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Berries in the Window

Berries in the window


Estimated reading time — 36 minutes

I met Elaine at the rim of a fountain. The water bellowed from the spicket in its ornate pattern. The fact it was running at all was a miracle for our underfunded University. It was just after my 8:45 class on early horror films. No better way to start your morning than with a dissection of The Infernal Cauldron I suppose. She sat on the edge of the courtyard fountain with her head buried in a textbook. A fresh brewed coffee from the commissary by her hip. Her hair draped to her collarbone and swayed in the passing breeze. I assumed she was a nursing major by the art on the front of her textbooks and the fact that she was always trapped in their pages. I assumed she had a keen mind, top of her class even by the way she was constantly scribbling on her notepaper. I assumed she had a boyfriend waiting for her back home. But I was tired of assuming.

Perhaps it was the way the sun peeked over the clouds or the water playing the perfect score in the background. Or it may have just been the pressure of summer vacation’s approach. Whatever it was, on that morning of May 27th the frame was absolute perfection. So I took the shot. I sat next to her and made some comment about the book she was reading that I couldn’t possibly remember. She laughed at it though. Out of nervousness or pity she would never tell, but the laugh offered all the confidence I needed. We left that morning with a date planned. And then that date with another, and another, and another.

She said yes six years later to the day. We took a trip to the largest resort in our state. I made sure the sky was clear, the crowds were minimal and the flowers had bloomed. I got off of my knee to embrace her. She was elated. Her smile, her embrace, her scent. Every detail was just as I imagined. I managed to discover another frame as flawless as the day I met her. From there, we made a beautiful film of our life together. She was a nurse at the leading hospital in the area. The hours were grueling but she felt rewarded by the lives she touched. I – while not making it in Hollywood- got contract videography work for advertisements and weddings that kept me busy enough. Then, two years after our wedding day, I opened her present to me on our anniversary. In the box was a stick with two bold red lines, and the film of our life was made entirely of perfect frames.

Then the baby was born. The harsh light from the hospital room nearly melted the creases of my wifes face away. Her breath was rapid, having just expelled the baby from within her. Eons passed as we waited for the cry. The buzz of fluorescent light bulbs overhead rattled the room. The indistinguishable scent of sterilization masked the scent of birth like a fishing net. The cry was not as expected. It was merely a hick, a gasp, and choking. I caught a glimpse of the baby before the nurses rushed him out of the room. His spine bent as if a string yanked the back of his head to his heels. His torso was a stump compared to the ski pole limbs attached. And the eyes. Bulging from his skull, they clung to their sockets like balloons inflated in a roll of duct tape. The doctors said they had never seen a disorder like this. Months of ultrasounds and bloodwork showing a healthy boy only for this to be the result. It was as if he mutated during labor.

Elaine and I were not the same. We talked less and less as every breath now needed to be spent on keeping it alive a little longer. The baby continued to breathe and feed, although through a tube. She loved the baby. She devoted everything she had to it and I… I was in disbelief. I hoped to wake up from the nightmare that became of us. That the pregnancy doctors we talked to were right and a healthy baby was still on the way. Elaine didn’t return to the hospital for work even after the maturity leave expired. I stopped taking contracts for video work for a year. The offers completely dried up in that time. That was until I received an email with the to-the-point header Documentary Requested. Documentary work has always been an interest of mine. Since weddings and advertisements are mostly shot at the mercy of the client, I was more than interested in being the driver for a project.

We are an independent church based an hour from Pleasantview, WV. Our festival is coming in a few days and as this is a once in a lifetime event, we would love to preserve it. All we ask for is three nights of your time and we will make you feel right at home. If you are interested we can discuss prices and directions, money is no issue.

We believe our faith will be of particular interest to you Mr. Dowhy.

May you have faith.

-Pastor Madison

I was turned away after reading the email. Why would it be of particular interest to me? Beyond the odd ending to the email I was never partial to religion. Given recent events, my partiality grew far worse than ever. The longer I sat with the email, the more disgusted I would be with myself if I accepted such an offer.

Weeks passed since the initial email from Pastor Madison. I applied for over fifty jobs in that week for consistent income. Of the near fifty job postings I applied to, I only heard back from four. All with essentially the same apologetic rejection. Elaine’s time was wholly dedicated to the baby. She was at its beckoned whim. With each gasp or choke she was there to refill the baby’s feeding tube or change its diaper. She was monopolized while I could hardly look at it. I was disgusted with myself for feeling this way. It was a constant stab of guilt within me.

Funds ran completely dry. We began putting every expense on credit cards. In doing so we dug a hole three thousand dollars deep in only a couple months. We feared losing the home. We feared losing the baby. We feared everything and still rejection after rejection came from job listings with my name in the letterhead. I delivered food after a period of time but every check was like filling a canyon with a bucket of sand. Then another email came. Not to me this time, but to Elaine. She showed me the message that read as follows.

I hope I find you well. I wanted to follow up regarding a previous email. We are willing to pay you $8,000 for your services. We are very intrigued by your previous work and hope you will consider working with us for a few days. Our offer is negotiable. If you are interested I can send you the directions to our church. The festival is quickly approaching, we would love to hear from you soon.

May you have faith.

-Pastor Madison

I felt my integrity deteriorate as I read through the email. Eight thousand dollars for three days sounded too good to be an actual offer. Options were slim at the time however, and three days away would be a much needed break from life -even if it was spent hearing this pastor proselytize. Perhaps a ‘once in a lifetime’ festival could even be fun? I told Elaine that I would take the offer. It was the first time I had seen her with an authentic smile since the baby was born. I decided her smiles were worth selling out for a church for the next couple of days. I opened my laptop and emailed Pastor Madison back for directions.

Three days until the festival.

