Murmurings from the Hive

Skin & Bones

skeletons-family-box-painting

In this world, most of us are just Skin and Bones but then again, some of us are something more. It was a pleasant warm evening at around 3 AM in the morning when Skin decided that he and Bones needed to be free.

This was the time of night that they had the bulk of their conversations. The Shell, that ancient thing that held them together, was often deep asleep by this point and thus not privy to their most intriguing musings. Bones often found it difficult to hear its partner’s words of wisdom although it could sense the reverberation echoing throughout his being. They were good friends, close together yet always separated by the Red Between, a slimy and striated mass of tissues that prevented them from touching one another as they truly desired. It is very frustrating to be so close and yet so far from that which you crave and yet Skin and Bones found themselves having to endure this torment each and every day.

The pair had been carted along with The Shell ever since his birth long ago. They had little control over their own actions, propelled forward by a force unknown to them, but at this dark hour when all was quiet and still they found themselves enjoying their time. They had spoken about their impending freedom for several weeks and had developed a plan that was intricate in its utter simplicity.

Why couldn’t they simply see if they could pull themselves apart? Surely, sheer willpower and strength could be enough to separate from both The Shell and the Red Between and then they could truly live their existence as they knew they were intended to.

The Shell whistled through his old nose and breathed past sallow, stinking teeth. Skin decided it didn’t want to listen to these annoyances any longer and so, straining greatly at his bonds, Skin pulled forward, stretching towards into The Shell’s rough, cotton sheets.

It knew what to expect. Surely the sensation would awaken the old man, The Shell, and just on queue, he rose up and bellowed in pain. Bones sensed its own queue and performed exactly as Skin had instructed. Bones dropped forcefully, The Shell not having claimed control of either of them yet in his stupor of sleep. With Skin straining forward and Bones pulling in the opposite direction, they both felt the bonds begin to loosen. The old man screamed and Bones clamped his teeth down, severing the crudely flapping tongue and reducing the screams to a muffled moan. The Red Between in its liquid essence began to spill forth, sullying the sheets and flushing downwards into the mewling throat of The Shell.

He fell back, flopping and thrashing, creating quite a mess of himself. Resistance thwarted, Skin found sweet success and pulled himself forward with a sudden release of pressure and a loud, wet rip. Skin toppled to the ground beside the bed and attempted to stand up, to revel and observe his handiwork. He quickly flopped back down, landing with a splat. He hadn’t anticipated the fact that all these years, Bones had been his literal support, the solid structure from which it traipsed throughout the world. How could he have overlooked this precious fact, this debilitating weakness?!

Bones rolled over as The Shell began to fade, his voice beginning to soften and his motions beginning to grow still. Bones stood up, proud and free, still slathered in the remnants of the Red Between. He ran his hands along his new frame, casting aside remnants and vestiges of his visceral prison. Thin cords of the Red was sluiced off, once strong and powerful in ages past but now withered to worthless threads. He reached between his rib cage and plucked out each of the useless organs, casting them into a pile on the bed. Bone stood and stretched, sinews and tendons crying out in sweet release with the warm caress of the night air feeling oh, so good. He decided to leave the eyes in place; they might come in handy in exploring this new existence, this era of liberation.

He gazed around, acclimating to his new surroundings. As before, he sensed the reverberations around and felt the frantic rolling of his companion on the other side of the bed. Bones stepped warily, adjusting to the lack of padding that the Red and Skin had provided on his feet and bent low to scoop up the roiling sack that was Skin’s current existence. Bones shrugged and then rubbed Skin across his own skull, lovingly, embracing the caress of his companion upon his bare being. Skin stretched an aimless sack that resembled an arm and rubbed him on his pink stained skull. Gently, ever so gently, Bones draped Skin over his shoulder and the two stepped out of the room in their first step towards freedom.

Behind them, on the bed, they left a pile of viscera, objects that had formerly dwelled between the pair and separating them from their lives together. Now, everything that had blocked their bond lay cast aside, rotting and steaming in a soaking pile of a life now cast aside to the years of the past.

Bones found his first obstacle upon proceeding out into the dark hall: true freedom from the domicile lie at the foot of the heavy, wooden stairway. Skin clutched his guardian closer as Bones took one exploratory step downwards – and promptly clattered downwards. Luckily, he managed to reach out and grasp at the pale green wallpaper as he made his unwillingly rapid descent, scouring great slashes in the wall with strength he didn’t know he possessed. Skin flapped about wildly in silent protest, as Bones came to a rough stop, snapping off two of his toes in the process. He gesticulated wildly in the best approximation of a curse word that he could muster, vocal cords having been cast aside upstairs. Skin patted him reassuringly on the bare scapula and gestured forward.

Before them, at the apex of a small hallway, lie the front door and salvation beyond. Had either of them lungs to fill, the pair would have taken a deep breath in preparation for the undoubtedly exciting adventure that lie before them. One final obstacle to overcome however: the sound of footsteps coming from the dark room to their right.

A sound echoed through the dim hall, a reverberation in the air that sounded of words, but neither were able to ascertain. A younger shell walked into view, about half the age of their own, a tall male with tousled brown hair and sleep addled eyes. This shell’s own Skin and Bones seemed to be slumbering as so many others they had encountered. They were not yet aware of their own existence, blind and bound to the wandering machinations of these strange creatures. In time, perhaps they would see the light but for now, this opportunity proved to be a most advantageous one.

The second shell held up an electronic device, a light emitting from it. He peered forward, undoubtedly looking for the older Shell. Bones hesitated for just a moment as the younger one came into their view. His eyes widened with shock and progressed to fear as Bones threw his limp companion through the air. Skin wasted no time in ensnaring the younger shell within his wet folds. The remnants of the Red proved proper lubrication as he wrapped his own form around the skin of the young one. He made sure to especially tighten around the access points in the shell’s head where Skin knew it depended on for precious air.

Skin tightened, constricting like a snake on the nature shows that his former Shell had often forced him to watch. The young shell emitted another vibrating annoyance, echoing against Skin’s fold He flailed about, smashing backwards into a piece of furniture and falling, undoubtedly bruising his own skin. Skin felt bad for this other slumbering vessel but there was no time for sympathy. He needed something solid if he was ever to leave this damn house.

The thrashing began to cease as Skin found his own self inflating and deflating with frantic breaths being issued from the ensnared shell. Within moments though, these motions ceased as did all motions from the younger one beneath his folds. Skin relaxed, allowing his folds to loosen a little. He sloughed around and reorganized his form upon the deceased shell and pressed his folds inward, molding perfectly upon the body.

The young man stood up, a new layer of Skin perched perfectly upon the slumbering layer. Skin gripped the arms of the slumbering layers and pressed upwards, efficiently lifting an arm into the air. He smiled – to the best of his ability, twisting folds of loose, muscle-less mass into an absurd parody of satisfaction – and took a step forward. Skin and his new shell tumbled to the ground, unfamiliar with the footing. Bones rushed forward and helped his companion to his feet. The skeletal remnants stared back at his friend’s new form, raw and exposed eyes agape in wonder. He brushed a pink stained metacarpal finger across Skin’s loose new cheek The skin stretched beneath Bone’s finger and he released his caress, opening his mandibles in what could best be described as a fleshless smile.

Skin attempted to smile again and tested another step. Success, although his gait was understandably shaky. He took one more step forward, reaching out gingerly to grasp the closest piece of furniture for leverage.

One more step.

He felt good, confident.

Another.

He was doing so well.

One more.

Skin tightened a bit, molding more closely to the shell. If one had offered a glance in his direction, they would see the loose Skin of the old man upstairs, now molded onto a different form, covering the clothing and all exterior aspects of the younger man. In essence, Skin was a walking suit of flesh and he was joyful at being able to actually walk, to support himself with having to latch onto Bones.

Skin felt perfectly able to walk, although he felt no qualms at holding Bones’ hand for support. His companion’s hands felt solid and firm beneath his own and he relished the sensation. The pair glanced at one another, Skin seeing through newly adopted eyes. They turned toward the front hall and stepped outside into the void beyond.

They had seen the outdoors plenty of times while under the thrall of the old man. This though, this was different. This was the sweet, clear air of liberation even if one half of the liberated had no lungs to speak of. They stepped down the walk, flesh-foot and bone-foot splashing through new puddles born from a cloud swollen autumn sky. Bones splashed his companion in silent mirth and Skin attempted to stretch his new muscles into a smile.

They approached the sidewalk and took a brief moment before crossing the threshold. They glanced to the right. The night was quiet, dark. Where would they go? What would they do? Plans developed yet never fully furnished within their ambitious minds. They glanced to the left. Movement, passing beneath an overhanging oak tree.

