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Of the Devil
I know that I shall come to regret this in time. Perhaps I should just turn back now, go sit quietly inside our little house. From now on, I’ll sleep with one ear pressed against my mat, and the other stuffed with an old rag. Yes, that should stop all the noises I’ve been hearing. But, a little voice within me argues, you cannot stop noises that are inside your head.
It’s this very revelation that pushes me onward, to the quiet room where my father works, printing books by hand. He stops when I enter the room, disappointment coloring his features. “Why, hello, John. My third born son. Arms too scrawny to take to wood cutting still, eh?” I cringe, but remain where I am.
“Father, I simply wonder if-” I begin, but he stops me short with more criticism.
“Your elder brothers had already married and left home by the time they were sixteen. Why is it that no man in the village wants you to marry his daughter?” His words are knives; they cut my courage in half.
I breathe deeply. “Have you been hearing anything at night?”
He pauses and looks at me darkly, eyes narrowed. “Only men possessed by the Devil hear things that are not there, John.”
I can feel my face drain of blood. “In the forest, I mean. I’ve been hearing odd sounds in the forest when I’m trying to sleep.”
“Then it will just be a noisy animal, son. Now, stop bothering me with your petty worries, and leave me be. You do wish to eat tonight, don’t you?” he mocks me, glancing at my malnourished body.
“Of course, sir. My apologies,” I mumble before I take my leave. Alas, I regret my actions as previously predicted.
My father’s words do not reassure me. No regular animal makes the sounds I have been hearing. I try to convince myself otherwise on the journey back to my house, but I know in my heart that something is off.
In the distance, I notice a bit of color amidst the drab shadows. As it is April, Sarah should be tending to her flowers already. The sun has finally greeted us, dropping sweet rays of light all over the village. I brush off my dusty shirt as I walk past Sarah, who indeed is on her knees, talking to the vibrant blossoms she treats like children.
“Good afternoon, Sarah,” I comment as I walk by, staring straight ahead. Sarah is the only girl in the village who the right age to be my wife; only one year my elder. But, her grandmother, the evil witch, despises me. She thinks I am a madman. And I daresay I cannot disagree with her.
Sarah scoffs at me as I stroll by. “Fine way to treat a girl, you dull child. It’s no wonder my grandmother wishes you ill.” She smiles when she says this, though. Sarah is no beauty; her hair is almost as white as the clouds in the sky, and her eyes are a murky brown shade. But she is such a lovely girl.
I stop and look back at her, mock surprise shaping my features. “I was not under the impression you wanted to talk to me,” I tease her.
“What made you think so, you tactless fool?” she smiles.
“Why, you were clearly already deep in conversation with your flowers!”
Sarah laughs, drawing the attention of the witch, half-blind and half-deaf with age. “You demon,” the old lady snarls. “Leave my granddaughter alone!”
Sarah rolls her eyes, then leans in towards me. “I have wonderful news, John. I am to be married!”
Her words, meant to make me smile, cause my veins to freeze over. “To be married?” I repeat, horrified.
“Yes! My grandmother’s cousin has a grandson who is my age. He’s a knight, John! I shall be a lady, and we shall live in a manor. Isn’t it amazing?” She is simply oozing happiness. “And look, he’s bought me a new dress.” She throws her arm out to show me. It’s the color of the earth, a million tiny flowers sewn into the cloth.
“Yes, Sarah. It’s grand,” I manage to choke out. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have duties to attend to.”
The way I walk as I leave her with her flowers is odd, broken. I feel as though someone has stolen away my walking stick, the only thing to keep me upright. My father and I depended on my marriage to Sarah, however late it may come. Now what will become of me?
I wander home, which is throwing distance from Sarah’s house, and sit on the land around it, masked by the towering trees of the forest. The sun leaves the sky soon, and my father arrives home just as it’s almost completely gone from sight.
He scowls to see me. “Haven’t done anything productive today, have you, boy?” He smirks, thinking himself quite the wit. It’s more of a cruel jab than a question, but I shake my head anyway. I dare not tell him about Sarah's betrothal. He scowls a bit longer before leaving me alone.
