Had it been the sun that peeled skin from his neck or the sheer ferocity of his nightmare?
Blistering splendor poured onto him from the unrelenting orb. Fire singed his eyes, shriveled his tongue—the blackened, useless slug lolled from his lips. His speech now eradicated, rendered to meaningless gestures from his festered hands. The sun seared his flesh, melted his legs down to dripping strands; mere bubbling pools of tissue in the ruined soles of his boots.
Every night, each dream, the heat only intensified.
He had been walking down a pebbled road, a silvery-sparkled stream beyond a thicket to his left. He could hear it—the stream, forming words that he could not, murmuring soft melodies into his steaming ears. Disgusted, he spat futilely; gory mucous dribbled down his chin. He wiped at it with a skinless forearm.
Every night, each dream, the anguish only escalated.
He had never seen a sky so blue. Cloudless and pure. He gritted his teeth. Upon the wind ancient legends croaked, low and throaty, while to his right bunnies romped through manicured fields. The sun cooked him, made his eyes bleed, and from his core ruptured an awful sort of churn. The sort he might have gotten eating roofing nails or coals from the bottom of his dead father’s grill.
In tonight’s nightmare, he stood in the midst of beauty. It utterly sickened him.
A terrible mewling. From the fields: bunnies eviscerated in pink geysers and in the middle of it all, the most splendid serpent he had ever seen.
The sun threw rage from its golden loft in the sky.
He screamed himself awake.
Did his flesh itch from want or the ghastliness of his nightmare?
A tap at the window. His body jerked; the steering wheel caught him in the ribs. Another tap, more forceful. A shimmering ray of light penetrated his window and diffused across his lap. For one fear slickened moment, he believed the sun had returned.
“Drop the window.”
Clumsily he swung his head, caught the glare of the flashlight. He swatted at ghost mosquitoes, then rolled the window down.
“What are you doing out here tonight?”
Instantly, he knew he had made a terrible mistake and slowly raised his hands to the steering wheel. “Resting, sir. Been on the road awhile. Needed a bit of a break.”
The flashlight glare jumped to the side. “Out of the car. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
He jiggled the door handle and stepped out, the chilled night air a balm to his flesh—yes, flesh remained; he could see that much now under the flashlight’s glow. Relieved, he pushed his hands upward to the somber stain of the sky. The scent of bunny entrails tickled his nostrils.
He heard a serpent’s hiss.
“Have you been drinking tonight, son?”
“No sir, not at all.”
He whirled expertly and with a ruthless chop to the throat crumpled the patrolman. A spinning kick to the temple knocked the man out cold—movements so heartless, so practiced, the officer never stood a chance. He seized the cop by his hair, dragged him from the shoulder of the road and down a slight ravine. Slipped the trench knife from his jeans and plunged it into the base of the cop’s skull. He felt the body shudder, finally go limp. A serpent hissed again in his head, and its tail rattled somewhere off in dreamy meadows. He withdrew his knife from the skull and rejoiced.
In due time, he would become a deity.
He usually lived in his car; a nomad’s life, one to which he had grown accustomed. However, tonight he chose a run-down inn with what cash he had; now he slept, tangled in stale motel sheets and food stained newspapers. The nightmares, they discovered him, slithered and stalked through his mind. Beneath the flames of his sins, he sweat.
Deep in the throes of subconsciousness, his mind again succumbed to dreamscape’s dark veil. In this dream, he rose from his cheap bed, abandoning his yellowed outline across the sheets. A pebbled road stretched below his feet; a silvery-scarred stream gurgled like the death rattle of the officer he had slain days before. A tranquil panorama of pastel greens and blues yawned above his head and higher still loomed the sun, ripping at his skin yet again.
He screamed and suddenly found himself back in bed. Across his foot lay a newspaper, the headline drenched in moonlight filtering through the window:
OFFICER MURDERED: AUTHORITIES LINK SLAYING TO SERPENT KILLER
He smiled proudly, but then something scraped against the wall.
Laughter. You fear Ra.
He scanned the room, but the voice slipped undiscovered into the gloom. “I don’t fear anyone. Don’t you know they call me Serpent Killer now?”
Rattling. From the tail of a snake. You cower beneath Ra. Yet you dare emulate me.
Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh, become what you are meant to be. A threatening hiss, and then the moon retreated from the room, casting it into hellish darkness.
At last, he tore free from his latest nightmare. Flakes of skin dusted his pillow.
