In shards the morning broke, shattering high, high above the gunshot reports, the torches, the thick plumes of smoke.
She watched them fall like black drops of rain in the distance. First came a crack, echoing like faraway thunder, then their plummet. Crack, then plummet.
The plate slipped from her soapy fingers into the bubbly grave of the sink. Beyond the grimy pane, beyond the flaked paint of the porch, swaddled by butterfly weeds and Echinaceas, her daughter sat, ruddy cheeks tilted toward the sky. “Isabella,” she gasped, tossing the wet rag aside. “Isabella!”
Her little girl could not hear her. Crack, then plummet.
She turned, ran, bare heels squeaking like frightened mice atop the wood. Through the dining room, down the hall; sunlight traipsed from the front door, beckoning just paces away. Each gunshot shook her skull. She burst onto the porch, mid-July scathing inside her lungs.
Silos jutted, arthritic fingers against the horizon, from the flat expanse of land. She tracked the figures, so frantic in the sky, weaving and dipping like grand bats. Her mind raced as she crouched low in the meadow, summoning her daughter. “Isa, come.”
Her little girl paid no mind. Chubby fingers marked the descent of each black drop, tracing the sky. Crack! Her tender folds involuntarily shuddered.
A shrilling—high-pitched like that of a hawk, but full of desperation; human at some point in its life. Its violent death roll cut the air, spiraling, spiraling away from its pack. No further than fifty yards from the porch, it slammed the ground, mowing a swath through the meadow.
Rallying to it, the keen barking of a dog.
She hurried to her daughter. The toddler tilted her head, all smiles, all giggles. Too young still to comprehend. “You will stay here for Momma.” She spoke slow, measured. “Do you understand?” Without waiting for an answer, she crept away.
It bleated weakly, lost amidst the grass, the strangled mewls answered by the nearing bark in turn. She propelled forward, nearly upon all fours, the distressed utterances serving as her beacon call. Bees roused, lifting from the stalks and buds, seeking further riches from summer. Memories of childhood invaded her nose; so simple then, the pollen rich fragrance of sky, the honey glaze of sun. Her own parents had given her up much too early. Wisps of shadows they had become—their touch, their guiding voice mere ghosts. She wished no such thing for her Isabella, but knew now it was too late.
At last, she reached it. Gasping atop the matted butterfly weed, its blood soaked the ground. Upon its back it writhed, bald skull lifting up against the dome of summer, back down, laden with an agony it once doubted could exist.
A bloody bubble popped from the corner of its mouth. It sensed her presence. Upside down, slit eyes locked onto her own. She saw the wound, an angry hole straight through its sagging, bare breast. The perennials trembled; the retriever burst through the swath then, as was its inherent duty, clamped its jaws around the hag’s neck.
The retriever dug its hindquarters into soft earth, hauling its prey back to its master. She lunged, seized the snout, pried open its jaws, allowing it no fight. A savage twist; its muscles went limp. She pushed the heap of fur aside. “I cannot help you further, not now, not without jeopardizing us all. Lay still, and I will return for you.” She took its gnarled fingers within her own. “Forgive me, sister.”
The hag nodded.
She dashed back toward her Isa, aware that the exerted breath of man would soon be chasing behind. Her little girl waited diligently, as instructed. In seamless fashion, she scooped the child into her arms, ran full out without breaking stride. Gunshots, screams; mid-July succumbed all around her. Ahead, the porch; thirty yards, twenty. A husky command echoed; a taunt. Crack! The air whistled above her shoulder. The top step of the porch exploded, slivers of wood and paint.
The front door waited, still ajar. She took the steps, then up onto the porch, splinters pricking her toes. Across her threshold, as the door jamb disintegrated loudly beside her. Instinctively, she pulled Isabella against her chest. “My precious little bean, you must know that we are condemned by man.” She ran through the house, the rooms, the hall, straight toward the back door. “They see us as abominations.”
She threw the door open to a green expanse. There, twisting skyward in the middle of the glade, a solitary tree. “But all things of nature have their place of beauty, my love.” She traveled the distance, rounding the far side of the tree. From within her home carried the ransacking fury of the hunter.
The trunk rose, thick and noble, bark twining in cords around a darkened hollow. Within this, she placed her child, but not before kissing each cheek. “The Ancients will raise you now,” lips lingered upon tender flesh, “then you will emerge stronger than even me, my Isa.” Away the tree swallowed her, and the child was gone.
From the trunk protruded a long, slender knob, identical to a spear, driven at its end to a sharpened point. She retrieved the offering from the tree. As the hunter closed the expanse, she sidestepped into view, driving the pike through his throat, clearing the body of head. The torso ran several paces, then dropped.
Propping the spear against the tree, she slipped free from her clothes. The safety of her coven compromised, her sisters needed her now. Someday soon, her daughter as well. Again she took the spear, straddled it, relishing the power upon her sex. Then she commanded the sky; the still gaping head lay impotently upon the ground.
Mid-July bled until no man shared the whispers of the High Priestess. Or her slaughter.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
Manitou Forest, Manitoba, Canada
A damn good day of hunting, Angus Kujak mused as his bloodied hands steered the truck between snow-covered pines. The antlers of his most recent kill rattled against the hood. Kujak rubbed his mutton-chop sideburns, feeling proud. Through the rearview mirror he glimpsed the pile of carcasses strapped to the flatbed. Atop two elk bulls lay his prize trophy—a grizzly bear. Took five bullets, but he’d finally brought her down with a dead zinger through the eye. Definitely a story for the boys at the chophouse.
“Hunting’s been better than usual, eh Jeb?” Snoring came from the passenger seat. Kujak reached over and knocked his cousin’s forehead. “I’m not paying you to sleep.”
Jeb, dressed in blood-stained camouflage and a winter hat with earflaps, sat up rubbing his forehead. “Sorry. Shelby kept me up half the night.”
“What’s she moaning about?”
“Usual. I spend too much time at the pub, not enough with her and the kids.” Jeb unscrewed his thermos cap. The smell of coffee and whiskey filled the truck.
“Man’s gotta have time with his friends. Pass that over.” Kujak took a swig from the thermos. The coffee was cold, but the whiskey went down with a fiery burn.
Up ahead, a white squall was devouring the pines. Snow pelted the windshield, threatening to bury the truck with the rest of the forest. He turned the wipers on full speed.
Jeb said, “Angus, I need to tell you something…you aren’t gonna like it.”
“What is it?”
“Shelby wants me to quit working for you and take a job building that pipeline.”
Kujak got a vile taste in his mouth. Jeb’s wife was always henpecking him. Soon after they’d gotten married, she’d cut off Jeb’s balls and stuck them in a drawer. She didn’t care for hunting—Killing animals is barbaric!—or her husband working for Kujak. They’d been hunting together since they were kids, long before Shelby entered the picture, and no woman should come between them. “You wouldn’t abandon your cousin, would ya?”
Jeb looked out his window. “I dunno. Thornhill Petroleum promises good pay plus benefits.”
“I pay you damned good, plus bonuses when you actually kill something.”
“Yeah, but pipeline work’s legal. Mr. Thornhill paid a visit to the pub last night. Said he had plenty of work for anyone interested.”
Kujak slammed his fist down on the steering wheel. “That blasted son’bitch! I’ve lost most of my hunters since that weasel rolled into town. I’d like to string him up by his ankles.”
“You gotta admit, his pipeline has helped business. Ever since they started blasting through Manitou Forest, he’s been driving game right toward our hunting ground.”
