“Summer of a Soul” by Ruthann Jagge 

Joe Evans, age seventy-eight, rests in his genuine Naugahyde recliner. His eyes are closed, and the creased footrest extends. He appears to be comfortable. Kneeling by his side, his teen granddaughter drizzles cool water onto the green vines trailing up from clumps of soil cluttering the faded carpet. There’s a thick layer of growth covering his arms. She playfully taps her fingers at a few delicate pink blossoms hiding between the heart-shaped leaves and then licks the stickiness away.

“Don’t worry, Grandpa. I’m here.” Adair Evans kisses the man’s sunburned cheek. “The pain will be gone soon.” Joe can no longer speak. His eyelids flutter in agreement.

“Proboscidea althea folia” Pronouncing every syllable, Joe Evans points his finger at the circle of green in the back forty. He doesn’t speak Latin but knows the name of a beast when he sees one. “Devil’s Claw.” This damn weed is a monster. It will take out the pasture and some of my herd too. It hooks into them and causes lethal infections. It must have come in with a batch of hay. I haven’t seen it around here for years.” His teen granddaughter jumps off the 4-wheeler, kneeling to poke at the strange plant, daring to thrive in the cracked dirt.

“Careful now. Watch out for the slime. Those things eat bugs. I don’t want them eating you too.” He winks at the slim girl lying on her stomach, inspecting the clusters. A honey-like substance oozes from pale pink flowers, and a bright red trim on the petals’ edges attracts insects to the blossoms. Do the plants honestly eat them?

 I’ll read about these when we get back.” Popping up, she gathers her hair into a ponytail, failing to notice the weeds clinging to her jeans.

Adair Bronson is visiting her grandfather for the summer. Joe’s used to being alone since his wife Sara died, but he’s tickled to spend time with his only granddaughter.

The Evans Ranch sits acres of pastureland, divided by a narrow creek. It’s suitable for dry farming and grazing, and Joe pays high taxes for ownership.

There’s a long history connected to the Evans’ dirt, and not all of it is pleasant, but Joe Evans holds tight to his heritage, refusing to move or sell. A promise of the good life prompts city folks to relocate to the rural area, driving property values higher. Joe’s proud of his herd, and the shiny Black Angus live their best life on his land.

“Dare, he’s all alone. It won’t kill you to stay with him. Your dad and I need time to work things out.” Laura Bronson’s marriage was a disaster; she married an alcoholic gambler. The girl’s an odd duck, and there’s not much to do in a small town. Even less when you’re sixteen, she’s worried the girl will fall in with the wrong crowd. Laura’s relieved when Adair shrugs her shoulders in agreement. “I promise it won’t be for long.”

Adair doesn’t know her grandfather well but listening to her parents fight constantly is hard. Her mom can’t hold a job, and her dad won’t. They ignore her most days. She doesn’t risk embarrassment by inviting anyone over, so she stays in her room, drawing and reading. The teen doesn’t argue when Laura declares she’ll drop her off early tomorrow morning. Anyplace is better than here.

“Pack a few things and be ready. Your father and I want to leave early, and the old man will be up and waiting.”

Ranching is Joe Evans’ life. He enjoys tending cattle and shredding brush, and miles of barbed wire fence need fixing. The lean man enjoys hard work, eating oatmeal or fried eggs daily and a steak on Sunday. The picturesque farmhouse with a wraparound porch has basic television, but there’s no internet or cell phone coverage to distract from a simple life.

Adair likes the view of fields and cattle from the window of the small bedroom upstairs. It’s better than looking at the neighbor’s trash. Lacing up her boots, she’s eager to explore the woods.

“Not a good idea. Rattlesnakes are moving this time of the year. You can ride with me, and I’ll let you drive.” Joe slaps on his straw hat. He laughs when the teen grinds the gears of the tractor. Her antics take his mind off the relentless pain in his body. It’s a matter of time, but Joe refuses to waste another hour of life in a hospital bed. He hasn’t told Laura, hoping to spare his daughter until it’s over. She has enough problems of her own. Joe figures they’ll find him face down in a cattle pen one day, which suits him fine.

Adair fries her grandfather’s eggs. He’s nodding at the radio, listening to the news as he chews. There’s a shelf of agriculture and weather books in the front hallway.

“Invasive Plants of the South.” The oversized volume has botanical line drawings of species and their Latin names. Adair thumbs through, admiring the art. There it is.

“Proboscidea althea folia. The Devil’s Claw.” The girl sounds out the name, recognizing the distinctive leaves and blossoms. There’s a rough sketch resembling a stringy creature with a long, pointed snout.

 “When dry, the plant splits into a pod with serrated spines and sharp curved claws about eight inches long.”

“A threat to livestock and wildlife, it attaches to their legs, intending to sow seeds. It can result in a toxic and potentially lethal reaction” Adair narrows her eyes at the drawings. Damn, they are creepy.

“I’m burning them tomorrow, the whole field if I have to. Those nasty devils will trouble my cattle. The dirt on this place is old, but those ugly weeds are older. I’ve heard stories about them. Old-timers believe they suck the soul right out of a living creature.” Looking over her shoulder, her grandfather taps the page with a gnarly finger. “Your grandma used to say they were good medicine if you know how to work it. She had a way with such things” He coughs violently, struggling to stand. There are dark bloodstains on the handkerchief he’s wiping over his face. Blood drips from his nose.

