This story has taken me several months to write. I’m going through a pretty heavy dip right now and inspiration is a scarce commodity. Therefore I am doubly happy with at long last being able to produce something creative. Feel free to comment, I’d love to hear your feedback.
She was singing when they found her. The forest was dark and the swamp was hungry. The small shape on the log almost blended with the humid and murky night crawling forth from beneath rocks and amongst drooping branches. But only almost, because murky nights do not sing pentatonic songs in seven disparate languages under perfectly aligned stars – and neither do they commonly come in the shape of a five year old child.
Later, the Pascal women always told her about the knowing darkness in her eyes as she watched them approach. Later they told her that the first words she uttered after she ceased singing and they stopped one man’s length away from her and asked for her name was a warning in perfect French.
“Fear”, she said as she turned to face them. “All of them are watching.”
Then she slumped from the log and into the water as if invisible strings had been suddenly cut from her naked body. When next she awoke in a warm bed and with seven silent and wondering women standing over her she did not speak a word of the languages they had heard her use in the midnight forest. She did not speak a word of any language at all.
They taught her French and magics and the ways of men and she was a quick learner. With the ease and efficiency of someone taking in knowledge for the second time she picked up on everything they told and showed her until she could barely be told apart from any other child her age in New Orleans – save for the magic of course.
But if her saviours had been hoping to learn the mystery behind this child when at long last she was able to speak, they were soon to be dreadfully disappointed. For at the very same rate as she was learning new words and names and customs, her memories of what had passed before drifted from her memory. In the end even she could barely tell herself apart from the other children – save, of course, for the magic and the fact that most other children knew at least one of their parents.
Her seven mothers slowly learned to be content with not knowing, with silently fearing whatever it was the child had warned them about but would apparently never be able to explain further. With time they almost learned to forget that she was more and less than other children, and that they had initially doubted whether or not she was really human at all.
Her seven mothers endowed her with many names, one at a time, but none of them stuck. They all glanced off of her like mercury poured on ice. They were all girls’ names and she didn’t listen to them because she was not a girl, and in the end her seven mothers gave up and let her decide. The name she chose for herself was Seth, and before long none of the seven Pascal women could even understand how they had ever thought of any other name for this child.
They wanted her to let her hair grow long, just like theirs, but she always kept it as short as the blade of a sharpened knife would allow. They wanted her to wear flowing skirts and ornate jewelry just like them, but she chose to dress simply and practically and never wore any symbols or signs that rigorous and concentrated study had not made her choose to really believe the meaning of. Some of the superstitious symbols worn by her seven mothers she made the choice never to don at all. She made her own choices and her own way and her only regret was her inability ever to remember what she had been before she was a dark eyed human with olive coloured skin.
That starlit night was long ago, but the dark eyed child was me.
I repeatedly catch myself thinking about stars as I make my way down the rain soaked pavement below oh so many blankly staring windows reflecting the cloudy night sky. I decided long ago that I am not a star, that I might once have been many things but never that. However, the stars have always fascinated me. If I were only able to hear their music and musings, I am positive that I would like it.
I see a glowing point rising on the sky before me like a shooting star in reverse, and from beyond the heavy clouds I hear the thunder of a roaring engine. My bag is not heavy but still I am weary of carrying it. I hurry to the waiting cab fighting off the warm rain with frantically dancing screen wipers. The airport behind me never sleeps, but I long to crash into bed and not wake for days.
The backseat of the taxi is warm and smells like too much subtle perfume. I need no psychic powers to tell that we are being followed. If I knew that I had something to gain from it, I would bet my left eye on the pursuer being the same man I have spotted several times on my journey here from Los Angeles. I don’t like his vibe, nor his suit, and would rather just return home, hoping for my intuition to be nothing more than paranoia this time. But I know better, and I’m not so stupid as to lead a fox straight into a rabbit hole. So I tell the driver to turn left and left again.
The forest is dense and the darkness is scraping against the sides of the car like soft, slender fingers clad in heavy velvet. Looking out through the rear window I can see the headlights of the other car illuminating the trees from behind a bend in the broken road. Not so smart, this one. That, or entirely confident in his own ability to take down his prey even without being in the least discrete. Possibly – probably – both.
I almost feel sorry for the driver, I know he didn’t sign up for this. But such is life, that you seldom or never get exactly what you bargain for or deserve. I calmly ask him to stop the car, pay him what he is due and then step out into the night. I leave my bag in the trunk and when the driver tries to remind me of it I give him one of those glances and he is off along the road again. I shouldn’t do that to people, I think. I really shouldn’t.
