A child was costly, and he had such little money. His mind, also, had been unwell. He hadn’t been himself of late, like his brain had gotten sick much in the way that the body often does in the cold weather. Perhaps his recent actions were nothing more than the machinations of that no-good, diseased brain, he thought. She had died so unceremoniously, his wife, after only a day’s fever. Had he caught it from her? Is that what burned inside his head? The warmth of an industrious infection?
He rowed the boat across the lake, disturbing the mirror-like surface so that he needn’t look upon himself. The moon loomed overhead, judging him with its pale light. How he loathed its gaze, and the way it perched like a gargoyle upon its cathedral of floating clouds. He wished he could strike it, to inflict some damage upon its pale surface. A baby cried out from the front of the boat, shrieking across the miles of lake. Its cries went unanswered, for there were no ears upon the water, and the shores were far away.
“Shhhh,” the man hushed. “I will bear no judgment from you.”
The air was cold, but he had wrapped the child in its favorite blankets. He wore only a coat himself, along with a bucket hat whose brim obscured most of his face. How selfless he was, he thought, to give the child all the blankets. He smiled at his charity, but the smile went unseen by the child, whose eyes were sealed with tears. Though the man likened his rowing to a lullaby, the child had made clear its protests. It didn’t trust what its father had become, and seemed almost prescient of what was to occur.
Even in full moonlight, the man’s features disappeared under the hat’s generous brim. The shadows that replaced his face betrayed nothing but the gloss of two eyes peering out. They were no longer human eyes, having receded into yellow marbles which dwelled inside their sockets. It was as if his brain had undergone involution, reverting to an atrophied primacy; it had become a timid, feral creature which gazed out at the world from its hollow tree.
The shore was distant, and he was tired. His body was unaccustomed to such physical labor, having spent so many years in domestication. Years of sedentary life had caused his belly to grow tumid while his limbs had atrophied into sticks. Frustrated with his own fatigue, he released his grip on the oars and opened his coat. No longer constricted by clothing, his belly hung, and he eyed his bloat with dribble seeping from his lips.
“I would be more toothsome than you, little one,” he said, running his fingers over the short, bristly hairs that surrounded his ill-formed navel. He recalled when he’d first sprouted those brittle stalks, and the thrill that they gave him as a child. How fortunate he was to grow hairier by the years, to grow more into an animal. “Perhaps I have grown fat to sire my own pups! Perhaps I’d never a need for your mother at all!” He cackled, then shook his head while the child wailed. “I must live differently, child. I cannot have you interfering with my plans. The forest will take you as it takes all things,” he said, and he buttoned up his coat to resume rowing.
He looked at his arms with an inward smile, thinking of himself as Charon with his boney appendages and solemn course. A chuckle escaped, and his tense smile unzipped into a wicked laugh that prepended a distant thunder. The child looked up at him, its face stricken with terror as it saw its father’s eyes. They had receded into raisins, with their pupils transmogrified into vertical slits that glistened with yellow cruelty in the moonlight.
“Alone, I will grow fatter! I shall eat everything which was to go to you! Your little pastes in the little jars, they are all mine now! I will eat them with my tongue, like a dog!” He said, cackling like a coyote as his fangs drew out from his lips.
The shore grew close, and soon the rocks were clawing at the boat’s metal belly. The man paddled on, skidding the boat against the rocky shallows as the water lapped against the boat’s flanks. They screeched to a halt upon a rock, and the man threw down the oars and splashed into the water. Its shallow depths sent a cold up to his knees as he tugged the boat further onto shore.
He wheezed, snatching up the child and sloshing onto dry land where the stone beach shifted beneath his feet. Beyond the shore there was tall grass, which rustled against his passing legs as he made his way towards the trees. Thickets lined the grassy area, and his eyes darted among the brambles with manic paranoia. Ahead, a horde of conifers rose high, with their levels of needles like black brushstrokes in the night air.
“I must take you deep into the woods, beyond the pines where the true forest begins,” he said, cradling the bawling child against his chest.
They shuffled through the grass and into the dark forest, where the moon’s light finally disappeared behind the canopy. He laughed, knowing that its peering gaze could no longer watch him, no longer hold him accountable. Thunder boomed in the distance, but his keen ears struggled to judge its proximity as its rumble echoed among the trees. Along the animal paths the man bounded, his eyes acclimating quickly to the unlit corridors. As the child’s screams grew louder, he muffled its voice with a clawed hand.
“You must be quiet. The rain will soon drown our scents, but we must remain quiet.”
He turned around, finding that the path behind looked identical to the one ahead, with trees standing in indifferent ranks throughout murk. The rain began to fall, at first with only a pitter-patter seep before it began to crash through in droves. The child grew increasingly unnerved, its face exposed to the cold, wet air as its nose and cheeks turned rouge. It couldn’t bear to look at its father, but it was too afraid to close its eyes.
He scampered to a halt just outside a clearing. The rain poured unimpeded there, crashing down in a pillar against the open area. With a single bound he leapt to into the hollow’s center, peering up through the raging oculus as he set the child down. He eyed it with disdain, watching as it writhed around in the roaring downpour. Its cries rang out in his ears as he scampered away, echoing through the black forest as he tried to escape them.
