Siobhan Gallagher is a wannabe zombie slayer currently residing in Arizona. Her fiction has appeared in several publications, including AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, COSMOS Online, Abyss & Apex, and the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology. Occasionally, she does this weird thing called ‘blogging’ at: defconcanwrite.blogspot.com
by Siobhan Gallagher
Spring had arrived, which only meant one thing: cleaning. Lord Yama summoned a broom from nothing and began sweeping out the demons from Hell. Many of them tumbled into the dark pools leading to Earth, but one little demon clung to the broom’s bristles.
“I don’t want to leave!” it cried. “It’s cold and cruel there on Earth.”
Lord Yama sighed, his breath coming out in a thousand winds. “I need to make room for the new souls, and you demons are cluttering up the place. Now no more of this.”
He plucked the little demon from the broom and tossed him into the dark pool.
Rain poured hard and fast. The little demon’s scrawny legs were knee-deep in mud as he trudged forward. He found a palm leaf to use as an umbrella; it was quickly ripped to shreds. He crawled into a log, but was shooed out by a grumpy old spider.
The best he could manage was squeezing himself into the crevice of a large stone, and even then, water trickled down onto his head.
As expected, Earth was a terrible, terrible place. At least in Hell, he was dry and warm.
By morning, the rain had stopped. The little demon went exploring, urged on by his growling stomach.
He came upon a village, where homes with grass and tile roofs were built along a lone dirt road at a slight incline. Pale telephone poles contrasted with the bright greenness of the surrounding growth, yet didn’t feel all that out of place, as if the jungle forest had accepted the poles by growing around them. One particular home drew his nose’s attention with the aroma of steamed rice and jasmine. He trotted over to a festive-looking altar in front of the home, adorned with the freshest hibiscus and morning glories, a big bowl of rice mounted on top. His mouth watered, drool dripping down his chin.
Just as he reached up…
“Hey! That’s not for you.”
A girl, no older than thirteen, stood in the open doorway, wielding a stick of bamboo. He froze, claws still reaching. Maybe he could grab a few grains and run before—
Her stick came down swift and hard. Barely missed his hand. He hopped, sporadic, eyes locked on the stick and where it might land next. She swiped, nipped him in the pointy long ears. Ow, ow, ow!
No rice today, no rice ever! He retreated, fast as possible, into the forest where he hid behind the trunk of a dead banana tree. After a few moments, he peeked his head around the trunk.
“I know you’re out there!” the girl said.
He quickly withdrew from sight.
He waited what seemed like hours, chewing on bark, which was neither tasty nor satisfying. In Hell, no one ever went hungry—except for the tortured souls. Maybe this was what the souls experienced; although he was certain they never had to deal with the likes of a girl and her stick.
When he thought it might be safe, he tip-toed back to the altar.
“Nu uh. No you don’t!”
He shuddered at the sight of the bamboo stick and pulled his ears down. And he must’ve looked pathetic, because the girl’s expression softened.
“You keep coming back. You hungry?”
He nodded timidly.
“I have a lot of chores to do. If you help me, I can feed you.”
This sounded fair, so he agreed. Because of his small size, she had him clean all the tight spaces: behind the stove, underneath the furniture, corners of the closets. She even managed to put him on the end of her stick, and held it up so he could polish the light fixtures. Bleah. In Hell, all he ever had to do was poke souls.
After they were done, the girl stayed true to her word, gave him a heaping bowl of rice and a strip of dried meat, which he wolfed down with a hunger he’d never known before. She watched him eat, an amused smile on her face.
“You’re very helpful, you know that?” the girl said.
He wiped rice from his face, but said nothing. Of course he was helpful; which was why he should’ve never been swept out of Hell in the first place.
“Do you have a place to stay?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“What’s your name?”
He shrugged. Demons didn’t have names.
“Hmm…” She tapped her chin. “If you don’t have a name I will call you Bantu.”
“Bantu.” The little demon tested the word out around a mouthful of rice.
Hmm, Kade. A popular name in Indonesia, many spirits of women came into Hell bearing that name.
She continued, “You’re welcome to stay here. There’s more cleaning to be done tomorrow.”
Ugh, cleaning. But he supposed it was better than sleeping in rock crevices.
They retired early, and Kade read to him a book of his choosing. He liked best the one with a beautiful mermaid on the cover. It was the tale of Nyi Roro Kidul, the Spirit-Queen of the Southern Sea, and how she was driven from her kingdom as a young girl and made the sea her new home.