The light from the cab isn’t even entirely gone behind the trees before the road is again lit up, by a colder type of light this time. It is almost as if the headlight of the pursuing car reflect the aura of the man behind the wheel. I don’t know enough to estimate his abilities, but still I wait by the tree line a few more seconds to make sure that he spots me. Just before the anonymous car comes to a halt on the rocky forest road I start making my way into the woods.
There is no path here but I can hear the trees and the moss and the breath of the rocks on the ground. I need no light in this place, I don’t know why but I suspect it has something to do with me once having been born under these crowns and amidst these trunks. I am in no hurry, I can hear him too as he stumbles forward through the vegetation. He is probably armed but shouldn’t be able to get a good shot just yet. Maybe I should be afraid, but I’m not. Because somehow I feel I know something that he doesn’t.
He doesn’t gain on me and I keep on going. I wonder who he is, why he wants to hurt me. Because I can feel clearly that he wants to do just that. If he wanted to kill me he could have done so much more easily many times on our journey here. He wants something else, but it isn’t something good. Not for me at least. Then I wonder suddenly if he, too, can hear the song of the stars, or if it’s just me.
And then I step into the clearing and the darkness gives in to the soft illumination of the moon and the glowing clouds and the singing stars. I don’t know where I lost my shoes but now my naked feet tread softly upon the moist moss and the shiny rocks in the dark puddles. When I get to the middle of the clearing I can feel his eyes and his gun on me. I brace myself and turn around.
“Did you really think that you could run from me?” His voice is as neutral as his ashen suit and nondescript features. The only thing alive about him is the light reflecting off the worn silencer fastened to his weapon.
“No”, I say. I really didn’t think so. I watch him choose a better stance upon the porous ground without taking his eyes off me for even a second.
“Good”, he says. “Do you know who I work for?”
I shake my head. I don’t know. I want to tell him that neither do I care, but maybe that would be pushing it too much.
He seems to be looking at me, but in reality I know that he is looking down on me. He knows that I cannot run, he knows that he can afford to slightly prolong this finale of his victorious hunt.
“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” I feel strangely calm and this is not really a question.
He laughs softly, falsely, imperiously and almost invisibly shakes his head. “No, I’m not. I am going to subdue you and put you in the trunk of my car. If you force me to I will hurt you, but I’d rather not. That would probably take away from the sum I can get for you. But make no mistake, damaged goods is much preferable to no goods at all.” And I can hear that this is hubris talking, in this place of all places.
“Goods? What is this, some kind of trafficking?”
He nods and smiles viciously. Takes one step forward on the swampy ground. “In a way, yes, you could say that. The people I deliver to pay well for exotic specimens like yourself – not entirely human but not entirely not, either. Or your friend in L.A. I’m sure you’ll want to tell me all about him in a couple of hours.”
I feel cold suddenly. Not frightened, just cold. “The Enjoyment Club”, I say.
He stops two men’s length away from me, a surprised smile spreading across his face and his gun still trained on my forehead. “So you have done your homework. Good girl”, he says.
“I’m not a girl”, I say softly.
“What?” But he doesn’t care for me to repeat myself. Instead he starts walking again, talking to me in a calm voice all the while. Like a mendacious predator striving to lure its prey into a false sense of safeness before going in for the kill. “The Club love their little treats of vampires or werewolves or maybe even the odd djinn every once in a while. The rarer the better – and the more expensive. You’re going to make me rich, little witch.”
“I’m not a witch either”, I say and start backing away from him.
“No?” He laughs softly and follows. “Not a girl and not a witch. What are you then?” He is so close now that I can see straight into his eyes and detect all the truths hidden in them about what he plans to do with me. The Enjoyment Club consists of ruthless humans with way too much money, time and arrogance on their hands. They feast on paranormal creatures in every thinkable and unthinkable way before disposing of them in ways that are probably just as unspeakable. This man works for them, and he is planning to make a fortune by selling me to those human monsters. I can hear the stars singing clearly now as the clouds are dispersing.
“I am Seth Pascal, a freelancing priest”, I say and stop. We are in the middle of the clearing now and both ankle deep in murky water. I can feel the cold mud and soil and moss beneath my naked feet.