“That’s why I need you more than ever.” The road straightened. Kujak shifted into a higher gear. The truck’s engine howled in protest as it drove at forty miles an hour. “Jeb, I been thinking about making you a partner. You’d be surprised how much you can make. I’m selling more than just the meat and hides. The antlers, bones, hooves, and innards, I got buyers for all of it. We can earn…”
Something rammed the side of the truck. The steering wheel spun loose from Kujak’s grip. The truck careened 180 degrees, slammed sideways into a wall of snow. Elk antlers scraped across the hood and punctured the windshield. Kujak’s face hit the steering wheel. Dazed, he stared down at his blurry boots. Blood dribbled from his nose over his lips. “Jesus!” Kujak gripped the wheel until the forest stopped spinning. “You okay, Jeb?”
His cousin rubbed his forehead. “Hit my damn head, but I’m okay. What happened?”
“Felt like a moose broadsided us. See a dead one near the road?”
“Nothing. Not even blood.”
An animal howled from the snowy mist.
“Fuckin’ hell was that?” Jeb crouched in his seat.
Kujak rubbed his eyes. “I’m still seeing double. Can you spot it?”
“Something’s moving fast between the trees. Shit, it’s coming at us from behind!” Jeb yelped.
The flatbed rocked, shaking the cab. Kujak’s neck hairs rose to hackles as something snorted inches from the back window. Claws scraped metal. A blurry shape leapt off the truck.
Kujak’s vision cleared just as the beast disappeared into the falling snow.
Jeb trembled. “W-What the hell was that?”
“Grizzly.” The hunter’s pulse in Kujak quickened. “Let’s bag ‘em!” He threw open the door, grabbed his rifle, and hurried around the back of the truck. “Shit!”
The entire load of carcasses—the two elks and bear—were missing. “How the hell?”
Kujak followed a trail of blood and fur into a thicket of pines. Monstrous footprints made deep impressions in the snow. “Must be the granddaddy of grizzlies. Jeb, get out here.”
His cousin remained inside the cab, his back to the door that was pinned against the snow bank. “I don’t wanna chase a bear that size.”
“It’s running off with our game. Get your ass out here!” Kujak loaded a fresh cartridge in the rifle’s chamber.
Jeb climbed out with his gun. “Oh lordy, your face.”
Kujak wiped a sleeve across his bloody nose, then marched into the woods. He whispered, “I’ll follow the blood trail. Keep to my left.”
“What if he circles us?”
“Shoot the bastard. Now shush.” Kujak crept through the red snow. The drift beyond the road had piled two-feet deep. Sweet Jesus, he’d never seen paw prints that size. His boots stepped from one giant impression to the next. In some places he had to leap, due to the long stride. The claw marks looked abnormally long. The more Kujak studied the pattern, the odder he felt. What kind of bear runs on two legs?
Ahead, the evergreens huddled close together. Snow dropped like a million down feathers. As he weaved between clumps of spruce, Kujak tried to imagine how a bear could run off with the carcasses of three large animals. Scattered across the bloody trail lay broken antlers, a severed elk leg. Tufts of fur clung to branches high above Kujak’s head. His adrenaline pumped with the thrill of the hunt. He had to bag this granddaddy.
Wind howled, long and hollow, like a baying wolf.
Kujak glanced at Jeb, who moved parallel between the trees. Every few feet his cousin disappeared behind pines, then reappeared in a new place.
Jeb froze and pointed frantically.
The brown flanks of a bear moved between the trees twenty yards away. There you are. Kujak locked his scope on the beast’s back and fired. A hole opened in the dark brown fur. The beast roared.
Kujak squeezed off another shot. “Take that you bastard!”
Instead of dropping, the bear in his scope shot toward him, snapping branches. Kujak got off two more shots before a jarring impact knocked him to the ground. His vision went blurry again. More shots fired. To his left. Or was it his right?
His cousin screamed and fired wildly, bullets whizzing through the forest.
“Jeb!” Kujak sat up. The forest spun. He tried to stand, but something heavy and furry pinned his leg. “Shit!” Blind, he stabbed the animal with his knife, but it lay there without a struggle, already dead. Kujak felt along the hairy behemoth that lay on his foot. His hand found a bear’s head; his fingers plunged into a bloody eye socket. It was the bear he’d shot earlier. The granddaddy beast had hurled her twenty yards through the air.
What kind of animal can throw a grizzly?
The gunshots stopped. So did Jeb’s screams.
Kujak scanned the forest, stopping on what looked like a bloody human thigh.
Jeb’s body lay on the ground, an elk carcass covering his head and upper torso. His legs were hidden behind a copse of blue spruce.
Kujak’s scrotum tightened when he heard crunching.
The beast snorted, then yanked Jeb’s body into the thicket. As if taunting him, a severed arm in a camouflage sleeve smacked the tree next to Kujak.
He felt in the snow for his rifle. Found a shattered scope and broken nape. Tossing the useless weapon, Kujak tried to lift the bear’s carcass. He screamed in frustration and immediately regretted it.
The bone crunching stopped. Heavy footfalls stomped through the woods.
An idea came. He soaked his hands in bear’s blood and rubbed his ankle inside his boot. He crawled backward, pulling his pinned foot. After a few yanks, the greased ankle slipped free. He bolted for the truck, half running, half stumbling, his bare foot sinking in the snow.
Tree limbs snapped behind him.
Kujak didn’t look back. Kept his eyes on the truck. Thirty more feet.
A roar like nothing he’d ever heard echoed across the valley. A whirlwind of snow blasted around him.
Twenty more feet to the truck. Kujak charged up the hill.
An elk antler whirled past his shoulder, skidded across the road.
Kujak jerked open the driver’s door and jumped behind the wheel. He fumbled for the keys, his fingers greasy with bear’s blood. “Come on, come on,” he pleaded.
Another antler struck his door.
He turned the key, ignited the engine, and jammed the accelerator. The truck slid sideways as the passenger side wheels spun. He shifted into reverse.
Beyond the frosty windshield a giant shape loomed in front of the truck.
The wipers pushed away the snow, revealing a skeletal creature with pale skin. It had long white hair and a horrid face with black holes for eyes. Its lips had been chewed to shreds. A serrated mouth grinned as it pointed at Kujak and shrieked. The sound pierced his eardrums with ice-pick stabbings of pain. His skin crystallized with frost as a chill coursed through him. Kujak felt his belly caving inward. The muscles tightened around his bones.
The beast picked up what was left of Jeb and ran off into the woods.
Kujak sat behind the wheel, shaking. His Cree friends had warned him not to hunt in Manitou Forest. That’s the Wendigo’s hunting ground. He’d always laughed off talk of Indian superstitions.
His heart turned to ice in his chest as he shifted into drive and pushed the pedal to the floor. The old Chevy flatbed fishtailed then finally straightened. It took a mile before he found the nerve to look at his reflection in the rearview mirror. His face was gaunt, his plump cheeks sunk inward. The irises of his eyes had turned pure white. His teeth grew sharp as icicles. He thought of Shelby, the boys at the chophouse, and that bastard Thornhill. Kujak’s bloody hands gripped the wheel. With a voracious hunger for meat gnawing at his belly, he drove back toward town.
~ Brian Moreland
© Copyright 2017 Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved
“So, you’re saying there’s no such thing as writer’s block?”
I tamped out my pipe, refilled it with Dunhill Nightcap, touched the lit match to the aromatic leaf and took a few deep puffs. We were only fifteen minutes into the interview and my mind was already drifting to other things. Then my eyes wandered to the bottle of Macallan 25 the young man had brought, a gift from his publisher, and resigned myself to my fate. There were far worse ways to spend a cold, dreary afternoon.
