The Weather Man, by Stephen M.A.


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This is what Vik’s weather map looks like when the smoke comes in: Yellowed blobs of fungus on the framed parchment, drifting over heavily inked topography, stacked in undulating layers of relative density. The map changes continuously, according to the rapid tracing of windwatchers hanging high above the world, who monitor its thin shell at all times, day and night.

Most townsfolk don’t bother paying what’s required to keep a weather map in their own home, but like anybody with dead ones still lingering, he doesn’t have a choice.

It’s been nearly eighteen years since the corpsehead acolytes shoved their bony spades into the sand-eaten soil, and folks are pretty used to the weather by now. Many don’t even care about the forecasts anymore, even though the acolytes who survived long enough for prison keep insisting things will only get worse from here.

Not his neighbor, though. Shela takes a keen interest in the weather, with a map much bigger than his and her own windvane on the roof, even though she has no dead. She’s waiting for him at the front gate today, “coincidentally,” again.

Crispy scrub brush rattles next to her, buttressing the wind-beaten planks of the fence she’s leaning against. “So it’s Vik then hey?” she says, very casual. But there’s a bright spark of anticipation in her eye.

“Shela,” he says, equally casual. A large plume of smoke is crawling their way on the map, due by dinnertime. He figures she’ll tell him that, just to get a conversation going. He steels himself, because he is irritated by weather hobbyists.

“You heard then izzit?” She tilts her face, lips twitching into an eager grin.

He can’t remember seeing her so excited before, but he doesn’t rise to the bait. Instead he shrugs flatly and mutters, “Guess na.” Then he trudges across the animal yard to start closing the home’s shutters. The pens that once gave the yard its purpose are rotted by years of sitting empty under blazing suns, unoccupied since the first days of smoke, when folks realized the livestock had to be kept under shelter in order to survive the dead.

Shela watches Vik work in silence for a few minutes, then blithely remarks, “Guess they caught one then hey?”

He can’t help his head whipping around. “What? Where? The vestry?”

She bites her lip gleefully. “Na then, was the dairy hey? Guess they had a little weather last night.” She actually giggles and claps her hands together, thrilled to have such shocking news on offer.

He suddenly doesn’t begrudge her enthusiasm, not even a little bit.

The dairy. Surely that means the churchfolk had nothing to do with it, even though for years they’ve been trying, and failing, to establish some kind of authority over the dead, to undo the work of the acolytes.

“Did they pray?” He holds his breath, silently begging her not to draw out the suspense, like she tends to do with good yarns.

But she is merciful and already shaking her head, cackling. “Na, na prayers, na useless sanctified, just good calfskein drums and some young butter izzit? Heard down at the depot.”

She keeps talking, but he can’t listen, his ears have closed, and he’s repeating to himself over and again: no prayer, no belief, no prayer, no belief. No useless churchfolk, none at all. And they still caught one.

This probably means he can catch one.

Maybe even his mother.

It’s been more than five years since she went under, and he still can’t stop the anger from boiling in his chest at the very thought of her.

Since the day his mother died, Vik’s life seems to play on repeat in his skull, nearly every waking moment. His bed is tucked against the wall in the kitchen, where the fire is warm and crackling, but still each morning begins with a cold spike of panic in his belly, because the first thing he hears is the churchfolk pounding on the front door, until he reminds himself it’s only a memory.

In these endless recollections, by the time his mother starts taking ill, young Vik is already an avowed enemy of the churchfolk, if only inside his secret mind. Since the day they finished the new vestry he’s felt their influence growing in the town, making the air heavy on his neck, getting harder to ignore with every cycle. He hates it. He can’t stand the way they look at him like an outsider, here on the same stoney roads where he’s lived every day of his life.

But their worst crime is teaching his mother to do it too.

He spends the final years of his childhood wrestling with the agony of her increasing distance, even while they sleep under the same roof each night. By the time he comes into his own age she is fully lost to him, refusing even heartfelt conversation with anybody who isn’t consumed by their own fervor. Refusing to consort with any form of unbelief, even in her own home.

Even in her own blood.

He begs her every day to see the healers, but the healers are not churchfolk, so she refuses, scolding him harshly and admonishing him to seek only the light, above all other considerations. Eventually she can’t eat, and can barely drink even with his help, which she accepts only begrudgingly. She is shriveling away before his eyes, and he can’t stop looking over his shoulder like someone hunted, his skin crawling with the certainty of imminent doom, a disaster lurking in the corners, waiting to spring upon them both.

Desperate, he agrees to join in her morning prayers once—just once—to plead for her body to be made whole again, and for the distance between them to shrink back into the familiar intimacies of his youngest years, when the father left forever. Long before she ever met the churchfolk. Long before the weather had even begun.

