The banner was tattered, stained, battered and torn; not unlike the very soul of Howard Poe himself. The banner hung from rusted nails along the wall of the attic at the apex of Howard and Callista’s stately three story home. If one could view from the arched paned window in the room, they would be rewarded with a beautiful vista of the Atlantic, arcing far to the east of the Barker’s Bay harbor. The visibility was often poor, a vast stretch of sea obscured by briny fog, but in the current conditions of the Poe household, this was a moot point. On this chilly spring day, the patriarch of the Poe household found himself in a very familiar location, kneeling before the bloodstained banner in an act of supplication.
Howard hadn’t repaired the window since the storm that had brought the banner into their home. The hurricane a year prior had taken and given in one fell swoop, surely the act of a God most arcane and devious in his mysterious ways. Poe himself had lost an eye in the accident but far more from that, he and Callista had lost their son, an innocent boy of ten who had more to deliver unto the world than he ever had the opportunity to do. Facial disfigurement and Phillip’s life: for what? A strip of gaudy and weather worn canvas advertising “Zadok’s Magical Menagerie”. Howard noted the irony that their excursion to visit this very show had been one of the last moments of young Phillip’s life.
He kneeled on the rough wooden floor of the room and gazed up at the banner. It hung there limply, mocking the man in his failures of fatherhood. Canary yellow, emblazoned with gaudy red block colors promising amazing sights from around the world and endless days of entertainment. Howard sighed and ran a weather chapped hand through his sandy hair, taking care to avoid the patch of black fabric that obscured the healed over wound on his right eye. He remembered it all. He remembered the day of their trip, the day of the storm and he remembered the day he had found the writing on the banner. He remembered everything that had occurred before, a tumultuous path that lead to love, family, devastation and heartbreak.
How could he ever forget such events seared into the vestiges of what little sanity he believed himself to possess? How could he ever forget anything that had happened to him in this accursed town?
Barker’s Bay had been a haven for the fishing industry for nigh on 50 years. Howard himself had proven more so than others to be quite adept in hauling in the most bountiful catches, a success he attributed to learning the ways of the sea faring life from his father ever since he was old enough to bait a hook. He had eventually developed a friendly rivalry with another local success story, a grizzled veteran of the angler’s trade named Jacob Gordon. Their fishing competitions became a local event for which the townsfolk would gather to place bets and cheer on both men. It was a truly symbiotic relationship: plenty of catch and money for the anglers and more fish to sustain the town’s trade. It had even brought both love and further fortune to Howard Poe. He had met his lovely wife upon returning to shore from one of these events, a shock of red fabric wrapped in curly dark hair standing against the setting New England sun like a halo from the Lord’s most enigmatic angel. They had swiftly married after a short courtship around the time that Gordon levied the idea to combine his and Howard’s skills into a fishery empire.
Within two years from this bountiful time, Howard and Callista had a new baby boy and the newly expanded Poe family experienced fortuitous wealth from the success of GP Fisheries. All was right with Howard and his life but he would soon see that fortune and luck, much like the sea herself, was a harsh and unforgiving mistress.
The downfall began one day near the end of the spawning season when Poe met Gordon at their facility to discuss finances for the next season. Things were amiss almost instantly. It was with swift observation that Howard noticed the scrap of wood hanging around Gordon’s meaty neck on a string of fishing line and the wool eyepatch that obscured one of his friend’s bright blue eyes. The wooden shard had been scoured roughly with a knife to reflect various hashes, letters and designs that Howard hadn’t quite recognized. Gordon had cleared his throat loudly, covered the scrap with his hand and tucked it beneath his shirt collar. When Howard had questioned the state of his ocular injury, Gordon waved it off and got to the matter at hand. His primary order of business was to declare to his longtime associate that he had been privately meeting with a financier in Boston who had agreed to a full buyout of the factory. As majority owner of the property having leased the building with his own funds, the decision fell squarely to Gordon although Howard could pursue legal action on the matter if he so chose to do so or accept a considerable sum in the buyout.
That was the last that Howard Poe had ever seen Jacob Gordon as the man declared he was moving further south to the Carolinas and taking his fortune with him. Poe left that day with a shattered heart but a heavy pocketbook. Callista had understood that the circumstances were beyond her husband’s control and, although they could stay afloat for some time, he would have to fall back on his humble fishing days to provide for his family when the money inevitably ran out.
The next few years had progressed with little change in the town nay Howard Poe’s life. Phillip had grown up to be a bright and adventurous young lad, accompanying his father on the beach and the pier. Howard had shown the boy the tricks of his trade, teaching him how to cast, when to set the hook and the proper bait. The boy even earned his first war wound when a hook pierced his thumb, leaving a ridged scar over time. But he was a strong child, barely whimpering as the doctor had sewn the wound shut. He had seemed determined to express his toughness, insisting on carrying heavy sacks of groceries far larger than himself as he helped his mother embark on errands about town. It was during one of these excursions that the boy had informed his parents about meeting the tall, thin man in the top hat.
