“Basilisk and Sons” by Timothy Mudie
Jeffrey Kesselman tapped his pen against his clipboard, puffed air through his lips, recognized what he was doing, and thought, Jesus Christ, I’ve turned into Dad. This realization threw off his train of thought, and it took a couple seconds to remember what he was about to say. Mrs. Connor, his current client, eyed him expectantly.
“Yeah,” he said, “this is completely normal for around here. See, the early settlers in the area, the pilgrims and what have you, they didn’t know how to deal with basilisk disposal. Oh sure, they could kill them, but once that was taken care of, they were at a loss so they ended up just burying them. These old houses, the foundations are built over a veritable basilisk graveyard. Luckily, we know how to deal with the contamination these days.”
“You’re sure?” Mrs. Connor asked, looking around the room as if the basilisk would come bursting out of the walls or digging its way through the concrete basement floor at any moment. “It’s just, I have kids, you know?”
“Absolutely, Mrs. Connor,” Jeff assured her, putting on his most winning smile, the one Dad used when clients were wary of the family’s work. “After we’re through, your house will be, well, safe as houses.” God, I’m doing it again.
“How do you do it?”
“Well, that’s proprietary. And that’s why they pay us the big bucks.” He sighed inwardly. It was like he couldn’t even help himself.
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he took it out and pressed the ignore button without looking at it. “We can set up a day to come take care of everything,” he said. “It won’t take us more than a couple hours. You won’t even need to be away overnight.” The phone buzzed again, and again he ignored it.
Almost as soon as he put the phone back in his pocket, it buzzed again. This time he looked at it. Danny. “Excuse me, Mrs. Connor. Do you mind if I take this?”
“Of course. I’ll be upstairs when you’re done.”
Jeff watched her walk up the stairs until her billowy khakis and plain white sneakers were out of sight then retreated behind a hot water heater to make his call.
He dialed his brother, and Danny answered on the first ring. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Jeff said. “I’m with a client. What’s up?”
“It’s the old man,” Danny said, his voice completely affectless. Jeff knew what was coming, the only possible words that could follow that start, but he let Danny finish. “Dad. He’s dead.”
Probably no more than five yards below his feet, the decayed body of a basilisk seeped its poisonous humors into the soil, a fossil no one wanted from an extinct animal no one missed. In a minute, Jeff would go upstairs, and give Mrs. Connor a quote, which she couldn’t refuse because his family’s removal service was the only one left in the Boston metro area. In a few days, he’d come back with a jackhammer and a protective jumpsuit and a containment unit, and he’d remove the skeleton, the carcass, whatever little bits of the rotting monster were left. He’d clean and sanitize the area where the basilisk had been buried. He’d receive his payment and wait at home for the next call to come, and repeat the process. Because that was what his family did.
Big Dan Kesselman died on a Tuesday. Not being a religious man, no wake or funeral was scheduled. Arrangements were left up to his sons, and they had him cremated, figured they’d put on a memorial service in a week or two. Maybe three because it was spring and that was the busy season for basilisk removal. At the very least, Jeff had Mrs. Connor’s house to take care of. Business had to come first. It’s what the old man would’ve wanted.
But that also meant that his place needed to be cleaned out, scoured for relevant banking info, anything of value he might have squirreled away in the years since he’d moved out of the family house. Anything Jeff and Danny didn’t want his landlord to throw away at the end of the month.
Jeff opened the door using the key that Dad had given him when he moved in, and which Jeff had kept on his keyring even though he had never used it. This was only the third time he’d been to the dingy little house on the outskirts of Woburn in the twelve years that Dad had lived there. To help him move in; for a sad and short Christmas Eve visit; and now. Since retirement, Dad had lived on the monthly stipend the company paid him, and as far as Jeff knew, pretty much anything that didn’t go to rent and utilities went to liquor.