Young Vik tends to resent the father, who sleeps under their roof only on rare occasion, even at the best of times. But when the man leaves town with a caravan, never to return, Vik’s mother feels the absence keenly, and weeps openly for days on end. Yet she refuses to discuss the loss with Vik, and never seems to wonder whether he might feel some of the same pain, having suffered the very same loss. Still, before long she is seeking his comfort, as the only piece of the man she has left. She wants his companionship constantly. She holds him in her arms and sings songs. She plays with him without needing to be asked. She throws sudden fetes at the slightest occasion, just to hear his laughter and feed him delicious food.

But that was long ago, and now this prayer is the first time she’s looked directly at him in years.

He sees the bright flicker of flame in her eyes when they conclude the prayer together, so wide and satisfied at this apparent conquest for the light. But he shakes his head and says gently, “Na, mema, never for them hey? I done it for you. Only for you.”

Then the flame dies, and her eyes narrow as she fills the home with chilled silence, and soon they’re pounding on the door until she’s taken away for the daily meeting at the lantern, outside the vestry, and he never sees her alive again.

And now, it’s not her absence that threatens to split his head in two. It’s not her empty bedroom, shut tight and buried in dust. It’s not the pantry doors or the roughly hewn floorboards, whose rattling cacophony fills the home during hard weather.

No. It’s not that she left him here to face it all alone.

It’s that she won’t stop coming back.

By the time he climbs out of his own past again, he’s sitting at the rickety table inside the house, and the morning has aged into afternoon, and Shela is long gone from the garden. She’s familiar with his spells of inner retreat, so she finished closing the shutters for him. That’s good. He’ll need to keep the smoke out while he prepares the capture. He must know how first, though. He hadn’t heard Shela tell him how exactly, or if he had, he doesn’t remember now.

He doesn’t know he’s stood up until he’s bursting through the front door and running for the dairy. It’s all blinking dazzling sunlight out here, and a scorching breeze, except for a shadow in the west, where smoke is already building behind the long horizon, peeked above the needle trees on the ridgeline.

This sight spurs him on, feet pounding dusty road. He guesses three or four more hours, until it’s time to verify the shutters and bar the door.

He wishes he’d remembered to check the map before leaving.

The dairy is just a span and two skips away, over the ridgeline toward the plains, so he’s there within the half hour, hammering heavy double doors at the milking barn. They’ve had gawking visitors all day, so the bottle boy answers immediately. There’re already two other groups inside to see the catch, townsfolk Vik recognizes only in passing.

The air is heavy with animal stink, piled up in the low rafters by endless years of milkers trotting through. Complacent livestock are rustling all around, and he can tell they’re savoring the calm after a storm.

“Had the Headsfolk here all morning izzit,” the bottle boy intones with humble import, while weaving through the gloomy milking stalls. “Said they’re going to prison right now to ask the acolytes what this means hey? Come, come, see. Na cares, it don’t move. He don’t move. He just a smoked shell now izzit. Empty, empty.”

He swings a generous arm, ushers Vik close to the catch. They both wobble their heads in polite farewell as the visiting townsfolk shuffle off into another room, muttering among themselves in tones of deep concern.

The bottle boy says, “His auntie one of our dairy marms, brought him up herself right here. He been coming twice a cycle at least, depending on the weather, since he got caught in the feed grinder years back and went under. Took him a while to find the smoke, but now he ride it every time it come, banging and crying on our roofs, begging to get inside, scaring the milkers awful. His auntie can’t take it, has to hide in the cellars and stuff her ears with fur every storm. Even so, she still living here usually, working the feedbin just the same, near every day.”

The bottle boy looks down at the withered shadow on the ground and shakes his head with sympathy. “But not today izzit. Today she gone to pray for him at the lantern, make sure he stay in the hole from now on, outta the smoke.”

Vik’s head snaps up and he says sharply, “Told me you didn’t have to pray when you caught it.”

The bottle boy looks at him in surprise, then waves a placating hand. “Na worry, na praying here, na more churchfolk in dairy anyway, except for her and a couple others work in the breeding barn. Just me and the milkhands in here last night, plus their drums. We caught him with young butter izzit?”

Vik sees the bowl the boy is pointing at, sitting on the dirt floor, filled with creamy white butter still fresh out the bucket, without even salt yet. The dead one is lying next to it, like the oily silhouette of a shriveled bug.

He stares intently for just a moment then looks away, face a mixture of disappointment and disgust. He sighs. He can’t believe this was ever a person. The dairy marm’s boy must not have been like Vik’s mother when he went under. Not at all.

Vik has already seen his mother’s face in the smoke once. Just once, during real bad weather, through a broken shutter that keeps beating itself wide open, few years back. He’s whimpering as he desperately hammers it shut with a sharpened peg, while she wails and bellows in the distance, past the garden gate shaking in the wind, and then suddenly her head is barreling out of the smoke to fling itself at the window in a spray of vile spittle, mouth wide, eyes rolling back, and it looks just like her.

