Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Creepy Little Tale For Thanksgiving . . .

The first stories I ever wrote were horror stories, and recently, for whatever reason, I have returned to my roots and cranked out several darker tales.  For October I published three of them on here - mainly older stories I wrote while still in my twenties.  But this one I just finished a little over a week ago.  It's yet another tale of the Lovecraftian strain, this time set in Puritan New England, not too many years after that first Thanksgiving.  So travel back in time with me to the 1600's, when the wild woods of New England were sometimes wilder than the history books care to record . . .



THE SAVAGE GOD THOTEP

A SHORT STORY BY

LEWIS SMITH

 

          It was in September of the Year of Our Lord Sixteen Hundred and Sixty-seven that my family and I disembarked from the good ship Fortuna at the Providence Plantation, to seek out the company of the Righteous in the New World.  My father, Matthew Brennan, had been expelled from the pulpit of his church by order of the King because of his demand for a reformed, Scriptural Church of England.  When he saw first-hand the corruption of the King’s chosen clerics, Father had no longer been able to hold his tongue, and our exile was his punishment for his denunciations of the wickedness of those who called themselves men of God.

          But what King Charles, that royal peacock and fountain of wickedness and corruption, intended for our hurt, we chose to accept as a sign of God’s favor and blessing, for we were exiled to a land where every man was free to worship according to the dictates of his conscience, and where the heavy hand of the state was forbidden by law from interfering with the free exercise of our religion.

          “Forced worship is a stench in the nostrils of God!”

          So Roger Williams had informed my father when he was but a young man, and Matthew never forgot that.  So when we were offered refuge by Williams in the colony he had founded upon the principle of free worship and rights of conscience, my father decided to bring all of us with him to the New World, myself, my mother Martha, and my three younger siblings – brothers Connor and James, and my sister Charity as well.  The brothers in the Plantation welcomed us at first, and we quickly erected a clapboard house on the edge of Providence and became members of the new Baptist Church located there.

          As the eldest son, my father had pointed out to me my responsibility before God to marry and carry on the family name of Brennan, obeying the Biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply; to replenish the earth and subdue it.”  This commandment was made all the more urgent by the vast and untamed land before us, for pestilence had reduced the ranks of the local Indians to a fraction of their former numbers, and there was much land to be cleared and tamed.

          Thus, in our first weeks in Providence, I found a fair maid by the name of Prudence Gooden, whose parents were seeking a suitable husband.  After a few whispered conversations and one sweet, stolen kiss, I begged her father Thomas to allow me to come courting, which permission he cheerfully gave.  Prudence and I were wed a few weeks thereafter, and lived for a time in the large extra room that my father added on to the home we had built together for the family.

          While it is a sin to speak ill of one’s parents, I can note without comment that my father’s stubborn stand for righteousness in a corrupted church had rendered him to be more contumacious and sometimes even bitter in his character than had formerly been the case.  Despite the fact that the church we joined in America was far more scripturally sound than the Church of England which we fled, Father still took exception to some of its practices and especially to the sermons of the pastor, Elijah Godsworthy.  Why these two decent and godly men came to be adversaries is beyond my power to tell, but something about Reverend Godsworthy struck a deep chord of offense in my father’s spirit, and the two of them were soon at odds.

          At first their differences were aired in private conversations, but soon their quarrel became more and more heated and more publicly displayed.  Pastor Godsworthy was well liked in Providence Plantation, and regardless of the verity of my father’s criticisms, most of the townspeople sided with their preacher.  So it was that, less than a year after arriving in the New World, the church withdrew its bond of fellowship from us and we were asked to leave the town of Providence.

          I will not deny that this was a bitter blow to me and my young bride, but with commendable loyalty she quoted to me from the Book of Ruth:  “Do not urge me to leave you, or turn back from following you, for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.”  Therefore Prudence voluntarily abandoned her home and family to sojourn with us into the wilderness of the Plantation’s western lands.

          Providence Plantation, in these latter days known as Rhode Island, was far larger than the township of Providence, although it was still the smallest of the twelve colonies.  We traveled twenty-five miles north and west of the town, near the Massachusetts border. This was a densely wooded region, with rocky hills and spurs jutting up through the primeval forest, and dark loamy soil scattered through with hundreds of rocks and boulders.  It was a harsh land, but we were a hard and stubborn people of sturdy English stock, and we set to work clearing a patch for our farm right away.

          Of the land’s savage aborigines there was little sign – the smallpox had devastated the tribes in the area, and they had withdrawn deeper into the woods and mountains to escape its ravages.  But there was a deserted village a mile or so from the place where we chose to build, with its lodges falling into disrepair and its burial ground grown up wild and weedy.  Not far from it, less than a league to the northwest, was a bare hill with a circle of black standing stones near the top.  I disliked this place from the moment I first saw it, for it seemed to me somehow ill favored.  One of the stones, near the center of the circle, was a black slab that lay flat like an altar, and it seemed to me that a foul odor lingered near it. 

          Oddly enough, although I felt a marked aversion to this strange place, my wife Prudence was strangely drawn to it.  When I described it to her, after first discovering it on a hunting expedition, her eyes lit up.

          “There was such a standing stone circle near Providence in my father’s day,” she said, “but Reverend Williams bade us tear it down, saying that it was linked to black magic most foul. But when I stood where the stones once were, I felt a wonderful sense of peace and joy wash over me, and I knew that it was a place touched by the hand of God.”

          “Don’t be foolish, wife!” I said. “There is a foulness to that place I found, and there is nothing Christian about it.”