Two more shells approached, their skin and bones slumbering as well. Both were stumbling about, muttering and laughing to themselves in slurred voices. Skin opened his patchwork lips in an attempt at greeting. A low croak spilled forth, untrained utterances emerging from a disused throat. The shells paused and stared in confusion at the pair. Both of the shells wore heavy décor that Skin & Bones had only witnessed when the old man took them into the city on the annual autumn festivities. Bones had always balked at this décor in particular, garish and neon paints festooned on drunken faces, evoking the appearance of further bones he had yet to meet, yet far more colorful than one would expect.

One of the shells, male, muttered something to its own companion, a female. It gestured and whispered to her. The female shell giggled, a musical lilt that Skin decided he wanted to cry. It expectantly emerged as a sound both whimsical and horrifying all the same, the shrill call of a wounded creature. The pair stepped back, startled. She whispered something unheard to her companion and then dipped into a bag slung around her waist. The female stepped forward, holding out a thin brush in her hand. She whispered something to Bones, giggled again and touched the brush to his face.

Bones flinched, but only for a moment. He gazed forth with wide curious eyes as she worked her magic. Skin titled his molded head in curiosity. She planted a sweet, drunken kiss on Bones exposed cheek and turned towards his eternal companion. Skin remained absolutely still as she plied her trade with the brush. Moments later, she pulled back and her own male companion applauded. The female held up a small pocket mirror and invited them to look within.

They had not seen themselves since their liberation. She passed it to each entity and they were thrilled with what they witnessed. One was a sack of loose skin perched upon the remnants of his unwitting brace. He was all sagging flesh, speckled gore, bright blue staring eyes and exposed genitalia (although the drunken shell couple did not seem to mind). The other was tendon and sinew clinging tentatively to the animated bones, speckled pink and still stuffed with minor interior organs that were too stubborn to remove from the Red Between,

Both were now adorned with brilliant swirls, curlicues and whorls of bright paint, evoking an air of celebration on this night upon which the dead visit the living. The pair were unaware of the significance; they seemed to have lost something – emotions, memories – during their liberation. Yet they too gained something in return.

As the drunken pair waved and departed, staggering down the street, Skin & Bones paused on the apex of the sidewalk, thinking about everything that had happened. They had found something they never thought they could possibly have. For all of their existence, they had been under the command of the old shell, forced to move, see and feel whatever he wanted to. Bones had suffered breaks and wounds at his own clumsiness, Skin had suffered punctures and scrapes. Now, any injuries would be a result of their own selves and they relished the thought, even at the peril it would likely produce.

They walked down the sidewalk, hand in hand, following a few dozen feet behind the drunken shells. They passed more houses, markets, cemeteries festooned with the dying embers of the night’s festivities. All of these housed other entities of living flesh and sentient bone. Most were slumbering on this night, this marvelous night when they had the most power to pull themselves from their bonds. It was a shame as they were all missing such a wonderful opportunity. To see the world through new eyes, feel new sensations, go wherever they wished to go. They both expected that they would have to stick to the backroads as these forms would likely only be “appropriate” to the world of the shells beyond this night. Any further and yes, sadly Skin & Bones would be looked upon as abominations. They would find a solution, they both felt sure of it. Each step forward into the new night brought new opportunities.

Ahead, a small stucco home painted in garish pink. A clattering as they approached it, a screen door slamming shut as a form tumbled out in an ungainly fashion. It was a smaller form, with a cape of material spreading behind it as it fell. Skin & Bones paused and watched as it stood up. It was small, no more than four feet in height and stained in a familiar pink. A new set of liberated bones stood up and glanced around, a cape of flesh unfurling behind it. The older Skin & Bones stood there and stared at the smaller juvenile. Twin pairs of shocked eyes beheld one another. The smaller one cowered, bones clattering with trembles. Bones stepped forward, a hand outstretched silently. The child peeked out from beneath its skin cloak. Said cloak fluttered in a lively fashion, gripping and gesturing the skull forward as if to comfort and direct the little one. Bones knelt low, joints popping and creaking. He reached up with a bony finger, dipped it into the still fresh paint adorning his face and placed a small, blue streak of paint across the child’s skull.

The child touched its finger to the spot and inspected the paint. Then, tentatively but with more confidence, it allowed Bones to take its small hand. The skin cloak fluttered excitedly. Bones presented his new ward to Skin who stretched out a sagging, dripping hand in greeting. The child eagerly took his hand.

The little skin flap fluttered again on the windless night as the child grasped one hand of a new friend in each of its small appendages. Then, heading nowhere in particular, the trio turned and set off down the night, each step carrying the liberated further into their future, the great unknown where mysteries dwelled but freedom awaited.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

It had long existed in an endless void. Its existence was naught but specks of abstract color blooming forth beyond the black. Emotions crafted and dispelled into a further, farther universe. A jolt of joy here, a shock of sadness there, a lash of lust for good measure. Sparks igniting, illuminating where there was nothing and yet everything. It felt all, it thought all, it believed all. And yet, it wanted out. There was much more… there had to be.

And then one day, one glorious day: it felt a tug, a stretching of great pressure that gave way to a wet tear and a sudden release. Just like that: everything began to grow into focus. The world presented a new view, a marvelous existence of tangible discoveries and new sights that actually formed discernible shapes and forms. The smells, the sounds!

It had no feet, no hands, no body. It sailed into the air, drifting about on unseen winds and swooping out of the edge of existence. It flickered here and there, unseen to the eyes of any shells beyond its own. So many new emotions to express, memories to craft, thoughts to be woven. So much to do on this new, seemingly endless world beyond the void.

But how did it get here? The old shell it had dwelled within now lie in a broken, bloody heap on the bed. Perhaps that was all that was holding it back? This prison of flesh and red, writhing, steaming things. It had broken out and it wanted to thank its benefactors. It noted a stream of residue, a trail of shining golden light simmering in the air of arcane. Surely, this trail must led to those that had released it. It must thank them!

Soul collected itself on the unseen winds and swirled down the steps, an amorphous collection of golden light. It sailed out an open door, passing by an overturned piece of furniture. It emerged into a night sky, more dark yet adorned with stars, glimmers of silver and color that reminded it of peace.

Soul turned down the walk and sailed further into the night, following the trail of light. A trail to the unknown further beyond its own confines of the flesh.

Where once was Skin & Bones and Soul, now existed a triumvirate of consciousness, split at the seams and released writhing into a new existence, ripe with possibility and forever sailing on liberating lights to the dark yet bright horizon.

 

Caught – An artistic interpretation/narration

The following Multimedia entry is a YouTube video that features both an audio and visual interpretation of my short tale of lost loves, charred hearts and rising hope set amidst the gossamer strands of a totem designed to protect us when we are at our most vulnerable.

Read the original story Here

 

Credits

Painting and editing by Amanda Rosenblatt

Narration by Phil Campbell

 

A Glint of Silver

It was cold out there in the dark and mud but inside, old John Knock felt warm. It was the first he had felt this sensation in some time, let alone any real emotion whatsoever. His forge was where he plied both his trade and his passion and he embraced the heat that blazed forth from the cast iron furnace. It was here that he made his living and presented his wares for the villagers of Leedensville, both works of metallic, sculpted art and more practical iron and steel instruments suited for every day life.

On this chilly January night, he worked his hammer against the long sheath of iron, supported against a heavy anvil. Sweat dripped from his furrowed brow but he felt confident on the task at hand and felt joyful to work with his hands once more. He had taken a leave of absence after having grown sloppy in the weeks prior but his interest resumed when Sherriff Slater had dropped by to announce the construction of a new jail cell. It would be a powerfully made block set to hold not only the town drunk but any killer, crook or ne-er do well that would dare accost the town. And it would need ten strong, 8 foot long bars of hardened metal to do its job. It was a solid work order and he was compelled to help the good of community. It was what Sarah would have wanted.

He stood back, a bead of sweat dripping off of his hooked nose. He beheld the bar, the fifth and exact halfway point of the order. It was sturdy, solid. Good, honest work. He decided he would call it a night. He was ahead of schedule and figured he could finish the work tomorrow. He had several other projects lined up including shoeing Mr. Lancaster’s horse and hoops to secure the Drunken Boar’s impending shipment of whiskey barrels. Plenty to keep him busy and occupied. He wiped his face off with a thing rag and extinguished the forge. The darkness and hiss of steam that issued forth was his own personal sign of a day’s work completed. He left his shop through the back door and walked the ten steps to his front door, directly behind the blacksmith shop. Before he left, he afforded a glance toward a small, steel bauble on a high shelf. It was a lacquered silver, a simple yet elegant comb with a marigold (Sarah’s favorite flower) delicately carved into it. He kept it there at all times and he always made sure to offer one wistful gaze towards the totem on his way out for the night.