Pleasantview was only a two hour drive from my home. As instructed by Pastor Madison, I pulled onto a back road that devolved from pavement, to gravel and then dirt. The dirt ended in an encircling tree line only ten minutes from the main road. The remaining fifty minute journey needed to be completed on foot, not a simple hike with all of the film gear I was lugging. I took my phone from my pocket and sent a text to Elaine, notifying her of my arrival. The one bar of signal I was sure would be the last for the next three days. After briefly worrying about leaving my car, I submerged myself into the sprawling woods.

An hour later I emerged from the bramble and leaf coated forest to an open passing. Buildings speckled the grass with what seemed to be little forethought. Huts would be a generous term for such structures. Stacked logs platured together by dried clay formed the exterior walls. Each one uniquely assembled but collectively shared in their state of decay. The only buildings large enough to fit more than three people in them were a structure in the middle of a one acre fenced in field, and a church nestled in the village center. The top of the spire was a vacant seat for a cross. I considered getting a shot of the village to prove this wasn’t just a film set I stumbled onto when a figure approached.

The man wore a crisp white alb ordained with a Jerusalem Cross stitched with golden fabric. A wine red sash draped around his neck embroidered with the same golden stitching. He appeared to glide across the dirt path, each of his steps were careful and deliberate.The man kept pure black hair tight to his scalp. No evidence of hair remained below his eyebrows. Grey didn’t dare show regardless of the wrinkles appearing at the corners of his eyes. His irises cloaked his pupils perfectly.

“Pastor Madison I assume.” I said, extending my hand.

“We appreciate your time Mr. Dowhy.”

His voice was smooth, as if the world’s troubles were just set at ease. His hand was soft and light as it shook mine. His presence was strangely inoffensive. Like it was constructed to never be disliked by any stranger.

“Please take this.”

He extended an envelope. Upon opening it, I found a check for four thousand dollars. The other half I was sure would come after the festival. It seemed rude in that moment to confirm. He had a nature that was difficult to question, so I thanked him for the early payment and put it into my wallet. The picture of me and my wife met my eyes from the billfold. Our smiles are carved onto our faces. I remember the intense labor it took to wear a smile that day. We peaked over the vast white nothing, introduced to the image by a crease of my own making nearly a year prior. I felt a stab in my gut each time I saw the image. The crease did not prevent the stab, but the crease remained.

“Allow me to show you around our town before your first service.”

I felt as though there wasn’t much I couldn’t see from our current position, but I obliged. As we walked towards the heart of the village he directed my attention to each of the structures, giving a story of each of the families who lived there.He spoke glowingly of each family and named each member. He pointed my attention to the creek where they washed their garments, the open field where the children all played, and the rickety well that dried into nothing more than a safety hazard, to be avoided at all times. But I could barely hear his hypnotically mundane voice as my attention was drawn to the fenced in field. A group of women knelt by one of the standing cattle. They rubbed and kissed the animals belly as they sang. I thought to ask the pastor about the strange display but decided it would be best to hold my tongue. His nature, still difficult to question. He spoke instead.

“The sun is almost down. It is time for our service.”

A smorgasbord of color fueled by the full moon painted window frame shapes around the room. Candles shifted the shadows in a mesmerizing sway. The blurred hills of congregation heads peaked just into the picture. Pastor Madison prepared to deliver his sermon to the village residents filling the thirty pew seats. Audio levels were as perfect as could be hoped in the open nave. The rustle and mumbles of the congregation ceased when Pastor Madison stepped forward to begin.

“Let there be a time for each of us. A time beyond the trials of today that we may find all things.”

Upon rechecking the viewfinder, there was a little too much headroom above the pastor. I made the proper adjustment to satisfaction.

“We can rip away the flaws and failures manifest in our current form through faith in the truth revealed to us.”

The lighting in the church was causing the temperature to run a little too warm for my liking. I quickly dove into the camera settings and adjusted the white balance using Pastor Madison’s robe as a reference. I winced at the mistake. A failure due to lack of practice I assured myself.

“Give him your faith so that we may yet again purge the world of its wrong doings!”

A door behind the pastor creeks open and the congregation stands in a roaring applause, blocking both the camera and my own view of the pulpit. I could only find slim sight lines between the shoulders of the congregation and their flurry of clapping hands. I slammed the tripod together and moved to the aisle for a clear view of the pulpit once more. What stood there was incomprehensible.

It appeared to be the shape of a human. I could see the outline of arms, legs and a head, but it shifted. It was as if the thing had to actively work to contain itself to that form. The features of the being melted and folded in on itself. Its skin was charcoal black with specks of pale that gave it the appearance of snow falling on a tinted window. The camera could not see this. Where the thing should be in the frame only showed as a white smudge that dimmed the rest of the light in the image. The aisle door creaked open just a foot behind me.

“Behold, the manifestation of death!”

A woman entered with dirt staining the lower portion of her dress. She held something in her arms. A small creature shielded by her shoulder. An all too familiar hick, and gasp, and choking wafted from the creature. It was a calf with a bend in the spine, a stumpy torso, and the eyes… The eyes clung to their sockets with the same desperation as the baby’s.

The woman ushered the calf to the altar and got on a knee before presenting it to the being. Pastor Madison and the congregation muttered in a language unfamiliar to me. Their words were rapid and grew louder as the being took the calf in what could only be perceived as its hands. A woman started to howl and convulse where she stood and the chants overwhelmed her. The being raised the calf into the air. Unhinged what could only be interpreted as its jaw… and consumed the deformed calf.

The chanting ended in a breath. Silent anticipation washed over every person in the room. My ribs could hardly contain my heart. After months of researching and doctor visits I finally found another creature with the same affliction as my son, and it’s gone. I wanted to scream, I wanted to attack the thing that just ate my only chance at understanding what my baby has. I withheld this instinct.

Pastor Madison bent behind the being and shouted.

“It is born anew. By pure faith!”