“Would you like a glass?” I said.
He smiled and shook his head. “Thank you, but no. I’m more of a beer man myself.”
I poured my second shot of the amber ambrosia, savoring the aroma a moment before tilting the glass back oh-so-gently.
“I love a cold beer as well, but it’s a poor substitute for fine scotch.”
A gust of wind shook the windowpane, rain pelting it like ball bearings.
I couldn’t tell if the phone on the table between us was still recording, as the face had gone dark. The interviewer, I had forgotten his name, took no notes; his complete reliance on technology baffled me. Then again, most of the workings of today’s world left me scratching my head.
Waving a cloud of smoke away, I said, “I’m sorry, I’ve completely forgotten your question.”
He shifted forward in his seat, tapping on the stack of books, my books, that he’d brought to the interview.
“We were talking about the staggering volume of work you’ve produced in your thirty-five year career. I counted forty-three novels, seventeen novellas, two-hundred and eleven short stories and at least a hundred articles. I’m not alone in being wowed by your output. I asked if you ever had a moment when a story just wouldn’t come to you and you said there is no such thing as writer’s block. I find that intriguing because I’ve yet to find a writer who hasn’t experienced it at least once in their career.”
“You’re not talking to the right authors,” I said, grinning.
“I’ve interviewed a considerable number.”
I noticed the creeping strands of gray hair at his temples, the very beginnings of crow’s feet when he smiled. Perhaps he wasn’t as young as I’d thought.
I drew on my pipe and said, “A real writer is never blocked. He or she may be lazy, tired, scared, or in the grip of some addiction or flight of fancy, but they’re not writing because they’re unfocused, distracted, not blocked.”
The interviewer crossed his left leg over his right and rested his forearm on his knee. I wondered if it was too late to ask him his name.
“In all these years, you’ve never been too distracted to write?”
“Not once. On the day I had surgery to remove my appendix, I wrote a story on the back of my chart an hour after the anesthesia had worn off.”
“That’s incredible dedication.”
“I prefer to call it necessity.”
“To feed your compulsion?”
“Yes and no.”
“Can you remember the last time you took a day off from writing?”
It took me a moment to think. Ancient history gets harder for me to recall.
“It was the day I received my very first acceptance letter for my book, The Forbidden Forest. There was much celebration that night. A little too much.”
He settled back into his chair. “I’m going to be honest, I’m envious. I hope to be a novelist some day, but I can’t seem to get the first one across the finish line.”
I downed a third glass of scotch.
“You just don’t have the right muse,” I said.
“Maybe I can borrow yours,” he said affably, with just a hint of a nervous chuckle.
“Oh, you wouldn’t want that. I assure you.”
“If I could have one tenth of your career, I’d die a happy man.”
I set my pipe down and locked eyes with him.
“A muse isn’t just a mystical force from which ideas spring. Some muses can be strict taskmasters. Happiness has nothing to do with it.”
He looked at me with incredulity. “Wait. So you believe that a muse is a real thing?”
“I don’t believe, I know.”
Perhaps it was the scotch. No matter. I’d said it and let it hang heavily in the air between us.
Now he checked to make sure his phone was still recording, hot to have the scoop that America’s bestselling author had lost his mind.
“Do…do you see your muse? Can you talk to her? Or him?”
There was no going back now.
“Yes and yes, and my muse has no gender. At least not in the sense as we would define it.”
He ran his hands through his hair. No doubt his palms were sweaty with anticipation of how much publicity his interview was going to garner.
I drank more Macallan, enough to make me lightheaded, but not too much to hinder the work that needed to be done later. Oh no, that could not happen.
“Can I ask how often you talk to your muse?” His smile looked like a shark’s, circling for the kill.
“Your muse has given you a constant stream of ideas and inspiration since when?”
I shook my head, relighting my pipe.
“Truth be told, it’s not very big on ideas.”
This rocked him, wiping the shark grin from his face.
“Then…then what does it do?”
I leaned forward, the leather chair creaking, and touched his knobby knee.
“It makes me write.”
“It makes you write?”
“And what if you don’t?”
Now it was my turn to beam like a sly Great White.
“Terrible, terrible things happen.”
There was a ripple in the darkness behind the eager interviewer’s chair.
“You say you’re working on your own novel?” I asked.
His face blanched. “Yes, in fits and starts.”
I sucked on my teeth, releasing trapped scotch from my gums.
“That simply will not do. Not if you were to ‘borrow’ my muse.”
“I don’t understand.”
I filled the void between us with sweet, aromatic smoke.
“And you never will.”
The gray beast sprang from the ether, tearing the man’s jugular with a single swipe. I ducked to avoid the spray of blood – blood I knew my muse would slurp like a starving cat, leaving no trace of the young man behind.
I looked away, unable to watch the ravenous mastication. I grabbed the bottle of scotch and staggered to my study where my typewriter awaited.
It had been a long while since I had written a horror story.
I guess it was fair to say that today, my muse had given me inspiration. Putting a fresh sheet of paper into the Royal typewriter, I began the day’s tale.
“So, you’re saying there’s no such thing as writer’s block?”
I tamped out my pipe, refilled it with Dunhill Nightcap, touched the lit match to the aromatic leaf and took a few deep puffs.
~ Hunter Shea
© Copyright 2017 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved
I led the life once.
“Excuse me. I was hoping we could talk a minute. Something about what your daughter said to mine.”
It felt another lifetime ago. For all intents and purposes, it was.
“You know how kids can be. So I was hoping you could find out what was said?”
I was born into the life. Into the family. And when you’re born into the family, you’re expected to act a certain way. There’s a creed that’s followed, one that’s not ever questioned. Not ever.
“See, my little girl came home yesterday. She told me your daughter told her that she can’t be on safety patrol.”
You lead two lives. The person you are, and the person the family needs you to be. You’re molded without ever feeling the hands. It starts early, when you’re still too young to understand. But you’re molded. You’re taught there’s only one way, the family way. No right, no wrong.
“She told me that your daughter told her that she’s too awkward to be on safety patrol. That she’s not normal. That she’s got issues. My little girl cried all night. It tore me up inside, you know?”
But times change. Families change. Values, the way of going about yourself. Conducting business. This new age took over and old school thinking got pushed further and further from the mind. It went the way of the dinosaurs. Extinct.
“Children shouldn’t have to deal with hurtful words, not at this age. So I was hoping you could find out. And if it’s true what she said, then maybe you could…you know…just talk to your daughter.”
Some things don’t ever die out, though. Some things adapt, learn to survive. Respect is one them. It’s all in the way the family molds you. My pop, for instance. He did his thing, day in, day out, setting an example. Simply by emulating him, I earned his respect. Day in, day out. The family way. The only way he knew.
“There’s nothing got to be talked about.” This father I had never met before, this father who I wanted to believe was as protective of his own daughter as I was of mine, waved his hand in front of my face. I took note of his rail thin arms, his mismatched tattoos. He leaned close to my face; a little too close. “My woman raised our kid right, so your girl, she’s lying. My kid ain’t done nothing wrong.”
“How can you say that if you haven’t even asked—”
There was this one time my pop and I sat eating lunch. Respect, he blurted while we both chewed my Nonna’s tripe, is the most important thing in this world. More important than money. It shows up on the job long before you do. You don’t have respect, you got nothing. Nothing. He chewed and chewed on that tripe and then smiled, a rubbery piece of cow intestines caught in his teeth. But sometimes, you need to teach it.