Just like she’d never gone under.

Not this filthy rag crumpled next to the butter. It could’ve been silage kicked aside by a milker.

Not his mother. She won’t look like that, if he catches her tonight.

He doesn’t know he’s leaving until he’s pushing through the barn door, and the bottle boy hollers after, “Gone off then hey? Breathe clean tonight izzit!”

“Breathe clean,” he mutters vaguely, quickly wobbling his head before breaking into a sprint.

Smoke is already spilling over the arid plains.

He should’ve checked the weather map.

He doesn’t need to be told how to catch one anymore. He understood immediately, soon as he saw the pristine bowl sitting on the dirty barn floor.

The dairy marm’s boy loved butter. They’d given it butter. Even though when the smoke is here, every part of you begs and moans to fight against it, to keep it out whatever you do, and don’t give the dead what they ask for, not even a little bit. Because what they ask can’t be given. They serve the smoke now, and the smoke wants you to come back with it, back to the gaping hole the acolytes dug into the high plateau with their sharpened bones.

Back to the smoking pits that spew weather from under the world’s hollow shell.

Back to the pits where the dead learn to ride.

You can feel them, like beacons in the distance, far over the horizon. You can feel the pull of the pits, waiting for you, as if the whole of your life has been lived on a high cliff, and the fall was inevitable this whole time, and you’ve known it all along.

You’ve known it all along.

But them at the dairy had ignored this terror, ignored the pull, and given the shrieking boy a bowl of butter they’d churned in a frenzy only right that moment, while the roof rattled and bucked overhead. Then they’d trapped its gorging body with drums, and waited for morning to blow the smoke away.

That was how to catch your dead.


The gusts are shoving at his heels when he reaches the garden gate, and Shela’s windvane is humming in vibration, deep and low. Vik catches himself wishing she were waiting for him, but he stifles the desire to call out and rushes inside instead. Nobody visits other families during bad weather anyway, lest that household’s dead are tempted to find their own home next time around. He knows this.

Still, imagine the story Shela would have to tell at the depot come morning. Vik’s mouth twitches upward at the thought.

He bars the front door the moment it slams shut. The weather map is a spilling fungal mound, seething on the wall, and the sky is already gone black outside. He is righteous with determination as he marches to his mother’s door and flings it open, but he freezes at the threshold, legs suddenly weak.

He stares into the darkened bedroom much too long. An unsafe amount of time.

The wind is howling against the walls when he’s finally able to drag his feet through the dust dunes covering warped planks, before snatching a candleholder from her bedside shelf and skittering back out with a slam.

The air was so dry in there. Desiccated by absence. He coughs wildly, until his heartbeat is pounding in his ears and his sternum is tight.

Shela’s windvane moans outside, a throbbing susurration that touches his bones. The very walls are trembling all around, and he can feel the pits in his mind, feel the texture of their wounded ground on his skin, along with a cold stab of rage at what it’ll take to silence their call forever.

He brings a skeined drum and sits with crossed legs near the front window, each breath a ragged burst from flaring nostrils. He glances at his mother’s door one last time, then looks down resolutely and focuses on the task at hand.

He lays out a woodbound book, pulled from his mother’s old leather chest, stuffed deep beneath the floorboards in the pantry. She’d given it to him as a gift once, then berated him for days after discovering it tucked under his bed, still tied and untouched. The hollow texture of its wooden cover is unfamiliar to him, even after all these years, but thanks to her constant worship, he still knows exactly which page to open.

Next to the book he carefully arranges a single blue candlestick, lit from the kitchen coals. His bowl of butter.

The flame flickers, and Vik watches shadows bloom all around, filling every surface, dancing with every exhalation, as if the wind were already inside the house. He closes his eyes, holds the drum with trembling hands, and begins to pray for the second time in his life, reading carefully from the page.

A part of himself is emptied of fear, now that the moment is imminent. He’s even a little eager for the possibility of having one more chance to reach his mother face-to-face. Perhaps a chance to share a few words with her.

A chance to be heard.

It is this hope which gives comforting weight to Vik’s body, despite his fluttering heartbeat, when her first hungry scream pierces the wind, already racing toward him from the ridgeline. He rises steadily and unlatches the window with careful deliberation, before resuming his place behind the candle. The shutters shake against their loosened restraint, growing louder with every gust.

Vik hopes he’s ready, but can’t stop thinking about how little he’s prepared for this moment otherwise. Perhaps he should have waited until the next storm, or talked the plan over with someone else. Anyone else.

Maybe he should just—

And then she is here, bursting through the window with a splintered clatter, exactly as he remembered her before.

