by J. E. Gurley
Throughout my childhood, night called to
me like a dark Siren, using words only I could hear. The unknown darkness from which most fled, I embraced as a long lost
brother. Because of my predilection, my childhood was one of solitude, but never empty.
I had no friends but I did have companions:
Frail fairy creatures from the dark woods, worrisome imps from the deep, rocky recesses and grottoes, and specters that haunted
the graveyards of my nocturnal walks. They spoke to me of strange things far beyond the shallow veil that separates our world
from that of the so-called non-living.
I say non-living but do not mean dead. There
are stages of life about which we poor inhabitants in our pitiful, pale shadow of a world know nothing. We think we live,
we die and our soul passes on to greater glory. We learn this in our religious schools with minor variations on theme and
If people understood how small a part the
soul plays in our daily existence, they would abandon their hollow churches; let them fall down from lack of use. They would
hunt down the priests and murder them in revenge for the lies and torment they have caused. The soul is a spark, an essence
that separates us from the animals but that is all. It is not a piece of the Divine, a fiber optic cable connecting us to
God. It is not a sign of freewill. It is merely a boundary that we dare not cross. Yet, many have crossed it.
I am one.
It was on a cold, sleepless night when I
was but twelve. The call was upon me. The night was black, unyielding, filled with strange sounds and melodies. My friends
implored me from the woods, tempting me with more tales of bizarre worlds and times long past. What I had thought of as a
bond between fellow creatures, they had considered an initiation. If I had an inkling of what that initiation consisted of,
I would have fled immediately, never to venture into the dark again.
But I did not.
Instead, I thought nothing out of the ordinary
when they accompanied me to a spot deep in the woods to which I had never ventured. Looking back, I dare say men had never
ventured there, nor would such a place show on any map. It was a place beyond the limits of the imagination, a rent in the
veil of dreams.
Men have forever set boundaries against
such places, piles or circles of stone designed to compel obeisance. Such boundaries lurk with the powers of the universe.
They swell with the hunger of those compelled. The air was ripe with expectation and yearning.
In the center of the woods, we came upon
a well, lined in large, black stones grown slick with moss. The stones had been carved crudely, almost as if chiseled by sharp
teeth rather than chisel and mallet. They reminded me of blocks of cheese nibbled by a rat. The pale moon was directly overhead
and by leaning over, I could tell that the well was very deep indeed. From certain sulfurous odors wafting upwards from the
deep chasm, I suspected its roots were those of the world itself.
More ominous than the well were the multitude
of claw marks on its lip, as if some enormous creature had used the slick stones for purchase as it climbed out.
With flute, fife and drum, the creatures
of the night set up a cacophonous racket that bit deep into the marrow of my bones. The music was primitive, written before
melody or harmonies were born. Voices, unseen and nonhuman, joined in until the music reached a tumultuous end.
As the last, horrible notes faded away,
there came a sound more terrifying, more sinister than any I had heretofore witnessed. It seemed as if the bowels of the earth
had let loose in ecstatic flatulence, roaring upward from the dark chasm; then came the scratching.
The creatures of the night woods backed
slowly away from the well, but I, human and curious by nature, crept closer to be first witness to the horror that was near
emerging from the terrible orifice.
Preceded by the appalling odor of decayed
and rotted meat and the horrible, penetrating sound of skeletal fingernails on chalkboard, the nose of the creature appeared
above the lip of the well, long whiskers glistening with dried blood and a foul ichor bristling on each side.
As more of the creature became visible,
I saw it to be a rat-like creature with large, sharp claws suitable for burrowing deep beneath the earth. Its red, evil eyes
fixed upon me as it emitted a squeak of thunderous proportions. Its teeth, as half as long as my arm and smeared with putrid
flesh and long clotted blood, spoke of its necrotic appetite.
It was an eater of the dead, burrower of
ancient graveyards and battlefields.
I glanced around and saw that I was now
alone, my companions having hidden in the surrounding wood. Unseen eyes watched to see what tale would unfold. Soft, inhuman
chattering revealed a fascination for and a fear of the creature.
The creature sniffed me and shuffled around
the hole, unease visible in its movements. It looked ready to abandon the clearing and bolt back down the well at any moment.
I marveled that I, a mere human, might frighten it. Used to its solitary ways, it had never before met a live human and instinct
whispered to it to flee. Emboldened by its fear, I walked forward and reached out my hand. Like a young pup, the burrower
sniffed my hand carefully; then licked it. As if paying obeisance to my command, it lay down at my feet.
My companion creatures slowly reentered
the clearing, my rights to manhood complete. I had passed their test and now was one of them, a member of the society of night
creatures. One walked up to me bearing a small, cloth wrapped bundle, a human baby. It made no sound and its eyes were open
and staring blankly.
I knew what I had to do. Lifting the baby
over my head, I flung it down the well. From deep below, I heard more chattering and squeaking sounds, the young of the Eater
of the Dead.
I reached down and patted the head of my
furry new companion. I was now complete, less human than creature of the night. I had crossed the boundary none dare cross.
“Come,” I told it. “It’s
time you tasted fresh flesh.” Around me, my companions chattered their approval.
Together, we strolled through the night
toward the town, its sleepy innocent lights blazing like distant stars, frightfully unaware of the horror creeping toward
them on rat-like feet.
Copyright J. E. Gurley 2005