Halloween Free Read: Brethren

Brethren

There’s something living in my tree—in the old, half-dead sugar maple that corkscrews its way up through the forest canopy in a tortured spiral. Perhaps this thing is feeding upon the heart of the tree, a cancer killing it from within? The old maple’s beech and ash neighbors seem reluctant to get too close, keeping a respectful, if not ashamed, distance between themselves and the twisted giant. Great fissures crease the maple’s gray bark, tracing patterns among the many burls and hollows.

What manner of creature might lurk in those fissures?

I have never really seen the thing directly. It is always a doubtful shadow, teasing my wandering eye. A fox perhaps? Maybe a squirrel? But those are living things, creatures that prove solid and certain, given the proper attention. The shadow thing is noiseless and shapeless, a deep gray patch of uncertainty lurking in the corner of the eye, an elusive rip in the fabric of the real and substantial. Blink and it’s gone, and color once again bleeds into the empty space, filling the void.

* * *

This morning, a heron landed upon the old maple, all slow pendulous grace and ponderous flight above the tendrils of fog that clung to the ground below. It lit upon one of the dead branches that points like a decaying, pale finger toward the shadows of the woods beyond. The bird settled upon the tree in a rustle of feathers, the decrepit branch creaking beneath its weight. Languidly, the heron turned its gaze upon the small stream that wound its way along the edge of the rise upon which the ancient tree stood.

My gaze was held by the bird for a minute or more before it occurred to me to grab my camera in order to capture the moment. Fortunately, I spied the device sitting on the desk next to my computer. Just a step away, but a step that would take me from the window. I took a long last look at the motionless, meditating form of the bird before lunging for the camera.

I returned in a rush to the window but alas, I was too late. The heron had vanished. No bird of such size could have flown away so quickly. I was away from the window for no more than a second or two, and yet the bird was undeniably gone. It had disappeared from the twisted old maple, from the crook of a branch just beside the gaping maw of the hollow in the heart of the tree where the mysterious gray something dwelt.

* * *

The neighborhood cats are at it again. Fighting? Mating? Who can tell what strange desires stalk the haughty minds of cats? All that I knew was that it was well after midnight, and an otherworldly noise was coming from my porch, a whining growl that set my teeth on edge and the hairs on my neck on end.

Slipping into a heavy robe, I crept quietly from my bedroom to the window that opened upon the porch. Gently, I pulled back the frayed corner of the thick green curtain. Nothing. The noise was coming from beneath the long wooden bench under the window, and I could not see beneath it from my hidden vantage point. I let the curtain’s edge drop back into place and sat with my back to the wall, eyes fluttering against the creeping tide of sleep and the seductive promise of dreams despite the noise outside.

The maddening growl ended with a sudden, awful screech. 

I spun, rising and throwing aside the curtain violently, hoping to catch sight of what had made such a terrifying noise—or what had silenced it. 

There.

At the edge of the porch, at the edge of the light, it crouched, hunched and terrible, like an emaciated child with long, stick-thin limbs and eyes of the glossiest jet. A huge orange tabby cat hung limply from its jaws. 

And then it was gone. 

I shook my head. Had I really seen such a nightmare? It was no more than a momentary apparition at the edge of the light, and an insubstantial one at that. Had I mistaken my own reflection or the reflection of something in the room behind me for a creature with a cat in its jaws? Shaken, I double-checked that all of the doors were locked and bolted tight before I returned to the uncertain comforts of my bed. 

At the end of a troubled, sleepless, yet blessedly silent night, I ventured out onto the cold concrete surface of the porch. No blood, no fur. Had I imagined the whole affair after all? I returned to the house and put on a pot of coffee and made some toast but was unable to eat or drink as I stared through the kitchen window at the deep, shadowy recesses—like so many hungry mouths—lining the sides of the old maple tree.

* * *

A trap. That’s what the situation called for. Some way to lure the thing from out of the concealing night and to capture it, thus proving to my own doubting eyes that I had indeed seen the creature. But what to choose for the bait? The heron and tabby cat suggested that the thing seemed to feed on animals of a moderate size. I resolved to visit the local shelter and enact the “rescue” of an animal in need.

