. Leif strolled up to him, hands still in his pockets. Jacob hadn’t noticed in the light of camp but in the dark woods he could see that Leif’s green eyes shined. Out of all the spirits to find him, at least it was this one.
      “Whaddya want? I didn’t know it would burn.”
      “Rightfully not. You had no idea what you were doing. Sure can run fast, though. I didn’t know who they were chasing at first. Hoped it wasn’t you. Guessed it was because no one else was giving any offerings.”
      “I didn’t mean to burn any tree. I didn’t even want to come here. I was carrying my moonshine like I always do, and like my dad’s old story I found you guys. It’s not my fault, I—”
      “They have a right to their fury. The last time a human came among us it didn’t end well. The moon doesn’t want just anyone to drink her spirits. No, I guess your intentions were right, but that doesn’t mean that lot isn’t still pissed.” Leif nodded up towards the hill. Faintly Jacob could hear the hissing again, could see the soft glow of lantern light. They were still after him.
      “Please,” Jacob begged now, “I just make liquor in the woods. I don’t know anything about spirits. I meant no evil. I—”
“You made that stuff?” Leif shook his head. “that stuff fooled, Raz. Fooled those mist-drifters too, I saw. Even moon tree didn’t catch fire right away. You made that stuff?”
Jacob nodded.
      “What do you put in it?”
      “It’s moonshine . . . so corn. I used a patch of wild corn I found that had seeded on its own from an old farmer’s field.”
      Leif rubbed his chin. The chantings up the hill grew louder.
      “Please just help me. What’s going on?”
      “You made that stuff good enough to fool the lesser ones. Only Moon Tree could detect a difference.”
      “I don’t know what any of that means.”
      “It means that I may have a use for you and your shine. I happen to know a few spirits, Raz included, that could get a good hitch from your stuff. Our supply’s been running low. The Moon and the trees have been getting stingy, thanks in large part to past encounters with your people. The dark’s been encroaching and we’re not as shiny as we used to be. Your stuff could satisfy some old alcoholic friends of mine, and keep things a bit . . . brighter at camp,” Leif smiled.
      “But all of your . . . friends want to kill me.”
      “Well then,” Leif said, “you better run along, little human. Keep following this trail south, you’ll be in familiar territory before long. Keep brewing that stuff. You’ll have some buyers for it soon. And as my friends . . . I’ll spin them some kind of yarn, don’t worry.” Leif turned to leave.
      “I still don’t know what’s happening. Why are you helping me? Nothing makes sense!”
      “The woods is about equal exchange. I’m not helping you. We’re trading,” and Leif showed Jacob his sharp teeth one last time and disappeared into the shadows between the trees. His voice called out of the darkness “Just keep brewing, country boy!”
      And Jacob Blake did keep brewing.
      And every Saturday a man with a grey trench coat and floppy hat that drooped down over his face would come in and order a case of the number 15. He paid with unmarked coins made of pure gold and silver. Jacob would let them run through his hands, admiring the shine of each one. And Daddy Blake stood behind Jacob with a cane, one hand resting on his son’s shoulder, smiling to beat the band.