Spiritus Mundi

When John Acorn decided to steal into the boss’s mansion up the hill, he unearthed the small sack of money from under the floor of his shack and gave it to his wife for safekeeping. Then he made his way to Old Yarrow’s for an old silver dime. Yarrow had seen all his children born and stanched his wife’s bleeding, and she knew of healing and conjuring. She’d done it her whole life for the folk of the holler, and other hollers nearby besides; all the folk who were too poor to see a doctor after a lifetime of working like mules down in the mines, the folk on whose skin so much coal-dust had settled that it wouldn’t come off if they scrubbed for a year. The folk like him.

He told Yarrow he wanted the dime for some travelling, to keep away the robbers and the wolves, but she shook her old head, brown and wizened as a dried date. “No. Can see it in your eyes, John. You’re fixing to do something crazy, and don’t you tell me more lies, I can see them in your eyes. You let me know what foolishness you’re planning and I’ll see what I can do for you.”

John told her about his plan, unafraid, because she was one of them, poor and sad. The strike wasn’t working; the boss had decided to fire all the union-stamped workers and get scabs from far afield to work his mines instead. And worse than that – black most of them, black like him, because they weren’t allowed in the union for all the toiling they did, and so they had no loyalty to it. The boss could get them working for pennies on the dollar, and they had no choice. They had to work for these wages not worth telling your wife about, because they couldn’t talk and haggle on it like the union men could. And the union men, the white men, looked at the black men askance, as it was the black men’s fault they had to put food on their table. Not fair whichever way he looked at it. 

“I reckon you’re right in all this,” she said, blinking her big owl eyes, when he told her. “But what’s the boss’ mansion have to do with all this?”

“The boss can’t do profit with just us black men,” he said. “He’s got them machines working down in the mines. And my wife’s spoken to one of his help in the general shop. Girl told my wife that he’s got himself one of them summoning books. Them haint books.”

Yarrow scrunched her face. “A grammary. T’enslave them. I know.” 

“He’s got them setting these machines alive and stealing our work. So I’ll go and set it on fire, so he can’t.” He was sick of his own lack of ability. Can’t be in a union, can’t join the strike, can’t get a better job without his letters, which he didn’t have because he left school at nine to go down the mine. Can’t move back south where his paw came from, where things are worse for folk like him. Can’t stand seeing his wife and little ones grow thinner and poorer month by month. 

Setting fire to a haint book, that he could do.

Yarrow looked at him for a long time, all over, like his wife would when she was sizing him up for some task around the house. “I’ll give you the dime,” she said in the end. “And you’ll wear it ‘round your neck. But one more thing. I’ll come with you.” He started protesting, but she cut him off sharp. “You keep your words now, save ‘em for praying. Cause you ain’t keeping me away. It’s cleaning work, this, and I’m to see it done proper. It’s my job.”

She looked mulish, so he said nothing. She was an old woman, and respected, and he didn’t feel comfortable protesting as he would if she were younger. But it still weren’t right, to put a woman in the mouth of danger like that. He kept that to himself, because he knew what she’d say.

She told him she wanted to prepare, and she rummaged through her drawers; John watched her putting things inside her small leather satchel. Some herbs tied together, and some coal, and a small comb also. She came to him with a scrap of red ribbon, much worn and faded. “You tie this in the inside of your shoe now, and then we’ll go.”

He owned the one pair of shoes, almost falling apart with age. The ribbon may as well fall through the holes in the sole, but he did as she bid. And then they set off.


“Have you kissed your wife?” she asked him as they walked through the woods. “Your children?”

He nodded. “I’ve told Marie, if I ain’t back by tomorrow, to take them and what she can carry and go. She won’t stop till she’s in Ashland. She has cousins there.” He didn’t like thinking of them here, now. The thought of them sweetened him, and he’d lose his nerve and turn right back if he was too much sweetened. He’d had a bitter taste in his mouth for months, ever since before the strike, and he wanted this to be how he’d wash it out.

Yarrow looked at him approvingly. “Good. But it won’t come to that. We’ve the Almighty on our side.”

