A Dark Fable in XII Parts

I

Growing up where we did, we have all heard the fable of the beast in the woods. Mothers chide their naughty children with dark forbidding tales of the she-monster that comes to prowl the village nooks and listen for the cries of wilful urchins. The she-monster, they’d say, was lonely and in ceaseless mourning and would do dark biddings to fill the pit her monster-baby’s death had left behind. The baby-beast, a malformed being with sinister yellow orbs for eyes and two small crescent horns, had been dispatched by hunters years and years ago, and sent the mother to a dark and hazy realm of grief.

It was said the beast had once been as human as your neighbours, but her beauty could compare to the most melancholic of sunsets. And once her age purposed that she must take a man, suitors lined themselves from far and wide for word of beauty such as hers could fly swifter than peregrines. But it was told that she had been to see the dark enticer residing in the shadowy depths of the virgin woods, and there a covenant was struck—everlasting life and beauty for a child. She took no man, and when her belly swelled, the folks converted their appreciation into malediction and thus condemned her and her kin for this mysterious sin.

Then soon came time for her to honour her dark bargain, but how could she so willingly relinquish all the love that manifested from the product of the sin? Forswearing everlasting life and beauty, she infracted that malicious deal and chose to keep her baby, determined to wade through hell if that was what it took. The signs were slow to start, but malignance permeated and it spread completely and unalterably, until there was a way to hide the wicked transformation of her child no longer. Thus, unwilling to allow her baby sacrificed to drive unholy claims over their lands away, she fled one night into the woods with her macabre offspring clutched firmly to her chest. Zealous hunters were in hot pursuit, but it was only years after that they found evidence of sinister existence in the woods.

One dark night the hunters came upon the dwellings of the two corrupted souls, unconscious in sleep. Without a whisper of confusion nor a hesitation, they slew the child and mother dead, or so they thought. The bargain with the devil had enchained the mother to this mortal world, and her wish for everlasting life transformed into a curse, damning her to an eternity of grief and sorrow that night forth. It was said she roamed the woods for years and years in search of man for thirst of vengeance, and a time or two a lone ill-fated farmer or wayfarer then would meet their ends in gruesome manners.

These days, they’d say, the monster’s itch for vengeance had subsided but her grief and yearning for her child remained, and so on moonless nights and deepest quiets, she’d roam unseen through thoroughfares and alleyways, listening for the cries of discontented and indignant children who she, in her blinded grief and fatal yearnings, gathered as desirous of escaping, and she believed with her whole heart and pure maternal faculty that those children would so rather disappear into the woods with her.

II

I was but a boy the last time I head the tales of the she-monster residing in the woods. They were no more than scary stories to tell at night, we all agreed, but when we did venture into the woods, our ears would keenly listen to the multitude of sounds, and eyes would see all sorts of curious shapes, and at the end of day all safe and sound and back where we belonged, we’d laugh about it all, our meeker mates the butt of all the jokes. In fairness, in our lifetime or before no little son or daughter ever had the misfortune to disappear, stolen by the she-beast in the woods, so we were all contented in our sceptic states of mind. And as we grew, our times and minds were filled with less extravagant persuasions—facts and numbers and objective inclinations—so the ideas of monsters stealing youngsters seemed absurd. Then one day we heard—an empty cot in the dead of night.

From atop the hills and down the wetlands, from across the rivers and along the plains, men and woman with experience of the woods and none alike were in attendance as into the dark forest we hiked. A fortnight passed and there were still no signs of mortal innocent life in the deep and dark aboding shadows. As the days wore one and night grew darker, some of the folks’ faith dwindled and they wavered and admitted the possibility that the tragic signs were there to see. But before long, a cry was heard one evening as red twilight dyed the skies. The baby boy was found alive and strong! We cheered and sang and thankful for the grace we prayed the whole night through. The folks who found the boy recounted humble tales of valour and perilous strides, but all who listened and who heard the stories in the days that came were all untroubled and incurious with the ‘how’ of such impossible survival, not to mention from the clutches of this purportedly malevolent beast. The people said the grace of God had all to do with this miracle, and they made no further queries, asked no questions. I might perceive, even accept, the mysteries involved in works of God, but certainly I understood, especially in our domain, that answers would reveal themselves if only one would dare to look past blind dependence. But I knew better than to raise my voice of doubts for ears that surrounded me would only hear the blasphemous and think me mad or worse apostate, so I held my tongue and ruminated silently.