He went to sleep, thinking how good it would be to be home.
The little demon woke early, a growl in his stomach. He wiggled out from under Kade’s bed covers and headed for the kitchen.
A large man sat at the dinner table, drooping bags under his eyes and a hunch in his shoulders from a long night’s drive. The man gave him such a glare, it would’ve sent Lord Yama fleeing from the room.
He yipped and scuttled back to the safety of Kade’s room—only to smack into her legs.
“Father, you’re home!” Kade ran to the man and wrapped her arms around his barely distinguishable neck.
“I’ll brew some strong coffee,” she said, making her way to the kitchen counter.
“What is that doing here?” Her father pointed at him.
“That’s Bantu. He helped me clean.”
“That’s a demon is what that is.”
Kade’s father said that like it was a bad thing. The little demon snorted, puffed out his chest.
Her father said, “You can’t let it stay here. It’ll anger the spirits and bring bad luck upon us.”
Kade turned to her father, arms crossed. “I told you, he’s helpful. Why would the spirits take offense to that?”
Bantu also crossed his arms and gave a stiff nod of approval.
“Why bother cleaning for spring when you’re going to let impure things into the home?”
Her father then stood, a great colossus of a man. Bantu danced around the man’s boots as the man tried to stomp him flat. Kade tried to stop her father, but it all turned into a chaotic mess of yelling and shouting.
Bantu wasn’t sure what happened next, though the sheer pain in his side told him the boots had won, as he was sent flying into the air, and out the door. He skidded across the dirt, and thankfully his thick skin kept the damage to a minimum. He got up, dusted himself off.
Nasty, nasty human. If ever a soul deserved to roast in Hell, it was Kade’s father.
Bantu wandered the village in the hopes for some edibles, resorting to trash-digging for some chicken bones. Dry and brittle, splintered in his mouth. Barely worth the effort. To top that off, he was chased away by an old woman carrying that dreaded thing: a broom.
How could Lord Yama subject him to this? Then again, he was starting to understand why Hell needed the space, considering all these horrible humans.
Not Kade, though. She was kind, even if she made him clean. He returned to her home and found that Kade had left the window to her room open; he crawled inside. Waiting for him was a bowl of rice. Cold, but still delicious.
Kade entered, quietly closed the door behind her. She sat on the bed and said: “Father went to bed early. He works long hours in the city, so he’ll be gone again for a few days.”
Good riddance, Bantu thought.
For their nighttime entertainment, Bantu turned the lights low and gave Kade a shadow puppet show—a popular thing amongst demons. Although their stories were much more gruesome, he toned it down to a few mutilations. Kade was fascinated into silence, then broke into questions about the underworld, Lord Yama, and where she might wind up.
It took several nights to answer her questions, but he assured her that Lord Yama would delight in sending her to the upper realms.
But several nights of staying up took their toll, as they slept in…
Bang! Bang! at her bedroom door.
“You let that demon back into this home, didn’t you?”
Bantu ducked under the bed before Kade’s father burst in, dragged his daughter out of bed and into the kitchen. She gasped and cried, and he soon realized why: all their valuables were gone. The thief stole the rice cooker too!
Between sobs, she said: “I didn’t even hear anyone come in.”
Neither did he, and he had the ears for such things. But there was an odor in the air, sick and greasy. He inhaled deeply. Yep, unmistakable: corpse oil. He knew his fair share of black magicians reeking of the stuff when they entered Hell. Which meant a tuyul was employed.
Bantu left through Kade’s bedroom window. He would’ve comforted Kade, but her father was too busy berating her, and he didn’t want to meet her father’s boots again. But he’d show that stupid human it wasn’t his fault by finding the stolen goods himself.
He followed the scent of corpse oil, and it became clear Kade’s home wasn’t the only one that had been robbed. They couldn’t all possibly blame him. Black magicians were known for these get rich quick schemes.
Where the scent ended, he found the mud tracks of a pickup truck. Oh how he loathed going for long walks.
Luckily, one of the neighbors kept goats. Surely they wouldn’t mind him borrowing one. He snuck a doe out of her pen and with a good pinch, got her running. Though this speed would only last for a few yards before it became a trot, then an attempt to graze on the side of the road. Troublesome beast. He took a lesson from Kade, getting a stick to whack the goat on the nose whenever she went off trail.
