Saturday, 29 October 2016

Around The Cauldron - Hunted

It's that time of year again. There's a chill in the air, leaves are turning, night dominates the day, and we seek the comfort of human warmth and companionship as our thoughts turn to the darker side. Hallowe'en, All Saints' Eve, Samhain, call it what you will, is almost upon us. A time when it's said the membrane between this world and the next is stretched to its thinnest, even to breaking point. So, let's gather around the fire, turn off the lights and share some dark little tales around the cauldron. 


Hunted 
by AJ Millen

I liked it there.
The damp embrace of the soil held me like a lover’s arms. Darkness enfolding me like a cloak, it was where I belonged. And now, after so long, I belonged nowhere else.


It had taken a while. I hadn’t wanted to be there at first. I’d feared it more than anything. Anything but the men with dogs and blazing torches, chasing me through the night, baying for revenge for some imagined hurt and demanding I be fed to the cleansing fire.

The thought of refuge in the casket had given me pause. Black Death had taken Old Man Rivers and his fresh grave lay open, waiting for its covering of soil to insulate the village from the canker that riddled him. Unclean, it was only by virtue of his standing in the church that they’d buried him in holy ground.

There was nothing holy about him when I scrambled, like a hunted animal, into the box with him. The stench of decay rose up like a cloud from his body as my weight pushed him down. It wasn’t the first time his body had been pressed against mine and I’d turned my face away. But this time I was on top, and he was no longer in a state to force himself on me. The old goat.

I’d wriggled myself around to face upwards, ready to emerge from the casket once my pursuers were gone. Waiting for the moment when it would be safe to come out and flee to somewhere no-one knew me, or my reputation.

I lay there, barely daring to breathe, trying to still the heartbeat hammering at my chest. Men’s voices rang out, promising hell fire and brimstone as punishment – but not before they had dealt with me in their own all-too-earthly way. The hounds barked randomly, scratching and snuffling around the graveyard, giving the old man’s plague pit a wide berth.

I must have slept. Wiped out by exhaustion. The next thing I knew, weak sunlight was seeping through the slats in the lid of the box, and I could hear the first birdsong as day broke. I was about to push the lid open when I heard footsteps. Then a tuneless whistle and a scrape of a shovel as it was thrust into the mound of soil next to the grave.

A clod of earth thudded against the coffin. Fingers of darkness crept back in as dirt trickled through the cracks into my eyes and mouth. More thuds followed as the earth was piled back into the hole, enclosing me, holding me. I couldn’t cry out. Moke the gravedigger would surely betray me to the Elders. Anything to get his revenge for the time I’d refused him, sent him packing with scratches across his face like he’d be swiped with a pitchfork. So I waited, listening to the earth covering me like a thick winter blanket and waiting for Moke to finish before I dug my way out.

Until I heard the heavy drag of stone. Pulled over the loose earth and pushed into place, trapping me beneath its bulk. There was no fighting my way up to push it aside. The stone sealed my fate as surely as it sealed Old Man Rivers’ grave. I would die here, pressed against my tormentor, and slowly fade away to nothing more than wormfeed.

But I didn’t.

Days passed. I slept fitfully, losing track of the natural rhythms of the earth. Time was unknown, stretching into weeks, even months. And somehow, I remained alive and strong.
I was also very, very hungry.

A mania took hold of me. I thrust my hands to the side, beating at the wooden slats, pulling at the spaces where they overlapped, pushing through into the surrounding soil to find something, anything, to feed on.

At first just spindly roots and seeds, then I found an earthworm. Soft, yielding, undulating in my hand. I brought it to my cracked lips and bit into it. It continued to squirm as it spilled its gritty innards onto my tongue but I swallowed it greedily. More worms went the same way, as did beetles crawling through the dirt, and a small mole whose velvety hide and sharp claws made me retch and gag.
I had begun to feed.

Centuries passed. I became part of the circle of life beneath the graveyard soil. Old Man Rivers rotted to nothing beneath me, leaving only harmless bones and rotten rags. The damp of the soil ate into his wooden box, devouring it, making it one with itself. My reach extended in my search for food, fingers feeling further every day for sustenance until they broke free of the earth. It was a joyous shock to wiggle my fingers against cool air instead of clammy clods of clay, so I pushed some more.

Inching my way along, I formed a passage from my resting place to the world above.
I emerged from the gap where the soil had sunk beneath the stone now sat skewed at an awkward angle. A clean breeze caressed my cheeks, and I blinked into the evening gloom. Nothing had changed, and yet everything had. Dozens more headstones cluttered the churchyard, and there was a low persistent roar accompanying the sounds of nature around me.

Harsh laughter alerted me and sent me scuttling back to my hole. Looking out, I saw men, not long out of boyhood, drinking from brown bottles. One was beating a headstone with a hammer, cackling with the glee of an imbecile determined to destroy something, anything.

A new thirst awoke within me. I slipped unseen from the earth that had been my home for so many centuries, driven by a new, urgent hunger that would not be denied.

I was transformed. No longer hunted, I was now the huntress.  
And the hunt was on.


(Photo credit: LensMan Nick, a.k.a. Nikos Paraskevas)

There are more spooky stories to come as we gallop like headless horsemen towards Hallowe'en. Watch this space.

1 comment:

  1. WOW - now that is really a spooky tale with a clear message, and wonderfully written! Thank you AJ Millen!!

    ReplyDelete