He pushed the door open with his hip, a box of trash bags under one arm and a six-pack of Harpoon IPA under the other. He backed into the living room, followed by Danny, who carried a pizza and another six-pack.
Danny closed the door behind him, put the pizza and beer down on an end table, balancing them atop what looked to be months-worth of unopened mail, looked around at the stacks of yellowing newspaper, take-out boxes, the overflowing trashcan next to the old man’s La-Z Boy, and said, “Shit. We’re going to need more beer.”
“And pizza,” Jeff said.
“A fucking bulldozer.”
“Seriously. Was Dad a hoarder?”
Jeff asked the question, but knew from looking around that that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to the piles of refuse. And that was mostly what it was. Trash. Nothing with a conceivable use. Dad wasn’t sitting in his recliner thinking that someday he’d make something out of those empty nacho-cheese Combos bags. That he’d wallpaper the bedroom with old Papa Gino’s boxes.
Danny shook his head. “He wasn’t a hoarder, he was just lazy.”
Jeff let a long exasperated exhale burst through his lips. “Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
“Yeah, sure.” Danny picked up the pizza box, walked with it toward the kitchen. “I don’t think I trust his plates. If he even has any.”
“Probably paper plates around somewhere.” Jeff tilted his head at the nearest empty pizza box, which had a paper plate perched on top of it, orange with grease.
Danny exhaled the same way his little brother had. Something they picked up from Dad, though Jeff hadn’t realized that they both did it until that moment. That they unconsciously copied Dad’s reaction to a daunting task: a house with multiple basilisk remains, digging out the car after a blizzard, filing taxes. Jeff saw Dad when he looked at Danny; when he looked in the mirror, for that matter. The same long, bumpy nose. The thin arching eyebrows that looked perpetually amused. The jutting lower lip that his father joked meant they all should have learned to play the saxophone. When he looked at Dad’s corpse at the mortician’s before he was cremated, it was like looking into a magic mirror that showed the future. The wrinkles, thinning hair, jowls and sagging over-smoked flesh. One day all this will be yours.
Pizza placed on the counter, Danny returned for the beers. He popped the caps off two, handed one to Jeff, and drank from the second. “How much trouble do you think we’d get in if we just burned the place down?”
“There’s got to be something valuable,” Jeff said. “I mean, sentimentally. Or like, historically. Some old basilisk-man stuff. Something.” Dad hadn’t been the most present father, but he did have a sense of the long history of their trade, stretching back to Ancient Rome, to Pliny the Elder. Back when basilisks still stalked the Earth, their deadly glare and poisonous breath drilling fear into peasants and nobles alike. Until the great basilisk slayers arose, first alone, then establishing businesses, passing on their knowledge until all the basilisks were dead, and people like Dad and Jeff and Danny only had to deal with removing ancient remains and purifying the area where they had been buried. Weasel and cockerel and mirrors. Dad told stories about these things. About the people who used them. He had to have something of historical value.
But as Jeff looked around the living room, realizing as he did that all they’d seen was this and the kitchen—there was still the bedroom, the basement, the bathroom—he wondered if his father did have anything. If they’d even be able to find it. The old man was dead. Jeff took a sip of the beer. Maybe they should just burn the damn thing down.
If someone is just going to get cremated anyway, they don’t bother to pretty up the corpse. Dad stared up at Jeff and Danny from the sterile white slab, a sheet draped over him, pulled back from his head, revealing his pock-marked and hangdog face, his lips pulled back in a snarl, his teeth bared.
“Not to question you as a professional,” Jeff said to the mortician, “but couldn’t you have made him look a little more… I don’t know… serene?”
“I would have,” the mortician said, “but his face is pretty well frozen like that. Your father, he was a basilisk-man, yeah? Those things, they could kill a man with a look, but even now they’re all dead, and even though you all use your protection, working around them that many years isn’t good for you.” His voice sped up, and it seemed to Danny like he was relishing the opportunity to discuss this strange medical case, probably talked about it with all his mortician friends over beers at the local bar. “Your father, his internal organs were basically rocks. Heart, lungs, liver, the whole deal.”