          She said no more at the time, and I thought nothing of it.  She was just kindled with child, and I was busy felling trees, burning stumps, and pulling rocks from the ground so that we could get a crop in before planting season ended.  It was tiresome work, and but my father was still strong and able-bodied for a man of forty-six summers, and my brothers were of an age to be of good assistance.  We planted three acres in corn, potatoes, and squash, and harvested abundant hickory nuts and acorns from the woods around the house. 

          As I have said, the native population in our region had mostly fled or been destroyed by pestilence, but there were a few furtive Indians still lurking in the woods around us.  Most of the time, the only evidence of their presence was abandoned campfires and the occasional glimpse of copper-skinned figures flitting through the trees, but nearly a year after we had settled into our new surroundings I met one of the savages for the first time.

          I had gone hunting with my brother, seeking to put more meat into our smokehouse before the first snows began to fall, and spotted a noble hart standing in a clearing, surrounded by his does.  I crept through the trees and aimed my musket, but before I could pull the trigger the beast jerked and snorted, ran a few paces, and fell, an arrow protruding from his side.  The females began to flag their tails and run; in desperation I shot at one of them and hit her in the neck.  The wound was mortal, and she staggered to the edge of the clearing before collapsing.

          It was only then that I realized the significance of the arrow, and I hesitated to stand up for fear that the unseen hunter might be hostile.  But after a moment, a figure rose from the undergrowth on the far side of the clearing and stepped forward, holding up an open hand to show his friendly intentions. At this signal my brother and I also stood erect and strode forward.

          The Indian was slightly shorter than us, but well-muscled and sturdy of build, clad in buckskins, with the facial paint that was typical of the woodland barbarians.  His face was weather-beaten from a lifetime of exposure to the elements, and I guessed his age somewhere between forty and sixty summers. His eyes were clear and grey, and his bearing was one of friendly caution.

          “English?” he asked us.

          “Yes,” I said, “we live in the two cabins south of here.”

          “My name Swontee,” he said in broken English.  “I know your preacher-man Williams.  He stay with us when the Boston tribe cast him out.”

          “I have oft heard him tell of the hospitality of your people,” I said.  “You are welcome to food, fire, and board in our home, Swontee.”

          The savage grinned.

“English man speak kind words,” he said.  “English pox is not so kind.  Many my people die after feasting with English.  You cut up your deer, I cut up mine, and we go back to our people.  I see you again, Englishman.”

“I hope so,” I replied.  “My name is Edward, and this is my brother James.”

He bowed respectfully, and took his deer by the hind legs.

“Can I help you cut him up?” I asked.  “My knife is keen and quick.”

He pulled his own knife from its scabbard.  Its blade had been sharpened so many times that it was but a sad remnant of the proud weapon it had once been.

“Swontee thanks you,” he said.  “My knife sharp, but too short.”

In short order I had both deer gutted and quartered, and when I was done I gave Swontee my knife, since I had another at the house – and I figured the blade was a small price to pay for earning the friendship of our savage neighbors. The old native seemed most grateful, and clasped my hand as we parted according to the traditions of his people.

The good weather persisted for another week, and I went hunting twice more during that span of days.  The second trip took me past the standing stones, and as I walked past them I noticed something lying atop the flat altar stone.  Curious, I turned aside and climbed the hill to see what it might be. 

There, on the center of the slab, lay the head of the deer that Swontee had felled with his arrow. I recognized it because two of the antler tines on one side were broken off, just as I had noticed when butchering it.  Drawn around it, in blood, was a crude outline that I could not at first recognize, although part of it resembled the wings of a great bat.  But, if it were intended to represent an actual creature, I could not imagine what the beast might be, for it had too many limbs for any natural being, and its head, though misshapen, resembled that of a man.

The place was still repulsive to me, and the foul stench around the altar seemed even stronger than before.  Disgusted, I knocked the stag’s head off the table and headed back into the forest.  But the game, normally abundant, was nowhere to be seen, and shortly before dark I headed home.  As I returned past the bald hill with its jagged crown of standing stones, I heard a slight rustling in the brush and suddenly Swontee stood beside me.

“White brother,” he said, “did you tread on yon hill, within the sacred circle?”

“I did,” I said.  “Did you leave the stag’s head there?”

“Offering for Thotep,” he replied.  “The Eater of Souls must be appeased, as long as men live in the forest.  If we do not give him blood and flesh, he will take it.  Do not defile his altar, White Brother, or it shall go ill for you!”

“My God is powerful enough to protect me,” I said.  “But I thank you for your warning.  Will you come and sup with me?”

The Indian nodded, and we headed back towards my home.  I was struck by how soundless the forest was – the normal chirps and twitters of birds were nowhere to be heard, nor the rustle of larger animals moving through the brush. As we neared the clearing, I pointed this out.

“Thotep prowls tonight,” he said.  “Woods not safe.  Swontee may sleep in your barn, yes?”

“You are afraid of your own god?” I asked the red man.

“Thotep not Indian god,” he said in reply.  “He was god of the Old Ones, who lived here during the time of the eternal winter, when great shaggy beasts from the far north roamed the whole land, and red men fled to the south.  The mountains of ice retreated back to the great north, and the Old Ones disappeared, but their standing stones and altars remained.  Red men learn that Thotep must be fed, or he will feed.  He devours both flesh and spirit, and the shades of his victims rest not.  So as long as red men dwell here, we feed Thotep a share of our game, that He Who Flies By Night may not devour us.”

This was the most that I had ever heard the savage speak, and what he said confused me.  Who were the Old Ones?  Were the “Eater of Souls” and “He Who Flies By Night” one and the same?  Pagan superstitions they were, but interesting ones.  I decided that perhaps God was showing me that I needed to introduce this red man to the true faith, so that such heathen foolishness need trouble him no more.