“Ain’t nothing got to be talked about! Your girl is lying and that’s that.” This father I never met before, this father who I still wanted to believe was as protective of his own daughter as I was of mine, still leaned close to my face; a little too close. “Maybe there’s a reason your girl can’t make safety patrol. Maybe you and your girl should figure it out yourselves.”
Sometimes you need to send them a message.
The father I had never met before smirked and stepped away. A young woman in skin-tight jeggings wearing a PINK hoodie two sizes too small sashayed over to him. She stared, cracked her gum as he whispered in her ear, then they laughed. Laughed, all shits and giggles; the barbell through her tongue shiny under the sun. They shared a sloppy kiss.
Stunods, real stunods, both of them. The school doors opened, and again, for another day, my little girl was mine.
I led the life once.
But the life can’t always be what it was. It can’t be. Upbringings change, morals change. The hands that once molded you disappear. Disappear, and eventually you realize your own hands are meant to mold a new life.
I lay beside my daughter reading her a bedtime story. Lightly, she touched my arm. “Daddy, will I ever be on safety patrol?”
I closed the book.
“Daddy, I don’t want to be not normal.”
“It’s okay though, Daddy, because I don’t need a lot of friends. But I really want to be on safety patrol. I can be really good at it, Daddy.” Her hands flapped in front of her, limbs so rigid in her excitement. “I can be really good. Really good.”
Silently I seethed, cursing the unfairness of my daughter’s disabilities and for the first time in my life, I suddenly felt those hands upon me, the ones that had molded the life I once knew. The life I thought was done.
Sometimes you need to teach it. Sometimes you need to send them a message.
I took my little girl and hugged her, hugged and kissed her, reassuring her that all her life was going to be really good, really, really good. I sang her a song about sunshine until she slipped into dreamland’s arms. Then I locked myself in my room and wept before making the decision to step back into the life again.
It took a few days to learn his pattern. It wasn’t hard.
I found him alone on a Tuesday night, the bar a quiet place right on the fringe of town. I knew the bartender there. Quite well.
A tiny bell sounded above the door as I stepped inside, but the father I had never met before didn’t turn around. The bartender nodded toward me, then offered his only customer a shot that was greedily knocked back by a wobbly hand.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
He didn’t acknowledge me, not at first, his eyes bleary with liquor. I took the stool beside him. “See, I said I was hoping you could find out if it’s true, what your daughter said to mine, but you never bothered. You never took the time. You never took the effort.”
Recognition finally creased the face of the father I had never met before. Before he could get in a slurred word, I leaned close to his face. A little too close. “Respect, my friend, is the most important thing in this world. But you, you showed me none.”
He listened hard, my words whispered between my lips the way they were. “You don’t have someone’s respect, then you have nothing. You said your woman raised your kid right. Your woman…”
His eyes followed the small box I placed between us atop the bar. “I’m going to teach you something now.” My fingers lingered, then drew from the box. I patted his shoulder. Hard. I put my lips to his ear. “Respect starts at home,” then I turned and left.
I was in no hurry. My daughter would be home, sound asleep. Tomorrow, I’d help her with her homework as I always did, then we’d talk about her joining safety patrol. Tomorrow, I’d go back to being her dad.
But not tonight.
I rolled down the truck window and waited, waited until I heard the screams from the father I had never met before penetrate the bar walls. Waited until I knew he had opened the box and found his woman’s pierced tongue inside.
Finally, I started my truck and headed home. I had an irresistible urge to teach my wife Nonna’s old recipe for tripe once I got there.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
“Is this love real?” she asks.
Sitting on a bench near the other end of the room, her words are unmistakable, magnified by the reverence and strange acoustics of the museum. He turns from the glass case filled with the desiccated husks of seahorses to look at her. Her hair is down, her glasses bright. She’s wearing the coat he bought her last winter. It’s not quite winter yet but the evenings are getting cooler. It is evening now. At least, it must be. They’ve been in here for a hundred years already, it seems.
“Obviously,” he replies. “Duh. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”
At the sound of his voice, she looks up. “Not you, silly.” She raises the paper cup to her mouth and sips. “Arabica. Instant pick-me-up.”
“I’m an instant pick-you-up.”
“You’re fast, I’ll give you that.”
With a lingering glance at the contents of the cabinet, he walks the short distance to where she’s sitting. She pretends not to watch him as he approaches but he sees her peek sideways. She taps the cup as he takes a seat next to her, her short nails making a hollow sound against the cheap Styrofoam.
“I’ve missed you,” he says.
“From the other side of the room?”
“If you’d just think about moving in…”
She taps faster, then stops altogether. The silence is sudden and alarming. He hadn’t realised how big the room was, how empty. They haven’t seen anyone else in probably ten minutes. He wonders how much longer they have to spend here.
“What were you looking at over there,” she asks, “in the cabinet?”
He catches her peering his way again, decides to play her at her own game. The rows of cases in front of them are too far away and the objects inside too small for him to make them out. He finds himself studying the ceiling. “Why do you ask, when you already know?”
“You were looking at the seahorses,” she tells him.
“How did they look?”
“Like they’d crumble to dust if you touched them.”
“Don’t touch them. Anything else?”
From where he is sitting the exhibits are tiny flecks, almost invisible on the glass shelf. He recalls them, their withered tails, needlepoint snouts, eyes like used cigarette cherries, ashen and black. Beside him, she shifts, her hand finding one of his knees; he realises she’s watching him.
“Thirsty,” he says.
She stares at him a second longer, then laughs. He loves her smile and her face when she laughs. There isn’t much poetic going on his head but he knows what he loves and that is it. Smiling back at her, he buries his head into her shoulder.
“You’re an idiot,” she says.
“Can we go soon?” Muffled by her coat, his voice is small and thick.
“Had enough of me already?”
He wraps his arms around her but does not remove his face from her neck. She smells of perfume – he couldn’t say which – and still a little salty, from the beach yesterday. He loves the beach, almost as much as he loves her. Yesterday had been a good day.
“This place creeps me out.”
“I think it’s romantic.”
“What’s romantic about shrivelled-up fish? I swear I feel like I’m hanging out inside a shipwreck.”
“Come on, seriously?”
He shakes his head, some of her hair falling across the back of his neck.
“The memories,” she says. “The feeling attached to the objects. The objects themselves, so small, so fragile. Your delicate seahorses. The secrets. The stories.”
He feels her set the paper cup down before she moves, her weight shifting underneath him. She leans carefully to one side and stands, lifting him with her. She is not strong enough to carry him and yet she moves him with the lightest suggestion.
Taking his hand, she leads him to one of the cabinets. Like the others, it is made of glass. Like the others, a spotlight shines down over it. It is a bright, impersonal space, considering the nature of the objects housed within. He almost thinks he understands what she means.
“Is this love real?” she breathes. He follows her pointed finger to a small item just below head-height. It is a ring. At least, it used to be. The years do not appear to have been kind to it, battering the metal, creating pocks and eroding away much of what might once have been a design. It is crusty and matte and covered in tiny discs, almost like it has been carved out of rock.
“Why does it look like that?”
“It’s a tentacle. Crafted in the likeness of one, anyway. No one knows where it’s from. There was a theory, but that’s just another name for a story, and there are already lots of those.”
He is watching the ring and the reflection of her face around it. She is still smiling, her glasses bright. The eyes behind them brighter. He doesn’t know what she is talking about but he loves that smile. He gives her hand a squeeze; she squeezes back.
“Where did they find it?”
“Washed up, technically, 1973. Inside a shark’s guts. The gulls were pulling ropes for their morning feast and some children spotted it, still red, still wet, sticking out the sand.”