He had mentioned first to Callista and then to his father about how his mother had entered a market to collect supplies when Phillip had been drawn by a burst of yellow (nearly gold) paper blowing in the light spring wind. He mentioned he had gone to peek at it when the man had emerged from a nearby alley, sliding onto the walkway with the speed and fluidity of a snake. He had been a tall, gaunt man almost resembling one of the lamp posts on the street. He had worn a long black coat with tails and a yellow bowtie. Phillip couldn’t see the man’s face clearly; he could only make out the tall black top hat, pulled down so the brim obscured one eye. The other eye glinted in the midday sun, shining like a jewel. The man had a face as long and thin as his body, ending in a tapered chin below a thin curled mustache.
Phillip was sure to mention to his parents that he knew better than to talk to strangers; they had raised him well in that regard. Also, he didn’t want to get into too much trouble for wandering off from his mother. The boy had pulled the flyer out of his pockets: bright and searing yellow, promoting an exciting new circus show to be held in Boston the next week. The tall man had handed the flyer to the boy, gripping his small hand to press the paper in. The man had caressed a thin finger over the scar on Phillip’s thumb, tipped the brim of his hat lower in a bit of showmanship and then vanished into the ether as quickly as he had arrived.
Howard had taken the flyer from the boy and inspected it, unnerved by the reports of the man caressing his young son’s hand. Phillip was excited though; he had always wanted to go to the circus. He had learned about all sorts of exotic animals in school and his classmates who had visited in seasons past had told tales of wonderful and bizarre performers and strange and unseen wonders the likes that a ten year old could only dream of. Surely he had done well enough in his studies to warrant a weekend visit? Callista was inclined to agree and the family made the trek to the city the very next week to visit Zadok’s Magical Menageriedespite Howard’s misgivings.
To the surprise of the child, he noted that the ringmaster within the canary yellow canvas tent was in fact the tall, thin man that had presented him with the flyer. The show was a marvelous one, even one as incredulous as Howard Poe had to agree. There were magnificent animals from the darkest parts of Africa, amusing and foolish clowns and death defying daredevils. It brought smiles to the haggard hearts of the boy’s parents to see him so delighted. During the show, Howard remembered how the thin man had watched from the shadows, a curious shine emanating and reflecting in the very direction of the Poes.
The family departed the show some ninety minutes later. Phillip had turned to take in one last glimpse of the fantastic world of mirth and magic and was rewarded with a bow and a wink from Mr. Zadok himself. The tall man had promised wonders unseen and he had surely delivered. The thin man with the gleaming eye had struck Howard the wrong way but he had to admit that the unusual ringmaster had held one hell of a show. He would just be sure to keep both eyes on the showman if he ever returned to town.
Howard remembered leaving the tent that day and encountering a particularly violent gust of wind. The sky above the Boston metropolis had taken on a foul, angry grey swell and the smell of rain permeated the spring air. They had made haste back for the bay on that day under the pretense that it was simply a seasonal storm approaching. Nothing that the Poes hadn’t dealt with in the past. Howard would later learn of the sequence of unfortunate and deadly events brewing at that very moment, percolating in fate’s kiln in a maelstrom of chaos and uncertainty. Nobody could have known about the particularly weak and ancient tree that one piece of the canvas circus tent had been affixed to. Nobody could have known the force of the storm that was about to befall the New England bay. Nobody, not even Zadok, could have predicted what was about to happen. At least, this was what Howard had told himself time and time again in the lowest moments. Moments much like the despair he currently found himself embroiled in.
At this current time, he rose from his knees and moved forward to inspect the cloth. This was the very same banner that had been affixed to the tree. Nobody in Barker’s Bay had ever heard of such a large branch blowing a good thirty miles northeast from Boston. They had never encountered a storm powerful enough to produce such an effect and everyone agreed that the misfortune it had levied on the Poe family was wholly unwarranted.
The boy had been afraid of the storm. He had endured them before but something about this one had caused him to regress to a frightened toddler, thumb in mouth and quiet sobs of fear. Howard had taken him to the large arched window at the apex of the house. This had been Phillip’s room, for the boy had loved the ocean and had insisted to be able to see the farthest expanse every day. Even as the sea broiled and churned with ferocity and the wind whipped like a sullen banshee, the boy had wanted to see. Howard Poe had taken the frightened boy and coddled him, held him close and let him observe. Phillip Poe had seen everything and then, within a cacophony of shattered glass and rending wood, the boy saw nothing. Howard hadn’t even seen the canvas draped branch being carried on the vortex. Neither had witnessed the massive shard until it had already impacted the home and destroyed three lives within an ill fated instant of gleaming, windswept knives.