I was uncertain as to how my father might react to my bringing a native into our dwelling for supper, but he was in a most expansive and generous mood that evening, and welcomed Swontee into our home. The native was apprehensive at first – his people had become more and more wary of whites in recent years, although the great rebellion of Chief Metacom was still several years off. 

Swontee was particularly fascinated by my wife Prudence, whose time was almost at hand. Uncomfortable as she was, she still smiled graciously and allowed him to briefly lay a hand on her belly.  The old Indian was grateful for our food, and after we finished our repast I led him out to the barn and gave him an extra blanket.  As we stood there, listening to the horses nicker, a bizarre, otherworldly shriek echoed from the woods, beginning with a deep bass croak and shrilling higher and higher till it threatened to split my eardrums.

Swontee placed his hands over his ears and cowered against the wall of the barn.

“What in the name of great Jehovah was that?” I asked.

“Thotep hungry,” he said.  “White brother angered him, taking sacrifice from the altar.  He will prowl till he feeds.  Build your fire high, and hold your woman close!”

Up to this point I had thought of his superstitious ramblings as arrant nonsense, but that horrible screech –whatever wild beast may have uttered it – was most unnerving, especially under the light of the sickle moon.  I did throw an extra log of two on the fire when I went inside, but only because the night was chill – or so I told myself.

Prudence lay in our bed, one hand cradling her belly, with an odd smile on her face.

“What pleases you this night, wife?” I asked her fondly, for she was a most comely woman, and the flush of new life was on her cheeks.

“Such beautiful music,” she said softly.  “What forest creature makes such sounds?”

“You dream, my love,” I said, “for all I have heard from the woods this night was the screech of some foul beast.”

Not long after that I fell asleep, one arm around her shoulders as was my custom.  In my dreams I was back in the forest, near the bald hill with its black stones, hunting for game. It was dark outside, but a bright moon lit the clearing where deer grazed peacefully, and I raised my trusty musket for a clean shot at one of them.  Suddenly a shadow fell across the herd, and the deer began to flag and run.  But not swiftly enough – a hideous shape dropped down out of the sky and grasped one of the stags in its talons.  What manner of demon or monster it was I could not say, for it had attributes of bat, serpent, man, and insect about it.  The stag bellowed and struggled, but the beast’s snakelike tail wound around its neck and strangled it.  I stood there, frozen with fear, as its manlike face lowered towards the animal’s flank.  Even as its talons began ripping at the flesh and lifting red gobbets of it towards the fanged maw, I jerked awake.

The first rays of dawn were creeping in through the window, and despite the chill, my wife had cast aside the coverlets.  I saw, to my alarm, that her shift was rent at the waist, and that her belly, swollen with child, was exposed to the morning air.  As the cloudiness of sleep fled from my vision, I realized that her pale skin was marked.  I sat bolt upright and saw that her belly had been painted with symbols unfamiliar to me, half picture and half writing.  Then I realized they were not unlike some of the characters I had seen on the altar stone atop that profaned hill.

I leaped up from my bed and ran to the barn, calling for Swontee at the top of my lungs.  The Indian was already awake, munching on some dried venison, and he calmly regarded me as I came storming up to him.

“Did you come to my bedchamber last night, you savage?” I asked him.

“No, White Brother,” he said.  “But your wife left your side and was walking towards the woods.  Some sort of spell was on her, for she heeded not my cries.  Thotep was calling her; the Eater of Souls could smell the new life inside her.  I stopped her from going to him, and painted the ward signs on her belly to protect your child from him.”

My anger faded a bit.  There was no guile in his voice, only a sincere sadness.  Could he be telling the truth?  False gods and demons abounded in our world, and witches and witchcraft were certainly real.  Could there be some primal force of evil lurking in our forest?  I thought of how my wife described the hideous shriek from the woods as “beautiful music,” and I shuddered.  Could some form of glammer be cast upon her?

I looked at the old savage, studying his face.  I could see no deceit there, and after a long moment I sighed.

“I was prepared to be angry with you,” I said, “but I can see you did what you did to protect her.  I shall pray to my God, who is mightier than any demon of the woods, and He shall protect us.”

“I do not know your god,” said Swontee, “although White Brother Williams talked of him.  He seems like a strong god, but Thotep the Old, Narla-Thotep, the One Who Flies by Night, the Eater of Souls – he is ancient, and wicked beyond the ken of mortal men.  I hope your god can protect you.  Do not let her wash off the markings!”

With that he devoured the last morsel of his venison, and then trotted off into the forest.  I stood a long time, reflecting on what he had said, and then walked back slowly to the house.  Prudence was up and dressed, helping my mother and sister prepare breakfast for the family.  Father was speaking to my brothers about packing away our foodstuffs for the coming winter, and, all things taken into reckoning, things seemed remarkably normal.  I could almost forget the dark forces stirring in the forest, or the fact that a red savage had painted my wife’s belly in the night and I had not punished him for it.

The rhythms of life returned to normal for a week or so after that, until Monday morning, when my wife’s days were accomplished that she should be delivered of our child.  Her labor was painful and sharp but brief; barely four hours after the birth pangs began, my firstborn son was delivered.  My mother and sister attended her, while Father and I, with my brothers, prayed for her safe delivery from the arduous task of bringing a new life into the world.

When Mother emerged, cradling my son in her arms, I held the baby boy for a moment, resolving to name him Caleb, after my father’s elder brother.  Then I asked if I could see Prudence yet.