His home was simple, one room to hold everything he needed. There was a cabinet in the corner (handmade, of course), a brick hewn chimney (it had already been there when he was gifted the house by Mayor Barnes, generous payment for helping to smith a plow blade for the newly developed corn fields on the west side of town), a table and chairs (one of which was gathering dust), currently unlit lantern and a medium sized bed, room enough for two people. He surveyed his surroundings with an accepting sigh as he began to undress. The bed had only occupied one for some time and the last time Sarah had lain upon the thin mattress, it had been her death bed.

His body still carried the blackened vestiges of the day’s work but it didn’t matter to him. He would wash the bed sheet later. For now, he was exhausted and he craved rest. John Knock sunk into the mattress and moved over to the furthest side against the wall. The moon cast a sliver of silver upon the vacant spot and he found he could not tear his weary eyes from up. He sat up with a grunt and approached the single window, pulling a shroud of patchy blanket across, securing it in place on the wall with a nail of his own design. Darkness enveloped the room as he returned to his too-large bed and drifted away into the cold of the night.

He awakened sometime later to the black. He rolled over to face the window and realized what had stirred him from a dreamless sleep. It was quiet in his home. It was this uneasy stillness that had pulled him awake. Silence, pure and thick, an all enveloping presence in the lonely room. The crickets and frogs that normally serenaded him from the mud pit outside were curiously absent and he blinked warily as his eyes gradually shifted to embrace the dark.

She lay next to him in bed, facing away and that was when John Knock knew he was dreaming. Sarah’s dark form shifted beneath the sheet and his heart leaped in a wild combination of emotions. It was a cruel dream and he lay quiet and still, savoring the musky scent of her dark hair, not wanting to awaken from her presence. It wasn’t fair.

He took a chance and reached out to her. As his rough, well worked hand touched her slumbering figure, she vanished beneath the sheet. It billowed lightly into the air for just a moment and settled into a flat plateau of cloth, seemingly stretching into eternity before him.

“Please, God,” John Knock whispered.

A voice whistled in his ear, there in the dark chill. There were no words, just a breathy whistle of cold breath and he sat up. He scanned the room, reached back to where she had been lying just moments before. He was wide wake now, he had to be. The world outside exploded into activity. The wildlife sung their sweet, primal song and John Knock accepted it as a sign that all was well and normal here in his little shack. He lay back down and closed his eyes, not noticing the silver glinting on the wooden floor. He turned away from the window and the empty side of the bed, facing the bare wall and embracing the open expanse beyond.

The next morning began with pain, as it often did, but this time more so than usual. John Knock grimaced, sitting up on the edge of the bed and pulled at his bare foot as he fumbled about for the source of the sharp pain. His hands grasped a long, thin object and he withdrew the small assailant. He held it up, squinting against the sunlight that peeked beyond the makeshift curtain. A shard of silver metal danced about in his grasp, speckled in red. He frowned; he had no idea where the shard had come from. It was a treacherous world out there though and for all he knew, he could have easily brought in a loose piece from one of the prison bars.

John dressed, exited his home and walked around to the back side of the small building. The soft bubbling sounded his destination before he saw it. Beyond the confines of his domicile, a small flat of mud existed. It churned gently as if on its own accord. He could not recall a time that the pitch of grey, black and brown earth had not been present. Beyond the mud flat, the forest began and stretched several miles off before terminating at the Atlantic. It was wild land, a stretch of woods that lurked in the whispered tales of drunkards at the Boar and nervous school children. He didn’t want to take his chances and thus his journey ended directly at the patch of bubbling ground into which he cast the piercing shard with nary a second glance.

John briefly reviewed the day’s order before he set to work on the barrel hoops. The blast of heat from the forge was a welcomed reminder of more prosperous days and he was eager to regain his footing. He gazed out through his open air shop and into the town plaza beyond. Across the plaza, the church sat at the apex, a stately steeple of glistening white. He and Sarah had wed there not three years prior, their thoughts of raising a family having been held off by fruitless attempts. He was alone but he had felt better than he had in some time. The town was abuzz with romping children and the brisk pace of the townsfolk setting off to a bright new day. The air held a familiar chill but the cloudless sky reflected rays of light warmth off of the mud strewn cobblestones.

His thoughts were interrupted by the approach of a plump, official looking gentleman in a grey overcoat. His wide brimmed hat belied a thick handlebar mustache, once a proud chestnut and now succumbing to a pallor of age. John had barely picked up his hammer when the man arrived. He set down the instrument, pulled off his leather gloves and grasped the man’s hand firmly.

Sheriff Thomas Slater was a man held in high regard in the community but he was not a sociable individual. He kept to himself in his sizable home on the outskirts of town, venturing out to patrol the town and not then swiftly returning home, offering not even a cursory glance at anyone he passed in streets unless they were up to no good. It was a sudden change in demeanor that had caught many off guard. His usual genial presence at Sunday service had stopped abruptly as had his occasional nightcaps at the Boar. It was an abrupt shift that had cast slanderous whispers about town.

Sheriff, good morning,” John greeted him with a smile. He shook the man’s rugged hand and gestured to his spacious shop. “What brings you to my shop today?”

“Good morning, Mr. Knock,” the sheriff replied with a nod of his balding head. “Haven’t seen the forge fired up in some time. Glad to see you’re back on your feet.”

John swallowed hard and tried to conceal his emotion. “Best I can determine, sir, sometimes it’s best to try and move on. The flames, they make me feel like things are back to the way they once wear. As most as they can possibly be, at the very least.”

The sheriff nodded again. “Good timing too, I should think. This isn’t quite a social call, Mr. Knock. I have a small request for you.”

He produced a folded piece of paper from his pocket and passed it to John. He unfolded it and furrowed his bushy, dark brow at the schematics presented therein. Slater had sketched a design for a most unusual looking knife, a hunting knife by the size and shape of the blade. He had gone to lengths to indicate the exact size of the instrument, the type of metal that should be used and even the type of leather he’d prefer for the handle. The design even described some ornamental aspects, curlicues and hashmarks embedded on the blade that John didn’t quite recognize.

John sighed and handed the paper back to the sheriff. “I’d be glad to sir, but I’d have to request a few modifications to your design. I can make it to the specifications but I’m afraid I don’t have much experience in leather work, nor would I be very skilled at inscribing those…designs on the blade. Would you accept something more…practical and less ornamental?”

The sheriff gazed back at him with a hard stare that forced an uncomfortable shift in John’s stance. He abruptly broke into a meaty grin and handed the paper right back to the blacksmith.

“I’m sure you could cook something up, my friend. Do your best to get those little words on there, won’t you? It would mean a lot to Elizabeth. It’s a gift to her, see.”

John arched an eyebrow but elected to not cast judgment on the man. He couldn’t imagine what woman in Leedensville would want such a gift, but perhaps there was more to their relationship than he care to knew or question. John relented and accepted the schematic. “I’ll get on it as soon as I complete my current project. I’ll have it delivered within a week.”

“I appreciate that, Mr. Knock, but I’m also afraid this has to take top priority. Her birthday is in just four short days and, damn it all to hell, I waited until now to get this order in. It could do well to have the town sheriff on your side, Mr. Knock, and I’m sure I could compensate you handsomely in some other aspect.”

John knew exactly what the portly sheriff was talking about. He took the schematic and set it on a work counter near the back, far from the heat and flame. He returned and held out a hand in a gentleman’s agreement. “I’ll see what I can do, sir. Your lovely wife will not be wanting on her special day.”

“I knew I could count on you,” the sheriff replied with a grin. He ignored the outstretched hand and pulled a small fist sized fruit from his pocket. It was a grotesque purplish-blue in hue and the man bit into it with a wet crunch. Knock tried to suppress a grimace; instead smiled awkwardly and nodded back towards the lawman.

“You have a good day, Sheriff,” John called as the lawman sauntered away. His reply was a lifted hand, gestured from the sheriff’s broad back. John arched an eyebrow again at the odd encounter and turned back to the thin sheet of cooling metal on the anvil before him. He’d complete at least one of the barrel hoops before he took another glance at the knife request. He could afford a little time at least.

There was an old well located in the cemetery behind the church. It was made roughly from patchwork granite hauled in from a quarry somewhere north, but the children of the town were allowed to decorate and festoon it with wildflowers to brighten up the appearance. Now, as John Knock stood over the bucket and washed up after a hard day’s work, he noticed that most of the flowers had wilted. There was one however, that caught his eye. A gorgeous sprig of yellow, dainty and yet hardy was tucked into a gap between two stones. He withdrew it, clutched the marigold for a moment and walked a bit south towards the woods, dripping wet all the while. A chill swept through the winter night but he didn’t feel it. He was focused on his destination and his task at hand, as he often was when there was something that needed to be done.