The idea was indeed like seed, for rather than diminish as the weeks and months wore on, the questions in my head took root and soon my sleep was filled with nightmares and life awake became a quandary. I’d roam the woods whenever I had had time for it or when the thought would threaten to break me down if I did not take measures. Retracing steps, though all the footprints’ disappeared a time ago, I’d spend the evenings in the midst of perilous terrains, traversing days by hills and circling back to where the child was found, until the dark would force me back abode to spend the nights in fitful and tormenting sleep.

At dawn one morn, following a week of mental torment and devising, I set forward for the woods with an intent to spend the day to scrutinize each hole. On my shoulder was a bag that held provisions for the day, and my spirit held robust determination. I did not know if I would find the answers to my questions or more questions to my doubts, but I knew as sure as fate I’d find more mysteries than folks dared talk about.

III

The dayspring dew persisting on the leaves and blades caught glorious lights as warm sunrays reached through the trees and branches on the margins of the woods. Farther in I trundle on until the weeds and grass have swallowed up the trail. Still on I plod, swinging my knife at the thickets and the bushes to carve my own path in this seldom traversed fraction of the earth. The sun was higher now and sweat has layered me whole, but deeper in, the light grew sparse and night seemed keen to reappear. Before midday I reached the setting where the baby boy was found alive, or at least that was what I speculated. With the rapid growth of all that grew around, it was hard to ascertain a thing. I scrutinised the soil, the plants, the barks and trunks to see if there was something that would mean a thing. From there I snailed outwards and put my trust on my intuition.

By afternoon noon my bag was half the weight it was when I set out, but I felt even seven steps seemed much more strenuous, the enervation aided by the apprehension that this trip might turn out to be for naught. To top it all I realized that I was lost.

The sun was low, I postulated—for in the depths of this oppressive woodland, vision of the movements of the sun are slight—and the fast-approaching gloom inspired perturbation in my core. And when I had to strain my eyes to tell apart an outcropping from a bush, I began to see some dark transmuting shapes every which way I faced, and that set panic to my heart. Wildly then I swung my knife and stick to clear my path as I attempted to escape the custody the darkness of the woods presented, for, now, despite my sane and logical convictions, there I was, convinced that there was something stirring in the shadows I could see from out the corners of my eyes. I granted as I ran how foolish I had been, and foolish more was this endeavour where so little worthwhile consequence could issue from, and I rued this day for ever breaking at all.

I ran until it seemed I’d ventured deeper into gloom and close to doom and certainly much farther from all signs of habitation. I slowed my pace and prayed for sights of flickering lights out in the distance, but all I saw as black on black on black. I’d lost track of time and sense of all direction. I looked up and hoped to navigate somehow by the celestial compass, but thick dark clouds prevented stars from shining on the night. And then, as sure as fate, I heard the snap of twigs, the ruffle of leaves, slow footsteps, and slow calm breaths approaching from behind. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I felt a chill run through my spine, and I heard a voice whisper to me, What are you doing in woods at this time of night?

I spun around and for a moment in the darkness there, I saw, and then all sense abandoned me.

IV

The songs of sparrows, in my dawning dreams, were sung by angels in the clouds. They sung of love and peace and then of horrors of the night. I sang along with them as I rose upward to the clouds. My mortal time on earth was done. But when I reached the pearly gates, Saint Peter held my hand and said to me, My son, we do not welcome lepers in our midst. A firm yet gentle push then sent me falling backwards down towards a screaming fiery mist.