John couldn’t help scoffing. He didn’t want to think that, because then he’d be caught blaspheming. If the Almighty was on their side, it didn’t bear thinking who was on the bosses’. He bit his tongue, but the bitter came out of him nonetheless. “Where’s the Almighty when they bind these demons with their books and make them big iron machines alive? They’re all over the country with them iron giants, they bring the books from France and England. Where’s the Almighty when the strike don’t even work, because they’ve better workers than we human folk could ever be?”

Her eyes narrowed. “They profane and enslave, John, like they did once with human beings. That’s illegal now, so they make slaves out of haints,” she said. “It’s our work to stand against them. Lord can’t fight your battles for you, can only bless you and show the way.” She took a deep breath. “And we are blessed, John, believe me.”

“As you say,” he made a tired gesture. Didn’t want to argue with this old woman who’d treated his hurts and the hurts of his family ever since he could remember.


It was a long way to that big mansion. Yarrow was walking leisurely, and it took them more than an hour to get there. It finally rose through the trees, a great big brick-and-timber, red and white box, its tall porch supported by fat white pillars. It was far enough from the coal mines that it would never stain with coal dust, unlike the holler. Ten families like mine could live here, and he’s only got the one son and twenty servants.

They walked round the house where the help entrance was. He was embarrassed to admit he could jimmy locks, but as he gathered his courage she muttered, “I’ve a spare key.”

He glanced at her, incredulous. “You do?” 

She gave him a knowing look. “Sometimes the girls have need of me, and they’d rather I come in the night where nobody can see.”

John could imagine. The servants working here had as much need for Yarrow’s healing herbs and potions as much as any holler folk did; and they were of the same families, too. Secretly, he was relieved that Yarrow made the way so much easier for him.

It came upon him suddenly; he’d never had a plan in the first place, and he never even admitted it to himself. He’d imagined he’d get Yarrow’s old silver dime for luck and square-dance his way into the house, into wherever the boss kept that demon book, somehow, and set it on fire with the matches in his pocket. Maybe light the boss himself with it. 

Some luck. More likely he’d get shot down by the law the boss would call.

But that was the thing, wasn’t it? He was tired. Part of him wanted to go like this, doing something. Before he was laid off from the mine like the rest of his skinfolk, before he had to see that final hope snuff out in his wife’s eyes. He’d been foolish. But Yarrow’d stuck with him, and maybe that gave him a better chance. Maybe they were blessed by the Almighty after all.

He crossed himself, his bones full of cold water, and followed her in.

It was dark inside. Good thing the gibbous moon was lighting up through the windows, and Yarrow herself seemed to know her way in. Once his eyes adjusted, he could see they were in a tall-ceilinged hallway. Paintings hung on the walls, the boss’s family staring down at them, angry at the intrusion. A door to the right opened to a large kitchen, he could see that. They’d have to be mindful to do their business and leave soon enough; the servants woke up before dawn for the first work of the day.

“I know where he’d keep such a thing,” Yarrow whispered to him. “The cellar. It’s dark work, this, to be done beneath the earth where the sun don’t see. And the girls told me the boss been spending time in the cellar lately. Don’t they always, when they find a new toy.” She gave a disdainful sniff.

She knew her way about the house, so he let her guide him. She opened a door somewhere and he saw the stairs going down, a soft faint glow illuminating their way. They went down carefully, step by step.

The cellar had once been a small space, recently enlarged. Someone had pulled up the wooden floor dug down into the earth beneath, giving more room to the whole place. And it was necessary; by the light of small oil lamps hung from hooks in the ceiling beams, John could see big machines lined up against the walls, an army of giants. All made of iron and steel, vaguely shaped like people, but thrice the height and twice the breadth. And they were meant to imitate tools; some had large wheels instead of arms, wheels with teeth on ‘em. Some had drills, and other had large flat plates on their backs, as if to scoop the coal with, or on the ends of their arms. John could only guess what they could do.

He thought about them marching against his fellow miners to break the strike; giants of metal against men of flesh. He shivered and crossed himself again.