“The liver was all the cheap booze,” Danny said. “Let’s not blame everything on basilisks.”
“Come on, man,” Jeff said.
“What? I realize you know more about the lore than I do, but I don’t think Jim Beam and Merits counteract basilisk poison.”
Jeff ignored him, staring down at Dad. So this was what he had to look forward to? Him and Danny both, splayed on long tables, bodies rigid from years of gaseous basilisk venom that seeped through the seams in their jumpsuits despite the manufacturer’s guarantees. Arthritis and heart disease and blood clots. And their kids—assuming they had any—following in their footsteps.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Danny, his eyebrows raised, one corner of his mouth drooping in bemused sympathy. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, already turning Jeff and gently propelling him toward the door. “Thanks for letting us see him,” he told the mortician as they left. “We’re all set now. You go ahead and do what you do.”
Two hours later and a person just walking in wouldn’t have any idea that Jeff and Danny had been cleaning. Yes, there were garbage bags strewn around the room, all of them full, but they’d barely dented the detritus of Dad’s post-family, post-work life.
The brothers stood by an open window, sharing a cigarette. A Merit, from Dad’s final pack. Danny only ever smoked socially, but Jeff had started sneaking Dad’s smokes when he was a sophomore in high school, kicked the habit into high gear when he was eighteen. He’d mostly quit when he turned twenty-eight and ten years of full-on smoking caught up with him, making him wheeze and pant and sweat just from walking up a couple flights of stairs. But now they both needed the break, and it felt good to share a cigarette with his brother, the cool breeze coming through the window, the pale white moonlight illuminating the strip of yard between Dad’s house and the neighbor’s.
The light wavered as high clouds blew past the moon. Jeff saw some broken pieces of plywood and tangled wire, and it took him a second to place them as the ruins of a chicken coop. He hadn’t realized Dad had kept roosters. It had been a tradition among basilisk-men, the rooster being one of only two animals that could kill a basilisk, that was impervious to its poison, with a crow that could curdle a basilisk’s blood, but with the basilisks dead no one really did it anymore. No more than they kept weasels. Dad was into the old ways, sure, but this seemed a bit much. For some reason the windows were barred, which also seemed a bit much. Dad hadn’t lived in the nicest of neighborhoods, but it wasn’t exactly a war zone. Had they always been on the house or had Dad added them? Jeff couldn’t remember.
He took a drag and handed the cigarette to Danny. “See that?” he asked, tilting his head in the direction of the coop.
Danny nodded. “I wasn’t going to say anything. Guess the old man was starting to lose it.”
“No, he just had a good sense of history. He liked the old customs. Part of our heritage.”
“Addiction is part of our heritage,” Danny said, wiggling the cigarette before taking another puff and passing it to Jeff. “Keeping roosters is delusional.”
“Cut him some slack, why don’t you. The man was our father.”
Danny turned from the window and regarded his brother for a long moment before sighing. “Whatever, Jeff,” he said, and walked away, grabbing an empty garbage bag from the counter before disappearing into the bedroom.
While he smoked the last few drags of the cigarette, Jeff considered the chicken coop. It was broken, but it didn’t look that old. If he had to guess, he’d say Dad had been raising roosters up until a few months before he died. Danny was right, though—there was no good reason for it. And maybe that explained why Dad had given it up. Roosters didn’t lay eggs, and a man had to eat. One day he was probably too drunk to go to the store and too broke to order in, and that was the end of the roosters. But Jeff wondered if he really believed that, or if it was just Danny’s pessimism creeping in. He stubbed the cigarette out on the windowsill, flicked the butt into the yard, and went to help his brother clean Dad’s bedroom.