He dragged his newest kill deeper into the woods. Passed the makeshift grave he had dug for the cop. Remembrance churned through his head.
The nightmares had plagued him since childhood, severing the innocence from his heart and replacing it with a hollow angst. He knew not what to make of the visions that poisoned his reveries, only that they rendered him misplaced and abandoned. Soon, however, he came to relish the feeling.
Once just a greasy, awkward freshman, he first murdered in the bathroom of his school. It had been November; the sun long expired by late afternoon. He loitered in the library, thumbing through books about bygone legends, until his eyes finally met that of another solitary boy. Eventually, he followed the boy into the lavatory, snuck behind him while he pissed into the urinal and drove his head into the ceramic tile. There were no witnesses, and he certainly had never been suspected. The death tang still lingered upon his fingers later that evening. For a brief while, he had stemmed his anguish. But relief never lasted. So he killed again.
He snapped from his thoughts. Cut into his kill’s clothes with his knife, stripped them off. Then he flipped the headless body onto its back.
With each letting of blood, his nightmares had only worsened. With each letting of blood, the serpent had only spoken louder.
He plunged his knife into its breast and proceeded to engrave.
He worked his hand and wrist carefully; his art form more fluid now than in the past. Sweat dripped from his brow.
Do not fail me as others have before you. Ra’s rein must end.
The serpent, it never left him alone. When he closed his eyes, it coiled behind his lids. Secretly, he despised its embodiment of something far more unnatural than even himself. But he never lost the faith that if he could gain knowledge of the nightmares the serpent delivered, perhaps then he could pillage its power.
Claim it as his own.
We must cast this world into my glorious shadow.
He stepped back, studied his toil. Desecrated, the headless corpse lay strewn—a serpent dug into its flesh, twisting sternum to groin.
Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh. The serpent’s words rattled through his skull and quite unexpectedly, he frowned.
He had pondered years over his dilemma: would liberation be granted under the sun, or would the moon ultimately conceal his damnation?
Under golden rays, he had feared for his safety, his very life. Yet did he not hide under the hem of night, seeking a coward’s comfort? Meticulously he had fashioned a secure existence, believing it would eventually lead to divinity. He ached to be worshiped, but how could he ever be glorified when the masses knew him only as Serpent Killer…and not the Serpent.
He had never slain in broad daylight. Only a god could be so brazen.
Tonight, he settled into the back seat of his car, behind an abandoned barn he knew to be undisturbed. By flashlight, he poured over the newspapers he had accumulated. The headlines swelled him with pride—the media’s copy dressed him as a rock star. Yes, the slayings had been linked, some twenty to thirty all told. Serpent Killer, they chanted his name. Serpent Killer. Still, it gnawed at the root of his soul.
Never the Serpent.
He gazed through the window at a sky black as the river Styx. After so many years, he had reached a decision. When he woke in the morning, he would shed his flesh.
The silvery-sparkled stream spoke; at least he thought it did. It gurgled over the rocks, over fallen limbs. Around the beaver’s dam it ebbed, and he loathed its song. The sun blew an inferno across the land. The thicket smoldered. Bunnies frolicked unaware.
Naked, he lay on a pebbled road and stared at the sun. It laughed at him, hurled boisterous flames that melted his toenails off. Nubs of white bone broke through his flesh. He screamed, but no one heard.
Butterflies swirled round his head, a myriad of colors, shapes. One landed upon the tip of his nose. He swatted at it but was too slow; it flitted back into its flock of comrades, their kaleidoscope of hues acid to his eyes. He realized he despised beauty, all beauty, and the nourishment its sun provided. Now he heard the fish in the stream laugh as well as the butterflies and the birds as they nestled in their boughs. The bunnies too, something of a high-pitched chortle—and the sun, its haughty giggling more than he could bear.
The serpent’s hiss hushed the land.
He tore free from the membranes of yet another nightmare, slick with fright. Golden fingers groped through the back window, scraping angry red welts across his legs. He recoiled from the sun and nearly scrambled into the front seat.
Then he saw them.
The little boy crossed the field, headed to the trees and the stream beyond. A fishing pole bounced along his shoulder. Close behind walked the boy’s father.
Shirtless, shoeless, he slipped from his car. Trench knife in hand. He stalked across the field, the grass beneath his feet uncomfortably sharp and hot, stewing his toes. Harder he pushed, springing smoothly from the ground the moment he touched down. With each predatory step, his confidence brimmed.