I awoke with a violent start, the light of the brand new day benign on me. Then memories of the night before came flooding back and terror gripped my heart with its cold firm hand. I remained rooted to the spot as I sat up and looked around without moving much to see if I had nefarious company. No sign of that ghastly sight that I prayed was only just a dream. I looked myself over to see if all my limbs were still in place. No blood nor half chewed ends—I was whole and uninjured. The breeze was kind to me and light evaporated trepidation from my heart—surely, I was weary beyond ordinary, hence the hallucination and the sudden loss of sense the night before. I smiled to myself and I pondered in amusement what the folks back home would think of my crusade. But for an instant my smile faded as I wondered if my absence might indeed have been felt at all.

Don’t be afraid, a whisper set my heart a-freeze. The voice was soft and calm and the speaker out of sight, but I did recognize from whom it came. I was sitting there, rooted to the spot, and my limbs refused to heed my panicked will to stand and run and get away from death, for I was certain that my time was come.

I could scarcely hear my own cognitions above my beating heart, and only after I spoke did I register that I had spoken—Who are you?

You know who I am, you came in search of me. You have found what you were looking for, now tell me what you want of me.

Quickly then I realized that I had yet some time at least before, conceivably, my gruesome end. Regardless of that comprehension, my heart continued to drum and my throat was dry and I could hardly form the words I wanted to speak inside my head.

You wandered out into the woods in search of me, but you cannot dismiss the fear that grips you now—the she-monster so close to you, oh, how might she engender your demise, you wonder.

My tongue, it seemed, had turned to graphite, and my heart beat ever faster, yet all the blood appeared to flood my head and wash away my sense of mental coherence. I prayed I was dreaming still, that this was all some vivid nightmare, but in such ways that you could tell a dream from waking life, I knew I was awake and knew nothing else at all, much less what would become of me.

Tell me, young man, and tell me true, why do you hold such fear for me?

I told her in a voice with nervous wrinkles that we all were taught to fear the she-monster in the woods ever since we knew how to be afraid. I told her of the stories of the past and of the missing people found with limbs detached and half decapitated heads. And I told her of the stolen baby found alive and well, an impossible affair.

Stolen? she raised her voice. I found that baby boy abandoned in the woodland edge and I cared for him and kept him safe. But what do I expect? You don’t even need to see me to condemn me diabolic and damned. You, your folks, you’re all the same.

I felt a bristle in my skin when she likened me to everyone else, but I felt a calm come over me and the fright and ice cascading in my veins dissipate. Careful not to make a sudden move, I put my feet beneath my weight and lifted myself upright, and I said I was unlike the others. Then I told her that I wished to behold her.

Is that all you want, she asked, to behold me?

I told her that I wished to understand her plight, and remove the baleful mysteries surrounding her. I told her that I knew she’d never been the monster that the stories made her be, and that I wanted, if I had the means, to help her ease the lonely agony.

You cannot help me, she said. No one can. All you can do me is to hate and fear.

Let me see you, I said to her, more assertive now. I said I was not frightened of her form.

No, she said, not now, but when you see me, fear will come afresh to you.

I’ve come all this way, I said, and if I feel a little fear then so be it.

The sun took cover behind white clouds and basked the forest in a cool penumbra; the breeze died away and bestowed a stifling stillness to the humid air; and the birds up on the trees all seemed to hold their breaths as well. Then not far ahead of me, the undergrowth suffered a modest quiver, and from within it seemed a random and peculiar tree was sprouting rapidly. The top was covered in wisteria-like floral vines that hung down to the thickness of the dark and calloused trunk that had saplings sparsely growing from between the cracks. Two long branches on either side pointed down towards the floor and had coloured leaves of different seasons, and a wide variety of tiny flowers grew out of the snaky veins that ran along the length of both branches. The trunk below split into two, each as complex in definition and rich in its flora as the other.

The tree was tall as me and my line of sight fell right between the flowery vines, and there I saw dark milky eyes above a sharp back nose, and beneath, the thin grey lips moved as I stared and said, A little fear.

Yet there was no hint of terror in my heart.

