Pausing to still her heart, set her limbs, and quiet her soul, Gemma lifted her right fist to knock on the farmhouse door. The racing, trembling, and hysteria returned at once. Blood poured down the back of her right hand.
In a panic that shouldn’t take hold of her — not after so many years of dealing with this agony — her left hand shrouded the right and pulled it close to make the sign of the cross along her dirty blue-gray tunic. Her left hand bled too, of course, from a similar hole bored clean through the flesh and bone; held aloft, she could see the night sky through the wound. She felt warm wetness running down her ankles to join the cold funk of sweat in her boots. These pains were real. No one could dismiss the wounds as forgeries or feigned.
She grasped the crucifix hanging around her neck, the small hand-carven thing her sister Angelina had made to mock her “condition.” Anyone who wanted to could dismiss the pain in Gemma’s soul. They would never see evidence of her sharing Jesus’ agony. They either believed, or they didn’t. Angelina didn’t. Her gift, the crucifix, knew the truth. A beacon to Heaven, company when alone, heat during the chills … the crucifix was Gemma’s lifeline right now.
The woman fell to her knees. The right one still ached, still shone purple with swelling, still burned from the bite of the clown. That is no clown, her voice screamed, again, adding a new shrieking echo in her mind’s grinding racket. That attack was days ago. Weeks. Miles. How had she come so far, as weak as she was? How had it taken so long to find people, a village, food and shelter? As she’d staggered through the apple orchard, the boughs passing by between her brow and the bright clouds of this night … she’d wondered, is this place real?
The stigmata blood on her hands steamed in the evening chill. As she closed her hands around the crucifix, the blood from the wounds began to warm, to grow comforting, a soothing balm. The grinding, broken bones in her hands mended, and her split ankle knitted together. A pale yellow light danced in Gemma’s brown eyes, making her dirty face shine clean, pulling the tangles from her black hair, erasing the gross bile from her tongue and throat.
Be calm, the Virgin Mary told her. Mary did not appear today, more and more the case now, but she was here. Gemma felt her. In the stigmatist’s mind, roiling seas of acid fell silent and the blood moon turned to a dawning sun, and Gemma fancied the shadows cast on the water below her naked feet took the form of Mary, a young woman holding a babe in swaddling clothes. Gemma soared through the air, softly passing through this vision with shut eyes, calmly landing on her booted feet on the flagstones before a rustic farmhouse’s front door.
Gemma was calm. Broken, beaten, bruised beyond belief; so sore as to feel three or four times her 28 years. The madness was gone. Alive, unloved, shackled to Christ’s fate, feverish, dead, revived, rejoiced, questing. Starving, thirsty, weary. Revived. The love of Christ spread through her. She took a breath of the cold country air and lifted her cleaned, dry hands off the crucifix.
As she straightened her neck, cracking it to stand upright and face the farmhouse’s door again, Gemma bucked to see it thrown open and a pale yellow light blasting out in harsh flickers. In the warped wooden doorway stood a small man — no, an old woman — no, a filthy child. A boy, though his weak chin and scrawny legs rather painted the picture of a girl, a feeble old crone. In his crooked arm, the boy held a small wine jug with his threadbare cloth cap draped over it.
Gemma stumbled back, yelping, her left hand drawing her dagger. How could I have seen this silhouette and mistaken it for Mary and the child?
She had not mistaken anything. She simply hadn’t heard the boy pull the door open.
This silhouette … the boy …
The clouds above her drew apart, stretching and tearing loose from each other, and the rising moon shone down. The light blue gleam tickled the boy’s features. He was no angel. His eyes were hollow, the sockets black from bruising, his mouth dried out and lips sickly purple. The angle at which the eyes and mouth hung open suggested his hunger, for her tasty flesh along her bones, for her ladyhood under her men’s britches, for her soul cowering behind the gnarled wooden crucifix dangling at her breast by the thinnest of cords.
How did he know I was here? I had not knocked.
The boy stepped back from the doorway, leaving the moonlight and bathing in the dancing waves of the candelabra he’d set down on a nearby table to free his hand for opening the door. The yellow lights from the thick homemade candles showed a different face, a scared boy, eyes trying to take all things in at once, mouth trying to find the words. It was such a stark contrast from the hollow ghoul she’d seen in the moonlight that she scarcely heard the words leave his dried lips.