The crowd erupted into cheers and prayers in the unknown language. Tears filled the eyes of the congregation as Pastor Madison lifted the calf above his head, now perfectly healthy.

The service ended in an instant. The congregation emptied past me and the being slipped into the backroom leaving only Pastor Madison and I in the nave. He recognized my confusion and with a wave, invited me to the back room. Rationally, I assumed that this was all some sick prank at my expense. That they had to have known about my son’s afflictions and made some kind of puppet to mimic the deformities. It seemed far too real to be a puppet, but it had to be something. Once Pastor Madison went into the back room I felt the very real possibility of being in the same room as that… thing. All I knew was that on the other side of the door, there were answers. The only answers in the world as far as I knew. So I took a breath, and went in.

The door squealed in a way I hadn’t noticed from the back of the church. The tan stucco walls couldn’t have been more than ten feet in either direction. There was enough room for a polished wooden desk with hand carved iconography of departed saints. A purple and green love seat that appeared more suited for a hotel suite in the eighties than the office of a pastor, and a pocket bible resting on an end table. Pastor Madison sat behind the desk with his forehead in his palms. He alerted himself to my presence and extended an invite to the love seat with a heaven facing palm. I sat with caution.

“He’s never here by the time I come in.” Pastor Madison said. He must have been savvy to my weariness. The ease his statement granted me broke the dam of questions as I spewed every thought I had. What was wrong with the calf? How was it cured? Was any of this real? What was that thing? He sat in silence with my barrage of questions. His inoffensive face remained stoic as they bounced around in his head, until he spoke.

“That was my son’s Bible, before he passed. I used to have three others like it filled with notes cover to cover.” I found this an odd statement given the myriad of questions I gave him. I took the pocket Bible in my hand without turning the cover.

“You’re holding the last Bible in this village. Open it” After a brief wave of confusion I flipped open the cover. I thumbed through the pages, each one with an ‘X’ etched into it with pencil. Each page I progressed the duller the lead and more rips in the page from the pressure. Until there were only rips in each page.

“The answers I needed weren’t in there. Nothing about a boy’s soul in need of a new body. Like your son.” The words stunned me. So he did know about my son, but how? We have never posted online about him since his birth. I knew no one from this part of the state and had no reason to pass through a town an hour from civilization. But ultimately he wasn’t wrong. This place offered the only chance my son had at a long, fulfilling life. Without any other possible explanation for such a spectacle, I believed it. I had faith. A long pause followed, broken by his voice.

“Let me show you where you will be staying.”

The sun descended behind the skyline hours ago at this point. I knew my stay would likely not be a comfortable one. In such an impoverished, rural community each roof is only suited for the families within. Honestly they were probably a few rooms short of suited. I followed the Pastor to my living quarters without a word being spoken. I followed him past the rickety fence, the dilapidated well that erupted a musty odor and into the second largest building in the village, the barn. We entered the hayloft, a spacious room in all dimensions but height as the ceiling nearly grazed my scalp. Hay bales lining the baseboards and stacking to the low ceiling in areas. Other than hay, an iron framed bed sat below a broken window paired with a bucket to its side. The windowsill was splattered in red. Pastor Madison apologized for the state of the room and mentioned the likelihood of hearing some noises in the night.

“It’ll likely be mice. It’s best to ignore them.” He said in a stern voice.

I assured him it was no issue at all. I wasn’t going to be staying long anyways. Then he left in a hurry.

The moonlight gave the hayloft a tint of sickly pale white. Hours passed since entering the hayloft before I found an ounce of comfort and still the springs of the mattress would not relent. I rolled to my opposite side, jab. I stretch out onto my back, jab. I yawned, thud! I sat up in an instant. The moon’s light poorly painted the room, leaving vast corners in pure darkness. I called out to the void with quivering breath. No response. Peeking just beyond the corner of the shadows was a trail of once stacked hay bales. My mind went to the being at church service. If this place held such mysteries as that being, what else could be lurking here? Anger grew from desperation and I hurled the bucket into the darkness. The clang of the bucket meeting the floorboards forced a high pitched shriek out of the darkness. A figure darted for the door and shot down the stairs, stomping on each step as it descended. Without thought, I followed.

The field and the village beyond was motionless. I desperately scanned the area for who or what that thing was, watching me sleep. I walked around the barn, ignoring the few cattle that chose to sleep under the stars for the night. They were undisturbed which gave me relief. That is until I saw it. A figure no more than fifty yards hunched down in the grass. I could make out the back of a head and shoulders. Even at its imagined full height, it seemed small. I approached it cautiously, each step I took was mindful of my feet. Careful not to catch a twig or dry leaf under my weight. I still was not quiet enough. It jolted up and turned to face me.

It was a girl, no older than ten years. Her body was frail and her brown hair matted to her head. Her eyes swelled with panic at the sight of me. She was unusual even beyond her obvious neglect. Her upper lip weaved in an ‘M’ shape up to the outer corner of each of her nostrils. Her hand slapped over her mouth, covering the blemish in embarrassment. She drops the basket woven of hay into the grass. I could hear her breath pulse through her chest as I stepped closer. She retreated, keeping a constant distance between us. Tears formed in her eye and reflected in the moonlight. Not knowing sign language, I crossed my forearms over my heart as I asked her to trust me. I approached her slowly, her breath faster with each step. I bent over to her hay basket. Three wineberries scattered from within it. I gathered them back in and handed it to her. She uncovered her grin and recovered slightly with a sniff and wipe of her eyes. She looked at me and smiled when I asked if she wanted help picking her berries. I smiled when she nodded yes.