After Howard had cleaned up the aftermath, the mortician had come to collect the child and the doctor tended to his wounds. The forsaken father had picked up the rain soaked canvas and strung it over the shattered window, remaining to this day as the standard of an unknown battle, lost before he had even a moment to prepare for war. Now that war raged in the mind of both himself and Callista. She hadn’t taken the loss easily either, often puttering about the lower half of the house, refusing to ascend the staircase any higher than the second floor. Their marriage had suffered from the death of their son, there was no denying this. Yet they held fast to the most delicate thread of matrimonial dedication; the onslaught of regret, fear and anger dangling overhead like a Damoclesian blade, eager to sever the last vestige of their loyalty.
On this day, Callista Poe approached the white birch stairwell that lead up to the solitary room on the third floor. She was a woman of worldly beliefs, hinging on decades of family knowledge garnered from far in the Mediterranean and Middle East. She knew that the room above had been forever stained with the negative energy that encircled it like a stalking predator. She knew that her husband, a good, loyal and hard working man, would suffer even more so if he stayed up there, suffering the ill-imposed blame for the tragic accident. She would have to do something and today would be that day. Callista uttered a brief prayer, took a deep breath, closed her eyes and ascended the stairway for the first time in months.
She felt the chill the moment she entered the room. Phillip’s bed and dresser were still there. The toy train he loved so much and practice fishing rod had been left in a corner of the otherwise bare room, never to be held by a child’s hands again. Callista attributed the permeating cold to the still open expanse of the window but in the most spiritual and knowing recesses of her mind, she knew better. She reached out to her husband, even as he stood upright and approached the canvas. She didn’t speak a word as he touched and caressed the bright yellow strip of cloth, shards of tree bark and dark matted stains that implicated the violence the artifact had been privy to.
Howard Poe reached up with his weathered hands and plucked out the nails fastening the cloth to the wall. Callista caught her breath as she anticipated the next step in their grieving process. The wind brushed lightly in from the open window but to the Poes it felt like the coldest and cruelest chill from Mother Nature’s unforgiving maw. Howard smoothed the canvas on the bare wooden floor and turned it over. Inscribed on the lower back left side of the canary yellow canvas was a sentence in a language that Howard had never seen. The dark brown inscriptions flaked beneath his touch as though written with a pen of pure flame. The arcane words were comprised of savage and jaggedly inscribed lines that bisected upon, ran parallel to themselves and floated freely in negative space. Dots and whorls accompanied the occasional letter creating a pattern that was at once intricate and unsettling. Howard didn’t recognize the words but Callista did. She had seen them before, in books passed down from women generations before, inscriptions and passages written but warned to never be touched.
Howard’s finger began to trace the letters slowly. Then faster, moving with an increasingly fervent speed. He had reached about halfway through the script when his wife reached out and grasped his hand with uncharacteristic strength and determination. He turned to look at her, crystal blue eyes rimmed with red and sullied with the gray of the grief stricken insomniac. Those eyes of his, naturally kind yet determined had been part of what made Callista fall for the fisherman but now, at this time and in this room, she didn’t recognize her husband. This was a stranger, fallen from grace and dragged through six circles of hell. The seventh lie before them, rendered in canvas, blood, wood and soot.
“Burn this, my love,” Callista said quietly. Neither had spoken much since the occurrence. The voice sounded foreign to the both of them but Howard Poe saw the fire in his wife’s amber eyes, fire as fierce as the sash of red that cascaded around her narrow shoulders. He nodded and without a word, took his hand from the inscription, replaced it with the hand of his devoted wife and gathered up the blood stained canvas.
The beach was cold, a shifting bed of grayish pearls overlooked by an ominous cascade of black clouds overhead. The sight unnerved Howard; it looked all too familiar. He knew that at any moment, a violent cyclone would appear from the open sky and end his life with a harpoon sent from God himself. The scar tissue on his socket itched at the very thought. He didn’t remember precisely how he had lost it in the incident nor did he want to. He wanted to erase all thoughts of what had occured. Howard Poe decided that fire would be the cleanser.
The flames licked the chilled air from their bonfire base on the beach. He laid out the canvas and stared down at the words once more. It was an arcane language inscribed to be read by tongues unknown. Magic, surely. Undoubtedly a conjuration that would grant him his basest desires. He knew that was how these things had worked. He recalled how Zadok had mentioned that his show would make all the dreams of the people come true. Childish words to be spoken to impressionistic young minds yet to be sullied and stained by the ways of the world. Stained and burned and torn asunder in one immediate wretch of happenstance. Dreams to come true if only magic existed.