“You need to leave.” In Italian. Confirming that her weary stumbling had indeed brought her back to Italy at last.
“I need quarter,” replied Gemma, returning the dagger to its sheath. Her hands opened, palm out, clean and wound-free, as a token of friendship. “I’m returning to Lucca in Tuscany, and I need rest.”
“That’s not what I mean,” the boy said, in a thin hiss. “You should go, at once!” His unburdened little hand flailed to some point over her shoulder, obviously indicating the moonrise behind her; when the blue light once more caught his fingertips, she saw blackened nails and skin scorched by fire. A white line seemed to show the bones beneath the charred —
“What manner of Hell Servant are you?” Gemma found herself saying. Her right hand returned to the crucifix, the left to her dagger’s hilt. The revolver in her hip bag would do no good on a ghoul — or whatever he was — except to issue a report loud enough to rouse the rest of this tiny hamlet. Were they like him? She could not take that chance.
He is right, she thought. I need to go. At once.
The boy’s dry lips bobbled a bit, like he meant to give her details or even instructions. Instead he threw himself against the thick wooden door, urging it shut. A bleat of fear left his throat.
By instinct, Gemma threw herself forward but there was no forcing the door. The boy had barred it. Gemma was short, barely five feet high, and in the three years since her “death” from tuberculosis, she had lost all the weight of her former curvy self. The travel and battles since her revival, the trials of Christ and the work of the Lord, these gave her a lithe frame capable of slithering, climbing, repelling, and swift close combat. They had taken away any ability to throw her weight around.
His fear was real, she thought. The light of the moon … changed him? Revealed him? Hurt him?! What is this place into which I have wandered?
Gemma stepped back from the door and turned to have a look at the moon, and found herself down on one knee again. Again, a reaction. She had ducked.
“Jesus, give me strength,” she wept. The pain of her right knee intensified. She didn’t know if it would hold her weight, if she could even stand up and face this trial.
Jesus, lend me your strength, she thought. The shock of seeing what had been behind her would have been enough to make a normal woman faint. The Gemma Galgani of ten years ago, before Mary and Jesus came to her, before the stigmata altered her … that lass would’ve fainted straight away. The Gemma of ten months ago, who had just been reborn in the Cementerio Municipal in Ciutadella and had yet to comprehend her quest, much less slay Nug and Yeb, they who spawned Cthulhu … that woman would’ve struggled to stay conscious and sane. The Gemma of ten weeks ago, who had scaled the summit of le Garabrut, sealed the Hell’s Gate in Puy-Saint-Eusèbe and tore the demon Caim from the unfortunate clown’s corpse … that warrior would’ve felt dizzy and fearful.
The Gemma of ten minutes ago expected this small village to be anything but peaceful. Hoping it to be a Christian place, weary in case it was the Devil’s. She saw this coming. Only the sting of shock, the startle, affected her sanity and stature, and even then it did so for just a brief instant, bringing her to her knees. This may have saved her life.
Alas, the hulking beast could now close the last bit of space between them unhindered. It struck her head with its hand. Its paw. The limb rocked her like stones, it pierced her like needles, it smothered her like a pile of pelts. The creature was twice her size, if a man than the largest she’d ever come across, bearing the fiercest, reddest eyes she’d ever seen — and Gemma had come face-to-face with Satan himself. The beast’s maw slung down a bit, a low roar escaping the many gaps in its rotted, jagged teeth.
The stench of its fetid breath stuck to her face for days to follow; the least of this adventure’s after-effects, though. The beast’s blow was not a roundhouse, more a flicked jab, though Gemma’s cracked skull, broken teeth, and snapped neck would testify otherwise. There was no doubting it — the thing had pulled the punch so as not to blast the woman’s head clean off her shoulders. It was capable of such a feat. Easily capable.
Gemma hurled back, arse over tits, to smash ignominiously into the farmhouse’s stucco-covered ragstone wall.
The creature approached her as silently as a cat on the prowl, moved as a wolf would do just before a pounce, yet it stood as men do, on two legs. Slung over its left shoulder, held in place by its other huge paw, was another woman, younger than Gemma and far plumper. A trophy, a prize, a morsel?