“Certainly, my son,” she said.  “She is tired, but well enough, and bled not overmuch.  She’s a strong girl and should bear you many sons and daughters in the years to come.  But do not overstay, for her labor was hard, even if it was brief.”

My dear wife was glad to see me, and agreed readily to the name I had chosen for our son.  I kissed her brow and gave her a drink of cool water, urging her to rest and recover from her ordeal. She held tightly to my hand for a little while, and then I pulled away from her so that she could rest.  My sister was bringing little Caleb in to nurse when I returned to the front room of our house – a simple three-room log cabin, about fifty feet from the one my parents shared with my unmarried siblings.

Mother was ready to return to their house and cook supper, but she pulled me aside for a moment before leaving.

“What were those strange marks on your wife’s belly?” she asked in a whisper.  “They looked pagan to me!”

“The Indian Swontee placed them there,” I said.  “It was some sort of prayer or ward to protect mother and child during her confinement.  He meant no harm by it, so I left it there.”

“Nothing good can come of consorting with pagans, my son,” she said.  “I washed it off as soon as I saw it.”

I started a bit at that, but the ghostly wail from the woods was already fading away in my mind, and nothing like it had been repeated.  If there was any evil force on the prowl that night, it had apparently withdrawn from our region, hopefully forever.  I thanked mother for her concern and went about my daily work, thanking God for the birth of a son and for the good health of my bride.

Her recovery was indeed swift; within a week she was going about her daily work as if she had not just been delivered of a baby, pausing only when Caleb needed to be fed.  Two weeks after his birth, she resumed marital relations with me with the same passion and affection that we had shared beforehand.

It was that same night that I began to notice something odd in her behavior.  I woke in the middle of the night to find that she had strayed from our bed.  At first I thought perhaps she had gone outside to make water, for it was a fine night and she always despised the chamber pot.  But when I stepped outside, I saw her walking across the yard, barefoot, wearing only her shift.  I came to her side and turned her about, noticing the beatific smile on her face.  I led her back to our bed and she laid down, as biddable as a small child.  She put her arms around my waist and buried her head on my shoulder.  Just before she lapsed back into slumber, I heard her whisper something very softly.

“Such beautiful music,” she said.

And far, far away in the woods, it seemed that awful, hell-born cry echoed again. But it was faint and far away, and sleep overcame me not long after.

I had not seen Swontee since that night some weeks before, but the next day he came forth from the woods, his coppery face wreathed in smiles.

“Happy was I to hear White Brother has a son!” he said.  “I bring gift for the boy!”

He reached into his leather pouch, and produced an odd toy.  It was a green limb, carefully wrapped in leather, with two hawkbells skillfully tied near the end, so that they jingled with the slightest movement of the stick. But oddest of all was the greenish stone tied to one end.  It was very light, as if carved of pumice, but it was carved or polished into the shape of a five pointed star, with rounded rays.

“What is this, Swontee?” I asked him.

“Baby rattle,” he said.  “Bells make your boy smile.”

“And this odd stone?” I asked.

“Old Indian charm,” he said.  “Bring good luck, help boy grow up tall and strong.”

I was unsure of the wisdom of giving a child what amounted to a stone club as a gift, but the old savage was so sincere that I hated to disappoint him, so I thanked him for his gift and visited with him for an hour or so.  He was full of news, and related with some concern the fate of a small clan of Indians who lived just across the border in Massachusetts. 

“Not many left in their village,” he said.  “Wampanoags lose many of their kin to the pox.  But there were still three families there last fortnight, and now all are gone.  Some dead, ripped to pieces, others simply disappeared.  They say that Thotep, the Eater of Souls, was on the hunting path when he found them.  I have heard him cry in the woods a few times of late, but far off from here.  Maybe now he will be content.”

He bade me farewell not long after, and I gave him a haunch of venison to thank him for his gift to my son.  As young as Caleb was, he took to the rattle right away and held it tight in his tiny hands, waking or sleeping.  Prudence did not care for the toy at all, and tried to pull it out of our son’s hands on more than one occasion.  But the infant always set up such a squalling fit that she returned the rattle to him, and he would wrap his chubby fingers around it and shake it till the hawkbells jingled.  The sound did lull the boy, and he slept soundly as long as the rattle was in his crib with him.

It was a month or two later, as land lay under its annual blanket of snow, that I realized our respite from the lurking evil of the forest had been temporary.  Although some of the game migrated south every year, there were still a number of deer and many smaller creatures abroad in the snow, if one had the patience to track them.  The smoked meat tasted more and more like leather as the cold months progressed, and I decided that I would take it on myself to find the family some fresh game.  Dressing warmly, I set out in the middle of the morning, heading deep into the woods to see what creatures might be taking advantage of the rare sunlight to emerge from their winter holes. 

I did not consciously walk towards the tall hill with its standing stones, but without my being aware of it, my feet seemed to be pulled in that direction.  I was actually startled when I looked up and saw it looming ahead, being fixed on the trail of a large deer in the snow.  To my surprise, I saw that there was a fresh set of tracks moving towards the top of the hill, clearly the tracks of another hunter.  I thought perhaps old Swontee was visiting his pagan shrine again, and made up my mind to accost him and see if I could direct his thoughts towards a faith more worthy of his devotion.

As I traversed the slope, I noticed that Swontee’s tracks were uneven, almost serpentine, in their progress, and the length of his strides made me think that he must be running rather than walking.  Concerned, I redoubled my pace – and then drew up short, stunned and puzzled by what lay before me.

