Forest Frightful (Part 4)

Not far outside the pit where once there was a graveyard stands an old church, white siding chipped and weather-cracked. A steeple rises up from the center of a roof that has a scattering of missing shingles, patches of brown amidst the black panels. A pile of wood is stacked outside to the right of the tall, double doors, a well-ordered pyramid of damp brown cylinders with a short-handled hatchet protruding from the top middle log. The fog has started to recede a bit as night begins its daily, gradual overtaking of the daylight, but the residual wet of the weather lingers on. There does appear to be a light from within the church, so Eugene makes his way toward it, his mouth still slightly open from the spectacle through which he just passed, his expression otherwise neutral aside from this dazed look. A knock upon the door makes a dull noise against the thick wood, but it is barely thirty seconds before it creaks open, revealing a wrinkled face with round, clean spectacles perched upon a thin nose that resembles an upside-down ’T.’

“Oh my! Do come in, it’s dangerous out there at night, or so I’ve heard. Never’ve seen fit to test it out myself. Come in, come in!” He beckons with an arm, and Eugene obliges, giving a quick nod to the man and taking off his hat as he steps inside. The black-robed priest closes the door behind him, the click of the lock a soft, barely noticeable noise. Inside, the air is a bit stale, with the vaguest hint of a another smell that quickly becomes lost to acclimation.

“Father, you are right to stay inside, but I would not limit this hermitage to the night. There are plenty of things that I’ve seen by day that would turn your hair white…” The priest raises an already ivory eyebrow. “Well, even whiter perhaps! There was a madman in a hood that attacked me, and tiny devils lurking in the graveyard, which itself was in an awful shape. Everywhere there were open graves, and then the whole thing sank into the ground! Not to mention a witch that turned into a giant wolf-creature. Are these the dangers of which you speak?”

“Indeed. And it was I who exhumed the bodies in that graveyard, though I did not know that I was standing upon unstable ground at the time. Oh, don’t be alarmed – the bodies needed to be consecrated, as the previous pastor of this church was a bit on the careless side with his duties, hence his previousness. In any case, you say the entire thing sank into the ground? It is fortunate that I was not there when it happened, and I give God thanks that you escaped with your life. I have not myself seen the creatures of which you speak, though scripture makes mention of their ilk. Well, other than that hooded man, that is very strange. Can you tell me more about him?”

“No, as he was not very talkative. Simply tried to skewer me with a stake and then vanished into the mist.

“How peculiar! At the least the devils and their like are predictable in their evil actions, but this hooded man… I guess there is no predicting the movements of mortals. In any case, you are more than welcome to stay in my humble church for the night. Myself, I will be busy with the consecrations most likely ’til the early morning, but if you’d like there is a Bible from which to read, and I can furnish some bedding for your comfort.” They have been walking down the center aisle as they talk, the small wooden cross hanging ‘round the priest’s neck bouncing slightly from the motion and the floorboards creaking beneath their feet. Eugene’s eyes move from the smiling priest to the white-shrouded shape upon the altar they’re approaching. He blinks a few times, but it does not change the fact that it is a corpse, arms at its sides and what could be a sleeping face betrayed by the grey-white pallor of its skin. The priest notices his glances and smiles. “Fear not, friend, it is but the mortal remains of a soul who has gone to meet its maker, and will be returned to the ground ere long. Though I suppose I shall have to construct a new graveyard for the congregation.” And he gestures behind with one arm in a sweeping motion. Eugene turns to look and then freezes, eyes wide, arms and jaw tensing abruptly. For there are bodies laying in the pews as well, eyes closed and arms crossed across sunken chests. Their skin is varying shades of grey, from light to a dark, almost brown hue, with the occasional hole torn in parchment-dry skin. Formal clothing is in a similar state of disrepair, faded colors flecked with clumps of dirt, and edges frayed and unraveling. The smell from earlier becomes nameable as that of bodies that are well into the process of decay. A hand comes down upon Eugene’s shoulder. “I know it’s a bit unorthodox, and a somewhat unusual sight, but I assure you these harmless fellows will be back in the ground before you know it! Don’t be so nervous; you are safe here.” The hand gives a single pat and then the priest turns back to his current subject for sanctification.

“Forgive me father – as you said, it is quite the, ah… sight to see. I guess at least attendance is up, right?” His chuckle does not find company, and there is no answer from behind, simply a low chanting and a soft noise as of dripping water. Eugene turns to see that the priest is holding one hand over the corpse while the other swings an aspergillum, small dark spots appearing on the white cloth where the holy water hits. The holy man stops and takes a step back, arms hanging at his sides, before approaching the body and repeating the process. There is a noise like cloth being stretched and the priest steps back again, just as Eugene steps closer and sees the dead face, eyes closed and mouth curled in what almost appears to be a smile. “This man appears to have been well-satisfied when he passed, at least.” The priest continues to ignore Eugene, wide eyes fixed upon the corpse, lower lip trembling. He blesses the corpse again, his words fast and quavering.

“May thou unknown spirit rest among the saints and find peace in God’s embrace, amen.” Another flick of water, and the corpse’s grin grows wider with the same dry, stretching noise. Eugene gasps and backs away.

“Father, I think there’s something wrong here.”

“I don’t understand, this should not be!” he says, wiping the sweat from his forehead and letting out a small, wavering laugh. “Be sanctified, oh lost soul!” his voice is louder this time, but the dead man only seems more gleeful, face wrinkled with mirth and green-brown teeth very visible now. The eyes pop open with a sickly snap.

“Father, I think we should leave.” Eugene places a hand upon the man’s shoulder and pulls lightly before turning to look at the two doors which now seem a much longer walk down the aisle than before.

“No, no, I just must not be using the right blessing for the job. Don’t worry, I’ll get it right the next time. But which one to use…?” The priest scratches the side of his head and a chunk of flesh comes off in his hand and then falls to the floor. Smooth white bone is visible from underneath, without a drop or streak of blood to be seen from the gouged wound. Eugene backs away further, lips parted slightly in a grimace. As his slow steps take him past the first row of pews, the bodies to either side of him pop up, the sudden movement against the backs of the seats making a rasping noise, white eyes staring and rotten mouths grinning, and he shudders violently. With each row he passes, the bodies sit up, a crescendo of movement that keeps pace with Eugene’s quickening retreat. He reaches the doors and wiggles the knob but it does not move. A glance behind him reveals that many of the corpses are shuffling to their feet, though quite a few have simply turned their heads to stare at him and do not seem able to rise. One clambers up and then falls over the back of the pew in which it was laying, and a scratching noise suggests it has begun to drag itself across the floor. There is a snap as Eugene’s jiggling of the door-handle is successful and it turns in his hand. He swings the door wide and then pulls it closed as he exits, stumbling around the woodpile, the top log of which is empty of the hatchet that was embedded in it earlier. Ignoring this, Eugene runs around the side of the chapel and towards the inviting embrace of the dark forest ahead. Grins greet him from the windows of the church as he flies, the light from within forming a halo around the ghastly faces. Looking back after he has passed into the cluster of the woods once again, he sees no pursuers this time, but his eyes light upon a large stack of coffins behind the building, piled haphazardly and covers open. He does not look again, but his pace lags over time until it becomes a walk. It is the middle of the night now, and the empty promise of an empty forest looms around him, light of a waxing moon filtering through the skeletal boughs. Teeth gritted and knuckles white from where they grip his pack-straps, Eugene moves on.

( ©2017 Sean Dorsey )

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