The scent of the father’s aftershave tickled his nose and the boy…he could already taste the boy’s blood.
Persistent in its melody, the stream disguised his footfall. A bunny bounded across the field, stopped and wiggled its nose. A butterfly fluttered about. The sun tattooed the top of his head; something flaked from his neck and between his shoulders. It spat its fury upon him, ignited a deep ache within the marrow of his bones. He ignored it all, fueled by the unknowing chatter between the father and his boy—and the dawning realization that soon he would be a deity.
Nothing would deny him.
Ten more yards. The father would then taste his blade. His eyes sparkled as he tightened his grip upon the knife.
Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh.
A massive shadow shifted from under the canopy of trees ahead. His mind reeled, desperate to make sense of what had emerged. His legs buckled, and he tumbled forward. He managed to snare his prey’s foot and tripped the father to the ground.
He pounced upon the man and for a moment, he glimpsed his own bewildered reflection within his prey’s frightened eyes. One slash and his blade kissed the man’s throat.
He enjoyed the ghastly wheeze from the father’s gaping wound. Then he noticed the pus-bloated sores along his own arm, and a long shriek escaped his mouth.
From under the shadow of the trees, the boy halted and spun around. Staggering from the prone body of the father, he half ran, half limped toward the boy as the flesh separated from muscle in thin sheets from his limbs. He hissed even as glints of bone popped through the exposed areas.
Nothing would deny him. Not even the sun as it stripped free tissue and tendon.
He raised the trench knife above his head but it dropped from his grasp, fingers nothing more than charred bone. A numbness spread through his mind like morphine, yet the inferno within raged molten. His arms, twisted into jagged charcoaled spindles, burst into plumes of ash that clotted the air. The ruins of his legs littered the field, and he fell once more. He came to rest at the boy’s feet, a smoldering stump.
Behind the boy slithered a staggering mass. It rose and towered above them both—he thought it had existed only in the darkest cavities of his nightmares—but now realized how terribly wrong he had been. The serpent in all its glory: an enormous thing with unblinking elliptical eyes and a horrid, triangular head. It glowered, forked tongue flicking from its jaws.
His face slid off into the grass. His torso itched unbearably as scales erupted from beneath his exposed muscle.
He glanced upward, stared into the serpent’s morphing head. For a moment, he glimpsed his own features grotesquely bubbling under the serpent’s. Then the boy’s. The ancient abomination opened its mouth.
Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh, become what you are meant to be.
The boy walked away and then returned with the trench knife in his young hand.
Only then did he comprehend that the god of his nightmares commanded not him but the boy. Finally did he realize he had been mislead. Abandoned once more. “Nooooo…”
Another child would be prepared as heir to Apep’s earthly throne and in turn suffer its depraved nightmares. Perhaps it would be this boy…this boy who possessed no fear of Ra.
The dawning complete; the only sure way to slay a serpent was to sever its head.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2013 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
‘Your Winnie,’ she mutters, pressing harder with the face wipe. ‘Your dragon, your beautiful dragon girl…’
Sitting before the mirror at her dressing table, she doesn’t recognise the woman staring back at her. There is familiarity in the face, as there is familiarity to be found in anything if a person is subjected to it often enough, but that is all. Still, she keeps looking. She must look, every night, before Seth turns in for bed, desperately studying the features that emerge from beneath her makeup. The ritual of recognition is on-going.
The bedroom is dark, save for the light from the first-floor landing, which spills through the open doorway. It is easier when the bedroom is dark, as though that makes it all right; as though it is acceptable that she cannot properly see herself when she can barely see anything else. Canned laughter carries through the house, and the sound of audience applause, as Seth’s own evening ritual comes to its close. Soon he will ascend through the house, as if chasing the vestigial laughs, the sound of company, until they lead him into the bedroom and are silent.
The evening had begun like any other. Dinner was ready for when Seth returned home from work. She had cooked lamb, rubbed with rosemary and a selection of other herbs. She ate silently while he told her about his day. She nodded when encouraged, smiled when he smiled, laughed at his jokes.
He told her the lamb was nice, that his ‘dragon’s done herself proud with this one.’ They drank wine; his white, hers red. He said the white went with the vegetables. Her palate favoured the red; rich, velveteen flavours in her mouth, against her tongue. She agreed with him regardless.
Seth loves it when she agrees with him. He says it shows their unity, that they are two made into one. ‘In sickness and in health. Till death do we part. My Winnie, my fierce, beautiful dragon girl.’