My fevered brain worked through the sordid details. I would leave my trusting ward out on the porch at dusk, tied firmly to a leash. Then I would wait, hidden behind curtain and blinds, with just the smallest of holes cut in the curtain through which I would track the approach of the beast. I positioned a black leather armchair beside the window and settled in for a long night’s observance.

Birdsong prodded me gently awake in the morning after a dreamless night. I had not slept for well over a day and had not eaten for close to forty-eight hours. The exhaustion had overwhelmed me. Scrambling fully toward consciousness, I raced outside. The frayed end of the red leash lay like an accusing question mark on the patchy lawn.

* * *

The shelter won’t let me have any more cats. The woman there was polite but obviously a little scared—possibly terrified. Her plump fingers shifted nervously from toying with the ends of her knitted wool scarf to adjusting the wire-rimmed spectacles that framed her wide eyes. She never seemed to be willing, or able, to meet my own troubled gaze. I focused instead on the pale curve of her neck where it emerged from beneath the smothering embrace of the scarf. I suppose five cats in one week would be somewhat suspicious, even to a woman whose desk was festooned with framed photos of herself posing with dozens of the creatures.

The bathroom mirror at home, spattered with toothpaste and dirty water and so long ignored, revealed a possible further cause for her suspicions. I had begun to lose weight. My gray eyes were nearly hidden in deep, dark hollows beneath a pale, greasy brow. Patches of stubble shadowed my sunken cheeks. Dull, unwashed brown hair, newly streaked with gray, stuck out in all directions, and it was a struggle to straighten my spine, prematurely bent from my constant stooping to peer through the blinds of the various windows around the house, my eyes hungry for a glimpse of the creature.

I have not changed the rumpled clothes that hang awkwardly on my increasingly spare frame, nor have I bothered to bathe of late. It is quite possible that I am the source of an increasingly unpleasant odor that permeates my house, but I cannot say that I pay it much mind. More distressingly, I have not eaten in over a week. I still feel the impulse to eat, but everything in the cupboard turns to ashes in my mouth. 

I need more cats.

* * *

I had not realized that I was so quick. I shadowed the big black tomcat that claimed dominion over the local feline clans, my movements unnaturally silent across the fallen leaves, through the bare, mossy, toothpick trees tinted green in the damp twilight. 

I crept up behind this king of cats as he crouched to drink from a small, dirty puddle, and…

Got him!

Never have I moved with such speed! In an instant I had him by the neck. Out from behind the tree I had sped on noiseless, bare feet.

And then the grabbing. The twisting.

The snapping of bones like dried twigs underfoot.

But the snapping had not come from beneath my feet. Rather, it had come from between my clenched, claw-like hands. I held the limp form of the tomcat loosely, curiously. What good was a dead cat to me? The creature would not come for a dead thing. Or would it? Why was I so certain that it would not?

I sat on a bed of damp, rotting leaves, the wet soaking through my torn and reeking jeans, and stared at the corpse of the cat. Why had I killed it? I hugged my knees to my bony chest in meditative silence, unblinking eyes focused on the dead thing lying before me. I am so hungry, so very, very hungry.

When my mouth began to water, I bolted upright and ran as quickly as I could away from the carcass.

* * *

Squirrels, foxes, cats, frogs. 

Birds, bats, lizards, mice. 

They have all been surprisingly easy to catch, yet none seem to survive the catching. I climbed down from the tree and stared at the lifeless gray form of the squirrel clutched in my pale, dirty hand. 

Useless.

I have not seen the creature for well over two weeks. I still have not eaten significantly outside of the few small morsels I manage to choke down on the rare occasions that I return to the dubious comforts of home.

Mostly I keep to the woods. My clothes are threadbare, ripped to ribbons by chases amongst the trees and grasping shrubs, through cold, rocky streams, and even into caves that I had not previously been aware of at the edge of my property. I sleep in the largest trees or in leaves hastily piled upon the cold earth as I wait, ever watchful. To what secret, shadowed corner of these woods could the beast have fled?

