Episode 15: Baku, Devourer of Nightmares
Golden light beamed through the dormer window, dancing with the curtains in the breeze and warming the white bed linens. I stood in the doorway, watching Mae attend to Baku. She buzzed around the room, working on her patient and humming upbeat church hymns, as if she hadn’t fallen apart just hours ago. Now and then she’d break from the hum to sing a few words while she treated Baku’s wounds. He winced at her touch, not quite awake and not quite asleep, when she patted the cloth against his bare chest and side.
“Been awhile since we’ve used this old guest room.” The sound of my voice gave Mae a start, but she went right on nursing her patient.
“You wouldn’t believe how many soldiers we packed in here, during the war.” She paused as her gaze swept the room, no doubt recalling the memory of patients past, then continued tending to Baku by adding hot water to the basin and rinsing her rag. “And we didn’t lose a single one.”
“The luckiest men in the South, to be under your care.” I remembered all the times she nursed me back to health: salves to prevent infections, potions to tame high fevers, remedies to cure just about anything. Baku was in good hands.
At the pressure of the hot rag on his ribs, Baku groaned and tried to roll away, but Mae grabbed his arm and carefully pulled him back. “Oh, no you don’t.”
He clenched his teeth and white-knuckled the sheets as Mae treated the gashes from the mountain lion’s claws.
“Looks pretty bad,” I said.
“By the good grace of God, he’s fortunate. Looks like he’ll heal if we can keep the skin from getting infected.” Mae rubbed his wounds with a greasy salve that smelled of eucalyptus, aloe, and other herbs.
Baku sucked air through his teeth as she applied the mix and swatted aimlessly in the air as if it might fan away the sting.
“Seems like he’s on the mend.” A half-smile tugged my lips at the sight of his discomfort.
“He’ll have a nasty scar or two, but he’s a fighter. He’ll be just fine.” Mae wiped her hand on a cloth and dropped it back into the basin, turning the pink water a rich shade of ruby. “Time to dress him. Come on. Make yourself useful.”
I helped Baku sit up. His untamed jet-black hair was pulled back into a tight, stubby bun atop his head, and the color had returned to his skin. What had been pasty and sallow was now a golden tan, most likely from working in the sun. And he was clean shaven—no doubt Mae’s handy work. She carefully started to wrap white gauze around his torso.
Baku lifted his arms and grimaced as the bandage covered his wounds. When Mae finished, he spun his legs over the side of the mattress and dropped his feet to the floor in an attempt to stand. “Enough of this. I need to go.” He took two unsteady steps before he grabbed the bedpost to support his weight. As he hung over the footboard, gathering strength, the daylight revealed a full view of his back.
From the top of his shoulders to his waist, reds, yellows, blues, and greens swirled on his skin. The image of a large creature rolled and danced as Baku’s muscles rippled and strained with each pained breath.
“What’s that? Some kind of elephant or wild boar? What do these symbols mean?” Having never traveled the world, I had never seen an inked man before. This mysterious man had seen many exotic places and had documented his adventures on his skin. I dropped my eyes to the floor when he glared at me over his shoulder and was a little surprised when he started speaking.
“It tells the story of the Baku, my namesake.” He slumped back onto the bed. “In Japan, the Baku is said to be the devourer of nightmares. I like to consider myself a devourer of nightmares, a protector of sorts.”
“Yeah, that’s all well and good until a nightmare tries to eats you,” Pike interrupted as he walked in. “Close call with that mountain lion. How ya feeling?”
Baku forced a smile in an effort to cover the discomfort apparent in his every move. “I’ll manage.”
“Oh you’ll do more than manage,” Mae said. “Won’t be long before you’re good as new.” She collected dirty dressings, the bowl of bloodied water, and the empty pitcher and excused herself from the room.
“Beautiful tattoo,” Ellie said from the doorway, her accent peppered with a hint of creole. “I haven’t seen artwork like that since I was in New Orleans. Sailors would come into port, flaunting ink on their bodies from far off places like the Islands, South America, or the Orient.”
“Japan. Is that where you’re from?” I crossed my arms and stood at the head of the bed.
“I was born there, yes,” Baku chuckled, quickly clutching his side. “But I’ve traveled all over the world.” His Texan drawl was now more prominent than ever, shooing away all hints of other accents and dialects from the places he had visited.
Pike watched Baku with interest and caution, his expression revealing that he had something on his mind. “Before you passed out, you said something strange.”
Baku stared at us from the bed, the smile dropping from his face. “Did I? Must of been delirious from the pain.”