He reaches me in one big step and puts his gun to my forehead. The metal is cold and resonates with anger and excitement. The look on his face is one of victory, he know that he has me now.
“Witch, priest, potato potato”, he smirks. “You have nowhere to run now, little girl. But don’t you worry, I’m sure they won’t eat you or make you into a rug. With those dark eyes and slim body you’re probably gonna be put to much livelier work.”
I meet his gaze along the barrel of his gun and see him flinch involuntarily. Underneath my cold feet the ground is stirring restlessly, boiling and throbbing deep down in the nameless darkness. He hasn’t felt it yet.
“Aren’t you afraid?” He tries on one of those patronizing smiles but it doesn’t quite go with the glint of sudden fear in his eyes.
I shake my head slowly, the barrel of his gun moving together with my forehead. I am cold, but not afraid. Because the ground is pulsating beneath my feet and a memory has come to me suddenly. I smile, broadly.
“What?”, he says and darts a glance around the clearing. “What’s so funny? Remember what I said, I will hurt you if you try to pull something.”
I form the long unused words with my mouth, trying them, tasting them. I realize that I like the taste and smile even wider. He knows so little about the world, this little man with the gun.
“What? What?” He is yelling now, his finger trembling on the trigger. “What did you say?”
I look up at the congregation of stars gathered above the clearing, listen to the last stanza of their thundering crescendo and then lock my eyes with his once more.
“Fear”, I say calmly. “Because all of them are watching.”
He opens his mouth to say something, but before he can form the words the heart blood of the clearing, of the world, boils over and gushes up to engulf him. He screams as smoldering mud and soil and water explodes all around him, melting his skin and crushing his bones. He fights for his life against the earth that crashes into his eyes and his ears and his mouth. It fills his lungs and smothers him. He whimpers, he cries and sobs as he is pulled down into the mossy water, before the pressure from inside his soil packed lungs becomes too much and they explode in a cascade of blood and mud spurting forth from his mouth and his nose. He struggles pathetically in the shallow water for half a heartbeat before finally he becomes still and the hungry clearing devours him entirely. The surface in front of me calms instantly and all that remains of him is a speck of oil and dark blood floating silently on top of the murky water, and the worn silenced pistol lying uselessly where he dropped it in the dark moss.
I pick up the gun and turn it in my hands. He was never going to kill me, but there are things worse than death and that was the fate he had in store for me. I wonder how many people and unpeople he has wounded or murdered with this gun. I put it in my deep pocket, not wanting to desecrate this place by leaving it here.
The clearing is silent, but I know that it is not empty. They are all watching. The memory that felt so lucid and clear just moments ago is slipping. I try to hold onto it, but I know that the struggle is useless. I remembered briefly because I was told to, by the stars or by the forest or the darkness, I don’t know. And I realize that the loss of this memory is perhaps what makes me human, what allows me to carry on this sort of existence. The thought strikes me that maybe my oblivion is a gift, and that without it I would become again the something that was once found here, in this very clearing, and was made human only through the care and love and teachings of seven mortal women. Perhaps forgetting was a choice I once made by my own volition, in order to become what they wished me to be. Perhaps I made that very same choice again just moments ago. I wouldn’t know, because I cannot remember anymore. I stare into the darkness between the trees and wait for an answer, but there is none.
With the gun weighing down my right pocket I then turn around and make my way back across the clearing. I don’t need to watch my footing, the ground tells me where to tread. I watch the stars, listen to them, but they are silent now. I enter the woods and feel roots and thorns caressing the soles of my feet. When I reach the road I seat myself behind the wheel of the dead man’s car and narrowly turn it around. The headlights cut like knives through the old darkness and I turn them off. I don’t need them right now. I floor the pedal and make my way back to the airport from whence I came. The man who got eaten by the world spoke about my friend in Los Angeles, and I know that I have to warn him.
My name is Seth Pascal. I am a freelance priest who wears no symbols that rigorous and concentrated study has not made me choose to believe the meaning of. Other than that I wear the mark of every plausible god and deity just to be sure, and I know the incantations and rites of every religion commonly known to man. I never curse, because you can never be sure who is listening, and I am up for hire by anyone who needs my services – whatever faith they might follow.
Apart from that there is much that I don’t know about myself, about who I am and what I was before I was human. But the thought doesn’t scare me as much as it used to and I don’t feel as lonely anymore. Because at least I know one thing, and what I know is this: They are always watching.
Chris Smedbakken 2017-02-06