All the stories told of you, I said to her, and none has ever seen you in the flesh, I’m certain, ’cause if they did, they would agree—none that look like you could ever monster be.

V

There was much to say and much to learn, and there were many truths that has been rendered false. The fables and the gossips, the mountains made from molehills, the witchy whispers carried by the nightly breezes, all had roots in some reality that was incorrupt and innocent. The wicked yearnings and the vengeful appetites were no more than curious yarning told by feeble-hearted, prone-to-startle wanderers of the woods. The only absolute veracity the fables had were stories of the insurmountable bereavement and affliction cursed to trail her where she went. My questions of the origins of her cursed state of existence inspired taciturn responses, and, at a glimpse of traumatic reflections on her milky eyes, I refrained my impulsions. Though I wished to linger on in this novel milieu, let the light vanish from sight and night take hold of my element, I was bound by virtue of my social circumstances to return to my factitious habitat.

My thoughts persisting in the woods that were behind me now, I exited the forest edge as sunlight passed from sight and night drew close. When I reached the artificial fires of the village later, darkness had overlayed the scenes, and though I was tired and ravenous, I prepared myself for a healthy riot incited by my return. I had travelled into the jaws of the devil, in a manner of speaking, after all, and now I have returned unscathed and with copious stories to relate, not to mention the all-important rectifying truths. For fear of failure, I admit, I did not tell a soul before I set out, but I had made a vow to myself that I would return with truths to tell and mysteries uncovered; my silent disappearance, I had gathered, would raise questions, and then the answers that I’d provide upon my homecoming would be heeded with sincerity.

The streets were quiet and the lights were low; there was no hint of agitation in the air. And though the night has not matured, it proffered a feeling of concord and strange tranquillity; strange because I, a member of the congregation of the village church, had been absent for a day and a half. Then a neighbour walked by me and quizzically eyed my grubby state for a moment before he said I needed a wash and rhetorically, and unsubtly accusingly, asked me where I had disappeared to. Then another and another walked past me with not a glance my way. Such disinterest for my state of wellbeing erased what excited expectation that was there within me of my return, and I immediately longed to be back in the woods with she who folks took delight in damning a monster.

Nonetheless, I raised my head and trundled on home. Home, I thought—but where was my heart? I could smell the spirit from the gate and hear the shouts of displeasure over my loud yet feeble imaginings in the face of all, and I wished I could sew my ears closed. I’ve lived all the moments that were bound to happen in the house before I turned of age, and I wished for an escape ever since I could dream about emancipation, yet somehow my heart would tie me down and disallow such drastic deeds, for despite their painful imperfections, I, a lonesome child, was bound by social rectitude to mind this obligation.

So, I stepped into the fray, shielding all my precious sentiments behind a time-served wall, looking forward only to the day that I could go back to the woods.

VI

It was a shame, if truth be told, that I was stuck within the confines of this limiting community, with all the supposedly pragmatic laws and disparaging norms; an open mind and less sever dogmatic panorama might present a glimmer of much-needed hope for a return to light for the so-called monster of the woods. I had been to see her many times since that first time, stealing days behind the veil of fondness for a hunt and rustic offerings of the woods; the more I learned about her plight and the more intimate we became, I understood explicitly and distinguished limpidly the contrast of the shades on either side of my conundrum.

On a day a summer rain entrapped me and the monster on my visit under thickets for most of daylight hours, she told me that she’d lost her memories of her past, and all that remained now was a dark and never-ending well of emptiness where all her past should be. She told me all she could look back on was a morning some forgotten years ago—by that time she had been ostracized and living in the woods alone for years, her child long gone, but wretched grief enduring: She awoke and found her feet had taken root into the soil, her skin had hardened with calluses overnight, and black protruding spots dotted every part of her; she remained affixed to that grassy patch for days unable to move, until a spot that dot her arm began to sprout a sapling. With all her will and strength, bearing the unimaginable pain, she uprooted her feet from the soil, one limb at a time. Knowing nothing else to do, she ran out to a village seeking help, but all the folks perceived was some hideous monster from the woods come to cause ungodly havoc. She retreated back into the safety of the green; the metamorphosis unhurried but irreversible. She knew that she was doomed upon her doom to spend eternity a monster of the woods, a scary story to be told, a warning for the wanderers, a tragedy for the very few who had the misfortune to commune with her.

