PseudoPod 774: Vanity, Vanity

Show Notes

The author had this to share about this piece: “Gothic rural horror and the amorphous disposition of evil have long preoccupied me. Moral and spiritual diffidence have weighed on my mind more recently. The troubling and self-reflective atmosphere of this past year, 2020, seemed a fit time to stew these themes together, to prepare us for whatever fresh plagues may descend. Keep well and be kind in the meantime.”

Vanity, Vanity

by Dan Fields

  1. Let the Day Perish

Lightning had started the fire. That was plain to anyone with sense. Who or what had called the lightning down was another question.

Just after the setting of the moon, a snake of blue fulmination struck the mill which, being made of and fairly stuffed with dry timber, lit the town beneath it. The blaze churned through the valley, jumping narrow bends on Beverly Creek. By sunrise, half the community was cooked and consumed.

The survivors faced ruin on the heels of grief. The dead became objects of suspicion, general opinion holding that the destruction was God’s judgment on some unconfessed evil. Dark speculation first fell on the character of Robertson the barber. Crushed under falling beams and burned alive for his neighbors to hear, he fell in death under scrutiny for his coarse morals. Young women gave damning accounts of him. Others affirmed that he’d spoken profanely in their hearing and was altogether “never a godly ‘un.” Most men kept silent on the point of the barber, whose regular company most of them had shared, yet they were keen enough to speak against the late Mrs. Beaudoin who’d worked one husband to death and worried a second into his grave with incessant ghoulish talk of the first. Cooler philosophical heads proposed a cause more obscure than common impiety, unwitnessed and thus requiring divine retribution. Never did grim conjecture fall on the hoary brows of the ancient or the children’s tousled heads. Only those of prime age for worldly iniquity went before the court of neighborly gossip. The rumors played out swiftly, for after a few perfunctory town meetings and bleak stock-takings, the unburned populace dwindled in a ghostly westward migration. 

The Reverend Samuel Dunbar, safe in his farmhouse thirty miles up creek, had witnessed the conflagration as a tawny lantern-sized glow through his east-facing window. It looked for all the world as if sunrise had come too early, and was confined to the limits of the valley. Samuel, moved by an apprehensive twist in his belly, nearly went that night to see what help he could offer. He faltered at the notion of saddling a mare and riding upwards of an hour, given the dark and uneven terrain, with no sure plan in mind.

He might have gone had not his wife Hannah cried out from her bed in half-waking anguish. It was typical of her nightmares. Rousing her from such a spell would cost half an hour’s jostling and tender murmurs, while left to its own the distress would abate far sooner into sleep again. Hannah was a good solid woman, but prone by heredity and hard upbringing to morose frames of mind. Better that she wrestle with the sorrows of sleep alone, leaving the added burden of mass tragedy for daybreak. Samuel compromised with his diffidence by sitting beside her in bed, unable to reclaim sleep, his hand upon hers to quell their mutual trembling. For all he knew she’d received a prophetic vision of what he beheld so many miles off. Once every few minutes he recalled his duty, a whispered snatch of prayer escaping his lips.

Only later, on the edge of dawn, came the east wind. It bore swirls of ash and faint screams to mingle with the sighs of the old house.

The mill town was not Samuel’s parish, for valley folks kept to themselves. Appointed elders gave the liturgy there every Sabbath. Even so, a fair number made their way to Samuel’s humble country church by the north market road. A tolerant and generous man who’d have his tolerance and generosity known, Samuel took care not to voice any reticence about unordained celebrants in charge of a whole community’s moral instruction. Those who attended his sermons might carry word back to their mill town relations and breed ill-feeling toward his local flock.

In ten days the tangle of contradictory rumors about the fire died away to eerie quiet, as if a newborn myth had failed to catch an interested cult. Then came the first of the mill town phantoms, for so indeed they seemed. Tattered, wax-pale, sunken-eyed with sorrowful exhaustion, these were the unfortunate remainder of cataclysm in whom only a fraction of human vitality survived. With no better prospect than to bundle up what little hadn’t burned and follow the path of the sun, they roamed the market road out of the valley and drifted over open farmland in ones, twos and threes. Many still bore ash-marks on their garments and faces, whether from lack of bathing water or the deliberate streaks of ghastly mourning.

Samuel’s congregation granted what alms and shelter they could spare for the melancholy apparitions. The benefactors were dazed by a true calamity so unlike the tidy conceptions of grace and suffering for which the text of the Beatitudes prepared them.

In every Sunday meeting new lost souls appeared, so uniformly desolate that Samuel feared the mill town had begun sending its dead along with its living to seek better fortunes abroad. All proved alive, mere recognition of their broken humanity restoring some measure of it. Blood warmed under grimy masks, and those who didn’t move immediately through nestled by comfortable degrees in the parochial bosom.

