December 11, 2012
Preface: This is a story that I submitted to a modest fiction magazine that specializes in speculative fiction from a Christian worldview. I was given the editor’s email address and told I should submit something. I sent it in months ago, but never received a reply, even after an awkward “so, uh, did you get that story?”-type follow-up. Whether it was a matter of silent rejection or an incorrect email address, I figured I could at least post it on my blog, even if this is a classic case of “Oh, wow, did I think this idea was good?“
The only specifications I were given was that it had to be flash fiction or a short story, it had to somehow show a Christian worldview, and the theme was Monsters. It is called Old Words.
“Please, I urge you all to calm down! We will not make any progress if all we do is bicker and yell at each other,” the old man said in a stern tone. He was standing at the front of the tavern, his back to the bar, facing the dozens of others inside. His long, stark-white beard hung low, contrasting the sheen of his bald head. He wore a very clean pair of trousers under a billowy white shirt, its buttonholes tied together with small leather cords. Pinned to the left side of his chest was a brass star.
The crowd silenced. Many of them sat at the modest wooden tables, others in the booths against the walls, while still others stood wherever they could find a spot. Some held a pitchfork, or an unlit torch. Others held lit candles, casting a menagerie of shifting shadows and dim light across the room. The elder re-addressed them.
“Fellow villagers, I know you can testify to the difficulties we have overcome before. We have beaten harsh winters, merciless drought, and terrible disease. I will not let this mere monster be the nail in our coffin,” he said, to a scattered chorus of cheers, claps, and other noise. Most in attendance, however, nervously shifted in their stance, or cast a doubtful eye back and forth between their neighbors.
“But I am not a clever man,” he continued. “We have tried to fight this ungodly beast with clubs and torches, with knives and hammers, with iron and bronze alike. Yet this monstrosity persists, and here we stand in mourning. We mourn for lost brothers, for children it has taken. I am no sage. I open the floor to your suggestions, to your ideas we have not yet tried.”
Many murmured under their breath, while others openly scoffed. They swore, or even spit on the floor. A woman in the corner, who had worn her bright blue dress, sighed and whispered “We are doomed.” But one young girl, no older than fourteen, raised her hand in the back. She even stepped forward, her free hand lightly pushing someone aside. The silence returned.
“You, Magda?” The elder man chuckled, slowly shaking his head back and forth. “Girl, this is no time for playing pretend, or taking the matter lightly. I–“
She interrupted him. “But Taleth, I know what to do!”
Laughter erupted from the onlookers, some holding their hands to their head in mock disbelief. Some hissed, others grit their teeth at her, balling their fists.
Magda was wearing her father’s boots, of thick black leather and brass buckles. Her skirt was long, and generously pleated, laying heavy without much sway. Over her waistcoat was slung a backpack, with cords over her arms. She reached back, her delicate hand diving under the flap, and thrust it out in front of her.
At the sight of the willow branches she held, the crowd went absolutely mad: A woman screamed, and a quartet of brothers near the front began to boo. The laughter rose, the mocking growing in intensity. A candle was knocked off one of the tables.
Taleth, the town elder, allowed a thin smile to cross his lips, as though he took pity on her. “Magda, please. This is also not a time for fairy tales.”
“But the scroll speaks of this day, sir,” she retorted. “It tells us of the demon who enters our village, who consumes the children, who has a thirst for our blood and our souls. And it says that one must take up the branch of a willow to slay it,” she confidently pronounced, her sure voice drowning out the doubters.
“Magda,” the elder replied, his voice stoic and methodical. “The scroll also speaks of rainbows, unicorns, and impossible tales. We sing its songs for merriment, not prophecy. Those who believed it to be true died when even I was a boy,” he softly chuckled. “We have already tried great weapons of metal, and fire, and crushing. The soft branches of a willow stand no chance against this foe.”