I inquired who had had their destiny meet with hers and when, barely hiding my envy and a spasm of resentment, for I believed that I alone had the fortune of an encounter. With that I realized that I felt in my heart a strange attraction that I dared not strive to explicate.

Huntsmen or some woodsman would sometimes upon her dwellings at odd moments of the years, she told me, and while most folks surrendered to their shock and terror and would flee, there were just a handful who had seen much worse and feared little or not at all. They were wise and curious seasoned folks who understood the nature of the woods and all the oddities that lay within, but none would ever rather stay later than when the shadows stretch. And then she would, again, be left to her own misery, waiting for the next intrepid soul to come along.

And when she confessed to me that the fear of never seeing another soul had long taken hold of her before she heard my footfalls echo through the grove, I could swear the milky hazy that overlaid her eyes diminished and revealed two glimmering dark brown eyes, and in them I saw the unadulterated human soul that languished on the inside of her cursed shell, and I perceived an undeniable and consuming tenderness bloom within my core.

VII

Nigh on half a year has passed since that first encounter, and our growing-frequent rendezvouses’ cultivated depth in meaning to our meetings. And when our walls and inhibitions ultimately dissipated, we explored the outer persons of each other, mapping all the rise and falls and looking past all imperfections, discovering the tender paths beneath the callous, flowing through each other. Time would halt its progress and give way to out venereal liberation.

I saw to it that I had time for my friend in the woods, sometimes sacrificing evenings of some social import. I’d been told by someone or the other that something has changed in me; their tones were always ominous, and they were hesitant to delineate a quality to that transfiguration. I did not fail to see how knowing her has changed my sentiments and certainly my disposition on much everything that surrounded me. I kept my head held high and smiles would dominate my manner, but when faced with inconvenient circumstances, I had now the strength and will to stand my ground and stand much taller. The house was quieter now, and though tranquillity was still a far cry, I was still able to string my thoughts together lately undisturbed and dream of pleasant grasses and those titillating breezes.

Maybe I’d become a little too complacent or conceited or a little narcissistic and immodest, and I’d forgotten that the ears surrounding me were still deeply stuck in the mud, and maybe I’d forgotten in the bliss of my disparate life that judgement here came quicker, and there were many who would gladly judge and execute the fatal judgement. I knew not when I failed to keep my visits to the woods a secret anymore, and I did not realize that my ambiguous disguise and lies would rise and someday soon return to bother me.

Oblivious to a shadow, I went along one day to meet my familiar in the woods. So, the day went undisturbed and I had no cause to suspect that I would be waylaid on my return. A man, suspicious of my health, and patently envious of my felicity, had followed me that day to discover and expose what he presumed was a congress with the she-monster.

When I departed from the safety of the woods in the twilight hours of the day, my heart, I say, was filled with hope—my tragic boon companion has consented to my implorations to endeavour an approach back into humanity; the long hard road and the distant uncertain horizon, for the first time in her lasting torture of a life, once immovable deterrents, now conceivably surmountable. But all was not to be, for when I reached the beaten path that fed into the village road, a group of men and women clutching sticks and shovels and bright torches halted my approach. The leader of the lot, a man of the church, father to three lads, and a merciless critic of my family’s foibles had the most to say.

My blasphemy has been exposed, my idolatry’s been proclaimed, and my sin, so black, they said, could not, in good conscience, permit me back into the godly fold again for fear of pervasive corruption that might follow my wake.

What then was I to do?

The man of church, whom all the rest looked to to lead this charge, approached and told me that there might be some alternative in which I, a grave sinner, could find redemption, a way for me to earn forgiveness from the Lord for it was only He who could redeem my soul; and only then could I be licensed to remain a part of their pious community.