Moonlight marked the forest’s edge encroaching on all his wonderful darkness. He crashed through the final stretch, finding himself in the open as thunder crashed above and lighting tested its conduits around the lake. He hissed, rushing through the deluge in search for his boat, but it was not there.
“You!” He screeched, staring up at the moon. “You’ve shared my secret! Vicious! Vicious!” He snarled, then broke off in laughter.
The rain intensified, falling so hard that it became a challenge to simply breathe. The man looked about, knowing the shoreline’s length and treacherous terrain. Still, he smiled, thinking of all the sweet little jars he would open and gorge himself on when he returned. How he would sit in the dim cupboard and feast to his belly’s content. He turned around, peering into the wood’s edge to be sure he wasn’t followed.
Across the rocky shore he scampered, staying far from the forest’s edge. The rain chilled him to the bone, but the cauldron that bubbled inside his belly kept him warm enough to continue. The thunder and lightning intensified, crashing directly over the lake as bolts found their mark in the nearby hills and forests. Each time the thunder crashed he would howl with it, mocking the moon’s wrath.
“Your bolts cannot find me, for I move too quickly!” He sneered, leaping from one large stone to another. “You canno—”
His boots slipped across the surface of a stone, sending him tumbling down to a shallow pool. He felt his bones strike the sharp rocks, and felt his arm splinter inside his coat and beneath his skin. He splashed and howled, finding his coat torn along the sleeve, exposing a piece of bone which jutted out from his flesh.
“Struck by your arrow!” He screamed, touching its jagged edge with a wince before forcing it back into his flesh. The rain quickly washed the blood away from the wound, but he knew that his predicament had changed. The smell of his blood leeched into the water and climbed through the air. He allowed the arm to fall limply at his side, mantling up the cruel stone to resume his flight. Without both arms, he had to move away from the rocky shore, maneuvering into the tall grass and undergrowth that neighbored the ominous forest.
His lungs struggled with the air as it grew colder, and he found himself wheezing and sputtering. It was no longer feasible to continue running, and so he slowed down to a shamble, scurrying among the brush. He looked up, watching as a tenebrous cloud covered the moon. He smiled with his jagged teeth, knowing that his movements would go unseen.
His steps quickened, knowing how much ground he’d left to cover to escape the moon’s pallid gaze. The brush rattled and hissed as his body ripped through it. The flashes of lightning would reveal the path ahead, then his mind would have to recall its passages before the next bolt showed the way ahead. He was nearly away from the forest, nearly back to the grassy meadows which would harbor no cruelty. He was almost back in the dim cupboard.
The moon reappeared without warning, spilling its light over the edge of the forest. He froze in place, his heart racing and his eyes scanning between the trees. Lightning struck clean through one of the nearby pines, causing it to explode at the middle. Its upper half fell to the ground, thudding as steam billowed about its trunk.
“No! No!” He screeched.
In a dark corridor between two mighty trunks, he saw it. A shadow loomed between the ligneous columns and beneath the needled pediments, floating towards him like an angry god drawn from its temple. Its head emerged, fierce and ravenous. Steam rose in plumes from its nostrils before vanishing in the falling rain, its breaths slow, and filled with anticipation. He froze, knowing he could do nothing as its nose sniffed at the air. The creature’s head floated out of the forest, revealing sunken eyes and formidable jaws. He clutched his belly, ruing his remarks on how toothsome a dish his stomach would be.
There was a sudden cry from the forest, only to be calmed a moment later by forces he could neither see nor hear. The distance between himself and the creature shrunk by the second, its gait wandering from left to right without worry, for it knew it was faster than he was. Its black pelt shone in the moonlight, glistening as its fur lay over its shoulders and spine. Denying his doom, he whipped around, his feet stumbling through the grass and upon the rocks as he rushed towards the cold water. He could hear the beast bounding behind him, but the water was so near. If he could only reach its frigid sanctuary, perhaps he could swim away.
A sharp pain snagged him by the leg, and he fell hard upon the rock with his chin and jaw. His teeth were knocked loose, filling his mouth like stowed walnuts as he scratched at the stone with his claws. He cackled as the animal turned him over, spitting his shed teeth at the beast’s face. The bony projectiles ricocheted from its forehead and snout, bouncing off the rocks before falling to the water. The beast, unamused, bit his jaw, severing it from his neck and skull.
It roared over the thunder, its breath spraying into the man’s open throat and nose before the blood filled his nostrils. That would be his last sample of the world, that rotten, rancid breath. He drew a knife from his belt, thrusting its blade into the creature’s shoulder. Indifferent to the blade, it lay both its paws upon his chest, forcing its entire weight to rest upon his ribcage. With its mouth agape in amusement, it performed a compression, and everything inside the man collapsed.
His vision tunneled as the beast removed its weight from his torso. The rain fell hard upon his face, stinging his exposed insides as he drowned in water and blood. The moon looked down, laughing at his demise as the bear tore ribbons out of his bulbous stomach. Both the thunder the lightning continued to rage on, but, somewhere within the forest, he heard the soft laughter of an amused child. His eyes closed, trying to remember the smell of the paste that filled those little jars.
Credit: Josh Poole
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