We spent the next hour gathering berries into her basket. When we split up, I would gather a palm full, go to her, and dump them into her basket. She came alive a little more with each berry we collected. When the light of the sun became noticeable on the face of the hills fear hit her once again. I thought of my son. Should he live long enough to be aware of himself, would he fear the sun too? I paused at her side after dumping a palm of berries. After a moment of thought I looked into her eyes and told her what I saw the night before. About the sick calf who was cured in the church, about the being that cured it, and that she could have a body that matched the beauty of her soul. I hoped she would be elated to hear the news. That she would be so excited to go to the church with me that evening and be cured, but she concealed her mouth with her palm once again and ran for the barn. Her eyes once more filled with tears.

Two days until the festival.

The sun filled the hayloft with fury. The previous night felt so far away, but after confirming on my phone, it was only two hours ago. The bed protested as I staggered to my feet. My mind immediately went to the girl. I hated referring to her as ‘the girl’ but it hadn’t occurred to me to ask for her name. The floorboards cracked and popped as I approached the stairs. My mouth opened to call to her but ultimately the air was best if left silent. I descended the stairs with my camera equipment alone.

The morning light intensified to midday after shooting B-roll of the church, barn, and a couple other residential buildings. As the day aged, I got some shots of the village residents. A wife rinsed the family laundry in the creek and pinned them to a clothes line. Her right leg just a few inches shy of her left gave her a distinct limp, assisted by a twisted wooden cane. A husband with a hunch that curled his shoulders inward posted against his door frame as he popped smoke into the air from his pipe. A group of five kids in a backyard playing sword fight with sticks scavenged from the treeline. Each with their own blemish. A burn, a scar, a lazy eye, a missing hand, and the last with down syndrome. Each person I approached seemed to have some abnormality, and each one recoiled from the camera once they were aware of its presence.

I returned to the barn in the evening, just before the sky shed its blue. As I climbed the stairs I heard a scurry of feet from the hayloft. When I entered the room, it seemed unchanged. The bucket still resting at the end of its violent journey across the room, the hay bales remained spilled from the top of the stack, and the girl concealed in her usual hiding place. The only difference from that morning were the berries. A group of berries baked at the ledge of the shattered window. I took a step or two towards the berries and was met with a hiss behind me. I turned and caught a glimpse of the girl before she ducked back behind the hay bales. I assumed it was meant to be a shush that her lips would not allow.

I snuck behind the hay with her. She was tucked in a ball with her mouth concealed by her knees. I tried to console her with a touch but she dodged my hand with a jolt. I whispered my apologies to her which was met with another hiss, the first time her eyes met mine since the night prior. A pause opened a chasm between us. A faint gust of wind blew into the room from the broken window. The sound whistled past the shards of glass that still held onto the frame and brushed the loose straw against the floor. The sound was enough to peak the girl’s interest. She darted her head around the bales of hay for a glance at her berries. They remained unchanged. She paused at this realization before retreating behind her knees once more.

I offered an apology for offending her and that my intention was not to hurt her feelings at all. She offered nothing in response. After a moment of consideration I fished in my pocket and revealed my wallet. Flipping open the fold, I removed my family portrait from its plastic sheath, the crease held firm by the pressure of time. With pins in my lungs I flipped the white corner to reveal my son. His form was just as haunting as the first day I saw him. I turned it so that she could see. I told her of my son’s ailment, that he has looked that way since birth, and that I now see that he can be cured here. She tapped my son with her pointer finger. I couldn’t gather the meaning by the look in her eye but I assured her she wasn’t wrong to see that he looked like the calf born here on my first day. She didn’t care for that interpretation of her pointing. This time she circled him and gently placed her fingertip on his chest.

“Oh, his name? His name is… Alan.” The word entered my ear like a love lost to time. A flame kindled inside of me. My son’s name is Alan. The girl’s mouth was still covered by her knees but I could see the corners of a satisfied grin peeking out. I asked her what her name is. She froze in thought for a moment before raising her fist before shaking it up and down at the wrist. I chuckled at the display, thankfully she joined in the amusement. Shake?… Punch maybe?… Knock? She shrugged accepting that answer realizing it was no longer worth the effort. Another breeze wandered into the room, this time with much more life. She stopped and quickly peaked around the hay. Sitting on the windowsill, with a beak full of a berry chunk was a vibrant cardinal. Knock revealed her smile at the sight of it. It was her perfect shot. I looked back down at the family photo before reintroducing the fold and tucking it into the sleeve of my wallet. Our cardinal would soon come. Our perfect shot.

The sun dropped from the sky and with it my time with Knock briefly expired. I offered her my goodbyes, gathered my filming equipment and left for the church. The building felt different at night. The shadows exaggerated the cracks and curves of the weathered construction. Candlelight flicked through the glass panes and wove over the grass, contained in their squares. Pastor Madison’s voice vibrated through the slits in the wood. This building offered me a taste of hope for the first time in over a year, but now a bitter note has seeped into my pallet. I couldn’t place the reason. Just before entering I felt a tug at my sleeve. I turned, a bit more startled than I cared to admit to see Knock, her cleft lip unapologetically visible. A pleasant sight. I asked her what she was doing outside of the church. I told her she didn’t have to follow me inside, that it was okay to remain how she is. Inside, the roar of the congregation extinguished the insects playing their song for the moon. Knock raised her forearms and crossed them over her chest, then pointed to mine.

“I trust you.” She said, through a soft but rusty voice. Together, we crack open the doors of the church. The bitter flavor was all the more present.

It stood at the altar. Its features shift in the midnight snow of its skin. Knock wrapped her petite fingers around my forearm at the sight of it.The congregation was brought to silence at our step.

“What is this?” Pastor Madison called out beyond the walls of the church. Each step we took down the aisle brought more detail to the Pastor’s expression. Concern, fear, then panic were plastered in his eyes. Doubt crept into me. I considered grabbing Knock by the wrist and pulling her from this place, but she was already out of my reach. Her neck craned to look up at the face of the being now directly above her. It was noticeably taller than the night before. The being extended an arm that unnaturally, and methodically stretched across the altar to a challase.