“Hey man, I’m sorry,” Jeff said as he entered the bedroom. “I’m just saying, Dad was…” He trailed off when he saw his brother, his back to him, kneeling in front of Dad’s open closet, a long box of unvarnished pine open on the floor of it. It was about twice the size of a shoebox. “What’re you looking at?”
Danny mumbled something that Jeff couldn’t make out, then audibly licked his lips and gulped, tried speaking again. “I think I know.”
Jeff took a few steps closer, leaned over his brother’s shoulder. “No,” he said. “No. No way.”
Even though Danny had turned on the bedside lamp, the room was dim. Dad probably bought low-watt bulbs in bulk. If they were a few cents cheaper than the normal ones, he’d do it without even considering that the reason they were on sale was because no one wants forty-watt bulbs. But no matter how dim the light was, Jeff knew what he was looking at. He’d seen plenty of pictures in books, but never thought he’d see one in real life. It wasn’t supposed to be possible.
In front of him, in a cheap wooden box in his dead father’s closet, was a basilisk egg.
Pictures didn’t do it justice. Iridescent violet and green swirls with gold speckles mixed in covered the shell, which was maybe three times the size of a chicken egg. Jeff leaned closer, noticed his fingers in front of him, stretching toward the egg, and pulled back his hand. It must have been evolutionary. The beauty of the swirls attracting people, making them want to take the egg, bring it home, keep it safe. A dull egg wouldn’t do that. Like raccoons and magpies, humans can’t resist shiny things.
Danny picked up the box, eliciting a twinge of jealousy from Jeff. “What are you doing?” he asked, but Danny was already halfway out of the room.
“I want to see it better.”
So did Jeff. He followed his brother into the living room.
Danny put the box on the dingy carpeted floor and stepped back. “God, look at it,” he whispered. “What was the old man doing with this? It’s an antique. It’s got to be worth… it’s priceless.”
“He was connected. He was in the business a long time, you know. People respected him.”
Ignoring his little brother, Danny took his phone from his pocket, tapped it on so he could take a picture. Hesitated. Jeff knew what was going through his head. Did he want to share this? What if he sent the picture to someone and they came to try to take the egg? Shouldn’t he just keep it for himself?
Jeff was about to suggest that they hide the egg away until they decided the best way to deal with it when the clouds slipped away from the moon and its silvery light streamed through the open window, falling on the egg like a spotlight. With the sound of a twig being stepped on in an otherwise silent forest, the eggshell cracked.
Jeff tried to speak, but the only thing that came out was a dry click from deep in his throat. His eyes were glued to the egg, watching a hairline fracture spread from its crown and spiderweb outward, but in his peripheral vision he saw Danny, equally as frozen in place.
Another crack, and the boys jumped like startled squirrels.
“Get away from it,” Danny blurted, already backpedaling. Jeff followed suit, forcing his legs to move after his brother, away from the egg, even though he couldn’t take his eyes off of it. They reached the bedroom and Danny slammed the door. The instant Jeff couldn’t see the egg, it was like all the air was suddenly sucked out of the room or a bucket of ice water had been thrown across his face.
“Jesus,” Jeff mumbled. “It’s beautiful.”
“Beautiful like a Venus flytrap,” Danny said. “We have to get out of here.” He moved toward the window, but before he took two steps he stopped and cursed. Barred. He reached for his pocket then froze. “Christ. I dropped my phone. Of all the—do you have yours?”
Jeff took his phone from his pocket and tried to dial 911, not that they’d believe him. He’d have to say there was a thief in the house. Something believable. But when he pressed send nothing happened. “I don’t have any service,” he said quietly, staring at his phone, perplexed. “How do I not have any service? Can it do that?”
“Basilisks went extinct a long time before cell phones were around,” Danny said. “I know that much lore, at least. But its effusions?” He shook his head. “Damned if I’ve got any idea.”
As he spoke, the neighborhood dogs struck up a howling chorus, thin wavering calls from lapdogs and terriers mixing with deep mournful wails from huskies and St. Bernards.