Once the sun has gone entirely, I notice Sarah is back outside, catering to her roses. For fear that she may see me, I retire to our small house, and lay down on my mat without eating. My father ignores me, as he enjoys doing occasionally.
I must fall asleep, because I am abruptly aware of screaming. My father, lit by the moonlight, is so still on his mat that I fear he may be dead, but my thoughts are on the screams instead of his wellbeing. They are such terrible, painful sounds that I am up and out the door before they finish. But then there are more and more. It’s a wonder no one else has come from their home to investigate.
I set out courageously, following the sound through the dark trees.
“My God! Will no one help me?!” The hoarse cry is even louder, more desperate a tone that any I’ve ever heard. My heart is working overtime, blood pumping so fast through my head that I fear it may implode. The collar of my shirt sticks to my neck as I battle my way through the forest. Branches claw at my skin and vines wrap around my limbs as I head onward, toward the pleading screams that grow weaker and less often as I approach.
I fear I’m mad as that witch says I am. Maybe I am possessed by the Devil indeed, and he beckons me to do his bidding. Thousand of ideas race through my already full brain, but I shake my head to clear them away.
No, this must be real. For what human, peasant or royalty, could imagine such a cry, so full of anguish and terror? Not even the most wicked of souls.
Suddenly, I am in an opening, the sobs muffled but closer than ever. I feel rather vulnerable without the trees as my guards and cloak. I can hear owls hooting in the distance, wanting me to turn around and leave, before I see something that I do not wish to see.
I open my mouth, scared that my voice shall break with fear, but it doesn’t. “Show yourself.”
There is a sound behind me, unlike any sound I’ve heard before. It is a thick shriek, as if someone is screaming, but the sound is caught in their mucus-clogged throat.
First comes a human-like figure. The clothes seem vaguely familiar, though they are covered in blood and the night is as dark as ever, but the person itself is not at all recognizable. The entire top part of its skull is gone, a clean cut, as if there was never a skull to begin with. I see what I assume is the brain, a grey, odd looking thing, exposed and also half gone. The skin that I can see - what remains of the face, the hands, the neck - are all as blue as the summer sky at midnight. Its flesh is decaying. I can smell the rot from across the clearing.
The person’s jaw is dangling from its face, barely attached. I can understand now why the cries had grown so scarce as I approached. Still, it whimpers and tries to drag itself away from its captor, still hiding in the bushes.
I ponder running, but my boots seem to be stuck on the forest floor. I suppose I should scream. Any sane person would simply panic at the sight of a human being in such a sickening state, turned into such a monstrosity. Yet, I remain still, thinking. I need not ponder long, however, for the beast then reveals itself.
The creature is unlike any that I could imagine. It emerges from the same thicket as the tragic human figure. It lies flat on the ground, longer than the average man is tall. Four long, stick-thin legs slide back and forth across the ground, scuttling, like a giant centipede that lost most of its legs in a battle. It is a scaled creature, the color of a newborn babe. Two antennas emerge from its front half, decorated with small, beady circles I take for eyes.
On its back, the scales open like a hidden door. I can peek inside the opening; it’s as dark as the church at night. The congested shrieking sound erupts from the opening, and with it comes a wad of fair hair, matted with dried blood. My insides lurch nauseatingly.
I take in the pair of monsters: an almost decapitated human body and the creature of a madman’s nightmares.
Dear Lord. That witch must be right. I am insane.
I mean to run for the village, but the creature must sense my intentions. It leaps forward at a speed that would stun the swiftest man in the world. I let out a panicked shout of my own and run to the south, where the village sits, asleep and unaware. My path back is blocked by the massacred body.
I want so badly to leave the half-empty shell of a human where it is. I long not to have to lay my hands upon the skin colored with death. But it is so familiar, its slight movements so innocent and helpless - it is so human.