Before he knew what he was doing, Howard Poe reached towards the fire and extinguished a burning stick into the gray sand. He smoothed out the warm wood, briefly flinching at a jagged edge piercing his nail bed. Just a drop of blood, nothing to come of it. He ever-so-briefly thought of the shard that Jacob Gordon had worn around his neck in oft forgotten days past. Howard shook these pointless thoughts and used the stick to trace the letters on the canvas, the ember-warmed shard looking much like a smaller version of the tree that had ruined his and Callista’s life. He finished tracing the words and sat back on his haunches, child-like and expectant. Foolishness, utter desperation. He smirked at his own ineptitude and rubbed his scarred over eye socket. He closed his good eye, weariness overtaking him at the base of the flames. When he opened them, Jacob Gordon was standing before him in the fire.
“My God,” Howard uttered. He stood up, stumbled back onto his haunches and stood up again.
“We’ll see,” Gordon smirked. He looked no worse for the wear, clad in a smart three piece gray suit and leering forth with a hungry look in his eyes (two of them, no eyepatch to be seen). They were eyes that seemed to gleam an ethereal gold shine in the licking, crackling flames. Greasy smoke billowed about the man, blending effortlessly with the grey of his suit and the sand below.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it Jacob?” Howard whispered in a strained, tired voice.
“Well, friend, that tends to occur when you’re dead. It becomes considerably more difficult to pay a visit to a dear old acquaintance,” said the thing that looked like Gordon.
“Dead?” Howard whispered again, his voice not yet raising above the volume of the flames.
“Get up,” Gordon motioned with a meaty, grey hand.
Howard stumbled to his feet and stood before his old friend, the filth covered canvas and the blazing fire. Despite the warmth emanating from the blaze, all Howard Poe felt was the cold of the rushing wind.
“What do you want?” Howard asked, subconsciously rubbing the small pinprick on his finger. Another spot of blood welled up and dripped into the sand.
Gordon rubbed his hands together as if anticipating something, the sound rasping like scoured sandpaper. “The question, Poe, is what do you want? Ah but no need to answer, see, because I think I already know.”
“Do you now?” Howard’s sandy mustache flickered in the wind, salt beginning to gather on the tips.
“Look at you, Poe,” Gordon chuckled with malice. “A shell of a man, hardly the one that I went into business with.”
“The one you hung out to dry, Jacob,” he corrected.
“Ah, yes. Regardless, a husk is a husk no matter how you shuck it. One doesn’t need eyes to see how broken you and Callista have become.”
“Leave me be,” Howard said, a bit more sternly than before. He bent low to pick up the canvas, never taking his eyes off of the apparition before him.
Jacob Gordon moved more quickly, swifter that a dead man ought to. He wrenched the canvas from Poe’s hands and hurled it into the flames himself. “What’s done is done, man, there’s nothing more to be said. Only deals to be brokered, just like old times, eh?”
Howard glanced back towards his stately home and wondered if Callista could see him. If she could what would she notice? A husband slowly losing his wind, speaking words to the ruthless wind and smoke? Or would she see the golden eyed fiend before him, rubbing its chin and licking its lips hungrily?
“And what deal did you have in mind, old friend?” Howard asked, dreading the answer yet oddly anticipating it as well. He couldn’t deny the swell of excitement and fear that crept up his spine, a jolt of mixed emotions that stewed and swirled like the most vile of vortices.
“An eye for an eye, man, of course,” Gordon smirked. “Part of you has to have known what you were doing when you wrote the words. Just like Gordon himself knew and that odd circus fellow after him. So many over time, all knowing the risk they were taking but not giving a damn.”
“What can you do for me?” Howard asked.
Gordon took a step out of the flames. The sand began to crystallize beneath each step, a trail of shattered glass left in infernal footsteps. He moved close enough so that Howard could smell the decay on his breath, hot and fetid like old fish left in the sun.
“I can do whatever you want, old friend. I can grant you wonders unseen. All you have to do is tell me.”
Howard glanced away from the being and back towards the house. His blue eyes steered upwards towards the exposed open window at the apex. He frowned, thought very briefly and then told the golden eyed man exactly what he wanted.
Howard had asked the thing in the Gordon-skin his request. The thing that walked in fire had told him that it would be done and had disappeared in a flash of luminous, golden light. That had been several weeks prior. Since that time, fortune had swayed in the favor of the Poes. Howard had returned to his traditional trade but found himself pulling in more fish than he could have ever hoped for. Each cast into the choppy waters of Barker’s Bay seemed to yield a new catch within minutes. He and Callista found themselves stocked with more product than they could eat. Callista would gather the excess catch in a basket and take it to the town square to sell. Soon, they found themselves the wealthiest and most well fed since Howard’s expulsion from the fishery.
They didn’t even seemed bothered by the odd appearance of the fish. Each one that Howard reeled in seemed to be of the same species. They were slim, green scaled creatures of about one foot in length. Their mouths turned upright in the corners bearing an unsettling resemblance to a grin. The eyes of the fish were the most striking feature; bulbous and pure shining gold. Howard had popped out the eyes of his first catch and found that they tasted rather sweet, like a plump grape. Together, husband and wife had scaled, cleaned and cooked the fish and found, despite their unusual visage, they tasted quite pleasant. Smokier than the usual halibut or tuna, as though the fish had been slow smoked over a blazing fire.