Magda stood still, biting her lip as her brow furrowed. The tension in the air was cut by a shrill, otherworldly scream – it echoed, sounding far yet closing in, recognized by many as the chilling call of the dreaded Horror they had come here to scheme against.
Grown men rushed for the exits. Women cried out and scrambled away. In the chaos of their scared escapes some lamps were knocked over, candles snuffed, blades dropped and small items left behind. Drinks were knocked over, mugs rolled across the planks of the floor, various liquids pooled in its divots.
In the dark of the night, all other houses and buildings were left unlit. People fled further out of town, or took to special underground shelters. Still others ran to a cave they knew, or toward the trade routes.
Alone, in the middle of the White Stallion tavern, stood Magda. Her golden curls framed her rosy face as she placed one foot forward, bending her knees slightly, holding the willow branches in a two-handed grip. She held about six of them, drooping a bit along their three-foot shapes.
A small “whoosh” swept behind the bar, as a knocked-over candle ignited a pool of hard liquor. Nearby, on a hidden shelf, some thin wooden coasters began to light as well.
The creature suddenly entered, eerily silent and quick, striding through the entrance with hardly a trace of motion or consequence. It appeared like a misshapen woman, a hag – Greasy lengths of black hair swept down over her thin, pale frame. It kept a three-jointed arm wrapped over its chest. At its waist was a dirty rope, tied like a belt, and across it were slung bits of bone, patches of skin, and other items less recognizable.
Her skin was wrinkled, and somewhat translucent; a thick, black liquid could be seen just below the surface, oozing at various spots and rushing through others like blood. Magda took a breath in through her nose, noting the monster’s features. What struck her most, besides the small mouth and pitch-blank eyes, was the hands.
As the nightmarish being extended a stick-thin arm, it unfurled a hand – and, in place of fingers, it only had long white points, glinting in the light, like fangs extending from the knuckles. Magda’s eyes widened in shock, though, when it began to speak.
Its mouth, though narrow, opened wide. The lower jaw unnaturally distended – and in the maw were revealed a set of fingers. The fingers were skinny, hung about the gums where teeth would be, a matching set of about a dozen per top and bottom. As the creature spoke, these fingers gave it a sickly lisp, spilling over certain syllables and making the creaking, croaking voice difficult to understand.
“Magda,” it rattled. The teeth were constantly in motion, restlessly shaking and trembling, even between words. “I have been on your scent for days, pretty thing,” it rattled. “You can join your friend Mary in my belly. She calls to you from my gut, Magda.”
The two stood several feet apart. A single tear crept out of Magda’s eye, sliding down her cheek. Without another word or warning, the monstrous hag leaped forward, her spindly legs flaying backwards as she dove through the air of the tavern.
Just as Magda had been waiting for.
With a wince, the peasant girl stepped to the side, swinging the weak branches toward the oncoming foe. With a wet rip, the ends of the willow branches tore straight through the flesh of the enemy, as the dark sludge of her insides began to spew forth, splashing onto the floor.
The witch-thing screamed again, as it had outside, the full brunt of its voice now shaking the structure they were in.
But Magda held no hesitation nor fear. She stepped towards her target and raised the branches for a furious strike.
Magda was walking towards her home, raising a hand to knock at the door. She wore a breezy yellow dress, complementing her blonde curls and matching the mid-day sun before a voice called out from the road behind her.
She turned with a curious frown, raising an eyebrow as she watched the village elder approach her. “Oh, hey, Taleth,” she fumbled with her words. “It’s been a while.”
“I know,” he smiled, stopping a yard in front of her. “Look, I know you’re busy, but I had to ask: How did you know?”
She smirked. “Excuse me?”
He nodded. “Last week, when you defeated that which had plagued our families. You spoke of the scroll, and of the willow branches. How did you know that would work? How did you know that the old words were actually true?”
The girl looked down to the ground, idly shrugging her shoulders.
“I had faith,” she said.
Satisfied, the elder left, and Magda returned to her home.