by Josh Wagner
Nicodemus is dead. Squat upon a copse of knapweed. His legs kick forward, leveraging a nearly vertical torso from whence his head sags like a snuffed lantern off the cracked tilt of an iron spine. Palms upturned, one beside each thigh, knuckles to dust as in séance or meditation. When the branch broke he landed thus, and by chance he did not tip over. It was a sight to wither even the four hangmen who gathered round, drifting now in steady orbit within a spectral perimeter of adolescent birch.
“Unnatural pose,” one mutters.
“Unnatural fall,” says another, following his words into the moonlit swath. Rummy Lewis is a proud man in his mid-forties. Clean shaven, family man. He tenders his boxlock bore toward the swampy corpse, but none too near.
“How foul its palms lie.”
“Come, pussycats. Tails up,” Rummy beckons, unheeded.
“Put a third eye in him, Rum,” Neville says. “To be sure.”
Rummy raises black steel to the cheek on his good side, his poorer eye in a squint. Thumbs the hammer.
“No lead upon the dead,” Amon Rhodes says, scratching a fiery plumb rash on his neck. “Have ye forgot Earl Kline who put shot to that strangled calf? A mind of mercy, to be sure. But the bullet turned back upon him.”
Rummy thinks twice, lowers the weapon.
“We done our jobs, boys,” says Davy Colmbs, whose baritone voice squeezes out from a 40-quart ribcage. “I heard the neck snap.”
“’Twas the snap o’ the branch, could’ve been,” Amon says.
Colmbs now joins Rummy inside the wedge of colloidal light. Teases the severed birch limb with a toe. “Here’s no natural break. Shouldn’t’ve give, nohow.”
Using his pepperbarrel, Rummy sloughs aside the beast’s curtain of black hair, damp with perspiration. He sees muzzle-blood trickling over a swollen lip and onto the jutting tip of a tooth-notched tongue. Pallor mortis creeps like sunrise along the beast’s cheeks and down toward a dappled rope burn where the winding noose slackens then drizzles over the earth, serpentine in the grass two or three feet from Colmbs’ inquisitive squat.
“Broke here against the grain,” Colmbs notes, not for anyone to see. The others nod anyhow, leaning on their rarefied steel. They spit into the undifferentiated shadow, eager for time to call a code. But there is scarce affirmation now which would put them at ease.
“Might it been weakened already.”
“Strung it yerself,” Neville says. “We all heaved upon.”
“All but you.”
“Unnatural,” Rummy says again, focused now on the creature’s eyes—a glossy mirage of dilation where reflections of frosty pre-dawn stars adorn a scramble of autumn leaves. Rummy will never understand what this night has done to his perception of time. He drags the butt of his gun in a crooked line, thinking briefly of his children. Only Amon Rhodes has ever killed a man, or so he says. Not that Nicodemus was a man. He had a name, that was all. But the more they stare the more familiar his features seem. Lax skin, some hybrid of wolf and lamb. Are not monsters the spoilt children of God? Errors undone in the dark.
“Looks a mighty doornail ta me,” Neville says, but the others shush him, for here in the fragile silence their fears begin to stir once more. Each man dislodged at last from the euphoric lull earlier invoked by their first sight of the dangling form in an ether ring of lamp light. All had swayed then in their kindred, numbing daze, like orphans of some profound cathartic conspiracy between amines and neuropeptides rapt in veneration of holy brain death. The collapse of a nearby star. How serene the night seemed then, couched in the breath of interlude following their hunt. Even Rummy had for some few moments fancied himself redeemed. But now, in the relapse of dread that sizzles from their napes to the crags behind their ears, even the sight of a spider on a log or a moth drunk on moonshine is enough to send them into a haze of personal terrors. In this suspension of triumph, Neville Breedlove feels a trickle down his leg. The memory of a derailed train ploughs through the viscous mash of Colmbs’ imagination. Rummy recalls his great sin. Four glances entangle the ring, a silent covenant by which all agree their work here is yet unfinished.