The Indian’s tracks – for I assumed they were his, and not another’s – ended abruptly about a rod or two short of the standing stones.  There was no place he could have gone, no bare rock or other surface where his feet might have left no mark.  Instead, two parallel impressions indicated that he had been standing still, and then not a single mark led off in either direction.  There was a faint splatter of blood in front of his last two footprints, and no other sign to indicate where he could have gone.  I am no papist, but I was sorely tempted to make the sign of the cross in the air before me, so strong was the aura of evil that hung in the air.

I looked towards the flat stone at the top of the hill, and saw another splatter of blood, considerably larger, in the snow, just inside the circle of stones.  I moved towards it, and saw that gobbets of flesh were scattered about, with no tracks or signs around them, as if they had been dropped straight from the sky.  The carnage grew greater as I neared the altar table, and when I finally lifted my eyes from the litter of death in the snow, what I saw horrified me so much that the strength left my legs and I crumpled in the snow for a moment.

The flat black stone had not a flake of snow on it – whether the sun, striking its dark surface, had melted it all away, or whether some evil property of that accursed altar had kept the snow from settling on it in the first place, I could not say.  But the stone was not empty, for laid upon it, arms thrust outward, was the body of my Indian friend Swontee. 

To be perfectly truthful, to call what I found “his body” is a bit of an exaggeration.  He had been cleaved in two, and his legs and hips were gone altogether.  His bowels, half frozen, trailed off the end of that foul altar, and his eye sockets were empty.  His face was frozen in an attitude of fear and loathing that caused my knees to go weak a second time.  What horror had he witnessed in his final moments, to fix such an expression on his countenance?  Had he felt a moment of gratitude when his eyes were taken, that he could behold the sight no more?

I wanted nothing more than to run from that accursed place, to find home and hearth and warmth and the comfort of prayers and Scripture and my loving family, but I refused to do it.  This man had broken bread with me and been a friend to my family, had tried to protect my wife from whatever horror stalked these woods, and I would not leave him, gutted and bisected, laid out like an offering to this savage god Thotep.

I removed the long coat I was wearing and wrapped his pitiful remains in it as best I could, and set out for home.  Somehow, time had slipped away on that stone-ringed hill, for the sun was much lower in the sky than it had been when I first spotted the footprints heading up the slope.  I strode forward as rapidly as I could, having no desire to be caught in the dark in those accursed woods. Indeed, as I neared our two cabins, and smelled the familiar scent of wood-smoke coming from our chimney, somewhere in the woods that accursed screeching howl sounded again, as if the gates of Hell had opened and released the Devil’s hound upon the world.  But this hound had wings - the thought sprang unbidden to my mind, and I shuddered at it.

“Hello dear brother!  Do you bring us meat?”  James’ voice broke my grim procession of thoughts, and I was glad at the sound of it.

“I fear not,” I replied.  “This is a much sadder burden I bear.  Our Indian friend Swontee has fallen victim to some wild beast.”

“That is ill fortune,” he said.  “But I recall Swontee being of far greater stature than that bloody bundle you bear!”

“This is what is left of him,” I said.  “He was partly devoured by whatever creature attacked him.”

He turned pale, and then ran into the house, shouting for my father.  In short order, he came forth, with both my brothers in tow.  I saw my mother hanging back at the door, wringing her hands, and Prudence behind her, bearing Caleb in her arms. I gestured towards the barn, not wanting the womenfolk to get even a fleeting glance at the horrid revenant that had been our Indian friend.

Father’s face was grim as he surveyed the butchered remains of Swontee. 

“May Christ and all his Holy Angels protect us,” he said.  “This was not the work of any ordinary wild beast.”

As if to punctuate his pronunciation, in the distance the shrill howl of Thotep shook the darkling woods. My brothers blanched, and Father glared at the blasphemous sound.

“Let us bury this poor savage,” he said, “and pray for the mercy of God on his pagan soul.  Then let us lock the doors and windows against whatever may prowl in the night.”

The ground was frozen hard to a depth of a couple of feet, but I had already given thought to how to overcome this.  The thought of leaving Swontee’s frozen corpus in our smoke house for the winter was unnerving to say the least, so I directed my brothers to the place we had already chosen as our family’s burial ground, although it was, as yet, unused.  They used shovels to clear the snow from an area large enough to serve as a grave for my friend’s truncated remains, and I stacked a pile of firewood and kindling there, lighting it with a taper carried from inside.  We let the fire burn fast and hot, and the ground beneath the flames melted quickly.  After the fire had burned down to embers, we used the same shovels to cut through the turf and dig several feet down into the stony, cold soil.  I pulled several of the larger rocks we uncovered aside, so that I could cover Swontee’s body with them.

After an hour of hard labor, the unfortunate Indian’s remains were lowered into the pit, several heavy stones stacked atop him, and the rest of the soil shoveled back over the grave.  I laid the last few rocks atop the spot, so that we could carve a proper marker for our Indian friend in the spring.  It was nearing midnight when our work was finally done, and we returned to the cabins.

Little Caleb was long since asleep, and Prudence helped me out of my bloodstained, grimy clothes.  Dutiful wife that she was, she had filled the washtub with heated water so that I could bathe the stains of the day’s horrors from my skin and hair before coming to bed.  Seeking comfort in her arms afterward, I reflected, despite the evil I had witnessed that day, how good God is that he did not leave man alone on this earth, but created a helpmeet adequate to all our needs.

But all her charms could not keep the wheels of my mind from turning over the events of the day as I lay back and tried to sleep.  My rest was fitful and interrupted, and in my dreams I approached that altar of evil again, seeing the butchered form of poor Swontee lying atop it – only this time, he turned his head towards me and opened his mouth as if to speak.  The expression on his face was so horrible I started awake.