“They can probably smell it for miles,” Danny said. “Anything in the lore about basilisks and dogs?”
Jeff shook his head. “Weasels and roosters.”
“Great.” Danny clapped once. “We’re fucked then.” But he must have seen the fear creeping into Jeff’s eyes because he immediately amended himself. “Not really. We’ll figure something out. Mom knows we’re here. She’ll come eventually. We’re safe till then.”
“And when she gets here? She’s going to walk right in the front door. Probably trip over the basilisk, and then she’s turned to stone.”
“Okay. Something else then. We’ll figure it out. You’re a smart guy. The old man always said you were the brains of the family.”
“No one’s the brains of this family.”
“Under the circumstances…” Danny trailed off, looking out the window, but then vehemently turned back around. “No. You’re smart. If you really don’t think you’re smart then the old man did a worse number on you than I thought.”
“He was just a father. Not the best, but he didn’t do a number on anyone. I’m fine. You’re fine.”
For a minute they sat, thinking, listening to the howling dogs. Danny said, “I think some sons respond to a lack of affection by disconnecting from their father. And some by latching on even tighter.”
“You’re the one he gave the business to. He didn’t even want me to work there.”
“Yeah, because—whatever,” Danny said. “Why are we arguing about this now?”
Before Jeff could answer, one dog’s voice broke from the pack. It ceased howling and started barking aggressively, bravely. Jeff pictured a German Shepherd, a police dog busting through a rotting wooden door to take down a drug dealer. The barking grew louder and louder. Closer.
“It’s coming for the basilisk,” Danny said, hope in his eyes. “Maybe there is something in the lore about dogs?”
The barking intensified, added growls, snarls. Spittle was surely flying from the dog’s angrily flaring lips. Fangs would be bared. It got closer and closer to the house, to the living room, to the basilisk. It reached a fever pitch, and the brothers heard something thump against the front door. Once, twice, and again. The thumps repeated until suddenly they heard a snap, what must have been the door breaking open. Barking so loud now that it was practically roaring, the dog bounded into the house, its claws catching and scratching on the carpet. The barking abruptly cut off.
“Well,” Danny said eventually, “the door’s broke down. Maybe it’ll leave.”
At that instant something scrabbled against the door to Dad’s bedroom. Tapping and clicking claws on wood. Like a dog trying to get back inside from the yard. Except they knew it wasn’t the dog. The dog was dead outside and stiff as stone.
“How come we don’t have a weasel?” nine-year-old Jeff asked Dad. “It says here that all basilisk-men have them.” He held up the book he was reading, a thick hardcover with no dust jacket, its pages yellow with age, the maroon cover spotted with old grease stains. He knelt on the floor by the coffee table, in front of the middle of the couch, Danny sitting to his right, and Dad to his left, his feet up on the same table, an ashtray and bottle of beer on the end table next to him. He had the Bruins game on the TV, but now he muted it with one hand while he held a cigarette to his lips and took a drag with the other. When he was done, he placed the smoldering cig carefully in the ashtray. Only then did he answer.
“That was when there were still living basilisks around. Don’t need a weasel anymore. Not to remove the remains. Like the roosters.”
“But it could be like a mascot,” Jeff said, warming to the idea. “We could bring him around with us. People would be charmed.”
Dad shook his head and picked the cigarette back up. “You don’t need that. You should be reading something else. Why’d you want to be a basilisk-man anyway? It’s a shit profession. No point being one unless you can’t be anything else.”
“It’s cool,” Jeff said. “Protecting people. Like Abdon Misak in Prague. Remember? In 1609 he killed a basilisk as big as a cow. The biggest ever. It had killed almost a hundred people. He was like a superhero.”
“And we’re like garbage-men,” Dad retorted. He shook his head again. “Christ, you know your lore.” He turned to Danny. “Why don’t you read like this? Bone up on your lore some. People like to hear it. It charms the customers.”