They will not escape this business without some further ritual.
Rummy’s horse glove catches the body at its ankle, heaves, dredging the frosty ground. Gradually the others find a corner and muscle up, noose trailing behind, and all four plod stiff legged through the saltbush and the candyfloss spires of beargrass, one quarter mile to the shed.
“Old man wants an eye.”
“First let’s worry about the quarters.”
“And the head!”
“We ought bring him some token.”
“This here crosscut should do for bone.”
“Molly listened to him cry the poor child’s name a good five minutes at the door.”
“His only child. Such a shame.”
“An eye, he tells her.”
“He’ll get it.”
“One shouldn’t trifle with such things.”
“Clear that table, Neville. Don’t matter where none of it goes.”
“Just bring it to him. A small comfort.”
“I heard ya.”
“Not much to ask.”
“He’ll get it.”
Colton ‘Rummy’ Lewis lingers by the dormant forge and fingers a rigid iron bar. One night, not long ago, with his oldest son just five, he’d suffered a bleak vision while watching the boys play with blocks on the floor. There, as his youngest drifted to sleep, his wee ferret face slumped over wee knees, something inhuman befell the fabric of time. A vivid sense of the decay inherent in growth. He imagined both of his children rotting on a vine, and at once his mind convulsed with intent to carry the youngest to bed and cut his throat before leading in the elder to witness. The moment passed. The vision slipped away. Whatever wickedness had polluted him was gone. That night Rummy put the hot tip of an iron to the back of his hand and vowed he would smoke out the evil of the world wherever he could find it.
When Chelsea Williston’s body turned up along Scout Creek in torn skirts and no stockings, somewhat drowned with a fractured skull after nine days gone, Rummy took his chance. The girl was only fourteen and had oft been warned of traipsing alone near the canyon. She had no friends and too much imagination, her mother said. Put up fifty dollars to whomever’d deliver the man. But none would take her money, least of all Rummy who eventually had to thin out his volunteers like Gideon so as to preserve stealth and surprise. Then they rode out to interrogate the thing of the canyon what called itself Nicodemus, who traded in minerals of the deep earth and was said to eat uncooked flesh.
Amon strikes a lantern. The air glistens with web and ash.
“Saw’s old,” Neville says, fingering crosscut teeth.
“These tools been here for years.”
Rummy tilts the blade of a rusted old bone cutter as Amon floats the light near enough to see. Six slugs to the chest, blackholes among a starfield of buckshot, many still visible half wedged in the skin.
“Bleeds though, don’t it?”
“That blade’ll snap. You’ll see.”
“Vile blood. Best put torch to it.”
“Not till dawn. Black smoke on a black night.”
A gummy pool spreads along its bicep where Rummy cleaves the deltoid slope. Nicked teeth caked in flesh. When the tool finally strikes bone, it bows and breaks. Rummy examines the cracked metal while the others laugh, relieved to have a reason to. Amon takes up an axe. Harder than splitting stone. Ten minutes later four limbs stack on a ragged rug next to an old mouse hole. Their fear gently subsiding.
“Now the head?”
“Perhaps we should eviscerate the organs.”
“I’ll not reach inside.”
“Let them rot.”
“We’ll come back tomorrow and burn it all.”
Three of the men struggle in jest over the privilege of excising the head. Hand over hand along the axe haft to iron lug. Like schoolboys choosing up sides. Neville comes up last—don’t he always? Schemes it somehow. He’s the sort of runt who’d boast a fight to any man, knowing none would stoop to oblige. His first blow cracks the chin. They try to take the tool from him then, but he goes again, almost removing Amon’s ear in a wild backswing. The others mock Neville’s shallow cleft, shove him around like some effigy. Could as easily murder the boy in their zenith of blood, but he’s a mascot. His weakness augments their presumption of strength. Rummy slips up behind, wrests the axe away. Show you how it’s done. But even he needs three more good swings before the head rolls free, then settles keeled against the wall.