“Grandpa. You need help. I’ll take your truck up the hill for a signal and call mom.” She eases him into his chair. “Does it hurt?”

“A lot, but don’t bother. I spoke with her this morning. Your mom asked if you could stay here until they get back. Might not be until Christmas.” Tears well in Adair’s eyes. “I love having you around. It’s okay, girl” Joe doesn’t know how to comfort the teen. Her eyes are full of sadness. His only daughter, Laura, is a wild one. Her return will depend on her husband’s gambling luck. “I need a nap. We’ll talk tomorrow. We can go to the general store for snacks and magazines. Anything you need.” Adair sniffs. She presses her lips together, wiping her nose with her sleeve. At least he cares.

Within minutes, Joe’s snoring softly in the chair. Adair returns the book to the shelf, and a folded piece of lined paper flutters to the floor. Climbing the stairs to her room, she squints at the words.

“Devil’s Medicine” Written precisely in a neat hand are instructions for growing, harvesting, and drying the strange weed, then using the plant’s essence in a poultice for pain. Adair tosses the paper on the nightstand, almost losing her balance, as she slides out of her jeans. Several of the spiny brown pods cling to the denim. She gingerly pulls them off. Withered and musty, they are unsettling. Two clearly defined holes on one end look like eyes. She sticks out her tongue, hurling them to the floor

“Grandpa needs to get rid of you.” Adair is upset by her parents’ neglect; it’s been an exhausting day. In her dreams, the pods scurry around the room. Long claws weave in a bizarre dance. One sits on her chest, watching her sleep. It pokes gently at her lips, hoping for a taste of her soul, while the others tap dance on the wood floor in anticipation.

She wakes when Joe’s desperate cough echoes through the house. Adair throws on her robe, flying down the worn stairs. Her grandfather is on his knees, blood gushing from his nose and mouth. He’s clutching his throat, struggling for air, but waves his concerned granddaughter away.

“What can I do?” Adair drops down beside him, cradling the sick man. “There must be something. Can I call the doctor?”

“Help me to my chair. No more doctors.”

Joe’s breathing is shallow. She runs back upstairs. One of the brown pods lurks near the bed, and she kicks it into a corner. It’s watching her. Snatching up the paper on her nightstand, Adair rereads her grandmother’s notes, then scrambles to the four-wheeler parked under the pole barn. It’s barely daylight, but she navigates the machine over the rocky pasture, hoping the rattlers aren’t awake yet. The girl eases through the rough field until she finds a patch thick with heart-shaped leaves.

“He’s all I have. I’ll do anything, whatever you want.” Adair screams to the sunrise, begging any god or demon who might be listening, as she digs frantically into the earth. Sap coats her hands, burning her fingers as she works.

Adair rips weeds out by the roots gagging at the disgusting smell. Insects sting her neck as the teen heaves the plants into the vehicle’s bed. The instructions say you must let the fruit of the Devil’s Claw dry before grinding it into a powder, but there’s no time to process it properly. He’s dying.

The slight girl drags the filthy vines into the house, eyes burning at the stench. Adair notices two brown pods on the stairs. Their slender claws are raised and eager. Joe is motionless in his chair as she piles the weeds around his body. Adair splashes water from his glass onto the leaves as they wilt, but narrow roots burrow like worms into the worn carpet, cracking the floorboards as they spread through the room.

Her grandfather whimpers as slender stalks tunnel like hypodermic needles under his exposed flesh. Displaced insects buzz as the blossoms open and close on his body, sucking the pain out of Joe Evans.

The ancient recliner pulses as The Devil’s Claw thrives, feasting on him. Adair shrieks, realizing she’s made a mistake. The plants are alive, not dried, and carefully prepared as required.

“NO, STOP! Please!” She pulls at the writhing stems, but it’s too late. Her grandfather’s life leaves along with his pain.

Several of the hideous brown pods are in the doorway. Their long curving claws tap signals as they dart back and forth, then sideways, like crabs. The hollow openings resembling dead eyes glare at the girl. They are vibrating with anticipation.

Adair gently covers Joe with a thin blanket. She can’t make out his features through the tangled mess of putrid green vines. Grief and guilt consume her. She stumbles to the stairs, crumpling onto the bottom step. The sobbing girl leans her head on the railing for support; the smooth wood is her only comfort. Adair doesn’t feel Devil’s Claws hooking onto her ankles. Several of them inch up her legs as she cries, mourning the loss of her kind grandfather. His death is her fault.

One pierces her neck, and its’ prickly spines sever the vein. Adair tries to scream, but the monsters are greedy. The girl’s head slumps to her chest. There is no blood, only slurping and clicking as the pods cover her, draining life fluids until her body is a husk

The Devil’s Claws waste no time claiming the soul of a desperate girl offered in the pasture.


Ruthann grew up in Upstate New York, where her favorite month of October is magical. She writes dark speculative and horror fiction. Her work is published in numerous successful anthologies. Learn more about Ruthann and her work HERE.


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