The Charming of the Worm

by Patrick Moody

“It’s time, boy.”
I watched as Grandpa hitched his waders over his patched overalls. I did the same, slipping on my wellies and fitting my checkered hunting cap snugly over my ears. It was long past suppertime and we’d been sitting out on the porch, watching the moon rise pale and listening to frog and cricket song.

“Grab me that there stob. You carry the rooping iron.”

 I snapped to attention, excited to be out on my first charming. Grandpa called it ‘grunting’, as most older folks did. He’d been a worm grunter for the past fifty years, even into his retirement, hiking out into the woods with his wooden stake and funny looking rooper, calling up worms from the earth like, to me, some kind of druid or sorcerer. On a good day he could get four or five hundred of the little suckers to come up out of the ground, the grunting sound of his stob and rooper imitating the vibration of preying moles. After a few charmings, he’d come home with bucket after bucket filled for the bait shops.

I handed him the stob and rooper, hefting the large kerosene lantern with both hands.

“Why did we have to wait until nighttime?”

Grandpa let out a gentle chuckle. “Well, most grunters won’t tell you this, but the best time to charm is just after sunset. Something about the temperature. Soil cools down. They like the cool, same as they don’t much like the rain.”

I followed Grandpa through the backyard and into the woods, our shadows long and leering in the lantern light.

Grandpa talked as we walked. Talked about his father, and his father’s father, and even their fathers, and how each of them had taken to grunting.

“Mind you,” he said, “Your great-great Grandpa Obie didn’t take to grunting. No, Sir. Old coot was a water dowser. I heard plenty of stories about him, wandering down the main road in town, waving that rod of his with his eyes closed like a blind man with a cane.”

“Did it work?” I asked, trying to picture it. “Did he really lead himself to water?”

“Jenkin’s Lake,” Grandpa said. “Our namesake. Yes, boy, he did indeed. You’ve swum in it plenty enough.”

“Can you make me a dowsing rod?”

Grandpa shot me a strange, almost conspiratorial glance. “I’m sure we can figure it out. Can make you a wizard’s staff, too, if that’s more to your liking. Know you love them books about the magic school.”

I did, and the thought of my great-great-grandpa finding water through, what…magic? It all seemed so mysterious. Like a family secret, but the good kind, ’cause I knew most family secrets were usually bad.

 A half-hour of hiking led us to the clearing. Grandpa stood for a moment, taking in that serene oasis in the dark New England forest. The grass seemed to shimmer light blue in the moonlight, and the stones shone black, almost obsidian, their surfaces slick and reflective. The frogs’ and crickets’ joyful singing hushed to whispers.

“Alright,” Grandpa said. “Come take a knee, boy.”

I set down the lantern as he handed me the stob and rooper.

“Like I showed you at the house, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I answered, suddenly nervous, like I was about to try a free throw in a stadium full of onlookers. But it was just Grandpa. Him and the stones and night soil, and everything that lived beneath. I plunged the stob into the ground, using the rooper as a hammer to set it firm.

“Excellent,” Grandpa said from behind me. “Nice form, boy. I can already hear them.”

 Once the stob was set, I took the iron rooper, set it on the top of the stob, and with both hands began to move it back and forth in a sawing motion. The noise of the iron rubbing against the wood was like the croaking of a massive toad, and before long, that strange song lifted something from the dirt.

It came up slowly, pushing its way through, set off by the vibrations, which must have been very distressing to the poor things. It started to feel less like magic and more of a cruel prank. Yet, it worked. The soil heaved, and the first of them broke through into the night air.

“Told you we’d get ‘em,” Grandpa said, sitting down on one of the stones. “Good night for it.”

I focused, running the rooper over the stob until my shoulders ached. Sweat ran down my forehead and into my eyes, but still, I played the song. I was a charmer!

“My father made me that stob, you know.” Grandpa’s voice was low. Serious. “Very special, that one. Has a particularly strong charm.”

I grunted on, thinking of all of them lying just under the surface.

“Good, boy,” I heard Grandpa say. “They’re up.”

 I stopped. The sounds of the forest came back, and when I opened my eyes, the clearing was full.

“Yes,” Grandpa said. “Good night for it. A regular family reunion!”

 A hand fell on my shoulder. The skin was fish-belly white and ice-cold.

It smiled.

Its breath smelled of earth. Of worms and coffin dirt, and sweet things rotted in root cellars.

“Well,” Grandpa said, throwing an arm around old Grandpa Obie, “Isn’t this just fine.”

Patrick Moody is the author of The Gravedigger’s Son (Sky Pony Press, 2017). His short fiction has appeared in Kentucky Fried Horror, Halloween Horrors 2, A Monster Told Me Bedtime Stories, Lovecraft in a Time of Madness, Dark Moon Digest, and America’s Emerging Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. His work has also been adapted into audio dramas on The Wicked Library and Campfire Radio. He and his wife live outside New Haven, Connecticut.