She looks as beautiful with her glasses on as she does without. When she leans forwards, like she does now, her hair falls around her face. It is shoulder-length hair, dark but with red undertones, caught in the right light. With her free hand, she tucks a stray strand quickly behind one ear.
“Some say it was made by primitive island people. This story goes, they worshipped the sea, and the things that lived in it, so they carved jewellery that resembled them. Seeing the ring now, I can believe that. I can see the waves in its grooves, the strength in its shape, the beauty in its suckered likeness. I can see something divine in the brine and the blood and the cut of coral.”
“You really love this stuff, don’t you?”
She leans in closer and he moves with her. His face inches towards the glass, the coarse sea smell filling his nose again, and for a moment he too finds himself staring at the ring. He slides deeper, its grasp tightening, feels a hand through his hair, the suggestion of darkness filled with pale shapes and submarine depths. He realises he is breathing heavily.
“What happened to the island people?”
“No one knows, but I have a theory, professor.” She winks at him, and he feels himself stirring. Here, of all places, in this wreck of a museum! “I think they died. Thousands of years ago, swept away by a storm. The sea they worshipped gave them life, then just as quickly it took it away. Now that’s love.”
He stands there for several minutes while she admires the exhibit. His breathing steadies. His arm finds her waist and she stirs slightly, but no more. He wishes she looked at him the same way she does those antiques. He knows she’s interested. No, it’s more than that. She loves him. He’s certain. She just won’t admit it. He doesn’t know what that means.
“Come on, it’s getting cold and the table’s booked for eight.”
“It is getting cold, isn’t it? Did you see that?”
He looks over her shoulder as he helps her to button up. Sometime between sitting at the bench and checking out the display, the lights in the hallway have gone out. He hopes they haven’t been locked in. He hasn’t seen any staff but assumes they’d check every room first.
“Almost done. See what?”
“There.” She squints behind her glasses, then stiffens. He feels her tense bodily in his hands. “There.”
This time he sees it. A single light, hovering about head-height in the dark. It flickers intermittently, soft, dull pulses that fill him with a sense of contentment. It has to be a torch.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
The hallway swallows his words. He stares harder, wishes his eyes would adjust faster, but the flashes are playing games with his sight.
He hears her behind him, throws an arm out protectively. “Stay back.”
The light is weak but there is something satisfying about its rhythm and the vague illumination it casts.
“I said stop!”
Gradually the light grows fiercer. Shadows squirm across the boards and up the walls. He smells the sea, gently at first, then the sudden rush of damp and decay. It had not smelled so strongly at the beach yesterday, amid the rock pools with the crabs. Already that seems like a lifetime ago.
It occurs to him that he is standing in the hallway. Her hand finds his, and he realises she is by his side. The light is right in front of them. It is not a torch; the thought is laughable now. It hangs in the air, swaying slightly, dimming, then glowing brightly. This close, he sees himself in its gelatinous mass, distorted but hand-in-hand with her. It has always been her. It is everything he could have wanted to see.
The light flickers, fading before their eyes. The darkness rushes in, then wavers again. His stomach turns at the smell, his trainer slipping on something wet. He could reach out and touch the light, if he wanted. It would be the easiest thing.
The orb begins to glow again, brightening, filling his eyes, and for the first time he sees behind it into the rubbery lips, the rows of teeth, the vast mouth that contains them.
As the light dulls, the mouth gapes open, wider, wider than he could have ever imagined.
Still smiling, he extends his hand into the darkness.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
They unfurled from the sky, glistening against the hatching sun, glistening with their own secretions; glistening with newly absorbed blood.
At first, Boston thought them to be a series of banners trailing behind prop planes high above the city’s stretching fingers, marketing genius promoting a new brand. Down, down, curling down in slow motion, cleaving with surgical precision the clouds. Boston sipped his bitter coffee, wincing as it singed his tongue, noting how odd the greenish-gray hue of those tentacles appeared towering over his head.
He spit caffeine from his mouth.
Gathering beneath the common din of the city, the marching feet, the impatient idling of cars, Boston heard it at last. Suction, similar to that from a vacuum; felt it, the popping inside his ears.
A final tentacle unfurled.
The woman ahead of Boston seized his attention. Slowly, her long, ebony hair lifted until taut at the roots. Beginning at the hem, her sundress flipped upside down, rising up, up, exposing an hourglass figure, thong, strapless bra. Rising up, up as her arms jut crooked over her head, mere tree branches; rising up, up, tearing free from her body, along with her hair.
With morbid curiosity, Boston stared at the bloody scalp, drifting skyward, a lost balloon.
A man clutched Boston’s forearm. Boston met his panicked eyes, two bloodshot orbs overcome with stress, a long night of gin. Like grapes, they popped from the man’s skull, claimed by the mounting suction. Sightless, the man staggered; his arms as well snapped above his head, the sky snatching his suit clean; his jacket, the pants. His tie a noose around his throat, the man gasped until his head parted from his shoulders.
Boston walked into the scalpless woman, outstretched hands sticky against her tissue exposed back. Yelping, he pulled away, pulled away from the muscle parting her bones.
High, high above, the tentacles undulated; the blood, the gristle rose.
The city reacted the way a city would react; a breakdown of cohesion; a canyon of screams. People scrambled; people shoved. Boston shoved with them, elbowing his way without direction, pumping his limbs without momentum. The morning crashed, an ocean rippled by pulpy waves of red.
A bus jumped the curb, slamming into a newspaper stand. Headlines fluttered, black and white confetti telling of a world gone mad. Frantic hands beat upon glass; Boston watched skin flutter from open windows of the bus like toilet paper spun from its reel. He looked away.
From baby strollers burst small fountains of pink spray.
Lower, lower the tentacles rolled, revealing serrated suckers, awful, greedy mouths absorbing human existence, its inherent disease. Boston struggled against the tide of commuters; the surge swept him away. Ahead, he spied a bodega.
Feverishly, Boston pushed against fleshless mannequins, shoving aside bones. Seconds thundered in his ears. He battled across the street until breathlessly grabbing the door; a pair of liver spotted hands resisted opposite the glass. Boston tugged, felt the tug matched in turn. “Open the door,” Boston hissed, wrenching the handle from the hands. The old man jerked forward; utilizing the momentum against him, Boston flung him into the frenzy of the crowd. Boston slammed the door shut as the suction teased the top of his head.
“Poppa,” the choked voice of a clerk from behind the register. Boston ignored her. Death, dust; Boston inhaled it all. His eyes darted about the store, spying shelves pockmarked with emptiness, crumbling walls.
Crumbling walls. Boston exhaled; he would survive this. “Lock the door.”
“Mi esposo se ha ido!”
“Lady, lock the door.”
“Mi esposo, mi esposo!”
Chaos splattered the windows; the glass blew inward. Boston fell, toppling a display case of Goya beans. He kicked them from beneath his feet, propelling his body forward toward the crumbling walls. Boston sunk his hands into a hole of deteriorating drywall, yanking frantically. Dust caught in his throat; he kept pulling, widening the hole, exposing the crumbling lath behind the wall, the electrical wires running along a wooden stud. Just enough space existed between the lath, the drywall, for him to squeeze between.
The clerk’s hysterical shouts for her husband transformed into something far worse. Boston refused to turn; he heard the tear of fabric, the wet pluck of teeth from the jaw. He tore free another section of drywall then hauled himself face first inside the space. Boston whimpered as a nail dug into his back. Inch by inch, he wiggled deeper along the interior of the wall, nose scraping the lath.
Boston held his breath a long, long time.