Despite their newfound financial security, there still remained the child sized hole in the heart of the family. The pair had grown closer, yes, they had even made love for the first time in months. But one particular night, as they lay in bed, the smell of fresh cooked pescatarian meat wafting in from the kitchen, Callista began to cry. Howard didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. He felt it as clearly as she did: a swath of shadow cutting a thick slice through the financial boon that had befallen them. It was a peal of thunder, lashing across what small and superficial happiness they had found in their safe harbor, waves of regret threatening to capsize all that remained. Nothing could replace Phillip. But Howard Poe considered that he could at least try. He held his wife until she fell into merciful sleep and made his way to the wardrobe. He reached into his pants pocket and withdrew the small scrap of paper he had secreted within. Howard pulled on his jacket, took a deep breath and went outside.
It hadn’t taken long for him to find a good stick with which to write. The winds had been growing stronger as of late and debris and driftwood were common sights alongside the beach. He shuddered against the cold and smoothed his sand colored hair back against the wind in futility. The grieving father kneeled in the grey sand and studied the words he had penned upon the scrap of paper. He etched them out in the beach to the best of his ability and waited.
His penmanship seemed to be sufficient. Within mere moments, the flash of light appeared, followed by the smell of smoke and the sand began to vitrify around his very being. This time, however, the being no longer looked like his old business partner. Howard opened his one good eye and found himself staring at the tall, gaunt figure of the ringmaster. Zadok reached down and caressed the scalp of the fallen man, even as the glassy surface began to spread around him. The spindly fingers danced over Howard’s skull and paused ever so briefly before his eye. Howard gazed down, pulling his vision away from the apparition. He closed his eye shut, protecting his vision from the gleaming gold that reflected off of the glass around him.
“Not a satisfied customer?” Zadok hissed, his voice shrill yet with the deep reverberating bass of an expert showman. “No refunds, I’m afraid.”
“It’s…not that,” Howard whispered, his eye still shut. “I need something else.”
“That can of course, be arranged,” Zadok spoke. “But you do know the price. I will come to collect in time. But of course, friend, if you agree to our aforementioned terms, I will deliver and allow you and your lovely wife to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Fruits not yet ripe yet plucked in their prime before they could mature and release their full potential. Are we getting warmer?”
Howard gasped and felt the glass began to heat around his hands. He pulled them away, struggling as his skin stuck to the heated surface slightly and pulled off small strips of flesh. “Yes,” he whispered.
“Then it shall be done,” Zadok spoke. Howard couldn’t see the being but he could detect the hungry smile undoubtedly playing across its rancid lips. Above him, unseen yet surely felt, the ringmaster tilted his top hat and winked his golden eye.
Howard kept his eye closed and cradled his injured hands, sobbing. Through the darkness of his vision, another hand suddenly wrapped around his own. It was small, slightly slimy yet soft and delicate. Howard held it tightly, his bleeding hand rubbing gently over a ridge on the small hand’s thumb. The father gasped, opened his eye and beheld his son. Phillip Poe was soaking wet, his skin a grey pallor yet it was unmistakably the young boy who had been cruelly stolen from him.
There was nothing to be said between father and son. He allowed the boy to sink in his embrace as the father shook with silent sobs. He picked up the boy in his arms, not caring about the gleam of gold echoing off of a shattered patch of glass, still streaked with his own flesh and blood.
Callista was still asleep when Howard returned. He wasn’t ready to tell her what had transpired. He hadn’t even told her about the secret behind their recent financial windfall. He also knew though that she would fully comprehend what had occurred but surely wouldn’t approve. But now, thanks to the golden eyed man, they had everything they would need to be happy. What more could one want? Everything they had lost had been restored, wonders unseen bestowed by something that only wanted pittance in return. Howard Poe knew that he would have everything he wanted. He knew it, he felt it. Callista wouldn’t understand after all. She would though, in time. She would see through his eyes and understand all that he beheld.
Callista Poe hadn’t returned to the attic since she had found her husband practically worshipping that accursed circus banner. She knew he was a good, hard-working man yet she had sensed the darkness developing within him. He had lost more than an eye on that fateful day. He had lost his very soul. Their son had been the brightest point of their lives yet she knew how badly Howard had wanted a boy to pass the family trade along to. Losing him had been losing a part of himself.
Her intuition was stronger than most, enhanced by a long line of powerful and gifted women who could see things unseen to most. She had seen her husband burn the banner on the beach yet she also knew that their recent fortune had not been just dumb, karmic luck. There were things at work in her home, things she had heard about passed down from her ancestors. Women in her bloodline had spoken of beings of shapeshifting golden fire that granted the hearts desire to those desperate enough to wager a deal. Some might call them demons but her family, the Fadal women, would know them as the Ifrit.