Pike wasn’t put off by his casual dismissal. “You called the man you shot Splintered. And you said there were more of them in the woods.” Pike walked to the foot of the bed as if his presence might intimidate the wounded man.
I scanned Baku’s eyes for signs that he felt threatened. I still wasn’t sure he could be trusted. He’d proven himself as a fighter, but I didn’t know lethal he was in this wounded state, and I didn’t really care to find out. If there were any signs of trouble, I’d go at his wounds with my bare hands, if I had to, to protect my family.
But he didn’t react, he hardly moved at all. He stared at the floor as if deep in thought, eyes glazed over as if he was lost in a vision. Just as I was about to repeat Pike’s question, he spoke.
“It’s here,” Baku whispered, his voice cracking slightly. “The Jubokko…I need to find it before it splinters everyone last one of you.” His voice faded and he swayed under the effort to remain upright. Sweat glistened on his brow.
“We’re losing him. He’s passing out again.” I stepped toward the bed and grabbed Baku’s shoulders, preventing him from falling face-first on the floor. “What are they, Baku? Why did you try to blow us up? And why are you creeping around our woods?”
Mae hurried into the room with an armful of fresh bedding. “Question time’s over. Patient needs his sleep.” She folded a sheet and placed it at the center of the bed and stacked pillows to support Baku’s head. “Now go on. You can have at him again once he’s rested.” She shooed us into the hall. As she closed the door behind her, I turned to object, but she was right behind me. “Alexander Theodore Albright, don’t you even think about sneaking back in there.”
We reluctantly inched our way down the stairs. All the while a question burned in my mind. “Do you think it’s smart to leave him alone like that?”
“He’s in a lot of pain,” Ellie said in a soft tone. “He’s certainly not climbing out a second story window any time soon. Mae’s got him covered.”
“Maybe,” Pike said, pausing as he hit the main floor. “But that won’t keep us from checking on him every now and then.”
Maddie was sitting on the floor brushing Priscilla’s hair. When she noticed us, she held the doll for us to see. “Ain’t she looking sweet again, Al?”
“Yeah, pumpkin. Awful sweet.” My thoughts went to Red and images of him creeping up to her in the woods. She had been through so much, and was sitting there all innocent. I glanced at Pike and knew he was thinking the same thing. “How you gonna handle that one?”
“Not now,” he whispered as he shot me an angry look. His smile returned as he walked over to Maddie and ran his hand over her sandy-colored hair. “You okay, little one?”
She smiled back, her expression clear and remarkably untainted by last night’s horror. “Right as rain.” Lifting her body from the floor and holding Priscilla by the arm she danced up the stairs.
“Where you headed?” My voice stopped her on the third stair.
“Up to my room. Priscilla and I want to draw.”
“Well stay out of Mae’s way—and stay far away from the wounded man,” Pike said.
Maddie nodded, danced up the stairs, and disappeared around the corner.
“That child has not said a thing about what happened out there. Not one word,” Ellie said. “What do you think she’ll make of all this?”
“Hard to say. With the way she’s acting, maybe she’s convinced herself it was all a dream, or blocked it from her mind.”
“The one we should have been worried about was Pike.” I made a wide-eyed shocked face mimicking Pike in the woods. I grabbed my holster and slung it onto my shoulder, noticing it was much lighter. “Hey, where’s my hatchet?”
Pike scowled. “You’d lose that thing even if it was imbedded in your sku—”
Mae’s screams pierced the air. “Pike! Al! Come quick!”
Pike and I flew up the stairs as Mae backed out of the guest room and fell against the wall, pointing.
We bolted into the room, afraid Baku had tried to harm her. Instead, Maddie stood over the sleeping man, my hatchet raised high over her head. Her eyes were vacant and her formerly pleasant demeanor dulled to a trance-like drone.
“He killed my friend, and he’d kill Red and Pa and Junior. He must be stopped.” Her words, calculated and controlled, were not her own.
As her arm dropped in a deadly swing, I lunged for the bed and swooped her out of reach, grabbing the hatchet with one hand and wrapping the squirming child in my other arm. Maddie thrashed with a vigor unexpected from such a young girl, still holding the weapon’s handle in a vice-like grip. I held her tight as her flailing turned to sporadic convulsions. Suddenly, she dropped the hatchet and her body went limp.
In my arms, her body quivered as she started to sob, becoming the gentle girl we knew and loved once again. I hugged her as we both sunk to the floor. “It’s gonna be alright, Maddie. Everything’s gonna be all right.”
Stay tuned! The next episode will post May 8, 2015.