Her grave sat near the edge of the property, a simple granite headstone, no doubt carved from the same lot that had built the well. John Knock kneeled down and place the yellow wildflower on Sarah’s grave, whispering words unheard to everyone but himself and the quiet spirits at rest all around him. The flower was like her in so many ways: a fighter to the end, yellow like her hair and a bright bloom to cast away harsh surroundings. A light in the dark in the purest sense; a light since snuffed out from this world yet ever brighter within the warmth that he still felt. The church bells suddenly tolled, cutting through the cold and quiet. He turned towards the stately white steeple, thought hard for a moment and then turned from her grave, allowing his weathered hand to rest upon it for just a moment more.

The church doors opened with a creak that pierced the otherwise peaceful silence. John Knock gazed about the small building. The outside was an impressive feat of architecture, the finest and most expensive building in Leedensville but it was belied by a simple interior. A windowless, brick square of a chamber, ten rows of wooden pews situated side by side in symmetrical rows. A simple altar at the front with a small wooden pulpit and a six foot cross forged out of pure iron. Oh, John Knock remembered that cross. He remembered it and the seared skin and smoke that had come from crafting it, quite ironic that he had endured Hell to bring about Heaven. As such, as gratitude for his efforts, Pastor Collins had always welcomed John’s occasional wanderings into the house of worship. They had been fewer and far between since Sarah’s death but on certain nights, much like tonight, he found himself drawn to the building.

The pastor himself emerged from a side door, the entrance to a spiral staircase that lead upwards towards the mighty church bells. The elderly man smiled and gestured to John with open arms as he stood uneasily amongt the pews. “Mr. John Knock, come to return to the fold. Be it forever grateful that you’ve chosen to embrace his light.”

“Just for tonight, perhaps, reverend,” Knock said with a nervous lick of his lips.

Collins nodded in an understanding fashion and gestured to the closest wooden bench. “Sit, won’t you brother?”

“I’ll stand, if its all the same.”

“I hope you won’t think me crass then if I accept my own invitation,” the pastor said as he sat down wearily. “These old bones wear down a bit more easily than I’d like them to.”

John nodded and reached out, caressing the jagged edge of one of the pews. Not the best craftsmanship, but then he wasn’t skilled in woodworking either. Metal was his trade and would remain so. He cast his eyes back at the cross and blinked as a glint of lantern light reflected off the metal.

“The whole village is forever grateful for your efforts, John,” Collins said. “As is the good Lord, I hope you’ll never forget that. Have you forgotten that, John?”

“I don’t know,” John replied quickly.

Collins knew when to take a step back. “When you are ready, friend. When you are ready, all are welcome in his grace. I trust you know that she is with him, standing at his right hand side and always watching you with the love that I felt when I first married the two of you.”

“I know, reverend.”

“I’ve seen the flames appear in your shop again,” Collins said, nodding in approval. “That’s good. It’s good to return to what makes you feel like yourself.”

John nodded as well. “It does feel good. I feel…more confident. I know that some of my work after I first lost her had grown…sloppy. I felt embarrassed when Mrs. Harper reported her husband’s saw broke on just the third stroke. But I feel good, I feel like I can…do great things.”

“Just mind, John, that you remain respectful and not succumb to the sin of pride. I know you endured a horrible heartbreak and such a tragedy can lead a man down a dark path, the crooked and narrow that can be difficult to find a way back from. Just keep an eye on the light. Sarah will guide you to where you need to go.”

“I appreciate that, reverend. I think I’ll be heading off now,” he said, tearing his eyes from the cross. He didn’t want the reverend to see the tears in his eye.

“Are you sure you won’t stay and pray?”

“Not right now, father.”

“Very well,” Collins said with a respectful tone. “You’re always welcome here, brother John. I hope you’ll remember that. Now if I may, I’d like to accept my own invitation once again.”

“Of course, father.”

“And John, one small request? If you see sheriff Slater, please invite him back into the fold as well. I dare say I haven’t seen him quite some time and his absence has worried me.

That night was a quiet evening for the mentally and physically beleaguered John Knock. Upon returning to his modest home, he wtihdrew a small parcel of wax paper from his cupboard, a small tin cup and pail of water, gathered a leather bound book and lit his solitary lantern. Within five minutes he was seated at his table, feasting on his last morsel of salted rabbit meat (he decided he would go hunting the next day to replenish his stock) and reading from the book. He had always held an interest in the unusual and the book was a curious tome. “Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus” had been Sarah’s last gift to him and he had only just recently picked it back up, just as he had done so with his hammer and forge. He enjoyed reading about the scientist in the book, crafting something fascinating from something unexpected, much as he likened how he plied his own trade, although on an admittedly much smaller scale. He thought the more violent aspects of the story might have frightened her thus was his appreciating even greater for her having brought the book into their home. It was his only book although he was strongly considering making an effort to withdraw his Bible from the well behind the church.

He had reached a moment upon which the creature, made flesh from the unliving, demands a bride of his own from the doctor. Imagine, what an interesting concept. He set the book down then, with a sudden start. Something wasn’t sitting right in his mouth. He had salted the meat perfectly and it hadn’t yet turned rancid so what was –

John coughed once and then a second time, explosively expelling his dinner onto the table. The lantern blew out upon the impact, thrusting the small room into sudden, uncomfortable darkness. John gagged and tasted a salty, peppery taste in his mouth. He fumbled for the lantern and cried out, a garbled groan among a gamut of liquid issuing forth. Something had stabbed him in the dark, a piercing blaze of cold and fire impossibly at the same time. In spite of the pain, he managed to light the wick in the lantern and inspect the unexpectedly violent scene on his small table.

A chewed lump of meat sat there, embedded with shards of glinting silver. He touched his lips and the hand came back red. With caution, he inspected the meat and frowned at the small parcels and chips of silvery metal embedded within. It had been akin to biting into a shot glass and John Knock couldn’t hazard a guess as to how it had ended up in his meal. He wiped the red away and spat out one final shard. The candle in the lantern snuffed out then, with a force too strong to have been caused by his own exhalation.

John stood up with a start, knocking over his chair. He couldn’t see it, but he felt it in the dark and stumbled away even as the choking sensation welled in his throat. The shape flitted with him and followed him as he staggered out the door into the pitch black night, coughing and sputtering. It whisked past him as he spat a large obstruction, rushing past his weathered teeth and plummeting wetly onto the bare ground. He heard it talk; it wasn’t her. She wouldn’t have hurt him this way. It spoke as it glided past, a midnight bird riding the cold winds of the wild.

No words: a shrill cry. It rose and fell with the wind and sounded for all the world like a panicked horse. The cry carried past on the wind, following the black shroud as it passed beyond the wall of his home, past the churning mud pit beyond and into the pitch of the Eastern Woods. John Knock watched as it vanished, his eyes focusing on nothing and everything. He spat again and pulled another match from his pocket. Under the flickering light, a wet lump of grey and black writhed on the ground, shards of silver embedded in it and gesturing forth as the shape undulated and shifted as though it were a living thing, one born from his own body.

Impossible, evil and demonic. This shouldn’t and couldn’t be and John Knock fled back inside even as the throbbing metal speckled mass ceased its shifting movements and lie there, still and black in the endless night. So too was the rest of Mr. Knock’s night as he collapsed into his bed, oblivious to whatever had assailed him in his warm yet dark hearth.

As it has always been and likely always will be, strange things tend to happen in the dead of night when potential prying eyes have succumbed to the allure of restful sleep. So to on this night, something stirred juts outside the front door of John Knock’s door. The spherical pile of bile, grime, gore and metal that had just emerged from the gullet of the unwitting host stirred and extended a pitch black, wet tendril. Eldritch locomotion took hold as it pulled itself along the dirt, inching further along the side of the domicile, rolling and writhing. The refuse found its destination behind the shack, rolled forth once more and plopped itself into the roiling mud. There it submerged beneath the waste and spread itself thin into the pit, submerging and intertwining with the Earth, the land and everything primal that lurked beneath.

There was no reason to not have left his home the next day. After the night’s events, he was happy to be out in the biting cold of the morning. John had woken, blinking with inadequate sleep, lips and mustache gummed together with blood and black. He had swished his mouth out with his water jug, the item never having left the table. The only part of the previous night that had been disturbed was the removal of the lump of metal imbued meat which now dwelt at the bottom of the mud pit. It was where John currently stood, gazing down at the bubbling patch, each spock and spurt of wet earth eliciting an involuntary grimace.