Nearly out the door Rummy recalls Chelsea’s Pa and sends Amon back in with his knife to pry out the left eye. “Careful not to rupture the sclera,” he calls.
Amon wraps it in a blue cloth, knots and drops it in an old tin cup. He blows the wick but forgets to shut the door, so Rummy goes back for one last look. Digs from his memory the devil’s vision of filicide and coughs it into a little sticky ball on the tip of his tongue. He spits into the creature’s open neck and utters hoarsely, Get ye to hell and warn them there what’s to find in my house.
The declination of the moon dwindles now over clubfoot hills. The men have gone to a jug of port in Amon’s cellar a half mile off, while here a few alder beetles have discovered fresh wells of blood. Along these wooden slats convene moths and mice, crickets and ants, crane flies and a cross spider, firebrats, midges, milkweed, and mantis. Seven ravens loiter about the entrance until raccoons come to scratch and rattle at the unlatched door. All adhere to an inner formula which has, in many of their kind, remained dormant for generations, but which is as natural as mating and as latent and rare as the ritual of dying from old age.
The beast, as they called him, had only moved into the canyon a year before. Nicodemus was following a mass grizzly migration from up north where his shelter of lodge-poles had leaned against a twelve-foot boulder on the teasing edge of their territory. Along the gorge a turquoise river rushed as if to war. Nicodemus set himself to long days of observation followed by nights of meditation. The first transformation to any new shape takes time. It is a gradual process, often surprising and disorienting when it finally sets in. Without proper precautions one may wind up trapped for weeks or months. Each form demands intense study and practice, though some attributes overlap to make different classes more penetrable, depending on prior knowledge and experience. One may more effortlessly become a lobster when one has already been a crab.
A bakemono’s maiden chrysalis, from raw matter to conscious form, always takes 100 years. But it gets easier with time, and time is no enemy to change.
Nine days into the migration, following seven months courting the bruin families, Nicodemus finally felt an alteration in his perception, a heightening of his sense of smell, a sharpening of tooth and claw. The bears lingered all spring in the canyon where, as a final test, he mated with one. Then they moved on, but he stayed behind, keeping mostly to himself, exercising his new configuration. He hunted no living thing but grubs. He ate berries, nuts, mushrooms, and boiled roots. He explored deep caves and dug precious gems with which to purchase tools, grains, and the occasional bottle. Those who came to trade with him kept their distance. When Rummy and his men confronted him, Nicodemus’ chest and face still exhibited the purgatorial transience of his bestial features. He allowed them to search around his camp. Rummy himself discovered the child’s stockings beneath an old stove by the creek where they’d been haphazardly and deliberately shoved the very night before, when Nicodemus had caught a vague and unfamiliar scent creeping around his perimeter. He fled, and they gave chase, driving him toward an ambush farther up the canyon.
The assembly of critters watch and wait until the coyotes have paced twice a perimeter around the dismembered thing. Precisely what seduced this feral corps of engineers into congregation does not fall into the science as Nicodemus or his kind have ever rightly explained. The blood, as the thespian once said, is compulsory. Their genetic veneration of the bakemono is as lock to key. They have come to attend the basal body of Nicodemus on the slab. Already a mouse pushes open his collapsed esophagus. The wild dogs lick at wounds. Raccoons, possums, and a pine marten gnaw infected patches of raw flesh threatened by decay. A fox sits on the windowsill grooming, feigning disinterest, but she conducts dynamics and tempo with the swish of her tail.
The coyotes pull the torso of Nicodemus down to the floor, while ravens collaborate on his arms and legs. One limb after another—borne in a flurry of wings, half flown half dragged over to the severed stumps of shoulders and hips where they belong. Here a train of ants and spiders stand by to stitch, while frogs supply adhesive saliva around the jagged edges of mashed flesh.