The face looks just like her. Is her. But behind, only the vague impression of what form followed in life. Only dimly disordered outlines of her forgotten body, pushing against smoke that eddies around her like water.

His heart falls, because her eyes are already fixed on the candle flame, seeing nothing else, and he knows immediately that she will never speak to him again. They said the dairy marm’s boy had begged and pleaded, but Vik’s mother has no words left inside of her. No love. Only guttural sounds. Only the animal yearning of a dead thing.

His throat thickens and his eyes go blurry with tears. She is gone to him. Forever.

Vik grips the drum tightly and continues weaving its beat into the air, determined to put a permanent end to this pain. Finally. He isn’t sure whether the prayer is helping at all, but doesn’t dare stop. Yet he understands the drum’s function intuitively. He can feel how it shapes the air in the room, and sees the smoke gradually turning into stillness around her body as he experiments with tempo and timbre. Sees it tightening. Holding.

The house is so dry.

Vik swallows, the feel of sand in his mouth, and as the trap draws closer a wave of guilt moves through him, flipping his belly upside down.

She doesn’t deserve this. He should let her go.

He closes his eyes, prayer momentarily forgotten, then jumps in surprise, heart pounding, as she snarls at the interruption. He’s broken her fixation, and he regrets it instantly, every nerve in his body screaming with new vigilance.

You are hunted.


Now her dead eyes are locked on his. Now they are burning with fury.

Maybe this was a mistake.

He peels his parched lips apart and says with forced hope, “Mema?”

She snarls again and gnashes broken teeth, and a string of thick spittle falls off her purpled tongue to land at his feet, instantly filling his nose with the hot ammonia buzz of withered carrion, baked in endless suns.

Gasping for air, Vik recoils into himself, and becomes smaller in the room, and she advances toward him to fill the space, and now he knows what a mistake this was indeed.

He is barely in control.

If she moves on him again, he won’t be able to stop her. He is certain.

He’s forgotten a key component of the bottle boy’s story. He’s forgotten the milkhands and their drums. Their multiple drums.

His breath moves in ragged bursts. He should have told Shela.

He should have called Shela.

He should scream out her name, right now. Do it.

Do it.

But instead Vik redoubles his efforts with the drum, desperately trying to build a wall between his body and his mother with every beat. It seems to work for just a moment, as she holds still again and her eyes drift back toward the candle’s flame.

He dares to loose a sigh of relief, but is certain he can’t keep this going all night. He considers making up a new prayer to ask for strength, just to see if it’ll help.

Then a low moan rises in the garden.

Vik’s head whips toward the open window, eyes widening in disbelief as a tattered shadow squirms out of the smoke and pulls itself into the house, body scraping across the window frame with a fermented gurgle, before plopping to the floorboards in a sickening thud.

The thing is nearly formless, all ragged edge and glistened moisture, but for just a moment its eyes come into focus, and they catch Vik’s and turn him into a child again.

“..m.Y…..bO.oyy,” his father croaks, rolling toward him like a mudslide.

Home at last.

Vik jumps to his feet and takes a step back, every limb shaking. He glances at the candle, silently begging it to grab their focus again.

His mother beholds the new arrival, then turns to Vik and grins triumphantly.

His stomach sinks.

“Let me alone,” he pleads. “You’re the ones who won’t leave. I have no one else.” He sobs but chokes it off immediately, shaking his head, because there’s no time.

His father joins his mother, and Vik feels the beat of the drum growing diffuse and weak in his hands, and panic stabs at his throat, because there’s no way out, so he lets loose one last prayer inside his secret mind. One final, simple hope.

Don’t let me ruin another life.

Don’t make me Shela’s dead.


His parents move toward him, flickering shadows dancing around their putrid forms, tracing over walls that once rang with his laughter and bled with her tears.

He stares into their eyes and whimpers helplessly, “But I love—”

They pounce, a bright flash ripping through his skull, a concussive blast of pain behind his nose, then the candle is by itself on the floor, and its flame is rolling under—and the home is empty.

It’s empty.

Smoke floods every room, cascading through the naked window, before disappearing into blackness as the candle topples over and suffocates itself.

The walls buck and rattle, and the weather map cracks free of its mount with a crash, a thumping impact swallowed immediately by the bellowing storm.

Outside, Shela’s windvane howls into the night, bearing witness to cowering townsfolk, until morning breaks at last into stunned silence, and a graying dawn falls like ash upon moldered animal pens.

A breeze jostles the garden fence. The windvane points directly at Vik’s front door, cracked and dangling from one hinge.

On the threshold of his home, the rustling pages of a woodbound book whisper into the shadows.

Stephen M.A. is a gay he/him first-generation tribal descendant originating on a federal reservation in Big Sky country. He now lives and writes in New England. His work has also appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Apex Magazine, and his debut short story collection, plus other novels, can be discovered at

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