Thursday, November 24, 2016

BROTHERS - A Tale of Ancient Rome

    Thanksgiving is a time for family, and no ancient civilization valued family ties more than ancient Rome.  So here is my most recent short story, a tale of an unexpected family reunion late in the reign of Caesar Augustus . . . enjoy, and, as always, please leave your comments!


A Short Story by

Lewis Smith


          Caesar was dying!  The word quickly spread across the streets of Rome, flying from one of the seven hills to the next, so that by afternoon the lowest slave and the highest patricians were whispering with dread what might come next.  Would Tiberius take the place of his adopted father?  Would the Senate try to re-assert itself and take up the power it had surrendered fifty years before? Would there be another civil war, like the one that had shaken Rome for the better part of a decade after the death of the Divus Julius?  The fact that the Emperor was not in Rome made the tensions even worse.  Riders from the South were bombarded with questions as they came up the Via Appia, to see if they bore further news.

          The known facts were sketchy: the aging Emperor, whose health had been in decline for some time, had gone to visit Nola, to the very same villa where his father had died many years before.  While there, his health had taken a turn for the worse, and no one knew at the moment if he was alive or dead.  The mighty Roman Empire which Augustus had created and sustained over the last half century ground to a halt as the sons of Rome waited for word on the fate of their political father.

          No one noticed, in the hush that came over the great city, as one old man made his way from the poorest stews of the Subura towards the stables at the entrance of the Appian Way.  He was elderly, at least seventy summers or more, but strode along the street with a vigor and purpose that compelled men to get out of his path.  He carried a staff, and his face was partly concealed by a hood, unusual in the August heat – but those who caught a glimpse of his sharp features and keen eyes often paused, as if reminded of something that they could not quite recall.

          Arriving at the stables, the old man rented a horse and mounted up with a quickness that belied his years, spurring his steed south.  The groom stared after him for a long time, trying to place the old man’s face.  Who did that old fellow remind him of?  He thought long and hard, but the only name that popped to mind was so wildly inappropriate that he laughed at the thought and went looking for the stable boy, who had left the nightly deposits of manure unshoveled.

          It was some fifty miles or more from the gates of Rome to Nola, but the old man was accustomed to long journeys.  As he rode southward, he prayed to all the gods he would not be too late.  He had waited years for this moment, and the thought that it might slip away because Augustus had chosen to leave Rome before entering his final crisis was galling.  His joints ached slightly as he spurred the horse along, but he had no time for the infirmities of age.

          His mind stretched back, across the years, to the last time he had seen Augustus, some forty-five years before.  They had been so young, and the future Emperor was still called Octavian by many, although he was already styling himself as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.  He wondered how the old man would react to seeing him again after all these years.  The thought brought a grim smile to his lips.

          It was hours since he had ridden out from the gates of Rome, but the sun had not yet set, when he finally arrived at the town of Nola, some miles to the north of Neapolis.  Everyone knew about the villa that had been built over eighty years before by Gaius Octavius, the Emperor’s long-dead natural father; it was a matter of local pride that the great Augustus returned there from time to time to rest from his labors in Rome.  The old man stabled his horse at the local inn, and asked the stable boy how the Emperor fared.

          “They say he’s barely hanging on,” the pimply-faced boy said.  “Me papa is first cousins with the steward of the villa, so we gets the news quicker than most.  Old Augustus is still awake and aware, they say, but his breath grows shorter and shorter.  His wife is in there with him, and they’ve sent for Tiberius.  Who knows if the gloomy old cuss will bother to come or not, though, d’ye know?”

          The old man tipped the boy a silver denarius for the information, and slowly walked up the path towards the hill where the villa was situated.  The Emperor had enlarged it slightly since he took possession of it, years before, but overall, it still reflected the simple Republican values of the man who had brought the Republic to an end.  Augustus wielded great power, but never flaunted that power, living in simple dwellings, dressing modestly, and avoiding extravagant displays of wealth. For this, his subjects had come to love and revere their old Emperor, and the looks of grief the old man saw on the faces of the villagers were not feigned.  They knew that the death of Augustus was the end of an era; and who could say what the new era would be like?

          Torches were lit all around the villa, and members of the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, the Praetorians, as they were now called, stood watch at the gates in front of the garden.  They snapped to attention as the old man approached.