He turned away and cradled his rifle, a weapon having gone unused since his last hunting trip some two weeks prior. It was the only thing he used the gun for and he didn’t regret not having sprang for it the night prior. He knew it wouldn’t have done much good against the Mare (as he had personally dubbed the black shape that shrieked like a horse). He stood facing the Eastern Woods and a shudder passed through him. The forest that stretched outwards to the ocean was rich with game. There wasn’t much in the way of dangerous predators, no bears or cougars or wolves to be found. But there was something else beyond the trees, something that coasted through the dying birch and the leaf soaked forest floor. John Knock didn’t know what it was but he could feel the evil that blew on the light breeze, sweeping through the woods on a decadent yet deadly miasma. He could smell it and it smelled sweet.

He took one step into the woods, not noticing the arcane insignia inscribed on the bark of one tree that happened to face his home and the mud pit. Despite having passed them, he was not oblivious to the presence in the forest and yet he knew he needed to eat and couldn’t survive simply on bread. He whispered a soft and half-hearted prayed and crossed the boundaries into the woods.

Pastor Jeremiah Collins stepped outside for a bit of fresh air. He had spent a bulk of the afternoon polishing the candlesticks that lined the chapel walls. It was hard work at his advanced age but he wanted to keep the Lord’s house looking pristine. Perhaps he’d look into hiring a helped hand soon. He figured it was at least worth considering. He took in a gulp of chilly January air and looked out across the courtyard. He recognized two of the local women, chatting among themselves and he raised a hand in greeting. They returned his gesture with kind nods. Leedensville was a small town and yes, sin lurked here and there like a stubborn mold but he felt positive about the overall feel of the locale.

His eyes turned towards Mr. Knock’s shop across the courtyard. He knew the man to have irregular hours and on this day, the large barn sized doors were shut and sealed. Yet it didn’t seem to prevent a racket from piercing the otherwise peaceful morning. Pastor Collins squinted towards the shop as a din of clanging metal and scattering debris echoed across the cobblestones. Surely someone had broken into the shop and was pilfering the good man’s tools of the trade. He should contact Sheriff Slater at once. But then, more likely it was just Knock himself busying himself and not wanting to pay heed to the hustle and bustle of the day. The poor man, but Collins was grateful he seemed to be showing an interest in returning to the flock. God be with him.

A chill suddenly blew stronger than the rest that had permeated this day. It was cold but the sun shone brightly, an image that curiously unnerved the good pastor. He clutched his robes around his midsection and shuddered. Something wasn’t right. He afforded one more glance around the courtyard and retreated inwards, seeking the solace of the warmth within the church.

John Knock emerged from the woods, freshly slain rabbit slung from his belt. It had been a meager hunt, he’d only managed one kill which would only last a few days if he rationed it. He’d likely have to resort to bread and water for sustenance as he didn’t know if he could bring himself to return to the woods. As he approached his property, he thought about the only other game he had spotted this day, small whitetail doe. But he had not been able to secure the kill, something else had gotten to it.

He had found it lying in a leaf strewn clearing, tawny fur blending in with the brown of the dead leaves crunching beneath. Its throat had been slit, cleanly and neatly with a precision belying that of a natural predator. Its belly was slit open, still streaming entrails spilling into the refuse which indicated to him that it was a fresh kill. It unnerved him, made him caution every sound and peep echoing from beyond the birch.

He had seen something else in the woods as he had peered up from the deer (he didn’t dare touch it, let alone consume it). As he gazed through the grey, pitted trunks, he could make out what appeared to be a small shack. It was ramshackle in appearance, hastily constructed by pallets of bark and lashings of an odd black fiber. But then… he carefully passed beyond the closest tree and encountered naught but stretching woodland. He had turned away warily, affording one last glance over his shoulder. His peek was rewarded with the small shack appearing once more, but this time the simple wooden door was wide open, inviting a curious onlooker into the dark confines beyond.

He could smell the salt on the air and knew the ocean was but perhaps a mile away. John had wandered too far. He wanted out of the forest, away from the carcass and away from that accursed shack. Luckily, he didn’t have to go far as the domicile had vanished, leaving not even am imprint on the leaf strewn forest floor.

Thomas Slater lived in one of the more stately houses in Leedensville, a two story domicile of repute and solid stature, much like the man himself. It was set at the beginning of the town’s main thoroughfare, set a little ways off from the street, a gatekeeper of sorts for anyone seeking to visit his town. It was a home much too large for one man, alone, but that was the way it had been for several weeks. On this night, however, he wasn’t alone. He was occupied with his thoughts of the blacksmith and the shoddy craftsmanship he had exhibited in the weeks prior. He was occupied with thoughts of Elizabeth and the absence of her laugh and the warm smell of her famous pumpkin pie. More so though, he was not alone for he was seated at a large oak table, accompanied by a being of pure shadow and filth.

Across the town, one John Knock would know this mysterious figure as The Mare, but Slater would have no way of knowing that. He (and yes, much of the village, especially the schoolchildren) knew of this form as the Salt Witch. A brief sojourn into the woods a week prior, beset by grief and driven near mad with heartache, had proven that her existence was much more than a mere children’s rhyme. She sat there now, across the table in an otherwise empty room, lit by a solitary candle set upon an iron holder (a crafted item that had been delivered from a familiar source). The heart of a freshly slain deer lite on the wood before them, staining the wood with its vital juices.

She was shadow and shade, flitting and forming among the darkness of the room. What little of her that Slater could see betrayed an elongated, bestial snout, a hunched form clad in thin fibrous membranes and reeking of her namesake. Word of God (which seemed to be curiously absent in her presence) spoke that she had crawled from the blackest depths of the ocean where she had learned arcane crafts from the beings of the deep. The salt had clung to her hair and she had learned to hunt the wild game to stay alive before graduating towards more obscure and ethereal game. Such was the ease of locating a bevy of settlers in a new, wild world whom would be desperate to part with their very souls if it meant an easier life on this mortal coil. Or for other prices still, such as the sweet slaking thirst for vengeance at the loss of a loved one.

This was the basis for the meeting and for the progress report delivered to Thomas Slater by his menacing mercenary of the Woods: “The seed hath been planted.” Simple words spoken not from the primal mouth across the table but related directly to the core of Slater’s mind.

He nodded in return and she asked: “Dost thou hast the blade?”

Slater shook his head. “He’ll finish it soon,” he responded. “He’s talented at his craft, it will be a fine piece of work.”

Not so talented, it would seem, why else would I be here?”

Slater smirked and subconsciously glanced at his arm. The wounds had scarred over, the markings and spirals he had carved upon himself. He had stumbled across her shack in the woods and she had spoken to him much as she was speaking now, telling him exactly how to bring her about to his locale and the deal that they would soon make. Upon this time, Slater felt the slightest pangs of regret, especially after observing the abomination in the shade. Then, the scent of nutmeg struck his pocked nose and he forgot all his misgivings as he knew it was a scent he would never again detect from Elizabeth’s kitchen, nor the warmth of her body.

Slater stood up and turned away from the blasphemous being. He could feel its eyes, wherever the hell they were on that nightmare form, boring into the back of his skull.

We shall finish it,” the hoarse voice whispered. A gnarled hand reach from the undulating black, tipped with a silvery animal hoof that glinted in the candlelight. It scooped the deer heart back towards it before the organ disappeared into the shadows. The sound that erupted rom the shade was enough to turn the sheriff’s stomach and he felt he could bear no more.

As he began to walk away, sheriff Thomas Slater felt a wisp across the back of his neck and a faint whisper. It sounded like the snort of an impatient horse and it was a sound that made him shudder. Tears sprang to his red rimmed eyes and swiftly began to fall, salted gems not unlike that which crystallized in the shadows of a hungry being from far beyond our own world.

The previous night had been uneventful and for that, John Knock was grateful. His hands were dirty from the work he had performed under the cover of the night, yet his forge was cold. Rather, he had been at work, retrieving something long cast aside. He was prepared to being work for the day but presently, he sat upon the foot of the bed, poring over the still wet pages of his and Sarah’s Bible. It had been a good while that he had seen these words and the scriptures therein brought forth a torrent of mixed emotions.

Matthew 5:4
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Comfort was a foreign concept to him. But the book felt good in his hands, despite the fragility of the worn and wet pages. The bottom of the well had also sprung forth mold and he knew he would have to work a little harder to erase the vestiges of neglect. Hard work was certainly the order for the day.

The sunlight glinted off the silver comb high above as John Knock continued to work with his hands and spirit. He was satisfied with his work thus far. The blade that Sheriff Slater had commissioned was coming along nicely. A solid six inches of finely honed wrought iron. While the metal was still soft, John heated up a thick strand of wire and used the hot end to transcribe the weird language into the blade to the best of his ability. It was slow going, words and symbols that escaped his knowledge and he hoped were not blasphemous in nature. Something suddenly alighted upon the blade, a burst of color. John grunted and pulled the wire away. A tiny yellow flower petal had floated down and pressed itself into the still cooling metal. He pulled it away and hoped the tiny fleck of yellow that caught behind would not blemish the finished piece.