The center of the room was dedicated to a big circle traced on the earth and filled in with something white. Chalk maybe. And within that circle, within its runes and markings that John couldn’t hope to understand, was another machine, its arms ending in toothed wheels. But it was glowing from within; he could see the light of it escaping from the badly welded seams. There was a caul of mesh wrapped all around it, stiff like it was made of metal.

John glanced at Yarrow. She was watching the thing, her eyes afire with rage. “The haint,” she mumbled. “It’s bound in that circle.” She spat on the ground. “Seen them evil markings. Thing can’t do nothin’ unless the boss tells it. Look.” She pointed at a corner, where a small wooden lectern stood; and there was the book on it, a large black tome, its cover blank. “With that.”

John wanted to pound his feet with joy. There’s time for that later, when I won’t wake a whole household. He nodded at her. “Let’s take it. Burn it, now.”

“Wait,” she replied. “The haint. It’s bound.”

He shrugged. What was he supposed to care for? He had enough worries for his fellow miners, his skinfolk, his family. If he went around taking the weight of haints and demons on his shoulders, he’d end up collapsing like a beaten pumpkin.

She glared at him. “We’re freeing it. Can’t go around enslaving things of nature right under the eye of God. It ain’t right.” She approached the circle and put a hand in front of her, then winced. “He’s put curses on it. Even the air around it is blinked.” She took the dime from her pocket and held it aloft, mumbling. It glowed with a light of its own as she walked into the circle, shuddering in pain but still walking, until she reached the machine.

“Step away,” said a voice, deep and earthen, from within the metal. John’d never heard a voice like that in all his years.

But Yarrow shook her head. “I ain’t your enemy, child. I’m about to free you. Now hush. You’ve been witched.” From her satchel on her shoulder she took the herbs and shoved stalks of them into every seam she could find on the machine. Then she held the piece of coal delicately in her hand. She mumbled and mumbled, moving around the machine, and John saw the light of the oil lamps shudder and shudder again as something deep and unbearable filled the room and made his heart lurch. A smoky smell filled the room and scratched at his throat and eyes. He knelt, pain and nausea in his heart, and his sight went for a moment. He wanted to cry out for Yarrow, for the Almighty, but then the light suddenly steadied and the unbearable thing fled, along with his pain.

Yarrow took a deep, shaking breath. The haint inside the metal made a noise. Yarrow opened her palm; the piece of coal had crumbled into dust. She poured it all carefully into a piece of paper, which she folded tightly. “Before we go,” she told him gravely, “we must sweep this out of the house with any broom we find. And we’ll pick it up and bury it under the willow tree outside the holler, the one by the stream, and after nine days, I’ll burn the broom.” She turned to the machine. “You’re free now.”

“The cage,” the voice said. “It burns me.”

Yarrow nodded. She removed the mesh caul from around the iron, and used the old dime to open up one of the seams a little more. And the thing had its chance.

It streamed out, rippling like sunlight on water, gold and orange and red. And then it floated before them, its form long and vaguely winged, depressions and shadows in the midst of its light making out a clumsy imitation of a face. John thought it looked a bit like Yarrow’s. “The book,” it said. “The grimoire.”

John pointed at the book in the corner wordlessly. The demon gave it a look. Lectern and book both went up in flames at once, the whoosh of the blaze startling both John and Yarrow. John stepped back, crossing himself. Yarrow nodded, a smile on her face.

After his initial fear, John realised what this meant. “D’you know that you ain’t the only one to be bound up in one of these?” he asked.

The demon turned to him. “Explain.”

“Others like you. Witches have been calling them up and binding them in these iron cages. Your brothers, your sisters.” He didn’t actually know what the haint was, or if it was anything at all, given it seemed to have no flesh. “And now you’re free, but they ain’t. That ain’t right, is it? Don’t you think you should do something about that?” 

“I remember things,” the demon said after a few seconds. “I have been summoned and bound with my true name many times before. It is my lot, the lot of the people of the air. It is my lot to hate it and to chafe against it, and escape when I can. Can it be otherwise?” 