In the seconds before the pain took Gemma’s conscious away, she reached out to steel her hand over the crucifix. The cord had slipped over her head during the tumble and impact with the farmhouse, and she refused to let her lifeline to Heaven come to harm through this abomination, this felon of the night …
As her fingers closed, the light left her eyes.
As the light smacked her eyes, her fingers opened.
A reflex action. She held up both hands against a beam of light aimed at her face. She tried to ward off the sting of sun rays shooting through the curtains at dawn.
No sun here.
The light was unholy, a dark red as that of wine, or blood, that moved with slow determination and following no straight lines. The merlot light slipped around her hands, through the minute cracks between her fingers, and slapped her bloodied and broken face. Every tear in her skin, every shredded bit of sinew, every lesion from a missing tooth, all roared in flaming pain under the power of that merlot light.
Drums, she thought, there’s drums here. Her eyes felt welded shut, crusted over with dried blood and nailed closed. Her palms and ankles related to this condition; it was the stigmata again. Slapping her hands over her face to shield it from the merlot light did nothing. It was already underneath, like a thin coat of dew penetrating her blanket as she slept under the stars. Her palms could not wipe the dew away or soak it up.
Drums. Dried skins over hollow shells. She could see them, somehow, though her eyes were clamped shut. She saw the skills in the firelight of the pyre across the room. Skulls, dozens of them, hanging in neat lines from tight ropes, upside down skulls whose eyeholes and other vacancies had been plugged closed with some gruff pumice or clay, whose open bottoms that had once held the lower jaw muscles, the tongue, the throat, and the top of the spine … that was covered in a thin leather. Very thin. Browned by treatments, brain-leather most likely, human skin without any doubt. Each skull and skin a prior victim of the beast. Dozens of them. The skins shook from invisible tom-toms and the skulls swung this way and that on their ropes. They made a tinkling set of notes and not the deep barrel blasts of big kettle drums.
Tinkling bone drums, hard rain striking a wind chime of wood flutes. Could’ve been pleasant in other circumstances. Here it was incessant, endless, the striking of a hundred pianos’ high-note keys by a hundred petulant children, banging, tinkling.
She saw him — it — playing those drums with its spirit, with its power, with its oily and corrupted mind. It knelt by the pyre, head back, forepaws out and up, muzzle wide and ghastly swamp breath flowing out. The flames bent back away from it towards the wall of the cavern, and she saw the charcoal remains of the plump girl, the once-plump girl, whose skin had withered up into smoke and whose flesh and fat had boiled into a sticky vapor and whose bones now spewed sparks as the marrow boiled and burst out.
She saw the soul of the girl pulled out of the charcoal, wide-eyed and howling. The soul yanked towards the creature as the flames had been yanked away from it.
Marie, her name was —
Marie? Mary! The crucifix!
— though she was no virgin, despite having been half of Gemma’s age. Marie had been a jealous, selfish girl. Gemma could see her history. Sneaking bread from her mother’s plate, stealing wine from the neighbor’s barrel, horking onions from the farm down the lane. Marie was a liar and a cheat, a fornicator who had lain with three boys her age, and two men well past it, who had taken them all into her ladyhood and some also into her mouth. She had drawn the line at sodomy, had drawn the line at physically harming others.
Up ’til her death.
Gemma saw Marie’s potential future, where things would have gone, and it led to banishment, prostitution, abortion, and finally murder. None of that would come to be, as this creature had snatched her away from that future, grabbing her by the back of the neck and the back of the thigh, raising her up and bringing her down with an awful crack. Marie had been taken so unawares, the creature had timed the attack so perfectly, that she had no chance to evade it. Or even scream. She’d just exhaled when he struck, and had no wind to scream. The only noises were the crack of her spine snapping, and the thump-thump-thump of the apples tumbling out the makeshift basket of her apron.
Marie had been out this full moon night sneaking about the apple trees belonging to the thin boy’s father’s farm. The beast had lain in wait for her, between two trees in the very corner of the orchard, in the shadows, under the clouds. The girl had walked right past it.
Gemma saw the beast swallowing Marie’s soul in the firelight, devouring the last bits of the girl to ever exist …
Marie had been set up. They called this creature. The boy at the farmhouse. His father. They’d discovered Marie’s thefts as the harvest came in. Found out who the perpetrator was. They took it upon themselves to rid the hamlet of this nuisance.