* * *

I think, perhaps, that I am a damned soul. I came to this sorry conclusion as I followed a child home through the woods today. One of the neighbor girls perhaps? She was a small thing with waves of loosely curled black hair, kicking at stray leaves and sticks with tiny, mud-splattered pink and white sneakers. I tracked her along the wooded path as I would a cat, or a fox, or one of my countless previous victims. To my shame and horror I thought of putting my scabbed, calloused fingers around her soft, snowy throat. Would it be so different? Could it be so easy—so terribly, terrifyingly easy?

I stopped at the edge of the woods and scrambled up into the comforting, concealing shadows of a large pine. There I crouched, gnawing upon my cracked, yellowing nails as I watched her through narrow eyes, clinging desperately to whatever decency remained within my diseased heart. I think that perhaps she heard some tiny sound or felt the weight of my predatory gaze, because she turned, her eyes wide and darting as she scanned the woods. Then she spun and took off in a chaotic, stumbling dash for the safety of home, of mother, of cookies and hot chocolate and marshmallows. 

The hunger may be killing me.

I pray it does before it drives me to some desperate act.

* * *

I haven’t returned home in weeks. My skin has taken on an unpleasant, sallow shade and my already thin hair is falling out in clumps. What am I doing out here? I am so hungry and I can’t seem to find the creature from the old maple. Why am I succumbing to this obsession? I sleep during the day now, while the sun makes its blinding progress across the heavens, and my eyes seem to have adapted to the perpetual nocturnal gloom that clings to these woods.

* * *

I have never really enjoyed poultry. Chicken, turkey, duck—all of them too dry or too greasy for my tender palate. Perhaps the mistake all along was in cooking them. I caught a crow today, and before I could control my hunger, I was tearing at it with my teeth, a mess of feathers and warm blood clinging to my face and arms.

And by God was it good—so good that I managed to suppress the horror of what I had done. And momentarily—if only for a few brief, blessed hours—the hunger subsided. 

I wonder what squirrels taste like?

* * *

I have finally spied the creature that lurks on the boundaries of my every waking thought and haunts my clouded dreams.

I have been tracking it for three weary days and am fairly certain that it knows I am on its trail. But my new skills are all being brought to bear and it has yet to shake my dogged pursuit. We are moving deeper into the woods than I have ever been before—into a land of spectral shadows and quiet whispers. 

The ancient trees seem to watch me with scarcely concealed malice. Or perhaps something lurks within their branches, peering out with malevolent, hateful eyes? The remnants of my shirt have fallen off a sickly, skeletal frame that I scarcely recognize as my own. The jeans are made of stronger stuff, but they too will succumb eventually. I have my doubts about whether I will miss them when they are gone, if I will feel any shame prowling naked through the shadows.

The last remnant of dusk has long since faded as the creature moves into a clearing, and I follow on calloused, silent feet, sometimes dropping to all fours when the situation requires. Though the beast has always seemed a dull, empty gray to my daylight eyes, it now takes on a luminous glow in the pale light of the moon as it mounts a small hillock covered in ghostly, dying flowers. 

She turns—and I am sure it is a she—and smiles at me from beneath a tattered veil of lank black hair. Lips like thin straps of black leather part to reveal wicked rows of sharp, uneven, yellow teeth. A shuddering, keening howl erupts from all sides of the clearing and a host of gray, hunched forms detach themselves from the shadows and caper forward to greet their terrible queen.

And I too am howling in a savage, primal voice. It is a voice that does not belong to the world into which I was born, a world of sunlight and comfort and bright colors. For I am a creature of the shadows now, a skulking terror from the elemental darkness of a child’s nightmare, a hungry thing that goes bump in the depths of the unfathomable night, skittering across roofs on clawed hands and feet, scratching at windows. 

I run a pale, swollen tongue over my own jagged fangs and creep forward to join my brethren as they cavort in ragged, snaking spirals around their goblin queen.