Callista had seen the markings on the backside of the canvas and understood them perfectly and what they could bring forth. On this particular day, she retreated to the bedroom that she shared with Howard. She approached a small mahogany bed stand and withdrew a piece of jewelry from the drawer. The item was a piece of tin, battered and shaped into the small form of a hand. A single staring eye had been hammered into shape in the hand’s palm and the whole piece thread through a link of chain. She had held this Khamsah medallion, a ward against evil and ill will in close proximity most of her life. Now, more than ever, Callista Fadal-Poe needed it near. She draped it over her slender neck and tucked the piece beneath her blouse. She had trusted her husband but now, even as he spent more and more time in the attic, she had her suspicions on evil conjurations taking place within her own home. She would need to confront him on it sooner than later, for the good of her family.
Howard Poe had been blinded by the wonder before him, miracles unseen to all but those who would risk their very souls. He was blinded by the light of the love he held for his son, the very golden light that blazed forth from the blighted cherubic face before him. Phillip sat on his bed, having been sequestered stealthily back into the attic from his father. As the sodden boy gazed around the room, a breeze whistled in from the broken window. Howard shuddered in the cold but the boy barely moved. He suspected then, that this husk before him wasn’t really his son. Or…perhaps it could be and the child just needed time to readjust from the traumatic experience he had endured? Yes, of course, this was a miracle born from fire and shattered glass, imparted upon him from a stranger in the shadows. In time, given the patience that only an angler could possess, Howard could help the boy regain the warmth and adventurous spirit that had made him such a special child. For now though, he had to have been famished.
Howard returned from the icebox moments later to find the grey child with eyes of gold in the same position. He didn’t appear to have even shifted an inch beyond his current position on the bed. Howard took a deep breath and presented a fish to his boy. The catch was raw, encrusted with ice and smiling upwards with a curious gleam. He wouldn’t have had time to cook it properly, not with Callista wandering about. His suspicions were confirmed though, as the child slowly turned his attention towards the fish and picked it up in his small hands. Phillip Poe took a cautionary bite and then begin to feast. His tiny teeth moved with rapid velocity, gnashing into the raw flesh, consuming bone, scale and smile amongst the more tantalizing morsels. His meal was complete in a manner of moments, no sign of the fish remaining aside from a small sheen of grease and a few shining flecks of scales. The child plucked one last remaining fish eye and popped it into his mouth with satisfaction. The boy looked up to his father and for the first time since their reunion, he smiled.
The evil was growing in her home. She still felt it in her bones, her soul. Every last fiber of her being told Callista there was something that she needed to see but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She had taken to selling the continued influx of fish at the market in the town square and rarely saw her husband. If he wasn’t out pulling in more stock, he was sequestered in the attic doing God knows what (although she suspected what was occurring within that room had little to do with God).
Her intuition was fully accurate. Father and son had not emerged from the room, only for Father to bring in more fish for the child-husk to eat. Howard tried to develop a way to tell his wife about what had happened but he simply couldn’t think of a thing to say. These days, he simply found it harder to think in general. His mind moved at a fraction of what it used to, thought process being filtered through gelatin and sea foam. He felt weaker; it took his breath away to simply ascend the steps to the attic with fish in tow. But the boy was feeling stronger and Howard thought that to be the most important. He would be a good father even as the boy seemed to acquire another paternal figure that flitted amongst the shade, gleaming forth with luminous gold beneath a tipped top hat.
He was no fool (although he questioned this notion at times when he laid eyes on the resurrected child). He heard the softly playing jaunty calliope music that lilted from beyond the boy’s bed. He saw the tall, thin shadow as it created mirthful shadows puppet of wisping smoke in the form of magical animals and funny clowns. He knew that the being hiding in the guise of the ringmaster had alternate plans for Phillip. Howard had bought into the bait, hook, line and sinker. He reflected on this irony as he watched the grey child smile and reach into the shadows beyond the bed. The father knew that what he was witnessing wasn’t quite right but it didn’t matter. He had his boy back. And surely that was all that mattered…?
As he pondered, Howard Poe absentmindedly scratched at the remnant of his shattered eye. He scratched at his armpit, the crook of his leg and the space between his fingers. The sores had began to appear the day prior, small and festering rings of scabbed skin and gangrenous flesh. Life lived hard here on the ocean’s cusp with no other explanation necessary to justify the man’s health.
Callista of course, surely knew better. She had prayed to her ancestors and to God for guidance and knowledge. The answers had come in the smell of smoke, of moving shadows and joyful, clownish laughter emanating from places unknown. There was evil in her house and she knew exactly where it was sequestered. She had decided that enough was enough and on this night, with the soft circus music tinkling down the stairway leading to Phllip’s room, she would confront her husband.