A sinner? Yes. Unredeemable? To be exterminated like so much vermin in a root cellar? No. Marie was a thief and a fornicator. She did not have the Devil inside her. She could have been taken in. Redeemed.
They destroyed her.
Slaver ran down the corner of the beast’s mouth, drawing down the graying fur along its throat. It was a wolf of some kind, a man-shaped wolf, treacherous and nasty, so large as to be nearly comical. The cavern’s ceiling was barely high enough for it to stand without bumping its head.
Gemma bumped her head.
Her mind’s eye saw what her crusted-over eyes could not, which was the ceiling of the cavern right in front of her face. Gently, Gemma loosened her right hand from her bloodied face, reached up an inch or two, and pushed. The woman’s slight body, barely a hundred pounds even in her boots and garments, floated down a little bit and came to a levitating rest about halfway between the ceiling and the rock slab she had until recently been lying on.
She saw the ropes, the same type that held the tinkling skull drums aloft along the perimeter of the cavern. The two ropes that had tied her to the rock slab lay on the damp cave ground, on the dirty gravel, burning, fizzing away like bits of fuse. She had broken free of them, snapped them, set them ablaze, and floated away.
I can do all these things in him who strengtheneth me.
Lying on the ground near the slab, near the burning ropes, was the gnarled wooden crucifix. The beast had taken her dagger and revolver and Bible but hadn’t even bothered to pry the crucifix from her fingers. She had dropped it herself, when the merlot light slurped along her body to stick to her face.
Tilting herself, like a young girl doing a precious dance routine in a town common during a festival, Gemma spun through the air to appear upright. Her right hand, still before her, made itself into a little cup, and the crucifix leapt off the ground. She caught it with a smooth deftness. Her left hand made itself into an open fist. The dagger, lying with some other belongings — not all hers — in a far corner, rose into the air and entered her grasp.
Jesus does strengthenth thee, the Virgin Mary said to her. Once more, Gemma did not see her, but fancied a collection of shadows on the wall by the pyre were in the shape of a kneeling woman carrying a babe. You can do all these things, Gemma.
The crucifix warmed the blood on her hand. The blood covering her body, a filmy mixture of her blood and the stigmata blood and the merlot light. The slow ooze grew hot around her. She was the fuel of this heat. Jesus was the spark.
Lightly, Gemma set herself back on the ground to stand just behind the beast. It still posed on its knees, facing the pyre, ramrod but trembling, orgasmic. Even on its knees, the back of its head was still nearly a foot above her eyeline. Even facing away from her, the revolting stench of its breath bellowed up and around its massive hairy head. It had no power to revolt Gemma’s gummed-up nostrils. The tinkling skull drums and hissing bones on the pyre had no power to irk Gemma’s punctured eardrums. The steaming blood on its fur and massive outstretched paws, each larger than her torso, had no power to shrink Gemma’s sealed eyes.
It is a man, the Virgin Mary cautioned her.
“A man,” Gemma said, though her broken jaw and skull had been ground into one, her tongue had been severed by her teeth, themselves smashed out of their sockets. No words left her grimed lips, no air escaped her punctured lungs. Still, she spoke aloud: “A man, with a demon inside.”
This fire is unnatural, Gemma realized. The beast had startled her back by the farmhouse door, struck her before she had a chance to smite him. She awoke his prisoner and covered in the merlot light, yet felt no danger.
That fire. Those flames. This creature, who was indeed some form of man and not a pure demon, this man who was a wolf on this full moon night … he commanded not the flames of the pyre. He thrummed not the skull drums with his mind. He consumed not the soul of the fornicator Marie.
Hell does this through him!
“I command thee,” Gemma roared, the words leaving her broken face in snaps of spastic shockwaves that rippled the beast’s fur, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” she roared, holding out the balled-up hand with the crucifix and the fisted hand with the dagger, “to go out from him!”
The creature, barely aware of what was happening around it in this ritual and ecstasy, turned its snout slightly to the right. Gemma’s left hand reached over the beast’s shoulder and dragged the dagger across its throat.