He held his breath even as his flesh slathered the lath. Craning his skinless neck, Boston glimpsed a tentacular club molesting the wall studs. His eyes ruptured; the world turned dark save the sound, the sound of vacuumed suckling, a newborn at the breast.
The sloppy sound of marrow drawn straight from Boston’s bones.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
As tempestuous as the seas and equally unpredictable, Wrath sweeps through the skies, her shouts of hatred falling like shards of ice on those far below. Riding the storms and accompanied by a flurry of shrieking Sins, her Court watches with hawk-like eyes those passing beneath them. Sparkling spear in one hand, her other a clenched fist, Wrath leads her troupe in dizzying descents. They hurl insults, abuse, and hateful jibes even as they beset those unfortunate enough to be caught abroad, tearing them apart limb from limb in a bloody shower of malignant spite. Her goal is to ascend to the rank of Queen of all Sin, when she can rule with iron fist and steely gaze, and she is not afraid to destroy any who prevent her from achieving this.
From The Book of Sin
Screams of undiluted hatred did sing over the cliff tops.
22. Curses as ancient as the world itself were spoken, and they did corrupt the fair blue sky with their poisonous presence. Bound and chained in iron trappings, like some beast of the earth, a figure did scream. Her horrific voice did scold the air with its violence.
23. And like a plague of locusts the mortals did surround her, jeering and jabbing with gleaming swords and sharpened spears.
24. Cold iron clasps did restrain the captive, searing her skin and burning her to her very bones, and WRATH did writhe in vain.
25. The men did cry to stab the beast, and burn it, and behead it, such was their vehement hate at the creature bound in their midst.
26. The calls for vengeance rose viciously over the crowd; the assembled men shouting out for the death of the monster amongst them. For too long it had plagued their cities, dealt devastation to their caravans, wrought death as though it was a blacksmith at an anvil, and murder was its trade.
27. Now they did rejoice, for they had it at their mercy, but there was sorrow in their hearts too, and their eyes were alight with righteous vengeance.
28. The SIN gazed through slits of fury at those who did dare to approach too near, and her awe was such that all fell back before her.
29. Lean arms strained at their shackles as this goddess of death did strive to break free from the ensorcelled iron that imprisoned her. The chorus of cries only served to infuriate her further. They screamed for the beast to be doused in fire and showered with flames. They begged that its wings be torn from its back and the monster thus disgraced.
30. They raged that it should be cast, flightless, from the towering cliff, a final, fatal fall from grace.
31. Then the SIN did speak, and her voice was as a scythe through the cries of the crowd, and she did say I will flay your flesh from your hide and your pain will be so great that never before has one experienced such agony, and such was her fury that those who had been edging closer leapt suddenly back, their eyes wide, their skin pale.
32. Still she did scream, her tongue a flurry of fierce words and threats, and such was her undeniable temper that the maddened mob did believe every word she spoke, and they were mortally afraid at what they heard.
33. And the air was rank with their fear.
34. And into the madness atop the cliff a figure did stumble. Her dress was befouled with dirt and earth and sweat, but the daughter of Eve seemed not to care.
35. A single thought did flicker in her eyes, like a furnace, waiting to be unleashed.
36. Words ripped from her throat, hoarse though it was from her unyielding cries. She screamed bloody murder, crying SIN did slay my husband, It did murder his brothers and ruin their farmstead and now It shall pay the price for Its crimes.
37. Accusations flew fast from her lips, even as some relative, or piteous bystander, did try to restrain her. She flung him aside.
38. Grief did envelop the woman completely, as though she were in a valley and it lay a shadow across her.
39. Unashamed tears did stream down her fair cheek, and spying a sharp rock on the ground, she grasped hold of it. Before another word was spoken, she did hurl the heavy lump of hatred at the SIN.
40. With divine retribution it did fly where she cast it.
41. The rock struck hard the cheek of WRATH, and the wound did sting her, and it was the sting of shame.
42. The furnace of her heart now a conflagration, the woman did parade herself before the crowd. The SIN did see the fires burning in her eyes. She did recognise the pain that did gnaw at the woman’s insides. She did feel the hatred as it spilled out of the inconsolable woman.
43. The presence of so much anger did fill WRATH with vigour. It inspired her limbs. It flooded her veins, and it did nurture her own fury a thousand-fold.
44. An angel of unadulterated anger, the SIN’s own hellish hatred did cause her iron trappings to scream.
45. They did scream and scream and scream and with a clap like thunder break from around her limbs.
46. And silence did envelop the cliff top.
47. The men did run. The crowd parted like the sea before WRATH’s vengeance, but lo it was too late for those who had gathered to bear witness to the SIN’s demise.
48. With godly grace the SIN did swoop amongst the men and women and children. Her spear was lost, but she was not hindered by this, and her claws did exact a rich and bloody toll on the lives of those around her.
49. And she did wrench the still warm souls of those who had dared to trespass against her, and then discard them, and in doing so left lifeless husks to cover the earth.
50. And her anger was so absolute that none could flee her. Heads did roll, blood spilled like wine, and the air was alive with the chorus of screams.
51. And all the while WRATH did laugh at the slaughter she dealt, for she was above these lowly mortals, she was all-powerful and she was free.
52. And then her thoughts, though clouded by fury and fueled by ferocity, did turn to one thing and she did utter it aloud so that all did hear her, Who had gifted the men of the earth with such ensorcelled iron that could bind her?
55. She did scream to be told, but even as she did so, she knew already, for she also knew it beyond the craft of mortals to make such artifacts of power.
56. Even before the whispers of SIN did evaporate like water from the lake of death below, she knew that one of her siblings had betrayed her in this act and passed the iron over to the mortals. Another SIN had provided the means of her imprisonment. One of her own treacherous siblings.
57. And she knew wrath like never before.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
It drives me mad.
That wet smack.
It is all I ever hear.
I watch them in my shower. Wispy bodies through beaded glass.
He is a strong man. Muscle fibers twitch, bounce within his thighs. The fog does not hide everything; not yet.
I see his face, his head thrown back, eyes clenched as if he is in pain. But I know he is not in pain.
That wet smack drives me mad.
It used to be me in the shower. My wife clings to him now. Legs wrapped around his hips, her perfect feet locked together. Locking her; locking them. He holds her, supports her effortlessly the way I once did; the way I want to.
That wet smack intensifies. His urgent groans fill the stall; my wife remains silent. Fog steals them from me. I am allowed the occasional glimpse of her breast pressed against his chest, the way she used to press against mine.
I am not jealous. I cannot be. This is our lifestyle. We share then come back to one another. But I can no longer come back. I cannot have my wife anymore. Not that way, no longer.
I watch them. Wispy bodies within the billowy fog; within the concealing vapor.
That wet smack.
That wet smack.
Then a thud.
The shower stall erupts in a geyser of red. The glass trickles red; all is red. Now that wet smack turns into a moist suckling.
I turn away.
The doorbell rings.
I am prepared; I am always prepared.
I greet him, make eye contact as always. It excites them. The eye contact. Knowing you offer your wife so willingly; knowing you offer your wife with such confidence. I lead him upstairs. I lead him to the shower. I watch him undress; he knows the rules. They all know the rules. I watch—I must always watch.
She waits for him in the shower. Perfect body glistening, hair dripping along her back; expectant Goddess. How I once loved to pull that hair; how I once loved to ball it within my fist.
She cracks the stall door open for him, beckoning. Her knowing smile arouses him; her knowing smile cuts me at the knees. He steps inside. The fog claims him; claims them. Water splattering the door as I watch. Beaded bodies through beaded glass. That smack.