He emerged from the loft above, carrying a metal bucket and a bundle of greasy paper. Their eyes met, hers the dark and knowing pools of a concerned woman, his the singular sheen of icy blue ringed in shades of fatigue and frustration. He set the implements down and accepted her hands as she reached out to him.
“What have you done, Howard?” She whispered.
“What do you know?” He questioned back, his voice as soft as hers, yet haggard and worn.
“I feel it,” she said. “I hear it. I saw the words on that circus banner. I know what it is but I do not know what it wants.”
“It’s but a trifle, my dear,” Howard grinned wearily. “It only wants my eye. I still have one to give and I’ll gladly part with it when the time comes.”
Callista glanced toward the door leading to the attic. Golden light pulsed through the cracks, broken up occasionally by flitting shadows. She could feel the heat from here, a roiling emanation of hellfire and scorn. “Deals like these do not come as easily as you’d think,” she warned. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
“I can show you instead,” he replied.
She stiffened at the notion. Yet she allowed herself to be led by her dear husband up toward the room, circus music wafting gaily amidst the flames and shadows. She reached down with her free hand and clutched the Khamsa medallion tightly, five fingers and an all-seeing eye to provide sanctuary against the unseen evils that lurked just on the edge of the light.
Within the attic, Callista Fadal-Poe took a moment to adjust to the sights. Her son was there, young Phillip, grey as the sand upon the beach. He stood silhouetted against a rising moon before the broken window that had taken his youthful life. He seemed to radiant a golden light which, in any other circumstances, would have seemed breathtakingly beautiful. Here, in this room, it generated only fear within the heart of the grieving mother.
Howard took a step toward the child, gasping in effort. Around his boots, fish bones and various organs snapped and squelched beneath his heel. He kneeled on the hard floor and took the small, moist hand of the boy within his own.
“See, dear, you see what I have done,” Howard said through a wavering voice and brimming tears. “I’ve brought our boy back.”
“That’s not our Phillip, surely you must realize…” Callista began and trailed off, clutching at the pendant beneath her blouse.
The child raised its golden eyes to the woman and spoke: “You’re a wise witch, but surely one doesn’t need eyes to see. Your husband is simply blinded by avarice. He could have whatever he wanted and yet he chose to raise a fresh, stinking corpse. The perfect physical form for my manifestation.”
“Get out!” Callista screamed. She waved an arm at the fiend and pulled the pendant out. “I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn from the mischief of darkness. Leave my family alone. Masha’Allah! Praise be to God….”
The child spread its arms wide as the father continued to kneel before it. “Words. Mere words, witch.” The boy spoke in a cadence not its own, the voice a blighted blend of youthful exuberance and a deep, resonating reverberation just beneath the veneer.
It swiped its small arm in a sudden motion, causing the remnants of the shattered window to explode forth. Something emerged from the shadows, a bright and hot shape of blinding yellow that shot forth and ensnared Callista before she could react. The woman fell to the ground, enshrouded in a familiar gaudy wrapping. She could make out the words advertising the circus, the very banner that she knew her husband had burned on the beach. Now it wrapped her tight, blackened but still impossibly strong enough to pin her in a prison of vinyl and soot.
The thing that resembled Phillip continued to hold its arms aloft even as the shadows behind it began to grow and contort. From behind the grey child, the shade solidified into a blackened mass, tall and wiry thin, roiling with smoke and soot. A tilted peak emerged from the top, which the shadow produced by lowering it as a hat in a crude parody of a gentleman. The child smiled and the jaunty wisp of circus music began to play from the veil beyond the window.
“He only wants my eye, Callie,” Howard sobbed. “That’s all. I don’t need to see in order to feel my boy, to feel the love that I know he has. It’s so warm, Callie, don’t you feel the warmth coming from him?”
“Hellfire, Howard,” Callista said, striving her best to remain steadfast and determined. She struggled slightly at her bonds but ultimately relented. “It’s never that simple.”
“Quite true,” the child said. Zadok, the ringmaster emerged from the shadows, his gaunt features blurred as if stricken and fighting to stay in this reality. The shadow began to shrink and collapsed inward upon the form of Phillip, sinking deep within the child. “It’s always so easy to find one that would trade everything for nothing. There is a sucker born every minute or so it has been said that another showman would state. Lies, falsifications, swindlers. You see, madam, I myself, am a showman. I grant the illusions to those that would pay dearly to witness them, wonders unseen, oh yes. As one would merely stake their claim to earn a living, so too am I simply trying to survive in this wretched world.”
“By destroying the weak willed, devouring everything that makes them whole,” Callista spat.
Zadok reached down, his shadowed hand blending with the boy’s and caressing the trembling form of the father. Howard’s hair crisped and danced beneath the heat of his very essence. The father showed no pain, he simply continued to sob before the thing that wore the skin of his child.