I snatch up an arm, clad in a dirt-colored sleeve stiff with blood, and drag the body with me. As I run, I feel the arm tear from the socket, like a bit of soaked parchment. My sobs catch in my throat, bile following suit, knowing I hold a dismembered limb in my hand. But, this is still a human. I cannot simply desert it, so I pause for a moment to throw the ragged body over my shoulder.
A moment is longer than the monster needs, and then I can hear its shrieks, just as loud as they were in the clearing. It comes into view, the scales on its back sliding open and closed, like it’s keeping beat at a village dance. The eyes, attached to the antennas, wave wildly back and forth. The legs slide around, disrupting the leaves like a child having a fit.
I can see it in its beady eyes: human flesh it what it desires. And I have its current craving hanging over my arm.
With only half of a thought, I rip the detached arm and its filthy sleeve from the body, and throw it to the beast. It growls in a moment of pleasure, then rolls onto its back. As it devours the limb, I note the creature’s underbelly - exposed and vulnerable.
I break a large stick off the tree nearest me, bold as I dare, right as it roars in delight.
With a quivering arm, I thrust the stick through the creature. It lets out a violent sound that will haunt my nightmares for an eternity. A sweet smelling liquid leaks from the fresh wound. A rapidly moving leg brushes against my own, and I shudder in disgust before it stops dead. The creature doesn’t seem to be moving anymore.
Momentarily stunned, I take my leave while it is still possible. I’ve not run very far, mumbling apologies over and over to the faint living shell on my arm, when a tree snags the person’s ragged clothing.
Though the brach pierces its skin deeply, it makes only a half-hearted sound of discomfort. I guess this is nothing to having your skull consumed.
Panicking, I try to yank the body from the tree's limb, but it’s stuck. A piece of the clothing rips as I try to pull the forsaken thing off, a shard of the cloth falls into my hand. I swear I hear the monster shriek again, though I’m sure it can no longer be alive.
The person whimpers, so completely defeated. I cannot lift it off of the tree. I cannot save this human being. I have to leave it, to die or to rot or to be eaten by that hideous beast if it lives. I only wish to free this mysterious figure of its misery.
I drop to my knees, tears streaming down my face as I glance up into those eyeless sockets. “I’m sorry. Oh, dear God, I’m so sorry. My God. I have to do this. Please forgive me.”
With hands shaking like a drunkard, I reach up and wrap my fingers around the thin neck. Like the arm, it gives way easily, with a sound that forces vomit up my throat. The bloody, soft ridges of the neck are in my hand, and I let it fall quickly. The head drops to the ground with a dull thud.
With that, I leave the body. And I run.
It seems to take hours to reach my village, and every branch I see is the monster, every sound is its gurgling shriek.
The witch’s house is the first thing my eyes fall upon. I trip down the dirt path to the front door, past Sarah’s beautiful flowers. I pray that she is the one to answer my cries for help.
My foot snags on a rock, and I fall heavily. My torso and head collide with the thin wooden door of the shoddily crafted dirt home. It flies open, hitting the wall with such vigor that the entire place shakes. Dirt falls from the ceiling, and a rather large clump falls straight onto the evil old woman, who lays, asleep, on the floor. She is upright at once, her frighteningly blue eyes staring right through me.
“Please, please, ma’am. You must help me. I have done such terrible things, but I could not save it, and-”
“Leave my home at once, you possessed beast! I told you never to disturb my Sarah and me ever again!” the witch shrieks, rising and coming towards me menacingly as she continues her yelling.
With a sudden realization, I interrupt her endless spout of anger. “Where is Sarah?”
The witch glances about the tiny room, deserted of human life except for the pair of us. She shoves past me to their small front lawn, decorated with brilliant roses. The witch turns towards me, mouth ready to curse me to my death bed,. But, she closes her jaw at once, and her eyes widen to twice their usual size as they drop to the large bit of fabric hanging from my hand.
“What have you done with my Sarah?” she whispers; her voice cracks like a breaking heart.
I snap my attention to the fabric, which I still clench ruthlessly in my fist. Through the dried blood, I can see that it is indeed very familiar and has a fine, floral pattern. It is brown - the color of the earth.