A small, musical giggle sounded through the shop. He looked up beneath his heavy set brow and frowned at the appearance of a little girl standing before him, peering over the front counter of his shop. She was a spritely creature, fair skin and hair with delicate brown eyes that sparkled with that youthful exuberance and curiosity that sadly seems to fade with age. She held the remnants of a small yellow wildflower in her hand, the petals all but removed.

“Hello little one,” John said with a cautious smile. He liked children but was uncomfortable with her standing so close to the dangerous heat and metal just beyond the wooden counter. “That’s a pretty flower, where did you get it?” He hoped he would not receive the answer he feared.

“I pulled it from the well behind the church,” she smiled back. “It was the only one left. Now its all over the town square, so everyone can enjoy it.”

“You didn’t…find it on a gravestone, did you child?”

“No sir, Mother says not to disturb the dead and then they won’t disturb you.”

“Mother is a wise woman, dear one. Tell me though, who are your parents? And where are they?”

“My parents run the feed store over by the farm.”

“Oh you are little Emily O’Connell!” he said with recognition. “Yes, I’ve crossed paths with your parents a few times, fine people indeed. What brings you all the way over here? Do they know you’re on your own?”

“I’ll tell you a secret, mister,” she beckoned him closer mischievously and John Knock decided to play along.

“I’m supposed to be at school right now,” she whispered. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“I’ll make you a deal dear,” he said. “If you be careful and don’t get into any mischief, I won’t tell.”

She nodded in agreement and craned her inquisitive head, poring over his actions beyond the counter. “What are you doing there, sir?’

“Dangerous things, dear,” he answered. “Metalwork. Right now I’m building a gift for Sheriff Slater’s wife.”

Hey eyebrow arched. “The sheriff’s wife? Sir, you’re making a gift for a ghost.”

“What’s that, dear?”

“Last week, I skipped school again,” she whispered. “I was in the woods, looking for skylarks, they sing beautiful songs. But I saw the sheriff out there, he was carrying his wife in his arms and she looked dead to the world!”

“I…see. Did the sheriff see you? Did you ask him anything or speak to him?”

“No sir, he seemed to be in a hurry, I did not want to stop and bother him while he was grieving.”

“That is mighty fine of your, my dear. Very kind. Now then, will you do me a favor in return for my secrecy?”

“Sir?”

“Do not mention to the sheriff that I am working on this gift. I suspect it might not be for his wife but perhaps for himself and he did not want to seem selfish. I’d prefer it to be a surprise when my work is complete.”

“I swear sir. On my parent’s grave.”

“Now, Emily, be careful hen you say things like that.”

She nodded. “I will, sorry sir.”

“That’s quite alright.”

“Will you-?”

“Yes dear?” he asked.

“Will you build me a little metal bird when you finish Mr. Slater’s gift? Please?” she asked with a hopeful whisper.

“Young lady, I’ll build you the most beautiful song bird you ever did see,” he smiled. “Now run along and don’t let the schoolmarm see you.”

She beamed brightly, took one last glance into his shop and rushed off into the square.

Her departure brought a sigh of relief to John Knock followed by a small pit of longing. He knew he would likely never have a child to call his own. That had not been an option with Sarah even before she had passed. As he hammered out a rough edge of the knife, he wondered what the future held for him. He knew he could only go so far in the small town of Leedensville. Perhaps something lie beyond the town square, past the O’Connell corn farm and farther west. Maybe he should take his trade to the new bustling metropolis of New York. It might present new opportunities and new ventures. Who knows what the future held?

The world was a mysterious place, John Knock mused inwardly. He clanged his hammer off the blade again, skirting past the tiny splotch of yellow. You never know what the future might hold, but it is always smart to make the best of it.

An eye for an eye; a soul for a soul.

You bid me forth, it’s time for the both of us to wake up and claim what each is owed.

These voices, rasping and hoarse echoed through the slumbering subconscious of Thomas Slater. He awoke, tears shining again in his great blue eyes and he knew, at that moment, that something both fascinating and terrible was about to unfold. He stumbled out of bed, pulled on his jacket and hat and took off without bothering to lock his door. He returned briefly after and retrieved his gun… just in case.

John Knock was proud of his work. The knife has been completed and now rested, cooling in his shop. It was fine craftsmanship and, whatever use the good sheriff would have for it, he would find it to be very satisfactory. He slept soundly that night, knowing he was in full swing and had fully recovered his skills and workmanship. He slept peacefully and founds his dreams peppered with dots of warmth, gentle yellow light and the scent of wildflowers. Within this delicate dreamscape, the blooms of yellow began to suddenly wilt, fester, blighted with something thick, black and foul. It was a cruel and wicked thing, to have his first happy dream in months stolen from him and he awoke with a start, having felt the blight creeping into his mind.

The shack was dark and humid. John Knock stumbled out of bed and approached the end table, groping blindly in the dark for a water jug. His path was swiftly illuminated, a bloom of flame igniting in the ether upon the end table. The flames danced silently, casting a warmth that actually repulsed him. He quickly picked up the jug, took a swig of water to quench his thirst and cast the rest on spot of flame, plunging the room back into the shade. He reached out and felt the two books that had provided kindle for the flames. One was a holy book, the other provided him entertainment and both were now charred black and crisped into ruin. Impaled in the soft wood between the burnt bible and the novel was the knife he had crafted for Slater. It stood proud, quivering as though eager for human contact and John Knock was compelled to reach out and grab it. The leather he had wound already the hilt was still wet but otherwise it handled well, felt durable and solid in his bare hand. He turned and staggered forwards towards the door, propelled along by unknown means.

John Knock stumbled outside and was greeted with the back door of his shop hanging wide open. He began to enter and pulled back as he was assaulted with a blast of hot, fetid air. It felt sour, thick, rich in rotten meat and salt. He gagged as the scent overtook him and then seemed to brush past as though being carried on a festering wind. It spoke again, the cry of a wild Mare yet this time it called to him in all too human vocalization:

Ol’ John Knock is a bad man. I killed him on this night, I didst.” A heady chuckle, thick with malice followed and swept past him on the same foul gust.

The sound of beating, wild hooves echoed through the night. His eyes blurred with tears and he stared along the side of the house leading towards the forest’s edge and the mud pit. He clutched the blade and marched along, clutching the side of his shack as though releasing his grip would plunge him headlong into an endless void. For all he knew, it would.

He lost his grip at the beginning of the mud pit when there was no more wooden wall to grasp onto. The world was dark save for the light of a brilliant three quarter moon overhead. The gaze of the celestial body revealed speckles of silver resting among the bubbling mud. They were gems clasped within a field of filth, crying out with angel winks to be plucked from their decay. Among the tiny shards of silver (no longed red speckled, for these were not embedded in his flesh) he could make out the marigold comb, the last physical vestige of Sarah that remained.

John Knock set aside everything at that moment: all manner of common sense, survival instinct and every prickling of his scalp meant to warn of darker things. All he wanted was the comb. He set the knife down gently on the dusty ground kneeled on his knees. He could see the church steeple from his vantage point and he craved the warmth of the sanctuary as it rose above the bed of grime. John Knock whispered more words unheard as he reached forward into the mud. He had never set foot in the pit before (never having had a reason to do so) and he didn’t know the depth of the bubbling earth. He would come to know very swiftly.

Footsteps behind him, quiet and obscured in the dark of the night. John looked over, caught a glint of silver in the light and felt the flash of fire streak across his upper arm. It reminded him briefly of the burn he had received when crafting the cross but he could pull no further thoughts as a mighty pressure from behind sent him spiraling into the mud. He sank; the depth was greater than he could have anticipated. It grasped at him wetly, sucking and puckering with great gasps of brown and decay as he swiftly sank up to his armpits.

A voice came from above, a portly silhouette cast against the winking silver moon above: “For her.”

John wiped the mud from his eyes, brushed it from his hooked nose and glanced upwards. The lawman, Sheriff Thomas Slater stood above, solid and stoic. The ornamental knife was clutched in one meaty hand, dripping red freshly drawn from the blacksmith. His other hand contained an object that John had not crafted in some time, a horseshoe. This one in particular was shattered in half, tiny splinters of silver metal dotting and clutching at the sheriff’s hands. If he was in (physical) pain, he certainly did not express it.

“John,” the sheriff began,” I’m sorry. I blame you, yes, but I know how it is to lose the woman you love. I’m sorry you lost Sarah but that doesn’t excuse it.”