I had no need for more of his conniving words to see what was desired of me, and I had no need to hear my thoughts to know what I desired more. But something else had taken my attention and my hope—at the back of this disquieted mob, I glimpsed the nervous eyes of my parents, and when my gaze met theirs, it hurt to see them look away in utter silence.

VIII

The night was dark and darkness was alive. Young devoted men would roam the nooks and crannies of the village through the hours until light, ready to defend the holy notion of our pastures from attested evil forces lurking out about. I was taken to the church to spend the night in consecrated sight with vigilant volunteers to guard my sleep from all the evil that might further its purchase on me—or so they said among themselves, the doom-mongers. My hands might just as well be bound, and all their heads might just as well be buried in the ground.

I held my tongue and kept my gaze directed at my feet after I vocalized my mind and was rebuked for it. I’d implored them kindly, please, to open up their minds and consider the unconventional, and trust that evil was a false portrait of who that was confined for centuries out in the dark and coldness of the unforgiving woods. But the more I said the more they were convinced that my mentality has been imprisoned by the she-monster, that I had been seduced by whom that seek to loose upon our land the evil of the serpent. With that kind of notion, what ever could I say to make them see the truth? With that kind of blind allegiance in their hearts, all I was to them was just an agent for the wicked whose agenda was to threaten and deface the sanctity of their existence. So, henceforth, as night grew deep, I kept my counsel to myself and I endured the prayers and the sermons of the pastor—who so kindly and dutifully roused from his slumber to address this desperate malignant presence in his parish—and I waited patiently and, oxymoronically, nervously for morning light.

Come first light, the man of church before had told me, I shall venture back into the woods, with my belly filled and my soul replenished with armoured prayers and the goodwill of the Lord, leading a few brave and strapping men to end for once and all the wicked that lurked in the woods. I had brought upon them darkness, so he said, and it was my divine assignment to undo it all no matter what it took of me. Only then, he said and all of them agreed, would I be granted my redemption.

I did not look for sleep that night for I had much too much to think about, but nonetheless it found me unawares, and next I knew I was awoken at the first crow of the cock. Night has barely yielded to the dawning day, and all around me fever’s caught the hearts of those who would venture out with me into the grey.

IX

I said my private prayers in my head as we paraded out, our homes behind us, headed for the woods beyond the hill. Seven men around my age and younger on my heels with sticks firm in their hands and hunting knives hanging off their hips; they joked and laughed and sang, confident of their victory, already dreaming of returning as provincial heroes, basking in their visions of celebrity. I portrayed a meek character, a sinful man repentant of his immorality and working zealously for his redemption, the fear of God and hell transparent in his mind—but a heavy haze had taken hold of my cognitive faculties. I tried to think how I could spoil this witch hunt, how I might escape this anathema, and more how I could save my doomed companion; worse, I feared she might believe my love had been just imitations and accuse me of betrayal and the planner of this loathsome scheme.

The farther in we went and closer that we got to our sacrosanct covert, I had time to think no more, so I proceeded to march another away and beat a new path open, leading them deeper into the thickness. I led the group in circles until close to noon, but very soon they began to catch wise to my act. They threatened me with spiteful promises unless I led them to the hiding place of the satanic she-monster; furthermore, they added that not only would my life be forfeited, my family would bear the shame and misery of my perversions.

Was I ready to forfeit my life? Was I ready to bring shame and misery to family? Was I ready to cause the death of the only person in my life to know me true?

Let heaven strike me down and hell open up its gate to me. I could not, for all I was—imperfect and unworthy—consider the demise of the only love I ever had, the only love that I would ever have, the end of all that has been true and pure to me.