That wet smack.
The man is anxious, too anxious. My wife is not pleased.
She ends him.
It has been months since my wife has been mine.
I have lost much sleep wondering how; I have lost much sleep wondering why.
I hear her, the same way I hear her every night; night after night. Her voice echoing down the hall; her voice echoing down my spine. Sweet as ever; suggestive as ever. She does not come out of the shower anymore.
Tonight as she turns the water on, I imagine her perfect body moving through it. I imagine the water sluicing over her skin. She likes the water hot; she always did. Hot water; hot flesh. It disguises the cold, clammy death she has become.
I hear her calling.
But she is not my wife. Not anymore.
I pull the covers over my head; she croons to me.
I no longer trust who she is; I no longer trust what she has become. I know that if I enter the shower, I am lost.
I will get through this night, somehow. I will get through.
When the doorbell rings tomorrow, I will feed her again.
Even as that wet smack drives me mad.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
It was a dark night, full of clouds and shadows. Whispers carried on the wind, racing through the forest and brushing the trees. The monotonous chanting of a hundred voices lingered on the air.
A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood. . .
A figure hurried along the winding forest path. Overhead, the clouds shifted so that the moon emerged just as the figure did from the tree line. The forest was illuminated, a picture of viridian mist and boughs. Even the lake glittered under its glare.
A heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief. . .
The figure ran on, its hands slipping from beneath its sleeves and revealed for a moment in the moonlight. They were slick with wetness and black as the figure’s habit, which fluttered furiously as it ran.
A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren. . .
A long shadow stretched across the lake. Offset by the moon, an abbey rose into the night, its bell-tower cutting into the sky.
“I must not tell lies,” muttered the figure. Reaching the lakeside, he started across a walkway.
“I must not tell lies.” The raps of the knocker, when he reached the doors, rang leaden into the night. It was several minutes before they opened a crack, the wind rushing instantly inside.
“Please, let me in.”
“We do not take to strangers in these parts.”
“Please, some charity.” The words seemed to have a strange effect on the doorman, the sliver of his face illuminated in a flash of lightning. “I am a man of God, like you.”
“There are no men of God. Not here, not anywhere.”
The door widened nevertheless and the tiny figure slipped inside.
The dining hall was empty. An air of reverence hung about the room, thick like incense or a guilty conscience. Dust coated the armaments and windows, visible as tiny motes in the flashes of lightning. Sin burst into unholy life with every jagged crack, their monstrous forms depicted in the stained glass of the windows
“I was caught unawares, travelling from Glastonbury. The weather fell foul, but we thought we could endure it. We took shelter, set up camp. . . We were wrong.”
“You were caught abroad?”
“By more than God’s rain. It was no ordinary storm but a Sin, come to claim us. Wrath, in all her vitriolic glory. We died. I ran. And now I am here.”
A startled gasp. “They chase your heels? You brought them here?”
“I lost them. I fled into the woods while they stayed to tear at the corpses. . .” The monk began to shake again, his hands rattling against the sturdy wooden table top. Cutlery clattered, the quiet sound reverberating within the heights of the dining hall. “My God, I still have their blood under my nails. . .”
“Robin,” said the newcomer. “Brother Robin.”
“You will be safe here, Brother. I am Brother William and, for tonight, all that we have is yours.”
The room might have been magnificent, once. Figures decorated the ceiling with beautiful intricacy; depictions from The Book of Sin brought to life in vivid brush-stroke. Above the flickering candlelight, the painting seemed almost to move, a trick of light and Robin’s own heightened imagination, as if the Sins were in the very act of being banished from the world by God and His children. Except, of course, no such thing had ever happened, nor ever would, not so long as men were men.
Both men tucked into their food. Robin ate voraciously, as though afraid his plate might be taken unfinished from before him. The chanting continued; a hallowed, reverential hymn hanging like the dust in the air, and something else. The patter of claws, or tiny feet, skittering through the walls.
“Rats,” muttered William.
“You said earlier that there are no men of God? These do not sound like the words of a man in His service.” Robin peered across at the monk, who twitched but made no move to reply, raising instead a skewered sliver of meat to his mouth. It glistened, pink and bloody, reminding Robin of his own hands. He lowered them self-consciously beneath the table.
“Come,” said William suddenly. Spittle and ham flew from his lips.
“Where are we going?”
“You may be alone, but here we’re many. You must meet the others, before you retire. The Abbot is leading them in prayer.”
The two figures slipped noiselessly through the passages of the abbey. All about them, the hymn hung heavy on the air. They passed through great halls, their footsteps echoing on the cracked flagstone floors. Archways towered over them, engraved with signs of the cross, and every corridor was dimly lit with tiny candles. They wavered and danced, like the dying light in a man’s eyes, as the two monks ghosted past.
“I’ve never seen such architecture. I must admit, I’m somewhat in awe.” The two passed a statue, the edifice staring down at them righteously from its pedestal. An engraving beneath said St. George, who Robin remembered well as being the military saint responsible for casting back one of the Seven.
Outside, black clouds amassed in the night sky. Robin could see them as William and he strode through the cloisters towards the church, the monastic heart of the abbey. The church reared up before them. Windows watched them, more Sins staring monstrously at their approach. Then they were passing through the church’s doors and into the building proper.
Reverent song prickled at the back of Robin’s neck. It was holy, sanctimonious, resonating within his bones as if he’d been struck by one of the very bolts that danced through the night sky. Goosebumps ran the length of his robed arms.
“The hymn. . .”
From beside him, William nodded. “I know. I know.”
The church was humbler than the rest of the abbey but no less beautiful. Rows of benches led up to a dais at the front, atop which three small altars could be found. The place was old, as old as anything of the abbey Robin had already seen, but lacked the dust and decay that he had so far grown accustomed to. The church looked attended to. Cared for. Perfect, in every way.
At each row of benches stood a dozen monks, their backs turned, hoods covering their heads so that only their voices could be heard. More stood at the front on the raised platform, and at the pulpit a lonely figure: the Abbot himself, leading his congregation in solemn song.
“I recognise the hymn,” whispered Robin.
“They sing for God and to ward off evil. To ward off the Sins, in all their guises.”
“Such a thing is not possible, you realise.”
“We do our best, given the times.”
Robin’s eyes flashed with the lightning. ‘There are no men of God. Not here, not anywhere.”
William hung his head. He looked tired, suddenly. A hundred years old. “Perhaps I spoke rashly, before. Certainly I regret those sentiments. There are many on God’s earth who would. . . well, who would kill to be so close to Him, if you will excuse the expression.”
“You’d say they envy you?”
“And in doing so, they would sin.”
William glanced back at Robin, a stranger, at the heart of their abbey. His hair was still drenched, although it had been well over an hour since he’d been admitted past their walls. The blood of his comrades was no less slick about his hands. Surely it should have dried by now? Surely he should have wanted to wash?
“Forgive me, Brother, I forget; to which order did you say you belonged?”
“I did not, merely that I was travelling from Glastonbury.”
“Ah, I assumed. . .”
“Indeed. You know, it really is an abbey above all others that you have here. Beautiful. God would be proud.”
“Pride, Brother, is a sin like all others.”
“Envious of you, then, to live in such luxury.”
Something was happening to Robin. His waterlogged hair was lengthening before William’s eyes. A pallor overcame his flesh, such that he looked more like a statue or – God forbid – a corpse, than a living, breathing man. The blood began running like dirty water from his hands, two puddles growing around the monk’s habit .
“What’s happening? What trickery is this?”
“I have enjoyed your company, Brother, so much so in fact that I’ve decided I would quite like to be you.”