          “Best be on your way, old timer,” one of them said.  “The villa is closed to all visitors.”

          For the first time since he left Rome, the old man let his hood fall back all the way.  His thinning white hair was plastered to his head with sweat from his long ride, but his features were sharp and his attitude of command unmistakable.

          “I need to see the Emperor while he remains in this world,” he said.

          The guard was staring intently at the face before him, trying to figure out where he knew the old man from.  He was certain he had seen the face before!  But after a moment, he remembered his orders.

          “The Emperor is seeing no one!” he said.  “Only his wife and physician are allowed at his bedside.  Begone, old fool!”

          “He will see me,” the old man replied, “if you show him this.  And believe me, if he finds out you sent me away, it will go ill for you.  Simply show this to him, and see what he says.”

          He had reached into his coin purse as he spoke, and pulled out a heavy golden ring. He dropped it into the hands of the guard, who stared at it for a moment, then stared again at the old man.  A dawning look of horror came over his face.

          “It can’t be!” he said.  “You . . . this . . . you aren’t -”

          The old man grinned, and then suddenly cast aside his staff and drew himself up sharply.

          “You will convey that ring to the Emperor, Praetorian, or I will see you flogged!” he snapped.

          The centurion turned pale and fled inside, leaving his much younger companion staring in wonder at their elderly visitor.  The old man turned his gaze upon the other Praetorian, who met his gaze for a moment, then slowly lowered his eyes.  The visitor smiled grimly and waited in silence.

          Ten minutes had passed when the centurion returned.

          “He will see you,” he said simply, and gestured for the old man to follow.

          They entered the villa, which was furnished comfortably but not lavishly.  They passed the atrium and the guest room, skirted around the kitchen, and made their way to the rear of the building, where the bedchambers were located, overlooking a green knoll that sloped down to the river.  The old man could hear the furtive whispers of servants as they scurried about, and from one bedchamber he heard gentle sobs.  Clearly, Augustus had not long to live.

          Finally, they came to the Imperial bedchamber.  Lamps burned bright from every niche, and the room was warm, even for a summer night.  Ironic, thought the old man - that the Emperor’s life would end in the month he had named after himself.  The sweet smell of incense, however, could not completely mask the faint odor of death that filled the room.

          The Emperor of Rome was propped up on pillows, his face pale except for bright hectic spots on each cheek.  His breathing was labored, but his eyes were clear, and his wife Livia – still a handsome woman, despite her seventy summers – sat by his side, holding his hand, and wiping his brow with a damp cloth.  Her eyes flashed as the old man entered the room.

          “I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but were it not for my husband’s personal order, I would have you flogged for intruding on us at such an hour!”

          “Silence, wife,” Augustus said faintly.  “This man has earned the right to stand before me.  He is, after all, my brother.”

          Livia Drusilla froze in astonishment, her wide eyes looking from her husband to the stranger – and then widening further as she took in his features for the first time.  She had seen those features before, long ago, when she was just a little girl – regal, even then, with a dignitas that the kings of the east could only aspire to.  Her astonishment was so transparent that the old man smiled in amusement.

          “I am Ptolemy Philopater Caesar,” the old man said, “although most people called me Caesarion in my youth.”

          Augustus slowly nodded, then coughed.  He wiped his chin with a white cloth, which came away stained with blood.  In one hand he held the scarab ring that the guard had brought him, the sealing ring of the House of Ptolemy. 

          “So tell me, brother of mine,” he said, “if you will – how is it that you are still alive?  The last time I saw you, you were being led out of my tent, bound and hooded, to be executed and buried outside my camp.”

          “You shouldn’t have chosen a veteran of the Tenth Legion to carry out the sentence,” Caesarion said.  “I waited till we were clear of the camp’s walls, and asked the man to remove my hood, so that I could look on the moon and stars one last time ere I died.  It was a simple request, and even though you had told him to keep my face hidden, he couldn’t see any reason to do so once we were clear of the legions.  So he pulled my hood off, and saw my face.”

          Augustus smiled, displaying his teeth, which were crooked and yellow with age.

          “Well played, my brother!” he said.  “You always did bear a striking resemblance to our divine father.  That was why I could not let you live – after all, Caesar could only have one son!”

          Caesarion nodded.  “So you told me at the time. But as soon as he saw me, the legionary began to tremble.  He asked who I was, and I told him.  He said that he had fought all through Gaul and Greece under the command of the Divus Julius, and he could never harm Caesar’s son – not even when Young Caesar ordered it.”