She turns her attention to her lips next. Pulling a clean tissue free from the box to her right, she dabs it to her mouth, as though kissing it gently good night. Her lips have not kissed anything gently for a long time now. Seth does not like his love gentle, and on the occasions he does press his mouth against hers, it cannot be called a kiss. Once, before all this, he might have kissed her in the proper sense. There had been tenderness then; enough to tempt her from her family home into his arms.
She presses harder, then begins rubbing, until all of the lipstick is gone. Underneath, her lips are thin, and slightly raw. The tissue comes away red and streaky in her hand.
When they had both finished eating dinner, the dragon washed up while her white knight took the wine into the front room. Heat seared her hands as they dipped in and out of the sink. Drowsy with wine and the silky, sudsy water on her skin, she thought things that she had not dared to think before. ‘What ifs’ uncoiled themselves in her mind; fiery thoughts roused and riled.
Staring into her bright, shining eyes in the dressing table mirror, she remembers every slight, every wound, every wicked word intended to belittle her. This is not love, she thinks. She dares to think it again, giving voice to the doubts that have for a long time now been hatching in her head. This is not love. It was never love. She is no better off than when she left home; lost and lonely and unloved by a world that does not know the meaning of the word.
She remembers the feel of his hand against her face, the sound it makes; a ringing slap that sinks beneath the skin and seems to burn. His dragon, scorched!
She thinks of all these things, as she had thought of them at the kitchen sink, her eyes fixed firmly on the wedding ring by the taps. Her hands had moved automatically through the water, her mind caught up in a twister of realisation. So much pain, she thought, so much upset for so little; a small piece of jewellery and their names on a certificate. God, she was sure, played no part in this; an ancient force dead to the modern world. But there were yet more ancient forces, not dead but sleeping, and they stirred now, suffused with heat and hunger –
Tears cling to her long, black lashes, before breaking free and running down her face. Most of her make-up is removed now but she does not stop wiping. She covers all her face from her forehead to her neck, and with every wipe she feels more familiar, less false to her own eyes. And what eyes, she thinks, reaching to rip off her fake lashes. The lids come too, peeled clean above her sockets, revealing mad, majestic orbs underneath.
Silence falls suddenly over the house. As her opened eyes regard themselves in the mirror, she hears Seth at the bottom of the stairs. He comes perhaps to slay her with his lance, to penetrate the folds of her flesh, to pierce her in her most vulnerable place until she is stilled beneath him, and he spent.
She wipes harder, with less care, and it seems to her that every movement sloughs skin from her face. Her flesh smears like concealer, revealing new skin underneath. The tissues tire quickly, turning red and rancid in her hand. Their remains litter the dressing table, and in the mirror, her new face; sharp and scaled. His dragon girl, a woman!
He reaches the top of the stairs, and she senses him on the landing. Then she sees him in the mirror, a silhouette in the doorway. His body blocks the light.
‘You’re cold again.’
‘I’m fine,’ she says, still staring in the mirror.
‘Come off it, I can see you shivering from here.’ Seth moves into the bedroom, his silhouette reappearing by the window. The cross-framed sheet of glass stands open; the bedroom exposed to the black sky, the silver stars swallowed by that blackness so that they barely seem to shine at all. ‘What have I said about leaving this open at night?’
He is still talking but she does not hear. Time seems to stop as she considers him; not Seth but a silhouette, featureless and without meaning. He is nothing. It is nothing. She feels herself shaking as she considers what she has given to him. Every smack scalds her skin, embarrassment sears her cheeks, abuse burning between her thighs until she can barely contain the heat inside her. Her mouth stretches into a silent scream, jaws wide, like the dragons of old. Lipstick and lashes, for lamb!
‘– to make an effort. You know I love you, Winnie? Your knight in shining –’
She rushes at him through the darkness. They stumble into the en-suite, half in and out of the bedroom. His head hits the smooth white of the wash basin and he lies still beneath her. Heat spills from her mouth in hurried words.
‘Lamb,’ she breathes hotly, ‘lipstick and lashes, for lamb!’
His eyes flutter, head lolling on the linoleum, and she wonders if he can see her, if he recognises that she has changed now. Her breath rattles in her throat; a beautiful, crocodilian croak, which seems to say I am a woman and you have wronged me. Then her mouth closes around his face, jaw loose, like that of a great snake. Her teeth sink into his skin and he burns beneath her, this modern knight, this meat, this man.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2013 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.