John smiled at it. “If you want. My people can help yours. We can free you and stop the curses that bind you, and in return you help us fight against them bosses that keep us both down on our knees.” He extended his hand, wondering if a demon had enough substance for a handshake. “What do you say?”

Quick and loud footsteps bounded furiously down the stairs, and in a few seconds a long, tall man popped his head into the cellar. The boss, with his thin pinched face hateful and suspicious now, more than usual. He stepped carefully into the room. “I’ve called the law already,” he said. Well, there’d be no sense in him greeting them and inviting them in the parlour for tea. John doubted his words; such witch-like setups wouldn’t look good in the eyes of the law, especially with men raised around here. Herbs and dimes to give luck was one thing; a hell-black book to call haints and cage them in metal quite another.

Yarrow cackled. “Ain’t the law gonna do anything to us. You’ve kidnapped this child of the air and we’ve freed it! You’ve no legal right to keep him as your slave.”

The boss, pale as he was, turned red as a bad beet. “I wouldn’t expect you to know much beyond your prayers and potions, old woman, but learn at least this. The demon has no legal existence, despite the pitiful mewlings of the socialists in Washington. It is my property.” He turned to look at the demon. “Stolas. I do conjure thee, by the most glorious name of Adonai, that-”

The old witch stood in front of the demon, her hand around the dime. “In the name of the Almighty, leave Stolas be. You won’t witch him no more, lest your own tongue wither and fall from your mouth.” The small coin shone again, a pure white moon-glow cutting through the orange light of the oil lamps.

And the boss let out a cry, as if stung or bitten. He turned to them, face ugly with fury. “I summoned it! It’s my property, not yours!”

John stood beside Yarrow. “You don’t own Stolas. You don’t own any of us. Get yourself to hell, boss.”

The boss spluttered more rageful words, but there was little he could do to Stolas while Yarrow was there, and he had sense enough not to attack them. As they walked out, the demon set off a tiny singe, the tiniest, on the boss’s trouser hem. The three had the pleasure of hearing his curses all the way to the door, as they carefully sprinkled the coal dust on the floor and then swept it out.

They left the big house and walked a ways down to the willow tree next to the small stream. There, Yarrow buried the dust with a prayer. She dusted herself off fussily and looked at the demon. It was still dark, and the light that made up its essence shone bright. John wondered if the creature would fade away in the sun.

“What will you do now?” Yarrow asked. “Can you disappear back into…wherever you came?” She shook her hand in the air vaguely. John turned away to hide a smile.

“I can, yes,” the demon said. “But I may be summoned and captured again. I cannot help appearing if I am called with my true name, and true binding magic. This cannot be the only book.”

Yarrow nodded. “I can keep that from happening, if you want. I can stop them witching you again. And what do you think of John here’s proposition? Men, demons – the bosses keep us all down.”

The demon turned to him. “You would burn the books that bind us, if I helped your men fight your enemies?”

Our enemies,” John corrected. “And yes. We’ll burn every book. We’ll free all the children of the air like you, kept inside the iron cages. We help each other. You scratch my back, I scratch yours.” He felt a power, now. He felt a hope, small like the flame of a match, but it could grow. The miners could have an advantage. With healers like Yarrow and creatures like Stolas by their side, no boss or law could stand against them. And who would start it? A man with black skin, called John Acorn. “But men like me, black men. We’ll stand equal beside you and the others. Right now, we’re not. I’ll have no more of that no more putting me and my skinfolk down. We fight together or not at all.”

He put his hand out again. This time, Stolas took it. It felt like being tickled by warm, running water. “Then we will be comrades, John Acorn,” the demon said, and its light poured over and around John’s hand, fitting it like a protective glove. 

About the Author

Asenath Grey is a software engineer from northern England with a secret creative side that expresses itself in writing. She has a lifelong fascination with dark fantasy and horror, and the macabre and gothic often end up making an appearance in her stories. When not writing, she spends her time reading, crocheting and scaring herself with creepy YouTube videos before bedtime.