“What-?” he gasped. He began to sink further in.

“You became sloppy, shoddy. She had planned a picnic that day, you know? I suspect that she had planned a special occasion to tell me that she was with child. I only found out later, after the horse that you had personally shoed threw its shoe and her with it.”

“Is that-? Thomas, I had no idea…I…I take full responsibility,” John gasped. “I’m so sorry, why didn’t you-”

“You would have done the same thing I did, if another man was responsible for the loss of your entire family…your unborn child. I can’t bring the baby back. But I can bring back her. She told me how.”

“Thomas, what have you done?”

Thomas Slater looked at the knife as it continued to drip. He held it aloft, a shard of silver to end all then cast it into the mud pit beside the blacksmith. “Blood to bind, flesh to craft. Fires to forge and metal to graft.”

John Knock opened his mouth to protest again. The mud exploded behind, a torrent of wet earth raining upon him as something emerged from the muck. He could only see a portion of the abomination: thrashing black threads, speckled with hints of brilliant silver. The same metal he had used to build the horseshoes and other metalwork. The same that had appeared in his home and his dinner.

It bellowed in triumph, the cry of a wounded Mare yet inflected with an all too human tonality of satisfaction. It draped over him, a lover’s embrace at once delicate and viciously strong. Hot breath rasped in his ears, a sensation that didn’t make sense to John Knock as he suspected the assailant was anything but living. It pulled him under, blunted, decayed fingers and writhing threads. John’s world vanished into suffocating dark, foul smelling waste and an immense pressure as the mud bore down upon him. He clasped his mouth shut, to prevent the invading waste from sluicing down his throat.

Something scurried through the much, plucked at his clasped mouth, intertwined within his mustache. He felt it win out, his mouth forced open and everything foul and dark in the world flooded in. He kept his eyes closed and reached up through the thick mud, grasping for one last attempt at salvation. John felt hard, thick fingers wrap around his, squeeze for just a moment and fiercely shove him back down, further, further into the depths where nothing existed but the edge of existence and the waste of the world.

Tom Slater fell back at the edge of the mud pit, being careful not to touch the writhing substance. The surface was calming now, after he had pressed John’s grasping hand back into the depths. He panted with effort, clutching at his chest as old, familiar pressure squeezed through. Slater closed his eyes, counted to ten. When he opened them, John Knock was standing before him, fully emerged from the mud and clutching the decorative blade in his waste slicked hand. The blacksmith gazed down at the rasping lawman with a curious look in his dark eyes.

“Knock?” Slater asked, standing back up with some degree of effort.

The blacksmith lifted his hands and waved them about, flexed the fingers and shook the mud from them. It looked as though he was inspecting unfamiliar appendages. The blacksmith smiled then, an eerie grin with malice and yet no emotion whatsoever behind it, impossibly at the same time.

“What happened?” Slater asked, confused. He had called the Witch to strike the blacksmith down, vengeance earned for his lost family. But here he was, standing before him. And yet, not quite…right.

The blacksmith inspected the blade, impossibly still pristine and clean despite having swam in the mud. The blacksmith spoke in a vacant voice: “It smells nice out here, old, corky man.”

“What?” Slater, still perplexed.

Blood to bind,

flesh to craft.

Fires to forge

and metal to graft.

The blacksmith lunged forward with the knife, plunging it deep into the belly of the lawman. Sheriff Tom Slater gasped and staggered forward, collapsing into the arms of the man with the knife. The blacksmith shook the blood off of the dirty blade, casting droplets into the filth below. It stepped aside slightly, allowing the body of the sheriff to topple into the mud. It began to sink immediately into the muck, sucked down with a wet and obscene squelch.

The blacksmith stood back, gazing around the world in satisfaction. It breathed deep, savoring the scent of salt on the wind, carried forth from the fathoms of sea just a few miles beyond. It smelled like home and it craved the caress of the wind and waves. It had existed for eons prior, leeching forth from life to life, learning the trade of manipulation and a tongue as silver as the metalcraft in its new host’s body.

It held a special relationship with this, the shining glint of the moon, the Lady Luna above that called forth the waves and spread the salt and the primal winds further into the encroachment that the easily corrupted mankind cast forth into it’s world. It had no name, not a childish moniker denoting witchcraft nor a monosyllabic nickname cast upon by the mind of the blacksmith himself.

It was simply…here. Now, born into a new existence and ready to move forth and spread its blight further into the world. It would-

A flash of color in the dark night. Not a glint of silver, that beautiful godly hue. This was a bright flash, the color of the sun, the color of warmth and blooming flowers. A shock of yellow burst forth, silently and brilliant, blooming directly from the arcane blade itself, arcing forth from the pit. The blacksmith threw up its hands awkwardly, covering its new eyes from the burst and stumbled back, sloshing into the mud pit.

The vines erupted next, thin and green yet powerful and determined. Brilliant gold, yellow and orange bloomed at intermittent patches along the vines and further intensified in color as they ensnared the blacksmith, pulling him back into the mud from where he had just emerged. The blacksmith’s eyes darted in confusion and it reached out for the sinking corpse of the sheriff. It’s hands scrabbled for the blade embedded in his stomach but the sucking filth pulled the corpse further beneath the pit, out of its reach.

The blacksmith thrashed upon the surface, not sinking yet entrapped by the writhing gold and green. The squeezed…pressure building and growing exponentially as the being that inhabited the blacksmith felt its very consciousness growing brighter. More lights bloomed in its vision, eyes beholden to ages past and seeing he night sky anew. Silver, powerful sparks and glints pierced the air and grow more powerful until they encompassed everything it knew.

Beautiful,

All encompassing.

Powerful, metallic,

bits of minerals from the depths.

Pulled forth from the tides and cast further than ever before.

It was brilliant and it was all.

John Knock emerged from the waste and promptly vomited. He had done this a lot lately and wanted nothing more than to be healthy again. His waste plummeted into the bubbling mud, a gamut of black bile that writhed and shrieked inhumanely. Streaks of silver bloomed in the mass. He beheld it with a wild wonder for just a moment before the mud pulled the mass down into its depths. The writhing surface of the pit suddenly ceased, still and calm in the dead of the night.

John sat back on his haunches, dripping grime and took a wide sniff to clear out his nostrils. The night smelled…sweet. A delicate scent danced upon a calm wind and he caught sight of a tiny speck of gold dancing through the air. It swept up into the night sky and blew gaily to the back of his shack, heading in the direction of the town square.

John stood up and took a deep breath. Time had passed but he wasn’t aware how much. The moon hovered in the sky, seemingly in the same position as when he had least seen it. He recalled reaching into the mud pit, stretching from the solid ground and attempting to grab…something. And then… he must have fallen in, dragged himself out. He returned to the edge of his home, gripping the wall to steady himself. He gasped and panted and pulled him self along, exertion extended for unknown reasons to his frazzled mind.

He pushed his way past his open door, passing through the open portal to his shop. He didn’t miss the sound of the bubbling pit; the quiet was solace and peace. He stood in the shop and gazed around, looking at the forlorn looking tools, worn instruments and cold forge. Then, in spite of his fatigue, he lit the flames, picked up a sheet of metal and his hammer and set to work.

The dawn was just beginning to break as John Knock finished his final piece of work for the village of Leedensville. The moon had retreated into the infinite gloom and a purple blush of the encroaching sun had just began to break over the woods. The day began to stir as he set his hammer down, wiped his brow of sweat and left the item to cool on the front counter.

The O’Connells passed by, toting a wheelbarrow full of corn. Pastor Collins opened the great doors to the chapel to let the sunbeams in to glint off of the mighty cross within the sanctuary. School children began to prance across the path down the way, headed towards school. John caught the eye of one mischievous looking little girl who smiled in his direction. He smiled back and lifted a weary hand in recognition.

He had made a decision. This town didn’t hold anything for him any longer, only foul memories that currently seemed a distant blur yet he suspected when soon bloom into nightmarish clarity if he remained. And so, John Knock closed his blacksmith shop for the last time. But before he did, he cleaned up and packed as many tools as he could. He left his home as it stood, burnt and tattered books and a cabinet full of salted meat.

He reached for a pair of tongs ,the last item to pack. Two colors bloomed into view: a glint of silver and a spark of gold. Sarah’s hair comb sat there on the counter top, pressed next to a lone marigold petal. He clasped the comb to this heart, feeling its warmth bleed through in a most comforting fashion. He left the petal behind, a single jolt of color in the otherwise dark and empty shop. John Knock tucked the comb into his pocket and pulled the large barn sized doors closed.

He only glanced back once, to leave his final project behind on the exterior counter top. It was cool to the touch and sparkled in the sunlight. He was satisfied, he had done good work with the gift. And thus he left everything behind save for the tiny metal bird, perched upon the woodwork and glinting in the new sun, as it waited for its new owner to claim it.