Time slowed, everything illuminated in a single flash of lightning. Robin span on his heel, habit fluttering like the wings of a bat as he descended on William. Hands closed around the monk’s neck, even as William plunged a knife into Robin’s shoulder. The iron blade slid smoothly and without resistance into skin and bone alike, and Robin shrieked obscenely. Bladeless, his weapon buried to the hilt, William dropped to the floor. Bloody handprints circled his bruised throat.
“Sin!” he screamed. “Brothers, Sin! See how the iron burns its flesh!”
The assembled monks did not rise to his aid. They did not fly in defence of their abbey. They did not move but continued to sing, their monotonous moans carrying far into the night.
“It is always dark, where I come from. There is no light. No warmth. We have no birdsong, save the screams of the crows. The screaming. They do not stop screaming.”
Scrabbling away, William backed against a statue. He felt alone. Trapped. But the statue brought him comfort. It was another of St. George; tall, defiant, clutching an ancient sword in its hands.
“You will always find screaming. This abbey is no different. Can you not hear the wind, Beast, as it races through the woods? It screams to feel, to touch. The dying, they scream as their lives are extinguished. The living scream when theirs are not. God’s earth is a chorus of cries.”
“Poetic,” hissed Robin, haggard, the knife still steaming in his shoulder. “I like you even more.”
William wrenched the sword from the statue. It came free with a lurch, sent him spinning, the blade careering towards Robin’s twisted face. He swung it with all his might, a prayer to the Lord on his lips.
A stony hand grabbed his chest from behind. It held him still even as another punched into his back. His vision failing, William had just enough time to look down, to see his bloody heart in its fingers, before he slumped to the church floor.
Giggling obscenely, St. George sprang into the air. Two glassy wings burst from its back as it took flight, twitching and euphoric into the rafters. Its skin rippled like liquid shadow.
Robin watched his child as it flew. “Silly monk,” he shrieked, casting off his own glamour. Slick hair cascaded from her head, clinging to the infantile body beneath. Pale flesh glinted wetly in the candlelight and two shards of broken emerald shone where there should have been eyes.
Envy plucked the steaming dagger from her shoulder. Black blood spat from the wound, not unlike that of the congregation’s, murdered earlier by her hands. Not that it had stopped them singing, of course. She did so enjoy their singing.
“Silly, silly monk.”
Movement, in the shadows. Shapes ghosted in and out of the darkness, flitting between this world and another. Faint shrieks and triumphant barks joined the unending hymn. Envy watched the unholy procession with a wicked grin; the flutter of crow wings, the clicking of bones, screams of malediction and joy alike filling the despoiled church. Scuttling down the aisle like a spidery spinster, she sprang atop the central altar.
“And now, Lesson One,” she crooned, her voice cracked, sing-song. “Lesson One. Lesson One. . . We must not tell lies.”
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
They preferred the angry gnash of the storm over the silence.
Like nervous teeth, the panes chattered. The rafters creaked; dust floated down upon their heads.
The man—the man who had been taken in—spoke in a hoarse whisper. “I’ll go. I’ll do it. If it wasn’t for your family, I’d still be out there. Or worse.”
No one answered. No one argued his point, either. Finally, the father spoke. “The shed is about twenty yards back. It’s unlocked.”
The man massaged his crooked chin. “Door swing in or out?”
The father believed it was a good question to ask; this man was sharp. Pride swelled within him. It had been harrowing, but his family had done good, risking their wellbeing to drag the man in from the outside. But a pit burned the father’s stomach. The man had gotten lucky once. Luck would not prevail a second time. “In.”
“Long as the wind didn’t bang it open, I’m good.”
The father pressed his hand against the pane, its surface cooling his fever within. He could see nothing beyond the glass, however. “The generator is in the back, set on blocks. It should be deep enough into the shed to be protected. When you stand in front of it, look down to your right. The gas can will be there.”
The father felt his family press behind him. Mother’s face stooped lower than the boughs of the snow-laden trees. What remained of them, anyway. She clutched their children—son and daughter—under breasts that hadn’t been touched in years. “Yes.”
“Mm-hmm.” The man knew what that meant. The generator would power the house for another full day, at most. “I won’t allow your family to grow cold. I’ll fill it. When it runs out, we’ll figure out what’s next. Together.”
The man shrugged into his coat, careful not to worsen the tear along the shoulder seam. He tugged his wool hat until it hung low over his brow. He looked at the children, the souls-sucked-dry children. “Together,” the man repeated, not sure for whose benefit he’d said it, and cradled his rifle in his arm.
He reached for the door, but the father seized his hand. “Keep low. Don’t stop.”
The man grunted and was ready. The father twisted the knob. The wind shoved the door aside, and immediately the shrieking swallowed the man as well the snow, the blinding snow. The father threw his back into the door, snaring the blizzard’s icy tendrils in the jam. The storm howled; the panes rattled like tormented bones. “He’ll make it,” the father said, talking to the walls. “He’ll make it.”
The father watched as the man sunk thigh deep into the drift, watched and lost him to the white. The blizzard erased his footprints in one exhale. Then he waited. The minutes passed. “We needed him,” he said to the mother. “It could’ve been me instead.”
“It should have been you instead.”
He exhaled icy smoke, then chewed the inside of his mouth. He slowly turned around, keeping vigil at the pane. Snowflakes clung, mounting and growing ever deeper, white locusts of a great plague. Minutes. Minutes. Minutes passed.
“Gas can’s emptied by now.” The father visualized the man’s progress, the man’s steps. “Priming it…cranking it over…he knows what he’s doing…he knows…”
The children sniffled on the hardened snot clotting their noses. And their mother hugged them close to a heart that had long grown cold.
The father clutched the knob. Waiting. It vibrated in his hand. “Any minute.”
A gust charged the house, a mighty bull outside the walls. The rafters groaned; dust danced upon their heads; small, ghostly marionettes. “Any time now…”
He heard a distant crack. Another trunk snapping. Another tree succumbing to the storm. He thought of his neighbors, the elderly neighbors, for whom he’d once mowed their lawns. “Any…time…now…”
A spirit beckoned from the nether; the man emerged, white, spectral white, coat and hat and legs white, face and brow crusted in wind-driven snow. The rifle slung like a long ice shard over his shoulder. “I told you,” the father said, voice rising like the wind, “I told you!”
The man, mere feet from the door, polluted the drift with a crimson spray. The father jerked from the window as if struck. But his eyes stuck to the pane.
They swirled round the man, the needle teeth, the razor claws, unnatural piranhas of winter’s blight, tearing and cutting as the gale disguised their intentions. The wind kept the man upright, and the drift kept him mired. And they swirled, swirled till the man was no more.
The crimson spray disappeared, the drift a new blank canvas from which to paint. The man’s entrails clung briefly to the pane before slipping away.
He shuddered, the father did, but he would not cry. He covered his mouth. “We lost a good man.”
Then a loud click in the father’s ear. “We lost a good man,” the mother said, “and now we have none.”
The father felt the cold metal against the back of his head. It pushed forward, forcing him toward the door. “We have power now. When it runs out, we’ll figure out what’s next. Together,” the mother said to her children.
“You won’t survive without me.”
“Maybe not. But I sure as hell won’t die with you.”
The rifle burrowed into the base of his skull. He clutched the knob. He would freeze to death without a coat, without the proper clothes. He prayed that would be the best thing to come.
The father stumbled into the maw of the blizzard. It chewed him alive.
“There, there, my babies,” the mother cooed to her children, watching as their father filled the pane. “There, there.”
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.