Uncle Henry looked at me from his deathbed. Not much in his face was alive. Maybe the tip of his tongue behind his teeth when he told me a story of his youth.
“Growing up in Montana in the 1930s,” he said, “I had a friend named Jacob Hart. The winter we were eighteen, we were hunting in the mountains when the snows came. Couldn’t get out. Built ourselves a snug little cabin. We had food but barely enough. Figured we’d eat our burros if we had to. We never got the chance. Jacob, he got sick. Down with fever. Wanting to get him some fresh meat, I set a few traps. Caught a rabbit. Something got it first. Tore it to shreds. Tore up all the traps. There were no tracks in the snow. None except the rabbit’s. You understand?”
“An owl, maybe,” I said.
Henry nodded. “What I thought. At first. Then something came sniffing around the cabin that night. Something big. I figured it was a bear. Jacob was sound asleep in his fever. Next morning, I found tracks. But they were…wrong. I’d seen bear sign. This wasn’t it. And there was a dead rabbit with a broken neck lying right on our doorstep. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I dressed the rabbit, cooked it in a stew, fed Jacob on it. He ate heartily. Ate almost the whole thing. Started feeling better immediately.
“Two days later Jacob was up and around. I told him about the traps I’d set, about the bear that didn’t leave bear tracks, about finding the rabbit like a gift. Jacob turned ashen. He began to shake. I thought his fever was returning but he told me I’d accepted a gift from the Devil and would have to give something back or the Devil would come take whatever he wanted. And since he’d eaten most of the gift, even without realizing it, his payment would have to be the larger. I laughed at him.”
I shivered. Maybe the bleak January sky outside the hospital had chilled me. Or maybe it was the strangeness of Henry’s story, a kind of tale I’d never heard him recite before. “So?” I asked finally. “Most people would laugh at something like that.”
“Could be,” Henry agreed, then continued. “Jacob told me I needed to leave out a gift for the Devil. Some salt or coffee. My timepiece. He did; I didn’t. One morning when it was still dark, we heard a monstrous racket. We’d built a shed for our burros, backed up against the cabin. The noise came from there. I ran outside with my gun. Jacob too. The shed was smashed in, the burros torn open, their innards spread around like jelly. Their heads were gone. There were the same odd tracks again. I followed ‘em. Jacob refused to. I trailed ‘em for miles. Came to a cave.…”
“And?” I prompted.
“Nothing. The tracks led to the cave’s mouth. But inside, it was empty. No bones of anything that might have been eaten there. No sticks dragged in for a nest. It looked like nothing living had ever touched that place.”
“And no Devil?” I said.
“No,” Henry said. “No Devil.”
“You must have felt pretty foolish.”
“A little. At the time,” Henry said. “Then I went home.”
“What did Jacob say?”
“Nothing. The cabin door hung open. There was a horrible stench. I ran inside to find one of the burros’ heads in the fireplace. The singed hair smelled like…nothing I can describe.”
“What about Jacob?”
“Hanging upside down from the ceiling. So naked that even his skin had been taken off.”
I winced, though by now I doubted the whole story. I figured it was made up, though why Henry would do such a thing on his deathbed, I couldn’t imagine. Maybe he was just losing his mind. “A horrible way to die,” I managed.
“Oh, he wasn’t dead. He lived several more days. Screaming most of the time.”
I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. Humor the dying man, I guessed. I squeezed his wrist gently. The skin was paper thin and felt cold and unreal. “I’m sorry.”
“No reason to be. I put Jacob’s body in the snow. Left him until spring thaw. Then I burned him in the cabin until nothing was left.”
“What about the…whatever it was that had attacked your burros and killed Jacob?”
“It left me alone the rest of the winter.”
“Any idea why?”
A humorless smile twisted Henry’s lips. “I left it an offering. Like Jacob told me too.”
A chill goosebumped my arms despite my disbelief. “What offering?”
“Blood for one,” Henry said. “I cut my arm deep.”
I remembered the scar on my uncle’s forearm. From a motorcycle accident, I’d heard.
“For one?” I asked. “What else?”
“My soul, of course. What does one use to buy off the Devil?”
I shook my head. “Heckuva story, Uncle Henry. But you know I don’t believe a bit of it.”
Henry smiled and patted my arm with long pale fingers. “Didn’t figure you would, Charlie. Never figured you would.”
I checked my phone. “I gotta go, Uncle Henry. Anything I can get you?”
“No,” he said, “but I have something for you.”
“Open the drawer on the bedside table there.”
I did so, drew out a small present in pretty wrapping paper.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Henry smiled again, and a little sliver of pink tongue protruded from behind his teeth. “Just a gift, Charlie boy. Just a little gift for you.”
∼ Charles Gramlich
© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.