I admitted in a trembling voice that I would lead the way in this savage exploit no farther. I proclaimed, in spite and anger, my immoral and carnal romance, my devotion for the she-monster, and I would willingly on no occasion ever bring her harm. Do with me what you will, I said to them, but when my blood’s been spilled, and my flesh returns to earth, the monster will take notice of my absence. Beware, I further said, the shadows in the corner of their homes, for certainly the she-monster’s romance for me would be eternal, and my end would mean a spell of grief and thirst for vengeance. So, tell me now, I challenged, who would strike me first and would strike the killing blow? Do it fast and do it quick for somewhere out there ’neath the bushes in the dark, there lurk the minions of the monster, waiting, watching, listening. Don’t you know you have trespassed in her domain? So go ahead and kill me now, and pray that God protects you when you close your eyes tonight and all nights forth.

Then, a sudden sharp blow to my temple took away my senses and I fell unconscious to the grassy floor.

X

A kiss from sunlight woke me from my slumber. My head felt ready to explode, and at the centre of my skull, it seemed there was an angry creature trying to escape. I heard the huffs and puffs of someone that I couldn’t see, and for a moment I could not recall my bearings.

When the aching haze departed from my head and I could see my whereabouts, a chill ran down my spine and froze my heard mid-beat. The leaves that once were green now glistened red, and on the trees, instead of branches, there hung limbs still dripping blood. A torso lay a little to my left, a spilling cavern where it used to join the waist; a foreign head without a body lay a little to my right upright, its eyes unblinking and its bloodied mouth agape. And in the blur beyond the fragments of the bodies, half-concealed behind a bush, I noticed a familiar frame, the source of all the huffs and puffs.

I am everything that they say I am, I heard her say. How can I ever deny my truth? I took me but a little effort to dismember and dispatch. If not a monster, then apprise me, what am I?

I told her that she was my love and that was all that mattered now. I told her that these folks were out to do away with her and that they had it coming.

Why are you then amongst them? She emerged and took a few unsteady steps forward, standing seemingly much taller than before.

A thousand thoughts rushed to my head and I, for a moment, hesitated, debating what to say. But finally, I told her everything. I told her of my shadow yesterday and of the night I spent in church, and of the options that I lacked in coming here. I told her that I never aimed to give her up and I would never seek to bring her harm.

But I could say all that I wanted and all that was true, she knew and I did too, it did not matter anymore ’cause what has happened cannot be undone. What’s been now known could not be unknown. Life has come to what had once been just a legend, and the horror stories’ been made true.

Maybe I did not completely understand her soul like I imagined, but I tried to beg her come with me and disappear beyond the distant hills. We could start a life anew, and I would be at hand for her forever for my life has been forfeited. But it seemed the more I tried, the less convinced she was that there was anything beyond the harrowing hour that we have found ourselves in. Very soon, I warned her, that the missing men would raise the qualms of those back in the village, and a party would come searching, ready to destroy whatever they believed the enemy.

She turned to me and there was pity and a glint of sadness in her eyes, but they were not for her.

My love, my only friend, she said to me, when you write stories in your latter years about our time together, please remember that you were the only light my life has ever had. No matter how it ends, you must always trust that even in the end, I never once regret the crossing of our paths.

She kissed me once last time before she disappeared into the shadows of the woods. That was the last I saw of her.

XI

The sun was low when I heard echoes of impassioned voices carried by the breeze, calling out the names of those who could not now respond. I’d combed the area through and through, but even as the day began to wane, I could not find a single trace of my disrupted monster’s wake, instead I found myself back in the spot where all the mutilated bodies still lay fresh. I got down on my knees into the blood-soaked ground. I waited for the voices to grow louder; the light of day contained in glimmering torches, dim against the coming night. I waited for my end to come, no fright within my heart, no will to fight.

The bitter joke that followed when the mob turned up with torches in one hand and pitchforks in the other was that I, apparently, have earned my absolution—I survived the monster’s wrath; I survived the evil force that I led seven faithful men against, and what could my survival mean but holy preservation by the Lord?

I was taken home, now sympathised with and imbued a status of provincial celebrity, however, within my heart all that remained was an acute sensation of futility with moments of abject desolation. My mother and my father, they drew closer to me in some repentant fashion, but never once so close that they would hear my thoughts or that I might discover their pretentions. And the people, sycophantic folks, they huddle all around me when I step outside, their misconceptions and their desperations to believe that somehow, I had been marked by the Holy Ghost removing social inhibitions, wanting and expecting some divine miracle. God, if only they could hear my thoughts!