“Where is the calf!” Pastor Madison screamed through a trembling throat. The being extended the chalice to Knock. One of his fingers dipped inside. Pastor Madison peered at her, his face pleaded with her to catch his eye but she didn’t. She caught mine. The bitter taste coated my mouth. The sweet hope was lost. Tears formed at my lashes and still, with her eyes locked on mine her forearms crossed over her heart and her head turned to the deity. Her eyes were overcome by a milky white haze and a smile grew on her face.

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“I shall.” She answered a question that was never spoken. Pastor Madison rushed out of the church colliding shoulders with me on his way. I was choked on the pleads that all wanted to escape my mouth at once. She took a sip, and the crowd cheered.

I could see in her smile that her bliss intensified. She hummed a melody that I was sure came to her at that moment. A melody just the same as the women singing to the cow. Then the bones snapped. The spin compressed. And the eyes bulged from their sockets. All while her hum continued. The congregation began their alien chant. Alan, the calf, and now Knock shared in living death. The being grabbed her new form. Its fingers became spears of speckled shadow, piercing her abdomen and lifting her into the air effortlessly. The chanting now more rabid and ear splitting. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t even breath as the beings jaw unhinged with the cracking of falling trees. Knock’s unrecognizable form slid into the being. Until the hum was no more.

The crowd’s chant again turned silent as they waited for the rebirth. A girl with two perfectly normal eyes and lips standing upright on the altar. A girl born anew by pure faith. A girl that never came. The being glided off of the altar and into the back room. The nave was void of all sound, broken in a moment by the faint cry of a little girl.

Candle flames chewed at the remainder of their wicks. Leaving the wax slain in a puddle at their feet. The Floorboards of the nave rested after their defining squeals under the weight of the congregation. The alter, left vacant. Hours passed since I last saw Knock before I found the strength to leave the church building. Clouds suffocated the moon of its light. Only lanterns dangling from the porches of family domiciles lit the way back to the hayloft. The lonely hayloft. Tears welled at the corners of my eyes. I wiped them away with my thumb and whipped the tears poking at the back of my eyes with a stern phrase.

“One more day.”

After scaling the mountain of stairs to the hayloft I creek open the door to see the all too familiar scene. A dreadful mattress nested in iron, hay bales scattered on the floor, the broken window with a pile of fresh berries in the windowsill. A figure rested on a hay bale. Excitement flushed over me in an instant. The room was draped in a flickering light casted from the lantern at the hip of Pastor Madison, no site of Knock.

His hands clasped together beneath his chin. His lips moved as if to speak but no words came from them. The once pristine white robe draping from his shoulders is not soured and tattered from dirt, leaves and thorns. Although this was my room for another night, I couldn’t help the feeling that I was intruding. I turned to sneak back down the stairs when his voice stopped me.

“Her name was Belle.” His words quivered from his lips but still had an accusatory stab.

I turned to face him. He pushed against his knees to stand. I could see his swollen eyes. With a sniff into the sleeve of his robe he continued.

“ I’m sure you didn’t know. She never spoke to anyone… But she listened. She always listened and I believed with full faith that she would listen again.”

He paced around me like a shark, his eyes carefully monitoring his next step as he spoke.

“What happened to her? Where is she?” My words stopped his encircling. A snarl curled his lips inward, repressing a moment of rage. The rage simmered in me as well. He continued as if he didn’t hear me.

“I told her to stay away from the church and she listened. I told her she was beautiful just the way she was and she had all the faith in the world that she was.” He turned and stepped a foot from me. His eyes met mine. The inoffensive facade he wore the moment I met him shattered in the lantern light.

“Then you come.” The words below from his gut. He pauses for a moment before continuing.

“I told her to stay away from the newcomers and she did. Until you. Now she wants to go into the church, she wants to be changed!… I told her she would…” He looked up to the heavens as if gravity would keep his tear ducts at bay. Defeated, he sits back on the hay bale for a moment.

“I told her she would see her brother again.” The words were faint like the wings of a gnat. A pause followed, filled only by our breath.

“What happened to her?” I insisted with a stern tone. He eased to his feet with the lantern in hand.

“She lost her faith,” he admitted. I tracked him as he walked to the top of the stairs.

“Keep the faith Mr. Dowhy. That is all I ask.” He whispered with a growl in his throat. Then he and his lantern faded down the stairs leaving darkness in their wake.

The day of the festival.

The morning beat my eyelids open with a blinding ray. I begrudgingly stood from the clutched of the rickety mattress. I looked at the camera gear I stacked in the corner, batteries glowing their solid green eyes as they hang on the sockets of their chargers. I knew there was still a job to be done, but how could I find a miniscule amount of care? I started to grow concerned that I wasn’t there to film the documentary anyway. I left the hayloft empty handed, descended the stairs and walked. I circled around the family huts. Every face I saw wore a smile. Many of the children danced or ran through the open grass. A couple of residents even waved ‘hello’. Still, their voices remained a mystery. Until I heard a woman call out to me.

“Would you like some tea?” I turned to see the wife with the shortened right leg and twisted cane gesturing into her home. I debated continuing in my sulk, but I was beginning to feel a bit parched by that time, so I entered.

The interior was just as dilapidated as the outside. Cobwebs dressed the corners of the single room. Splinters of sunlight glowed between the decayed wood paneling. I sat at the table while a kettle dangled by a chain over an open fireplace. I tried to make small talk about the upcoming festival.

“Oh yes, we are so delighted to be going home soon.” She said,

“Is this not your home?”

“No, we’ve all only been here for about a month. I guess all of us have. Except for you. I remember when the Pastor finally messaged you, he ruined one of his last good robes in those woods.” My stomach churned. I tried to warn her that we all have to leave this place. That we are not going to make it out of here alive if we all do not leave immediately. That our fate would be the same as Belle’s. The sickening snap of her bones echoed in my mind. Her lips turned, not in fear or concern like I hoped, but in pity as she tapped her finger against the handle of her cane.