The bed beside me was cold and empty, and as I sat up I saw that little Caleb’s cradle was likewise vacant.  I jumped up, wrapping a greatcoat around me, and ran to the door, which was standing open.  Prudence was standing in the yard, holding our child in her arms, facing towards the dark north woods.  In the east, the sky was just beginning to go grey with dawn.  I could see that her face was wreathed in the most innocent of smiles, and her eyes were open.

“Come, wife, it is too cold to have the child outside!” I said gently.

She gave a long sigh and turned towards me.

“Too late,” she softly whispered.  “The music is silent, and I know not where to go.”  Although her tone was happy and calm, I shuddered at the words, and fairly dragged her back to bed, putting our child between us and locking my hand in hers.  I eventually fell back to sleep, and the sun was high in the sky when I finally awoke.  She was sitting by the fire, making flour cakes, seemingly unaware of all that had transpired in the night.

But the next night I found her getting out of bed again, that same dreamy smile on her face.  Once more I turned her around and put her back under the covers, and only the slightest frown showed her displeasure at being interrupted in her intentions.  The next night I was more soundly asleep, and I did not wake till she was out the door, carrying our babe in her arms again.  By now that beatific smile had come to horrify me, for she was indeed acting under some strange compulsion. 

When I questioned her about the matter the next day, she had no memory of getting out of bed at all – in fact; she treated the matter as a jest.  When I pressed her, she did own up to hearing music in her dreams, coming from the woods – music of such an unearthly beauty that it filled her with the deepest joy.  I asked her if she had ever heard the music when awake, and she hesitated to answer.

“I thought I have, more than once, dear husband,” she finally said.  “But you said it was the cry of a wild beast.”

Something was pulling at her mind, trying to lure her into the woods for some evil purpose, that much was clear.  So that evening I procured one of the cowbells from the barn and tied it to the door of our cabin after she went to sleep, so that she could not leave our home without making considerable noise.  Somewhat reassured, I curled up beside her and closed my eyes quickly.

Sure enough, in the dark of the night, I heard the bell clang loudly.  I sprang from the bed and ran outside after her, barefoot in the snow, and turned her around before she had gone a dozen paces from the door.  Once more she had our son in her arms, and I shuddered to think what might happen if I had not had the foresight to rig the bell on the door.  At least, I reflected as I slipped back into slumber with my arm tight around her waist, she did not struggle when I took her back to bed.

For the next three nights, even as the temperatures outside began to warm and the snow melted away, she rose in the middle of the night, and the bell warned me of her attempted departure.  Each time I intercepted her and brought her back to bed, but twice as I did so I heard that unearthly screeching howl rising from the woods, on the last occasion so close that I shuddered and slammed the door behind us, waking Caleb and setting him to squalling.

Somehow, I think my son perceived that he was in danger.  Always a sweet-tempered babe, he became more irritable and cried often, and for longer, than he had previously.  The only thing that seemed to comfort him, besides his mother’s teat, was the rattle that Swontee had given him.  Indeed, the child did not like to be parted from it for even a moment, and refused to go to sleep unless it was clutched in his chubby little hand.

The interrupted sleep, along with the hard work that accompanied the beginning of the spring thaw, was beginning to tell on me.  I had a harder time forcing myself out of bed when I heard the cowbell clang in the middle of the night, even though I knew that my wife and child were in danger.  A strange lethargy had seized me, and threatened to overpower my since of dread.

One night, after two straight weeks of interrupted sleep, I fell into a slumber so sound that disaster nearly struck.  In the depths of my slumber, I heard the slightest tinkle of the bell, immediately silenced.  I rolled over, thinking that surely the wind had rattled the door and jarred it – but then a cold breeze blew into the room, shaking the cobwebs from my mind and jerking me awake.  The door was wide open, and the bell was on the floor, a piece of our bedsheet wound around the clapper.  Prudence and Caleb were gone, and I ran out into the cold rain that was falling.  I could see her white shift shining through the storm, as she had nearly reached the edge of the trees.

Running as fast as I could, I grabbed her more harshly than I intended, and for the first time she cried aloud in frustration that her nightly journey had been thwarted. Caleb was tightly clutching his rattle, his eyes screwed tightly shut, whether in sleep or in dread of what his mother intended, I could not tell.

As I rushed them back towards the cabin, that horrific screech sounded again, louder and closer than I had ever heard it.  A shadow passed over us – something darker than the night and colder than the rain.  I could not make out what cast it, but it was close – far too close for my comfort or my child’s safety.  I fairly dragged the two of them back into the cabin, all of us soaking wet.  I carefully dried my young son first, and then placed him back in his cradle, pulling the blankets up to cover his tiny body.  He pulled his rattle, Swontee’s gift, close to him and his features relaxed into natural slumber.

Prudence stood there, fully upright, her eyes open, but her mind distant, unaware of her surroundings.  I removed her shift and hung it by the fire to dry, and pulled out another from her clothes chest, putting it on her and leading her back to bed.  She cast one last longing look towards the door and the forest beyond, and then spoke.  Her words cast a chill over me that had nothing to do with the cold rain falling outside.

“He will not be refused,” she said, and then closed her eyes in slumber.

Once more, when the day had dawned, Prudence had no memory of her nightly perambulations.  At this time I chose to confide my fears in my father and mother, meeting quietly with them while Prudence was cooking our noontide meal and our brothers were tending the garden plot.

My father stroked his beard thoughtfully.