Hannah Dunbar kept her own counsel, quieter than usual at work and at rest. She talked civilly at Samuel’s prompting, but seemed otherwise to sit in wordless dread of some fatal turn yet to arrive. When a change did come, Hannah was as resigned as Samuel was surprised.

Near the close of his sermon on the fifth Sunday, Samuel arrested his gaze on a pair of flinty faces among the gathered worshipers. They belonged to twin children, a girl and a boy, who seemed to have appeared without warning on either side of his wife. Their cheeks were dirty, though surely they couldn’t still carry residue of the mill fire. Samuel felt the breath drawn from him in mid-parable by their two pairs of narrow grey eyes, clear as polished dimes. Men who behold angels have described such feelings as the sight of those children’s eyes gave Samuel. So too, have men who handle serpents in the Lord’s house. Composing himself, Samuel finished his thought and terminated the lesson as early as decency permitted.

He’d taken a cup of cool water and felt calm again when his wife approached him, hand in hand with the young strangers. Samuel placed their age between a robust eight and a sickly ten. Hannah presented them in soft tones just shy of true affection or joy.

“Samuel, my love. This is Avis, and this is Ansel. My poor dears, meet the Reverend Dunbar. He is your uncle.”

  1. Who Told Thee Thou wast Naked?

As a minister and a man, Samuel had looked upon scores of young faces. He’d learned to read their features with care and attention. He fancied he knew every combination of innocence, joy, sorrow, gratitude, resentment, cleverness and stupidity the Creator could devise. Those who touched his heart and impelled his charity most were the simple ones, their homely faces rudely sculpted in clay with no learning or advantage but natural hardiness. To him these were the humble, barely formed yet truly beauteous, who’d stand exalted at the last day. They had yet to grow fully into God’s image, provided they lived. In them was childhood’s pure essence.

By contrast, the faces of Avis and Ansel seemed ancient with sallow cunning. Samuel had expected them somber from the loss of parents and friends, yet their taciturn manner – for they seemed uncannily like one being in behavior and attitude – was all calculation rather than the forgivable reserve of the bereaved. In their sharp twin gaze he saw no entreaty for love, only chilly appraisal verging on accusation toward any who crossed their line of sight.

Hannah had never mentioned her sister’s household as denizens of the mill town. Certainly they’d never visited Samuel’s church, let alone the Dunbar farm. There was little communion within or among Samuel’s and Hannah’s respective clans. This accounted in part for the subtle, inexorable attraction which brought them together as man and wife. Samuel knew of no correspondence between the sisters before the tragedy, and he resisted questioning his wife between her intervals of prayerful sobbing. He did not intrude on her private grief. She knew he was near, should she want his comfort.

On their first full day at the farm, Avis and Ansel moved like spectral vapors from one end of the yard to another with soundless, virtually identical steps. Hannah had fortified them with a hearty breakfast which they accepted without comment. Watching them pace the property, Samuel vacillated between leaving them alone to make as cheery and whimsical place of the farm as they might, or attending their exploration with ready answers concerning whatever caught their curiosity. When they tested the sturdiness of a fence post, he thought of fetching the posthole digger for demonstrations. From the pump to the wire screening on the henhouse, he fought impulses to dog their steps and expound on every detail. For his own sake as much as theirs he hoped to stimulate a paternal enthusiasm, reckoning that children so hard favored by the Almighty’s confounding designs would pay returns on the attention and, God willing, affection he hoped to pay them in time.

Of his ungainly attempts to engage them in personal dialogue, the most concrete was “I don’t imagine you’re used to so much open space.” He had no basis for the remark beyond a dim notion of what valley town life might be like.

Avis and Ansel paused in a study of the henhouse architecture, so intent that only true cunning or total witlessness would sustain it. Avis was the first to snap her gaze to Samuel.

“Is it always this way here?” she asked. “The smell?”

Samuel’s mind skipped a measure, unready for the question. He swept his eyes over the same trajectory as theirs, as if to gather impressions of rural redolence through what he saw rather than what drifted up the nostrils.

“I suppose it’s as I’ve always known it,” he said without conviction.

No reply came, clever or otherwise. The children moved away, two dour bird dogs in search of a fresher scent. Samuel mastered his voice for a firm admonition before leaving them to wander.

“Mind you keep to the yard unless I’m with you,” he called, “so you’ll hear when your aunt calls you for supper.”