          “What shall I do then, young master? he asked me.  ‘If I kill you, I would have to fall on my own sword to atone for such a sin.  But if I let you go, my master will have my head and send legions of mercenaries after you.  What can I do to save us both?’”

          “I pulled off my tunic and asked him for his dagger.  I sliced open my arm and soaked the front of the tunic in my blood, then ran a hole through it with the dagger.  The old soldier gave me an extra tunic from his pack, and I donned it quickly.  I hid among the date palms while he went to tell you that the job was done,” the old man explained.

          “I kept that tunic for years,” Augustus said.  “I told myself that I did the only thing I could to spare Rome another civil war.  Let the masses catch one glimpse of you, Julius Caesar reborn, and my father’s will and all my labors for Rome would be forgotten in an instant.  Chaos would have broken out! But I will tell you, my brother, that my conscience tortured me in my dreams for many years for what I had done to you.  I relived that scene in my tent many times, sometimes as myself, and sometimes as you, bound hand and foot by my guards, facing my own judgment.”

          “I, too, have often relived that moment,” Caesarion replied.  “That was the day that both our lives changed forever.  I knew you were ruthless – Marcus Antonius told me how you insisted that Cicero be the first Senator to perish in the purges, and then told all of Rome that it was he who insisted the great orator must die!  But I also thought you had a heart.  I went to you to spare my mother from the indignity of marching in your triumph.  I thought if I offered to rule Egypt as your exclusive client, and pledged never to set foot in Rome, that it would be enough. And, I will tell you then as I told you now – Egypt was all I wanted!  I had no desire to come to Rome, to set myself up as your rival.”

          “I’m sure you meant it at the time,” Augustus said.  “But men change, my brother, men change.  What I did to you was morally wrong – I know that, and have known it for years.  But politically, it was the only choice I could have made.” 

          His frail body shook with coughs again, and the linen cloth came away from his mouth stained with more blood.  Livia said not a word, but tears streamed down her cheeks.  Augustus looked up at her kindly, and patted her cheek with a trembling hand. 

          “But I am glad to see you, Caesarion,” he said.  “I am dying, and it gladdens me to know that I will not go to stand before our great father with his only true son’s blood on my hands.”

          Caesar Augustus turned to his wife. 

          “Livia,” he said, “I want you to leave me alone with my brother.”

          “Are you sure, husband?” she said.  “What if he - ?”

          The Emperor of Rome laughed, then coughed feebly into the linen cloth again. 

          “What if he kills me?” Augustus said.  “The sands of my life are running out regardless.  Listen to me, dear wife – if I have left this mortal life when you return to this room, under no circumstances do I want you to pursue any type of vengeance against my brother.  He has suffered enough at my hands.  Am I clear?”

          She sighed deeply.  “Yes, my dear husband,” she said, and kissed his brow.  As she passed Caesarion, she looked at his aquiline feature – identical to those of his long-dead father, whom she had seen at his last great triumph when she was a girl.  She spoke to the son of Julius Caesar.

          “I know he wronged you,” she said, “but my husband is a great man who has done much for Rome.  Pardon him, I beg you!”

          The old man looked at her, and his face was not unkind.

          “I pardoned him long ago,” he said.  “I understand his motives better than you think, for I too am a son of Caesar.  I did not come here for vengeance.”

          Livia smiled back at him, and from the death bed, Augustus spoke once more.

          “Livia, tell the Senate something for me,” he said.

          “Whatever you wish, my dear,” she replied.

          “Tell them if I have played my role well, then to applaud at my departure,” the Emperor of Rome told his wife.  She smiled through her tears, and left the room.  After her departure, Augustus regarded Caesarion with a cool, appraising glance.  Despite his obvious pain and the burden of seventy-five years, his gaze was one of command.

          “So, brother, why have you come?” he said.

          Caesarion stepped forward and sat down on the edge of the Emperor’s bed.