“Perhaps we should visit this hill in the woods and tear down these standing stones,” he said.  “They seem to be the source of whatever spell or glammer has cast a shadow over your good wife’s mind.”

“And until you can do this,” my mother added, “I think that you should bind her at night.”

“You think I should truss my wife up like a hog for the slaughter?” I said incredulously.

“Not at all,” she said.  “But think on this, my son – the strongest instinct that God placed in woman’s breast is to be a mother.  And the first role of a mother is to protect her young, not offer them up to some vile forest demon!  If this thing is powerful enough to overthrow that divine influence in your wife’s mind, it is nothing to be trifled with!  I would simply tie a rope around your wife’s ankle and fix the other end to the bedpost, so that she cannot leave the house without shaking the bed and waking you.”

I agreed to this, and that night explained to Prudence what I was doing and why.  She was loath to be tethered, but recognized that something beyond her ability to control was endangering our child, and agreed to the circumstances.  Sweet woman!  To this day I do not blame her for what followed, for even the noblest mind can be overthrown by such powerful evil.

That night I slept deeply and soundly, and when I awoke Prudence was still sleeping beside me.  The rope was stretched halfway across the room and back, but I was not sure if she had gotten up to feed the baby or in an attempt to carry him into the forest again.  But I felt rested for the first time in days, and some of the oppressive dread that had been hanging over me was gone.

For the next three nights I rested thus, and I began to think that perhaps the baleful being that lurked in the forest had moved on to easier prey.  Would that I had been right!  But the final horror still lay ahead, and even now, thirty years later, I shudder to recall it.

The promise of spring had been belied by the elements, as the snow had returned with a vengeance.  A foot-deep blanket covered the ground, and we thanked Providence that we had only done our plowing, and not planted any seeds yet.  I spent most of the day mucking out the barn and bringing in fodder for our hungry beasts, and then repairing one of the stalls that old Sadie, our milk cow, had damaged during a kicking fit.

The result of this labor was that I was cold and tired at the day’s end, and Prudence had prepared a large pot of savory chicken stew for our evening meal, which we shared with the rest of the family as was our custom.  Full and happy, I repaired to my marriage bed that night. Prudence was more affectionate than was her wont – did she, at some level, know that this would be our last normal night together?  To this day I cannot say, nor was she able to thereafter. It was with some regret that I bound her ankle to the bedframe again, hoping that perhaps this compulsion of hers was slowly fading.  Vain indeed are the hopes of men!

My sleep was deep but not restful.  In my dreams, I trod through the lonely woods, musket in hand, tracking some creature whose footprints resembled nothing I had ever seen before.  Here and there blood stained the snow, black under the light of the full moon.  I found myself climbing the accursed hill, fearing what I would find at the top, but unable to turn around.  When I reached that black altar, a horrible apparition was floating above it.

It was Swontee, but not the friendly native who had been my guest months before.  What I saw was the savaged remains I had found on the altar table, but no longer were they sprawled out and frozen in the throes of his awful death.  Despite his horrible wounds, the body moved in a hideous semblance of life.  His eyeless sockets slowly turned to face me, and then he spoke with a voice that was thick, as if his throat was clotted with blood.

“Wake, white brother!” he said.  “Wake now, or it will be too late.  Your woman and child are in grave danger.  Narla-Thotep’s hold on me is strong – I cannot warn you again.  WAKE!!”

With that, the dreadful apparition spread out its arms and flew through the air towards me, his mangled bowels trailing from his ripped torso.  I jerked awake with a scream.

My wife and child were gone, and the door was standing open.  Snow had begun to drift inside the cabin, showing that they had been gone for some time.  I found the rope still tied to the bedpost, but the end of it was wet and frayed.  My wife had chewed it in half, I realized in horror.  I dressed as quickly as I could, and grabbed my musket.  Looking towards the woods, I saw that the footprints Prudence had left were already filling in. I ran to my parents’ cabin.

“Father!  Wake up! Prudence is gone, and she has taken Caleb with her!” I cried.

“Fetch your brothers from the loft,” he replied as soon as he sat up.  “Tell them to bring muskets and ropes.  We need to destroy this foulness once and for all!”

I wakened Connor and James, urging them to grab their weapons and don their warmest clothes.  When I came downstairs, I saw my father holding a musket in one hand and his well-worn copy of the Geneva Bible in the other.

“A warrior should not go into battle without his greatest weapon,” he said. 

I nodded in agreement and we headed out the door, racing through the new-fallen snow in the barely discernible footprints of my wife, praying to the Almighty that we were not too late.  The moon was full, as it had been in my dream, and as we raced through the forest I heard that unearthly screeching howl ahead of us.  It sounded as if it had not yet reached the hill with the standing stones, but it was very close.

Prudence’s tracks were becoming fresher and clearer as we followed them, and I began to hope that we might catch her before she arrived at that black altar of evil.  My hopes were not ill-founded; by the time we reached the foot of the slope I could see her above us, toiling through the snow towards the foul stone table.  She was clad only in her shift, and bare of foot.  I could see blood in her steps where the cold had already begun to gnaw at her.  Hoping that perhaps the pain had reduced the monster’s hold on her mind, I cried out.

“Prudence! Stop! Do not do this!” I called.

But it was to no avail.  Even as we raced towards the top of the hill, she lifted the sleeping form of Caleb up in her arms and laid him on the altar stone. Its cold touch wakened him, and he began to fuss, waving his rattle in the air over his head.  As soon as she set him down, all energy seemed to leave her limbs and she crumpled motionless into the snow.  The four of us reached the summit of the hill, entering the circle of standing stones, intent on rescuing my son.  That was when it came.