Danny, thirteen, just months from starting high school, threw up his hands. “You just said we didn’t need to worry about charming customers.”
“He said I didn’t need to worry,” Jeff said, smiling at his own quick wit. “My charm is natural.”
Jeff didn’t respond, unsure why his brother was mad. It was just a little joke. He only made it because Danny teed it up for him. He turned back to the book, glanced at Danny, who fumed on the couch. Dad didn’t say anything. Just picked up the remote and turned the sound back on. Jeff pushed his face closer to the pages. He liked the way they smelled. Musty and dry, like they’d spent a long time being kept safe. Because they were important. Because no one wanted to get caught by a basilisk. That’s why one day he’d have a weasel. And roosters. And a whole crate full of mirrors of every size and shape and brightness.
For all the shit in Dad’s bedroom, stacked in the closet, crammed onto shelves and into dresser drawers, piled in the corners, not a whole lot of it was useful. Besides the requisite clothes, hangers, blankets, and daily routine bric-a-brac, they’d found half a dozen books of basilisk lore, a bike helmet—mysterious, since as far as the brothers knew, Dad didn’t own a bike—two full rolls of duct tape, half a bottle of a brand of rum that they’d never heard of, and a multi-tool. The multi-tool was the closest thing they had to a weapon, and it had a reach of four inches. Tops.
Halfway through their taking of inventory, Danny had broken off and gone to the window. He opened it, grabbed hold of the bars, failed to rattle them or bend them like a superhero. He screamed and hollered, but no one came and eventually his yells turned into a wordless howl that joined the dogs. No one reacted. Even next door the lights stayed off, the windows dark. Finally, with a huff, he resumed searching the room. He found an unused Swiffer in the back of the closet, its dust-catcher pristine white. Behind it a full-length mirror leaned against the wall, dingy and smeared with dust and grime, but still reflective.
They had discussed just waiting it out. Either someone would come or the basilisk would grow restless and leave. But they both knew they couldn’t do that. Waiting for someone to show up would be condemning that person to death. Even if it ended up being a neighbor, a police officer, someone they’d never met and had no connection to, they both agreed they couldn’t live with the death of another person on their soul. And if it was their mother coming to look? No, waiting was out of the question.
“What sort of basilisk-men would we be if we let it escape?” Jeff had asked.
“Live ones,” Danny answered.
Now, as they surveyed their meager supplies, Danny said, “You know, it wouldn’t be our fault if it got out. Whatever it did. That’s not on us—that’s the old man’s fault. Who would keep a basilisk egg? In their closet for Christ’s sake.”
“He probably thought it would be worth something,” Jeff said. “Maybe it was supposed to be our inheritance. That and the business.”
“Yeah, cause the business would just kill us slow. This’ll at least make it quick.”
Danny’s heart wasn’t in it. Jeff could tell from the tone of his voice that he was just making the remark to say something, because that’s what he thought he should say. Rag on the old man.
“We can do this,” Jeff said. “We know what to do. We trained for it… sort of.” The stench from the basilisk clogged the air. A cloying smell, rotten and sweet like decaying roses or an apple orchard in late fall, all the dropped fruit squished underfoot and teeming with bees. It weighed on Jeff, seemed to make the room smaller. He sneezed so hard his neck twinged. “But we have to do it soon.”
“I’ll go,” Danny volunteered. “It’s what the old man would’ve wanted.”
“Oh, come—I’ll do it. I know the lore better than you anyway.”
“Yeah, so you need to survive. Keep the business running, the family name alive.”
Jeff stared down his brother, unsure how it came to be that they were arguing about who would be the better person to kill a basilisk, an animal extinct for over a century. “I’ll rock-paper-scissors you for it.”
The corners of Danny’s mouth curled upward. “Fair enough.”