Inch by inch and thread by thread. A body thirsty for regeneration needs only the slightest aid. Then natural fusions of the body take over: capillaries, muscle tissue, tendon, and vein. Bone is a longer process, but his patient allies have all night.
Amon lies flat on his belly in the dust near the cellar wall, staring through mason glass into the creature’s liberated eye. Submerged and clarified, bulging with the illusion of buoyancy in half a quart of clear liquor. He’s too drunk now to hold up his lantern, so he rests it and the jar side by side on the ground and fixes his gaze until it starts to feel like the amputated thing is examining him back.
“A good night’s work lads,” Neville shouts. Too loud. Out of phase with the celebration’s downward swirl.
“Yes, yes,” the others mutter.
Earlier, they’d all four hollered such cries and more, but silence and the cricket song seems better suited as they wait for the sun to rise.
Rummy alone still stands on his feet, back straight, looking out the dusty cellar window at the mocking face of the moon. From the hunt to the hanging tree, and now even here below the earth he has all night long perceived her judgment. Despite expectations, Rummy’s soul feels no less fractured than before. For all his efforts he remains a thing disjointed from itself.
“An eye,” Amon says. “To boil.”
Near dawn Nicodemus stumbles from the cabin with ragged breath, renewed in both soul and body, though crippled in sight. Still good enough to follow his assassins’ tracks, though, and he finds them at last underground, plastered and passed out. He prods and nudges Amon until groggy lids open wide. Confusion and panic therein. He looks to the jar as if what confronts him now could only have sprung forth from a germinating seed. The mere weight of Nicodemus pins his legs, but the beast’s gravelly voice insists he not be afraid. There is good news. Death is not the end. Amon finds a hatchet at hand and, hollering to high heaven, sinks it into the creature’s evangelical shoulder. The others awake to chaos. Only a fading lantern and the moonlight through one small window offers guidance as they fumble for their irons.
Nicodemus scrambles back. Can’t they see he only wants to help them find the justice they crave. And here, by chance, he can finally identify the scent. Just across the room. The one huddled in the corner, quivering shells into his shotgun. Why he’d murdered the girl, Nicodemus couldn’t guess. No way for him to know of Rummy’s desperation for any pretext by which he could rouse the boys to action. And he’d needed it fast. Evil left too long festering in the canyon could find its way down the river and into town, and from there back to permeate his soul. The next time he might not so easily broker self-control. His boys. The only lives which truly matter. Colmbs pulls the first trigger, misses the beast but strikes Neville in the crossfire. Gut-shot. The boy lets loose a shrill, cunicular howl—the sound a child might make when confronted with a new kind of pain. A hammer cracks Nicodemus’ still fragile jaw and his passionate words no longer fly but plummet from slack lips. As if anyone would listen anyway. There stands the man, he cries. Fear not the flames of justice! We shall all be reassembled by the earth. Unwilling ears now deafened by a drapery of muzzle fire. The hammer comes at him again, but Nicodemus grabs the swinging arm. Rummy stares into the face of bruin, washed by moonlight’s vaporous haze until a great passing cloud snuffs it out. And in the fresh darkness he sees only a man. His hammer falls to the floor. Nicodemus lets go his arm and makes for the stairs. Stray buckshot glances off his back as more voices groan in pain. He smells the bloom of fresh and familiar blood, quickly replaced by the pungency of spilled oil. The darkness further fuels their panic. Which of them tries to light the match? Nicodemus shuts the door between himself and sizzling rounds. He hobbles toward the forest, battered by endless trees, and doesn’t stop until he hears the river’s cluttered call echoing out of the gorge. Then he starts to climb, raising his eye in a squint against the propellant fire of sunrise sweeping over the tips of steady pines.
About the Author
Josh is the author of four novels and three graphic novels. His work has been published by Cafe Irreal, Not One of Us (Clarity), Medulla Review, Lovecraft eZine, Cleaver Magazine, Asymmetrical Press, and Image Comics.