A lot of drivers going to and fro gave him quizzical looks.
Half a day and much struggling later, he arrived at the next village, and quite to his relief, the tracks ended there. He roped the goat to an old post where she could graze, then darted from home to home, sticking to the shadows, sensing nothing out of the ordinary. Of course the magician’s tuyul wouldn’t be out and about by daylight, but there should have been signs of magic use. Nope. Just a sleepy little village.
He did, however, narrow down the pickup used in the robbery, from the fresh mud on the tires to the lingering stink of corpse oil. The pickup was parked in front of a vacant, locked home. Peering inside, he saw the place was cluttered with junk—probably being used for storage. There was an empty spot beside the home where a car had been parked. The thief would be back for the goods. In the meantime, Bantu unplugged important looking things in the pickup’s engine, collected pretty pebbles, then decided all this hard work was deserving of a nap.
He awoke to a rrrrrr—rrrrrr, followed by a man cursing. It was just after sundown, red-orange glow barely illuminating the horizon. Not that he needed the light to see. Bantu collected the pebbles and crept out of the bushes. Corpse oil curdled the air around the pickup.
The man slammed the driver’s side door, ruffled his hair in the pickup’s headbeams before popping the hood—and Bantu knew that was no magician. The whole reason magicians had minions was to leave the hands-on work to them. Plus the man didn’t smell like the type; he sweated anxiety.
Which meant he bought or was renting the tuyul. Idiot fool.
Bantu oh-so quietly made his way up the side of the pickup, the pebbles clutched in one hand. The windows were rolled down, corpse oil overwhelming, and sitting in the passenger side was the creepiest toddler he ever did lay his eyes on. It had mottled gray skin, bright red eyes far too big for its face, a melon-sized head. It was playing with a toy car in its pudgy little hands, and it was hard to believe this thing could lift objects three times its size.
“Pssh, hey,” Bantu whispered, rolling a couple of pebbles between his claws.
The tuyul looked up at him, mouth open in silent surprise. Its gaze focused on the pebbles, the toy car fell from its hands. Forgotten.
Bantu jumped to the ground. The tuyul followed, phasing right through the door, hands reaching. He teased the tuyul for a moment before tossing the pebbles into the darkness. The tuyul waddled right after them. No one ever said magicians made smart minions.
“Hey, where ya go— Ah!” The man rubbed the back of his head.
Now to deal with this idiot.
Bantu hid behind the front right tire, stretched his long fingers into the headlights. Shadows formed, a big ferocious demon with many horns and many wings—what Lord Yama liked to send when it came to fetching a human’s soul.
He threw his voice out, loud and authoritarian-like. “Human!”
The man spun around, looked wildly about. Bantu wiggled his fingers, the effect made the shadow-demon jump off the ground. The man stifled a gasp.
“Human, the pact you’ve made has rendered your soul mine to take.”
“Pact? I didn’t make—”
“Human! You should know the costs when dealing with black magic.”
“I didn’t! I mean… the guy, this guy, said it was all harmless.”
“You are a fool then.”
The shadow-demon lunged forward, the man jumped and sunk to his knees. “No! Please!”
The shadow-demon straightened up. “Perhaps I can be persuaded if you make amends. Return all these things you have stolen before dawn breaks.”
The man nodded vigorously.
“And if you don’t, I will drag you before Lord Yama and all twenty-eight Hells.” In a flash, the shadow-demon was gone.
The man heaved a sigh and pulled himself to his feet. Bantu snuck out from under the pickup, watched from a distance as the man rounded up the tuyul and started loading the truck.
It wasn’t till late afternoon when Bantu returned to Kade’s village. Lazy goat. He was expecting some sort of cheer, instead—
“Hey! There’s my goat!”
Bantu leapt off and made a run for it.
Kade had once again left her window open, and as soon as he crawled onto the ledge, he was swept up in her embrace. He struggled… Actually, it was kind of nice, and he let her soapy jasmine scent envelop him.
“No one believes it,” she said, “but I know you’re the one who got our stuff back.”
His stomach growled loudly then.
She set him down on the bed, smiling. “I’ll make you a big feast.”
After she left, he snuggled under the covers for a quick nap. It may not have been Hell, but at least he was loved.
Copyright 2014 by Siobhan Gallagher