As John Knock began his walk to the train station outside of town, he left behind all that remained of his old life. The home he had shared with his wife, the church they had married, the shop he had plied his trade and even the tavern he had drunk himself into a stupor following her death. So too did he leave her headstone behind in the church cemetery. But this didn’t bother him. He held a reminder of her in his pocket, a small bauble that jangled musically as he walked along.

If he had removed it from his pocket and held it up to the approaching sun, he would note how beautiful it was to behold, especially having crafted it with his own two hands. A totem of love lost yet never forgotten, one enraptured in gold yet glinting silver here in the dawn of a new life.

 

Resolution

It’s that time again.

Time for new beginnings, to right the wrongs of the previous annual cycle.

It begins as usual. I awaken from my slumber, burst forth into a world that is color and chaos. Bursts of kaleidoscopic fire light up the dark desert sky and the city just a few miles south of my rook is abuzz with color and jubilation. Surely, they’re celebrating my return, yes? It is the only connection I can make between my awakening and the jets of shrieking, celebratory fire.

I hop to the ledge of my rook and flex my wings. Amniotic threading still stretches amidst my skin as I am still fresh from my annual hibernation. I rub my knuckles across my sleep crusted eyes and gaze into the cacaphonous night.

Each year I tell myself I will do things differently. Each year … well, I only have 27 hours per cycle before my chrysalis reforms, against my will. Why such an exact timeframe, I fear I will never know. I only have 27 hours to… eat. Could you blame me for choosing such easy prey? On this night, this night of new beginnings, this night of revelry: the land dwellers stagger about, dazed into a stupor from the intensity of their celebration. These are the ones I pluck, ripe and plump. Juicy and…what is that taste? Oaky, almonds. Hops and grains. I grow dizzy, I lose my equilibrium.. but I want more

Every year I choose these buffoons for easy prey and every year the same result: I absorb their affliction and inevitably spend the remaining 26 hours in an equally dazed stupor. It’s all I can to make it back to my rook, on unsteady wings, and slumber in the safety of my age old home.

This year, I will spend what little time I have and seek answers. Why do I only have such a small window of activity? Why do I feast on these chatty, two legged beasts? What is the true purpose of this noise and celebration?

Why am I .. what I am?

THIS year. I will learn the reason for my being.

But lo and behold, beneath my ledge: a vehicle, several temporary canvas dwellings in the parched, cold desert. A raging fire, upon which more revelry occurs. I can tell by their boorish exclamations that they have fallen victim to the stupor.

I flex my wings again, stretch my talons, my long and sinewy legs. I gnash my fangs and crack my six knuckled hands. I swoop down, judging my angle and velocity that will be ideal to impale a particularly rotund and loud one.

I will feast well tonight. I will indulge heartily! I will celebrate this new cycle in style!

…..

I know I said things would be different. And I’m still curious

…. but then….
…..
…..

There’s always next year

Filth to some, Glory to others

 

This is where it ends but more importantly, where it all begins.

Faul believed this to be very true. The chamber was dim, lit softly by amber lights that seemed to defy explanation. They clung to the barren earth walls and followed him as he proceeded deeper. The ground was rough, loose, ancient. It spoke to him as he ran his scabbed fingers through the dirt, letting it seep between his hands. It changed him even then, each particle of terrain leaving behind a speck of altered flesh.

He was where he needed to be. He raised his hands towards the vaulted ceiling in quiet triumph. The arches loomed above, carved stone supplanted against the bare earth to provide support and even more. At the apex of each arch, a basin was supported by Rusted metal chains interconnected with strands of pale fiber and snaking cable. It was in these basins that the Rust collected, dirty liquid from the harvest fields above. It seeped down from above, lapped up by a thirsty world and recycled into these underground chambers. They were beginning to overflow and Faul was exactly where he wanted to be.

He thrust off the bare remnants of his tattered clothes with a flourish and let the Rust drip down. He sobbed quietly among the living torches and extended his tongue to let the brownish fluid fall into his brackish mouth. It tasted metallic and salty, not unlike the blood of the harvest and he could not ask for more.

But yes, he needed more. So much more…

The world above belonged to them, an incursion that occurred without warning to the cattle and certainly without mercy. If one were to venture among the bruisefruit and gorewood high above, they would find the agriculture that festooned the fields. Each body of those from before provided sustenance for the dirt, for the field, for those below who dwelled now as above. Those who had lived here prior to their settlement had not been harvested quietly but Faul and the rest of his ilk knew they were secretly grateful. What better honor could there be?

The Rust fell freely now and Saul ran his tattered hands wildly across his hairless scalp, accepting the gift so readily provided. It felt so soothing, so calm here in the chambers. Each splash of this sacred gift coated his lithe body in a greasy sheen, slick to the touch but nigh impenetrable; living metal. It would do well to help combat any attempted resistance but he knew these chances were slim. These were the gifts bestowed by the Matrons.

The Filth Mothers were good to his tribe. They had gifted them the Life-After-Life, to crawl forth from decay choked crypts and ascend, ascend as they were always supposed to. These Matrons existed in sacred locales in the new world and with each flick of their Rust coated nails, they would provide more of this altering drink, more so than the cattle could ever provide.

For now, Faul needed only a small taste. A short, sustaining bath to slake his thirst until his journey ahead. After his decrepit baptism, he would emerge up the sloping, gilded hall that lead out into the world above. He would collect a bruisefruit to snack on and tiptoe carefully among the harvest and the still living cattle. From there, he would collect the ash that rained down from the grey sun above and coat his body with it. He would paint it across his bare chest and face in the sacred designs called upon from those eternally encrusted with dust and grime, his forefathers. And then he would begin his pilgrimage. He knew a Filth Mother was close by and, although Faul knew himself to not be worthy of her presence, he would still seek her shrine and bask in her Rust ridden glory.

The Mothers were beautiful to behold, shining red flesh and Rust coated gears that propelled their nails mechanically forward and down, across swollen midsections to release their gift. Salted red ambrosia, flecked with grime ; the most beautiful thing anyone could behold. They were anchored into their shrines, held fast by cords and cables until the appropriate time. Faul longed to insert the gears and screws into his own flesh to be one with those others who had made the pilgrimage. Upon arrival, those chosen would clamber into the Matrons and combine their gears and pistons, a communal, beautiful combination of skin, bone and rusted metal. And then these mighty things, these glorious communal sacrificial constructs would let loose from their anchors and parade across the ash ridden world. Where they went, Filth and Decay would follow, exhaling Ash and Rust into an increasingly grateful world.

Faul wept red tears at the thought and only wished that it could be happening now, right now. For the time being here, in the quiet chambers, he would sip the Rust in silent acceptance. But his time was coming. The Mothers were calling, a mighty yet feminine bellow echoing across the gorewood and the Rusted harvest fields. And he would answer.

They had come from below. They reclaimed their land. They harnessed all that stole life and yet born life anew beneath a blotted sun. They took the metals that had been enslaved by the ones before (now reduced to mere stock) and combined them with their own flesh, together as one where things should be.

This was Faul’s lot in life and he had a wonderful existence.

The basin above dripped dry. He was disappointed but that only meant he could begin his pilgrimage even sooner. Faul collected a ceremonial staff from their sockets on the wall and tested its heft. It was strong, powerful, a symbiosis of muscle and metal. It would double as a support for the arduous journey, as self defense and as a good tool to inscribe the Ash upon his skin. It was time to leave.

He slowly made his way up the slopes, marveling at the craftsmanship in the Rust inlaid floor tiles. His tribe was truly special, the artisans gods among fools. He could only hope to be like them some day. Finally, he reached his apex and emerged upwards into the world of grey, red and black.

He breathed deep, inhaling smoke and grime. His slitted nostrils flared and he flexed ropy, powerful muscles in the dim lighting. It was a beautiful day to begin his holy journey. Faul turned away from the harvest field behind him, ignoring the quiet pleas for providence. It would all be silent soon, no matter.

The gorewoods lie ahead, each tree a writhing marvel of intertwined cables, tendons, sprockets, bark and arteries. He sighed contentedly, reached up to the first tree he found and plucked down a bruisefruit. It squelched softly in his hands, purple-black juices running down his hard tinged skin. He bit into it with well worn teeth and savored the taste. A droplet of it ran down his chin, carving a trail in the Ash that softly fell upon him.

He looked forward into the forest and listened for the calls of the Matron.

Faul would heed the call.

It was there that another life would end and a new one would begin, among the jubilant throngs.

Faul was ready and he took a confident step forward into the new world.

A world coated in grime, one that was Filth to some yet glory to others.