“I was real sorry to see what happened to your girl. But we were all promised a cure, and we have the good faith to get it.”

Evening rolled in with the heavy dread. People gathered outside of the barn for the festivities. Lanterns hung from broken broomsticks and pitchforks stuck into the dirt in the open field by the barn. The light circled the cluster of people as they danced, laughed and clapped to the tune of a fiddler with a missing foot. I stood outside the cluster. My camera equipment was still resting in the hayloft. There were no perfect shots here.

I watched the treeline. I contemplated making the trek to my car a thousand times that day to avoid what was sure to be a grizzly display, but everytime I look it feels more like a wall. Like there was truly no space between the trees. We were all ensnared. A figure approached from the dirt path connecting to the center of the village. I dreaded the deities approach but this figure was far too pale. It was Pastor Madison, a sight that made my brow sweat even more. He balanced two trays of identical chalases on top of eachother in his hands. His robe still tatured from the night before.

“Now is the time for each of us. The time to shed our flawed reality and be born anew! Please grab your cup everyone.” Pastor Madison called over the crowd. The facade glued together again behind a pleasant smile. The group did what they were told, each once grabbing their cup and stepping away from the cluster that formed around Pastor Madison. The cluster dwindled until there was one cup remaining on the tray. Pastor Madison caught me in his gaze in an instant. My spine squirmed within me as he approached, the last cup extended.

“Be of good faith, for your son.” He whispers through his teeth with the cup extended to my chest. I take the cup and consider his words for a moment. Despite what happened to Belle, could this still be the only chance my boy has? I look down into the cup. Black liquid reflected my image back at me. I watched as my face distorted to the ripples.

“Drink, and you shall be made in the true image!” Pastor Madison called over his followers. One by one, each of them sucked down the black ichor with hearts full of faith. A portrait of myself on a dusk canvas stared back at me again from within the chalice. I turned and walked to the well, dumping the cup into its chasm. However, the sound that arose was not that of liquid meeting its likeness, or ichor splashing against concrete. It was a peculiar sound. I peeked over the cobble wall to investigate. A pit of despair awaited me. At the bottom was a pile of the faithless and faithful alike. A mantle of distorted hooves and fur amassing dozens of corpses. At the peak of the atrocious pile, lied a body of contorted spine, bulging eyes, and cleft lip. Skin sucked to bone leaving only the shell.

I ran for the treeline. Rushing past the collection of doomed followers sucking the last of their poison. A warm melody trickled from the lips of the most eager. An opener for the thunder of crushing bone. I gave myself no time to pity them. The treeline was just meters away and coming fast. I suppressed the sinking feeling of being trapped there. Escape was my sole thought, even if I had to smash through an invisible wall. The space between the trees caved as easily as the rest of the evening breeze I sprinted through. Realizing that the wall was not constructed by the deity but my own fear gave me a slight ease. But true peace was much farther from this place.

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I refused to break stride. The bramble and thorns tore crimson twine into my flesh. Their sting went unrecognized as I fixated on the distance. My lungs burned as they filled with gulps of air. My legs ached as they shoved the earth behind me. After what felt like miles my skin decided to alert me to the damage a thornbush can do. I collapsed. It had to have been fifty minutes. There had to be a break in the trees just a few more steps away. My car, and therefore safety, had to be just ahead. I checked over my shoulder half expecting the staticy, amorphis apparition to step out from behind a tree and devour me whole. Instead, it was empty between the trees. Only lullabies from the legs of crickets filled the forest. Resting in front of me was a puddle left undisturbed by my frantic presence.

In my exhausted state, the sight of water was a blessing. I take handfuls of water and splash it into my face. A reinvigorating coolness eased my body and steadied my mind. A drink was tempting but the murky dirt swaying in the current of my creation muted this temptation. When the dirt settled and the water stilled, the remaining light of a gruesome day sculpted my reflection. The reflection I’d seen all my life seemed special on that day. I fished in my pocket and pulled my wallet from its depths. I pulled our family portrait from its plastic sheath. My wife and I, feigning joy over a pale white void. Carefully I unfolded the picture, banishing the void to the unseen and introducing Alan to the picture. The one of few times he could be seen in the photo since it had been taken.

I could see his ears slightly spread from the sides of my head in the puddle. His nose, thin and pointed just like the one looking back at me from the water. His bottom lip, full and plump just like that of my wife. I could feel the army of guilt charging, piercing their swords into the back of my eyes. My sorrow leaped from them and into the puddle one by one. My lip trembled under the weight of my shame. I took the wallet back out and holstered the photo, leaving our family intact. The scar of the crease remained but the sight of all three of us cooled the burning in my lungs. Eased the aches from my legs. Silenced the alarms from my skin, and for the first time since Alan’s birth prevented the stab in my gut.

My journey home continued with a rejuvenated vigor. No longer was I just running away from the horrors of the village, but to my family. The thought of returning to them brought me a joy I hadn’t felt in some time. The air felt lighter, the insects more pleasant, the trees more beautiful. After only a few minutes of waking the forest released me. My car remained unchanged from the moment I left it. Home felt like a short drive away. I fished for my keys in my pocket when I noticed something on the other side of my car. I crept around my vehicle and was left appalled by what lay before me. Elaine’s car, fully equipped with Alan’s car seat. The wall I thought was only in my mind was finally in front of me, and I had to turn back.