Two fortnights had gone and I could barely recollect the things that happened in between. Then a day came that I was condemned to live out in my mind over and over till the day I die.

Sentiments of injustice rife within the heart of folks who had connections to the men lost in the wood in brutal fashion, unrelenting hunts for that vile she-monster had been the way of life since that calamitous day. Never short of fervent volunteers, the once exotic woods was being mapped out to the inch. Trees were felled and grasses burnt, shrinking what sanctuary that the monster might enjoy. From the distance, in the night, the angry red of vengeful fires glowed, spitting orange sparks and black smoke rising to the cloudy heavens up above, and in the day it rained black ashes down upon those in the village waiting, praying for the end of this diabolic rape of their natural lives. And on that day, the twenty-nineth since that tragic massacre, folks had news that they could finally rejoice in, news that finally revealed to me my sin.

The early-morning group returned before high noon with songs of triumph over evil. They found the black remains of the she-monster among the soot and grey charcoal, void of life, unable to escape the seething holy fire of the night. And they added, hidden in the belly of the dead she-beast, there was a lifeless less-than-human grotesque creature—evil waiting to be born. I was paralysed by the news, I could hardly hear my own defence, my feeble mental efforts at a rational testimony, denial of the truth that I had fathered an abomination.

I shut myself within. I could not bear to catch sight of the spectacle without. Still, the sounds of celebration filtered through the walls and I could hear so clearly their jubilations against the pain of my realization—her death was on my hands.

XII

“If only . . .” was the only notion that suffused my mind for years to come, and her parting words would echo in my head persistently—No matter how it ends, you must always trust that even in the end, I never once regret the crossing of our paths.

If only I had been a little stronger to deny my curiosity; if only I had run away that moment in the dark I heard her for the first time speak to me; if only I had not surrendered to the charm of meeting her again; if only I had been more careful in my calls; if only and if only . . . And always I would try to imagine what her thoughts might have been in her final moments in the smoke and flames, and it was always hard to have the confidence that she did truly not regret the crossing of our paths.

The years progressed, but I remained constant in those bygone months; the events that transpired in the end now seemingly forgotten by the folks around me, but I could not outdistance my deepest sentiments that remained consuming as they did the night the flames consumed my heart.

I did not count the years as they flowed past me, much less the people who had spoken to me for the last time. Somewhere in between I laid to rest my mother, and my father not long after, and thereafter, the emptiness within me was displayed without. I forgot to count my years, and sometimes I forgot to sleep or wake. The days and nights and weeks and months were all a jumble of incoherence. There were times I dreamt that I was back in that heavenly grove and all was well, and I would wake to fine the truth and that would set me down a path of mournful stupor. Despite the nothingness I had to live for anymore, I lacked the will and spine to end it all, so I was cursed to live it out in ceaseless agony.

I was not completely unaware, however, of the image I portrayed, the character that I’d become. Children had their catchy and sometimes horrendous jingles for me, and the youths told horror stories and invented lore about my past and that tragic romance, and of course the grown-ups who remembered clearly kept their memories away from light for fear that somehow, the she-monster might still return. Even so, none of it had the capacity to bother me anymore. Even in the pain persisting in my heart, I’ve found a sweetness that I grew to like and I believe I could not do without. Sorrow has become me.

Very soon, as sure as fate, my end will come in one way or another, and with nothing else to want to leave behind or to regret, I now fight within to understand the meaning of the life I never had, and the moments in my youth that stole my destiny. Contradictory emotions broiled inside my heart from time to time—a numbness would take charge, then defiant fury and regrets would soon follow, before I’d come crushing down again and acute melancholy would swallow me. All I pray for now, is that before my time I might find some, if not understanding, then at least acceptance.

I pray, but I wonder, with all that I had been, if I am heard.

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