“I’ve come to collect, Howard Poe,” Zadok spoke. The youthful face began to contort, flitting effortlessly between that of a plump fishing entrepreneur and the sharp angled chin of the ringmaster. “I brought you what you wanted. Now I take whats mine. Two requests, two tokens. Eyes for eyes.”
“Two?” Howard whispered, looking up.
Zadok reached out and roughly tore away the patch that covered Howard’s missing eye. “Yes, two.”
“But I only have-”
“Yes, only one token to give me. You only have one Howard, but I brought you prosperity and your child back to you. And so I take what I am owed. There are more eyes in this house to see than just your own, Howard.”
Howard’s broken mind raced. The sores enveloping his body wept openly with brackish red tears, blending with the salt from his eye. He had never taken into account that he had indeed asked the being for two requests. He was blinded by the light, by the possibility to restore that which was broken. In doing so, he had only shattered himself and his family further. For in the maelstrom that echoed within his head, Howard Poe knew what the fiend had intended. He wouldn’t allow it. His son was dead and he accepted the truth. He would protect the only other person he loved with all-
Zadok’s child hand pushed into the eye socket of Howard and wrenched the clear blue eye out with one mighty yank. Gamuts of blood and nerve endings stuck to the boy’s chubby, grey hand. A burst of heat and golden light echoed from the Phillip-thing’s grasp and the eye vanished into the smoky ether. Howard Poe gasped once, reached up to clutch blindly at his face and collapsed into the gentle golden waste before him.
Callista wailed within her prison. Zadok turned away from the bleeding form of the father and made its way towards the woman. It kneeled before her, golden warmth shining off of the form that looked just like her son. Zadok rubbed its small bloody hand on the banner and inspected the bound woman with bright, shining eyes of glittering gold.
“I love you, son. Wherever you are. Your parents will always love you,” Callista wept.
The Ifrit caressed the woman’s face, causing her to flinch from the heat. “He knows, dear woman. He knows. Now, give me what I am owed.”
It didn’t take joy in bringing misery to others. It simply took what it was owed. Fair trade, a small physical sacrifice for imparting unseen wonders into the world. It craved the essence and the spirit imbued within and yet it knew that it also needed this to survive. The windows of the soul so readily devoured and absorbed into pure light. If a human mind should collapse under such stress, than why would it be to blame? Surely they ought to know what to expect. As such, it took no pleasure but also felt no sympathy.
It did however enjoy the new youthful body that it had dredged up from the depths. So many things had been set in motion to bring it to where it was, right now. The Gordon man and his pescatarian empire. The showman and his desire for a successful performance. The broken father and his desire to repair his family. Every soul had a desire, a price for which it could negotiate. It was just business, after all.
It had met the boy in the market on that fateful day; it had sensed the strength of the child and the essence imbued within. Machinations had been set into play, manipulations of the weather and the world around to take from the witch and her man and then to give back when they were at their most vulnerable. It smiled at its own cleverness and yet a doubt existed within. It didn’t know where its existence would lead it next but it was anxious to find out.
Anxiety was a foreign concept to it but at this time, it found itself scraping words into the beach using a scrap of driftwood. The words were familiar to one who gazed down from the damaged home overlooking Barker’s Bay. It could feel her staring. It had released her from her bindings after taking what it was owed and left her there to bleed. It knew however, that the witch still flitted amongst the shadows, gazing down with her single eye. One could only imagine what thoughts raced through her shattered mind or what act of vengeance she might be concocting. It wanted to kill her and be done with it, but it couldn’t perform such an act. There were rules and boundaries laid out in the times before time by ancient beings spoken of in dusty tomes and religious text. No, it couldn’t slay the witch without the proper chain of events.
She herself was prepared though. She did indeed watch as the fiend that wore the skin of her boy stalked along the bay. The caramel skin of her flesh was stained with dried blood yet she deigned to relieve the discomfort that spooled forth from her empty eye. She still had two eyes for which to see the grotesque wonders that lay beyond. She grasped the metallic eye pressed against her breastbone and prayed for strength. Time would tell if she would be granted that which she knew she was owed.
The child-thing had fled their home after killing Howard and maiming her. Yet she returned every vigilant to the attic each day, gazing down at the beach where her dear husband lie buried beneath the patch of shattered, blood stained glass. She watched through the portal of the broken window, yet a third unseeing eye into the mist of the maelstroms, a shattered sentinel, yet not yet fully broken. She found herself humming a jaunty circus tune as she waited and watched, never blinking in the light of the sun.
And so, on this gusty day in the New England harbor, a child as grey as the sand itself would leave glassy footprints as it trudged along the beach. Behind it, an inscription dug into the sand above the grave of a grieving father. The white capped waves of the ocean would brush along it and yet the words would remain, etched into the Earth. The child walked away from the house where the one eyed widow lived, uncertain of its own future and unknowing where the light of the fires would take it.
Neither foe could gaze into the future and see what lie ahead and yet in this world, on this day, neither of them would need eyes to see.