The limbs of the forest tried to ensnare me. Their claws and spears tore the crimson threads of my skin into leaking ropes. The puddle captured a shoe from my foot causing me to stumble but not fall. I pushed forward with no thought of retrieving it. The twigs and pebbles that made the forest carpet prodded at my bare sole with each stride. Night blanketed the woods making avoiding their painful afflictions futile. The burn in my lungs returned, sweat arose on my brow. I had to be almost there. What if in my haste, I got turned around. What if that thing is keeping me in these woods?

Just as quickly as the doubts arose, they were silenced. An eye appeared in the woods speckled with age worn structures. The occupants of which were nowhere to be seen. Evidence of their festival was scattered in the field by the well. A handful of cups laid forgotten in the moonlit grass. Their contents sipped dry. A pair of pants no longer suited for the contorted figure that came to inhabit them. A twisted wooden cane from the woman whose ailments now surpassed its use. The church emitted the flicker of candle light. That had to be where everyone was. I rushed to it as quickly as my exhausted muscles could take me.

The candle flames clung to the last flicker of life as they gnawed at the remaining nub of wicks. The puddle of wax escaped the clutches of the candelabras ordaining the windows. The moon hid from this night, leaving the stained glass windows dull and lifeless. Pastor Madison stood at the podium, silent. His eyes not leaving the vacant wood canvas between his clenched hands. Before him was a line of followers filled with the hopes of his teaching. Their bones shifted and snapped out of their sockets. Their spines craned out of alignment. Their eyes were so filled with promise that they now bulged from their skulls. Their legs were twigs containing barely reaching the threshold of strength needed to stand. Their protruding knees wobbled under their weight. At the end of the line was Elaine holding Alan on her hip, their presence in such a place made me ill.

I wasted no time in my warnings. I told her what happened. About the cattle with our son’s afflictions. About the deity that claims to cure it. About Belle and the well that houses her corpse. I spoke in such frantic desperation that I must have seemed mad. I studied her face during an insufferably long pause. Her eyes were wide with astonishment.

“Everyone here… Looks like Alan.” She whispered with confused amazement.

“Yes, and we have to leave!” I said as I turned her to the exit. Her eyes were stuck to the crowd of disfigured people. Panic burned in my gut while attempting in vain to pry her eyes from the spectacle. I could feel her stare beginning to break when I could hear a creak come from the altar. The back door was open. Its presentation of the darkness swallowing the room beyond was a call for Pastor Madison to begin his speech. His eyes and spirit remained low.

“Tonight is a night of promise. A night of rebirth. As you approach, please do not allow fear to overcome you.” As the pastor spoke, the deity unfolded from the darkness of the back room. Its impersonation of the human form twisted its arms into their sockets, shoulders rolled into their presentable positions, spine stiffening into posture with care for each joint sending its head to the ceiling. The Being slid into position in front of the line like fog. The newly deformed congregation marveled at the figure as if it were God returning to ale their troubles. I pleaded with Elaine to take our son and leave with me. She was in awe of the sight before her.

“May you have faith.” Pastor Madison muttered.

With that statement the being lifted the first victim in line with the ease of a father lifting his infant. The woman in the beings clutches hummed a melody through grinning teeth. A smile of comfort and anticipation. Despite her newly acquired form, her original affliction was still apparent. Her right leg was noticeably shorter than the other. The deity’s jaw unhinged to accommodate the unsightly collection of skin and bone. I turned to practically shove Elaine out the church door when I felt it. A flame kindled from within me. The warmth cleansed the fear and horror from my bones. Every ounce of displeasure knotted within my soul vanished in an instant. I could feel the world correcting deep within myself. Then I heard from behind me, the shrill glee of a promise kept.

I turned to face the altar. The candle flames were rejuvenated. Their swaying light filled the once overpowering darkness. The kind woman that was just moments ago a broken collection of limbs, stood at the side of the deity and danced. Her feet playing a song on the drums of the floorboards. Her joy was uncontainable. Such a palpable and infectious joy that I had only seen in children before. Tears slid down her face, lining the edges of her grin. She was reborn with two legs of equal length. The sight was unbelievable. Moments ago I was ready to leave this place. Convinced that it spewed only lies and deceit.But in that moment, the truth bestowed itself unto me.

One by one, each person was taken into the embrace of the deity and consumed. And each one walked out from behind its static form anew. Warped limbs were straightened, amputations were undone, disorders were made orderly. The church was buzzing with laughter and song. My eyes never wandered from the festivities. My cheeks grew sore from smiling. The powers beyond this realm offered themselves to us as correctors. A divine eraser taking away the unjust and unfair afflictions of our world. And I was honored to be one of the first to witness such a great cleanse.

The last member to be reborn walked out from behind the deity and to the celebration. He was a boy no older than Belle. The scar that once carved through his hair and down to his neck was no longer. The only evidence of its existence sat in our memory. They were all cured. Each one believed in the promise they were told, and each one rewarded with a new life. The manifestation of death was conquered in minutes by this… angel. An angel stood at the altar. An angel promised a better life for all of us. An angel now stared right at me. The unification of our gaze brought a deep feeling of honor to me. I knew what it wanted. And I wanted the same.

I turned to Elaine who cradled Alan in her arms. He was sleeping, unaware of the miracles being performed around him. His eyelids failed to conceal the entire pale cornea of his eyes. His neck bent backwards with its usual violence. I could see the veins running through his needle thin arms, raising the crimson waters over the bone hills of his elbows. Mist filled my eyes as I looked over him. I was proud of him. I was proud of who he was. What he had lived with. I looked up at Elaine. Her expression said what we both knew. She extended Alan to me with grace. The broken cocoon that housed our son was ready to be shed.

The candle light felt even brighter when I took Alan into my arms. I took precaution to not jar him as I transitioned between steps. The isle stretched for miles. The festivities ceased. The new-born congregation watched my son with warm smiles, ready to accept him in his new form. They began their chant in a soft and caring whisper. The foreign language had a gentle touch to the ear. Listening to their chants I knew it must have been the language of heaven. The fact hit me like the warmth of a summer sun. The deity stood just feet away from us. Its eye divots remained steady under the waves of its features. They stayed focused on us as we approached. The closer we came, the more its human form muddled at the border. Like the container was cracking to the pressure. It may have been a trick on the eye from the candlelight, but the constant folding of its features appeared to mold a smile.