Years of deciding who would sit in the front seat, have the last slice of pizza, and pick what show to watch on TV meant that it took many more than three throws for someone to win best out of three. The brothers matched rock for rock, scissors for scissors. Despite the gravity, they were both laughing out loud by the time Danny won.
For a long set of seconds neither spoke, looking at Danny’s paper, Jeff’s rock. Finally, Danny said, “Well, that’s that then,” and prepared his weapon. A multi-tool duct-taped to the handle of a Swiffer. An ersatz spear. Jeff tested the tip of the multi-tool’s extended blade. Sharp enough, though Danny would need to get some weight behind his thrust. Danny pushed the bike helmet onto his head, wrapped as much duct tape around his face as he could while still being able to see and breathe. Finally, he took a swig of the rum, coughing and grimacing at the cheap burn.
Jeff wanted to wait, wanted to say something to his brother, to relive every moment of their lives. Instead, he hugged him. “Wait until you’re sure it can’t see you. I’ll be safe. So wait until you’re sure.” He stepped back. “And let go of the stick as soon as you stab it.”
Danny nodded. Jeff knew he didn’t want his little brother lecturing him, but he couldn’t help it. If he didn’t keep talking he would lose it. So he talked about what he knew. The lore.
“Pliny says basilisk poison can travel up a spear, so let go right away, okay? Before the blade even sticks it. Throw it if you can.”
Smiling with just his lips, Danny said, “You’re too smart for this. If I don’t make it, do something else with your life. The old man…” He shook his head and scoffed. “Don’t listen to me. If I don’t make it and you do, do whatever you want. Do what makes you happy.”
“You’re going to make it. And you’re going to do whatever makes you happy too.”
“It’s not cleaning up after dead basilisks.”
Now the smile reached all the way to Danny’s eyes. He hugged his brother again. “Good talk,” he laughed. “I’ll see you out there.”
They crept toward the door, Jeff first with Danny close behind. It was quiet through the door. No more scratching and skittering. No claws against the door, scales pricking across the floor. Jeff had the wild feeling that the basilisk was waiting for them. His heart raced and he forced his breath slowly through his nose, tried to calm his shivering limbs. He thought he’d managed to, but when he looked down at his hands holding the long mirror in front of his body, he saw tremors.
He eased the door open, mirror held in front of his body like a shield. He inched into the living room, warily poked his head around the flimsy wooden frame.
The basilisk had settled about six feet from the door, standing on its squat hind legs, narrow head cocked curiously to the side. Its body was only about two feet long from the top of its head to the tip of its whip-like tail, but it was lithe and sinewy, with short legs. A nubby ridge ran along its entire spine, and surrounding its head was a frilled hood, which rippled as it moved, delicate and translucent as lace. The basilisk lowered its head and hissed.
Jeff pulled his own head back behind the mirror so quickly he nearly gave himself whiplash. Stupid, trying to look at a basilisk, but on the other hand how could he resist? Who else alive had had the opportunity to see one? Deadly, sure, but beautiful. You could say that about plenty of animals. And that was all the basilisk was, an animal. There was no malice there. If he thought he and Danny could capture the thing alive, he’d do it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, no one had done that in recorded history. There was nothing in the lore about basilisk traps, best practices for feeding a tame basilisk, establishment of captive breeding programs. No, a basilisk had to be killed. Rule one of the basilisk-men.
Ears pricked to keep track of the basilisk’s position, Jeff sidled along the wall, making sure to keep the mirror between him and the creature. The animal’s claws—strong and thick, good for digging its burrow—caught in the carpet and made little ripping sounds as it moved. It hissed and snarled, but didn’t attack. Jeff almost wished it would. One blast of its deadly venom onto the mirror and the basilisk would kill itself, the venom reflecting back on it. No such luck, though. The creature was too smart for that. Maybe it recognized itself.