A foul stench filled the air, with the sound of beating wings and a rushing wind that felt strangely hot amid the winter cold bending the treetops around the hill.  Then a black shadow swept up into the sky above us and slowly lowered itself, hovering over the altar, its form fully illuminated by the westering moon.

I am an old man now, nearing my allotted life of threescore and ten years.  But the full horror of the thing that flew above us in the clearing that awful night is burned indelibly into my brain, and haunts my nightmares to this day.  What manner of creature or demon it was, and what foul pit it emerged from, I know not. But it was no natural beast, nor any creation of a good and loving Providence.  What I beheld was evil incarnate.

It flew on vast wings, five times greater in span than that of the mightiest eagle – but veined and webbed like those of a bat.  Its legs, however, were multi-jointed, like those of an insect or a spider, with razor sharp claws at the end of each.  Two tails coiled and whipped from its hindquarters, and at the end of each was a serpentine mouth, full of needle-like teeth, although neither maw was topped by eyes of any sort.  But the alien nature of its anatomy was altogether surpassed by the pure evil of its head, for its head was made like unto that of a man – but a man so twisted and steeped in evil that all semblance of humanity was lost.  Its mouth was wide and lidless, its teeth like broken daggers.  Its nostrils were large and flared, sniffing the air with voracious eagerness. Large pointed ears projected from either side of the skull,  but the greatest horror was its huge, single eye, burning red, with three lobes, that surveyed us all with the mockery of the pit.

Prudence was slowly pulling herself upright, and then glanced at the monster and collapsed shrieking to the ground, curling into a ball and screaming “No!” over and over again.  One of my brothers raised his musket and fired it, but the ball seemed to pass harmlessly through the creature, leaving no mark.  I raised my own weapon, but one of those lashing tails ripped it out of my grasp with such force that I stumbled to my knees. 

At that moment my father stepped forward, holding the Bible aloft in front of him, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.  The creature struck again with the fanged mouth at the end of one of its tails; it grasped the Holy Book and ripped it out of my father’s hands.  But the power of the Word was strong; the toothy maw clutching the Scriptures burst into flames, and with a horrible shriek the devil spat out the Word of God.  Father raised his voice even louder – but the second tail struck, its fangs tearing out his throat in mid-prayer, and he crumpled to the snow with a fount of blood gushing forth from his throat.

Thotep – for I knew this beast could be no other than the hideous Elder God Swontee had described to me – moved directly over the altar.  My baby son was fussing and cooing, waving his rattle over his head, as the monster looked down on him with a bloodlust that was horrible to behold.  Then it opened its mouth and spoke.

“Eeeegaah!  Shub-Niggurath!  Yog-Sothot R’lyeh ichftaghn!  NYARLOTHOTEP!  Nyarlothotep hadiga ftaghn!  Azathoth, cataga!” Its voice boomed across the forest, and both my brothers fell to the earth, stopping up their ears and sobbing with fear.  There was intelligence in that voice, but nothing of humanity.  The nobler emotions that our Creator placed within us – charity, hope, faith, and love – were nowhere within those words.  Though I do not know and have no desire to know what they actually said, what they sounded of was slaughter, and blood, and death.

I was frozen to the spot, unable to look away but unable to move.  Prudence was rocking back and forth on the ground, still crying out in denial of what she was seeing – or perhaps, of what she had done.  I alone witnessed what happened next.

Thotep, the savage god, slowly hovered nearer and nearer to the altar, until his nightmarish form was suspended only a few feet above that of my baby boy.  The undamaged tail, the mouth at its end still bristling with needle-sharp teeth, extended downwards, towards my son.  Caleb, innocent as he was, had no idea of the horrible fate that was merely seconds away.  He extended the rattle, clutched in his tiny fist, towards the advancing monster.

Then the five-pointed, star-shaped stone touched the forked tongue that flickered out from the razor teeth to taste the air.  The sharp smell of lightning filled the air, and green flames burst from the stone, consuming the demon’s tail and spreading upward.  Thotep screeched – such an awful sound that it filled the forest and echoed from the distant mountains; so loud that my eardrums bled for the next three days and I have remained hard of hearing until this very hour. But the shriek was to no avail, for the consuming fire from the star-shaped stone spread up and out, through every limb and sinew, burning all to ash.  A huge ball of verdant flame hung in the sky for a moment, preserving briefly the outline of the Eater of Souls, He Who Flies By Night – then it collapsed upon itself, sucking back into the stone that had produced it.  There was an audible pop, and the star shaped stone likewise collapsed into dust.

We buried my father in the plot there next to Swontee, the noble savage who had saved my son’s life with his improbable gift.  Prudence did not speak for a year, although she refused to be separated from my son for any reason for much longer than that.  She eventually began to talk again, albeit in short and simple sentences.  But of that night, and of the strange compulsion that drove her to lay our son upon that vile altar, she never spoke again.  Some vital part of her had been blasted out of existence by the knowledge that she had nearly fed our son to a monster, and eventually it was too much for her.  When Caleb reached his eighteenth year, and moved out of our house to go to work for a shipping firm in Providence, she hung herself in the barn.

I still live here, in the cabin I built for us on the edge of the great forest.  Much of the timber has been cleared now, and the Indians are all gone at last.  The standing stones no longer exist – with my brothers I tore them down, smashed them to bits, and built a low wall along the edge of the woods with their fragments. Whether or not Narla-Thotep, the savage god, is truly gone from this earth I cannot say, but in forty years I have never again heard the foul cry echo from the forest, so I feel safe in assuming that He Who Flies by Night flies no more.

 

 

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