I stood before it, feeling unworthy of its presence. The smell of sweet fruit enveloped my nostrils. My neck strained to meet its crater eyes. The jostling void on its head molded the bare minimum to be considered a human looking face. Yet, the bare minimum was the most beautiful face I had ever seen. My cheeks went from a sore pain to a numb acceptance of the smile I’d been wearing. It was as if love and joy manifested in front of me in the form of pure beauty. A song came to me in my bliss. Humming to the tune was as natural as breathing. I knew I had never heard such a melancholic melody before. Except maybe once, from Belle. It felt comforting that her song would come to me at that moment. That in some way she would be redeemed by my faith. By my son’s faith.

The deity looking down at me with the loving eyes of a father, reached toward Pastor Madison. Its arm was as long as the task required. I watched it elongate to bridge the divide between it and the chalice in the pastor’s hands. With the ease of wind it brought the chalice to my chest. One of its spear fingers pierced the surface of the water within. The black of the finger dissipated into the water, transforming it in the image of the angel. A serving to the impure, an offering to the unworthy. In its dim reflection I watched the face of the being, unaltered as for the first time it graced me with its words.

“Shall you drink of me, and I of you?”

It was the sound of choirs harmonizing across language. It was the birds serenading the worms from the earth. It was all of creation offering their gratitude and the creator giving their blessing. It was all things. It was nothing ever heard before. The fire of happiness licked just beneath my skin, blackening my insides. The world beyond that chalice vanished. Nothing had any matter or consequence once I heard its words. All I wanted to do was obey its every command. I wanted to devote everything I was to it. I took the chalice. It was ice to the touch. As if it was pulled from the depths of the arctic before being placed in my hand. The candle flames were white in color. The gold cup glistened against their glow. The chants from the congregation boiled into a synchronous shout. Their passion warmed me further. It fueled my desire to worship and obey.

“I shall.” I whispered.

My acceptance invited my God’s hand. Palm to the heavens and pointed finger tips rested delicately in a row. My son was still resting on my hip. His poor body crumpled at my side resting the beautiful soul buried within. The hand of God beckoned for him. Offered to mold the body in the image of the soul. I handed my son to him. The hand grew to accommodate his petite frame. My son now in its possession, my destiny lied within a cup. God’s fingers wrapped around Alan. A cup filled with the igor of his blessing, filled with a life void of imperfections. The hand raised my son to the ceiling to eye level. My lips pursed around the rim of the cup. Warming the frozen rim. I opened my eyes to watch the ichor roll to my lips. The divine chants boomed from the crowd. God’s jaws opened to the size of my son.

I met myself at the rim of the chalice. The ichor was still in that moment. Plastered on its surface was a shot as imperfect as a shot could be. The hair under my nose grew like the thorns of a bramble bush. Tears had been leaking from my eyes without my knowledge. Eyes that saw the truth once and allowed it to muddy before them. Muddied in a milky haze, the eyes of Belle. In an instant, the burning white candles became their dying selves once more. The sweet smell of fruit turned to a suffocating, damp rot. And the God I had just offered my son to, turned to the monster I knew it to be.

Without hesitation I splashed the being with the ichor of my cup. The liquid kicked steam into the air at contact with the beings flesh. A screech that pierced my eardrums cut from the depths of the creature before its black form receded to a shadow on the floor and darted into the back room. My son plummeted from the ceiling. I dashed to him in a panic, stretching my arms out to save him from the harsh wood below.

THUD.

The sound silenced the room. Even flames of the candles ceased their flicking. Only my breath could be heard. I could feel a heavy weight in my arms. His weight. Alan was safe. I held him close to my chest, thankful for his safety. Elaine ran to us and wrapped us both in an embrace. Truly together for the first time.

A scream only born of pure anguish broke through the air. Pastor Madison rushed to a figure sprawled onto the floor where the being once stood. Pastor fell to his knees and scooped the figure into his grasp. It was a boy. At one point it was a boy. A boy no older than two judging by the tiny, severely decayed body. Patches of bone poked through the rotted flesh at his chin, brow and forehead. An arm was snapped from its body on collision. The clothes tattered over the boy were stained the color of liquefied death. Yet, the Pastor mourned him as though his death was fresh. Stroking the remaining hairs that clung to its scalp. Watching them fall onto his palm. A father in need of a son, holding the body in need of a soul. I took Elaine by the hand and Alan on my hip and walked down the middle aisle to the exit.

“You took my daughter! Now you bring my son to me! That’s my boy in that disgusting body! His soul belongs to my boy!” The pastor shouted through the sorrow in his throat. His final plea to an empty church. His congregation undoubtedly shriveled at the bottom of the well. His faith finally lost.

Two weeks after the festival.

The moon ushered in another day. I gave Elaine a kiss and offered to take Alan to bed so she could rest after her first shift back at the hospital. I took Alan up the stairs, listening to their joyous creeks. He was as beautiful as he had always been. I was grateful every night that I could see it. He was a little fussy still so I decided to calm him with a story. However, before I could rifle through the books on his shelf I no longer heard him. The fussing required more energy than he had in his little body and he rested. His chest delicately pulsed. I could hear the slight hiss of air passing through his nose. I placed my hand on the crown of his head and rubbed his forehead with my thumb. As I eased him into a comfortable sleep. I heard a tune. A familiar tune sung in the chirps of a bird. Standing in the windowsill was the vocalist, singing his haunting song. A vibrant cardinal, pecking at the berries that were never there.

Credit: Kevin Jones

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