Jeff was at the halfway point of the room, the entrance to the kitchen to his back, the open front door several yards to his left. He risked a glance at the bedroom door, and saw Danny watching him, crouched, perfectly still. If Jeff didn’t know any better, he would have thought the basilisk had managed to freeze him already. But his brother blinked and gave one short nod, and Jeff turned his eyes away, focusing on his journey around the room.
Nothing could make a room feel bigger than sliding along the perimeter sideways while dragging a mirror at the same time, he thought. It was like Dad lived in some mansion, it took so long to get around to the front door, but eventually he was there, between the basilisk and freedom, the mirror between the basilisk and death. He wanted to peek around and see what the animal was doing, but knew he couldn’t risk it. He wiggled the mirror back and forth as much as he could without exposing himself at all. Anything to draw the basilisk’s attention. All he could do now was hope he had it and wait for Danny to make his move.
He didn’t have to wait long. Seconds after Jeff stopped in front of the door, Danny sprang from the bedroom, trying to move silently, but sounding like a stampeding rhinoceros compared to the total silence that otherwise filled the room. Jeff heard him grunt, then yowl in pain, and he couldn’t help himself; he stuck out his head and looked.
His brother stood in the center of the living room, just feet from the basilisk, holding his right arm in front of his face and screaming. The arm was rigid and already turning stone-gray. The jury-rigged spear had gone through the basilisk’s right shoulder and pinned the animal to the carpet. Blood spurted from the wound and sizzled hotly where it landed. Danny must have hit an artery. The basilisk was bleeding out. But its frenzied writhing threatened to knock the spear free before that happened. If it managed to turn around, Danny was a dead man. As it was, his arm was ruined. They’d probably have to amputate. But he could live with one arm. He couldn’t live with all his internal organs frozen solid. Jeff had to do something, but he had no weapon. Flashes of lore popped in his brain. Weasels could kill basilisks just with their effluvium. Cocks with their crow. And mirrors were the best defense. Then he remembered a more modern bit of lore, utterly unrelated to basilisk hunting and removal: the best defense is a good offense. He lunged forward, the mirror in front of his chest and under him, like it was a boogie board and he was jumping to catch a wave. He yelled wordlessly, defiantly, his mighty yawp mingling with Danny’s scream of pain and the basilisk’s angry screech. He landed on the basilisk with a thud and a squish. Blood shot out from underneath the mirror and burned through his pant leg near his right shin. Where it touched his skin it burned intensely for an instant then went numb.
Tears streamed down Jeff’s face as he pushed down on the basilisk. It bucked and squirmed, stronger than Jeff would have imagined from its size, stronger than it had any right to be after losing so much blood. Its reek filled the air, seeming to coil around Jeff’s face, probe against his nostrils. He could taste it on his tongue. Danny had gone silent, was just staring at his dead arm with a bemused look. They simultaneously broke into coughing fits, and Jeff heard a thump and crunch, like a hammer missing its nail and puncturing a wall. The basilisk kicked one last time and went rigid. Jeff thought he knew what had happened, the basilisk lashing out in desperation, the mirror reflecting back the poison, killing it, but he still didn’t dare let up the pressure on its body for as long as he could.
Then his strength gave out and he rolled off the mirror and away from the dead basilisk and its poisonous emissions, toward his brother, who giggled spastically through his coughs, a shrill hitching laugh that Jeff had never heard from him before. Shock, but that was to be expected. Jeff couldn’t stop coughing, his lungs burning, snot pouring from his nose, and he started to laugh as well. He and Danny had done something that no basilisk-man had done in more than one hundred years, that maybe none would ever do again. Soon they’d have to get up, get medical help, escape the fumes the dead basilisk left behind. But first they deserved a minute. To lie on the floor, to bask in the glow of their achievement without any pain or fear or bitterness.
They would enjoy it all for a minute. Then they would clean up.
|Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction author whose fiction has been published in Lightspeed, Aliterate, Kaleidotrope, Black Static, and numerous other magazines, anthologies, and podcasts. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son.|