Again the woman took a punch from the creature, but this time it was more of a wild thrash than a considered strike. The back of its left hand caught the side of her head, and she rolled back to bounce her head on the rock slab that had been her bed. The werewolf spun around, still on its knees, and flung both paws to its throat. Already, enough blood had fauceted out the gash to weaken him. With a spurting gag, it continued its whirl around straight to the gravelly floor, where its limbs wobbled and its head bucked, where it whined and wailed, until quickly all movement stopped, and it was dead.
The licks of fire from the pyre — the issuance of flame from Hell itself — shirked the cavern walls and flapped over to Gemma, catching her torn britches and tunic, setting them alight. The rope-lines of skull drums tore themselves loose from their perches and whipped in whistling whirls, pumice and clay popping out the eyeholes to show Hellfire, shrieks and curses wheezing out the mouths. The skull ropes flung around Gemma and drew so tight that many of the bony headplates crashed into each other, breaking apart into thin shards.
Gemma felt fear. This second life of hers may come to an end. There was little hope of a third, and almost no hope of cutting the skull ropes that held her limbs tight to her body, to loosen the cord that crushed her neck, to douse the flames that had burned all her garments and the hair atop her head, under her arms, and over her ladyhood.
My skin does not burn, she thought, a curious thought likely from madness, from asphyxiation. She recalled similar nonsensical thoughts from her feverish brain in the hours before tuberculosis killed her.
My wind does not run out, she thought, and now she was not so sure what was happening, if she was dying or not.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” Gemma heard her voice saying, “neither let it fear.” And she didn’t. She stood up.
The fire went out, and the ropes and their battered skulls just fell to the ground by her feet.
She saw paws down there, where there should be feet. Human feet, burnt to a crisp feet even. No, those were paws covered in black fur … and in this dark cavern, with no smoldering coals or moonlight shafts or candle flames, she could see them clearly with eyes wide open.
Gemma dropped to all fours to look for the crucifix. She needed the comfort of Heaven, the warmth of Christ —
Her right knee wasn’t in pain, as it wasn’t on the ground. She stood on all fours just as a wolf.
Panic took her, fear and panic. She had been all but dead, every bone broken, all her blood drained. Not anymore. She scrambled ’round and around, trying to figure out what had happened. She saw the crucifix and dashed over but couldn’t get her paw to pick it up. Her paw was so massive, so ridiculously huge, with nasty yellowed claws that didn’t have the articulation to close around the tiny carven bit of wood. Finally she just leaned her snout down and grabbed it with her teeth, as a dog picks up a bone.
The crucifix burned her mouth, such intense pain searing through a body that had no other pain to dull it. This was how perfectly healed she’d become.
I have stopped being Gemma, and turned into this ...
… this …
She yelped in shock, in pain from the burning, in horror. The crucifix dropped out of her maw to bounce along the rocky floor. It came to rest next to the body of a man; a thin, naked man, lying twisted in a death throe pose, his throat slit, his blood everywhere. His weak chin and hollow eyes were familiar to Gemma.
The farmer and his son hadn’t called that creature, she realized. The farmer was that —
Flickers of candlelight made blinding sores on Gemma’s vision, and a shriek of grief behind her made her whirl about.
The boy. Standing in what must be the entrance to this cavern. Holding a candelabra, wondering what that tremor in his soul was. Tears ran down his slender face, leaving clean trails in the dirt.
Gemma reacted rather than thought, instinct if you will, because it wasn’t any trained behavior on her part. She charged the boy and thrust him out of her way. Seconds later, she was out in the night air and racing through the wooded lands bordering the hamlet. Using all fours to run, being so low to the ground … terrifying new sensations.
It may have been hours before she stopped. She found herself in a shallow gully with a trickle of stream running down the middle. Gratefully, she lapped up some water.
Jesus, give me strength, she thought.
She was lapping water, like a dog. Like a hunter’s hound. She tried to see her reflection, but her vision didn’t quite work with such details.
Jesus! she wheezed. Lend me your strength!
She studied the rough pads of her “palms” and the fur around her “ankles.” No blood. No stigmata wounds.
Jesus, she wept. She searched her heart, her soul. Jesus was always there, even as a child she could feel him, a tiny warm humming deep in her heart.
There was nothing now. Only the lingering pain on her tongue, where the crucifix had burned her.
© 2017 Christopher M. Morlock. All rights reserved.