          “I wanted you to see my face before you died,” he told Augustus.  “For years, I simply wanted you to know that I had won.  That I had thwarted your will, and survived, thanks to the kindness of Fortuna and the loyalty of a legionary named Titus Severus. He bore me far away, to the wilderness of Numidia, where I lived as a simple shepherd for over a decade.   For years I thought of killing you, to avenge my mother’s death, and that of Antonius, whom I loved as a father.  But as time went on, and as I watched from a distance what you had done, I understood your reasons more and more.  What you did, you did for Rome.  You took a Republic torn by war and dissension for a century and turned it into a peaceful and well run Empire.  You took a city of wood and mud and turned it into a city of marble.  You gave your people a better life than their fathers and grandfathers had lived before them.  But all that time, you carried the burden of my death on your shoulders.  I could see it in the way you carried yourself, and in your eyes when you were weary.”

          “You . . . watched?” Augustus asked, his eyebrows arching.

          “I have lived in Rome for the last twenty years,” said Caesarion.  “Residing in the worst stews of the Aventine and the Subura, posing as a penniless beggar, a wounded veteran, or a simple tradesman.  You have walked right past me on the streets a dozen times in the last decade, brother.  But a hood and an eyepatch are not a bad disguise.”

          Augustus nodded.  “Well done indeed,” he said weakly.  “Go on, I fear my time is running out.”

          “I decided that I wanted to show myself to you before you died,” Caesarion said.  “I thought the one noblest thing I could do for my adopted brother was relieve him of the burden of fratricide.”

          The Emperor of Rome wept softly, wetting his cheeks with tears.

          “Then you are a better man than I,” he said.  “Our father was renowned for his clemency.  I thought that to be his greatest weakness.  He forgave his enemies, restored them to honor and high stations, and they killed him for it.  I made up my mind not to be so weak – to get rid of all those who might pose a danger to me. But in the end, that was my weakness.  I rid Rome of all of those who might have challenged me – and in the end, I was left with no one to test myself against. I destroyed my own competition, and in doing so, I ultimately weakened myself.  You are the true son of Gaius Julius Caesar, my brother – more so than I could ever have been.”

“You did not share his unique greatness,” Caesarion said, “but that did not stop you from forging your own.  History will remember you as long as it remembers him, Octavian.”

“It is a long time since any man called me that,” Augustus said.  “But I do not take it ill, coming from you.  Caesarion, my brother, I have imposed on you for your entire life.  May I do so one more time?”

Caesarion arched an eyebrow, an expression that reminded Augustus painfully of his adoptive father, the man he had adored and sought to emulate for so many years.  But when his brother spoke, his voice was purely his own – softer and kinder than the great Caesar’s.

“What does the Emperor ask of his brother?” he said.

“I am dying, Caesarion,” said Augustus.  “I am dying, and it hurts.  Every breath is like a dagger through my lungs, and the faces of my ancestors dance before me every time I close my eyes.  I know my time draws short, but I am weary of waiting.  I am weary of the pain of this life, and ready to stand before my father again.  Would you end it for me?  I tried to end your life long ago, when we were both young.  I have regretted that for years, but perhaps if you hasten my end, it will tip the scales of justice back in my favor.  Finish me, I beg you!”

Caesarion was surprised to find tears in his own eyes.  For years he had fantasized about plunging a dagger into the man before him, or displaying Caesar’s severed head in the great Forum of Rome.  But now that the man he had once hated was begging him for the release of death, he found he did not want to kill him.

“Do not think of it as vengeance, if that is not what you desire,” Augustus said.  “Think of it as one last gift from Egypt to Rome. Or perhaps as a simple favor, from one brother to another.”

Caesarion leaned forward and kissed the fevered brow of his adoptive brother. 

“Rest well, Emperor of Rome,” he said.  “You have earned it.”

An hour passed before Livia returned to her husband’s bedchamber.  Augustus was propped up on his pillows, his features calm and peaceful, his body as still as a statue, his breath gone.  Tears streamed down her face as she kissed her husband’s lips one last time, the warmth of his life already fading from his noble and beloved face.  Then she stepped to the door and called one of the Praetorians.

“Go and find my son Tiberius,” she told him.  “Tell him to come quickly.  Tell him that his father . . .” 

Her voice trailed off, as she struggled for words.

“What should I tell him, domina?” the soldier asked gently.

“Tell him Caesar died of natural causes,” she finally said.


Early the next morning, a ship left the harbor at Naples, bound for Alexandria, Egypt.  No one paid much attention to the old man who stood in the bow, his gaze set to the south.  He did not pay much attention to them, either.  Caesarion was going home.

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 . . .





          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.