Even in the benign setting of the Dunbar farm, there were hazards the new tenants must learn to avoid. Samuel thought of joists in the loft that needed mending before careless feet clambered up and across them. He also had a dilapidated smokehouse, out of use for a generation since the family had given up raising swine. The haphazardly boarded structure wanted checking and renewing, unless in a fit of gumption he enlisted the children to help him knock it down outright. Most of all he feared that the twins would tread blindly over the old well, which Samuel’s grandfather had capped after a stray sow fell in. It gave Samuel an ominous turn to think of it.

The twins found plenty of trouble near to hand without having to roam up the hillside acreage. A malevolent strain showed in their childish curiosity. They sought always to prick and pick, finding holes to widen and threads to pull. They pried sections of henhouse mesh loose, first play-acting as predatory animals and then leaving the gaps to admit real creatures. With constant rattling and fiddling they worried latches and locks out of true.

Hannah gave them gardening work, and they showed a placatory interest for the short time she watched them. Later, Samuel found them stunning rats with dirt clods and sharp stones. He called sternly to them just as Ansel brained a hefty target with grisly accuracy.

Hannah materialized at the window, inscrutable displeasure marring her serene visage. Her eyes froze his resolve between planting an authoritative foot and allowing reasonable indulgence for youthful cruelty. He left the matter until after supper, when he read them numerous passages of scripture extolling obedience and industry.

Days later, he discovered a series of toppled fence posts too late to save a calf from injuring itself trying to cross over. He fumed in equal part at the certainty that the twins were responsible, and at his inability to accuse them to their defiant faces.

“Nothing more than rats,” he declared at last. They took that with smirking assent.

More wayward orphans drifted east from the mill town rubble, and from neighboring communities to judge by the steadiness of their numbers. A sickness, whether of body or spirit, appeared to be cutting down the rustic population by slow degrees. New ashen faces appeared, which the Dunbars did their best to feed, and in Sunday gathering Samuel implored his congregation to do the same. Succored by kindness, the drifters moved along in days or even hours, but others replaced them.

The twins helped Hannah fashion shoes for children who lacked them, using castoff canvas, leather and other scraps. Much of her effort went to correcting the flaws of their inexpert labor. At times their ineptitude seemed deliberate, aiming to furnish the unfortunate with shoddy or uncomfortable footwear they couldn’t refuse. In any case Hannah’s patient hand put every defect right. Rude offerings they were, but fashioned with true Christian love and care.

Avis and Ansel adopted certain young vagrants as playmates, leading them in somber games around the farm. The play followed no logic that Samuel could discern. It consisted in large part of the twins whispering terse directives to their awestruck follower, who scurried wherever they were bidden to fetch things or complete small errands.  Every day or so they’d acquire new company as they tired of the last – or vice versa, likely enough. Samuel felt measured relief seeing them so active in fresh air and sunshine.

A week of this recreation passed before trouble arose. A child’s pitiful yelps brought Samuel running to a shallow ditch hidden by grassy embankments. Avis held a jagged mass in her upraised fist. The twins had cornered their latest companion, a reed-thin redheaded boy with a lame hip, and they were pelting him raw with with chunks of mortar and brick pried loose from the crumbling smokehouse.

“Leave him be!” Samuel shouted, swatting the girl’s arm too late to stop her throw but in time to deflect it. The missile made a feeble ricochet off the child’s bulky shoe, which Avis herself had helped fashion.

Samuel gripped each of his adopted charges by a wrist. “Go to the house, boy,” he told the victim as kindly as his agitation allowed, “and have Mrs. Dunbar wash those wounds.” The child slithered from sight, though he never appeared at the house or anywhere on the farm again.

“I suppose you’re not ashamed,” he growled, “of treating a guest that way?”

They blinked at him, as if mystified by such an thought. A revolting grin spread like oil on Ansel’s face.

“Nothing more than rats,” the boy said, which duplicated the offensive smile on his sister’s lips.

At his own commandment thrown back in scorn, Samuel felt a livid flush. He’d intended a tirade on the theme of Matthew chapter 25, although his tone would hardly have suited the gentle text. Instead he marched them to a shed adjoining the barn where he kept spare tools and implements. They stood without resisting against an outer wall, trading satisfied glances, as he fetched a worthy old cane pole from storage. With this he whipped each of them soundly. The children received their licks in stoic silence, but straightaway ran mewling to the house. Their inclination to take supper standing up was genuine enough, but for Hannah’s benefit they overplayed wounded shame like the lowest of cheap actors. They hardly seemed to care whether she credited the performance.

At the report of their transgression Hannah couldn’t muster shock, merely giving a sorrowful sigh before conducting them to bed. Vainly Samuel resisted a perturbing sense that her defeated attitude was directed more at him than at the children.

Tranquil days followed the chastening. Avis and Ansel gave wide clearance to any castaway receiving charity at the Dunbar table. Only when he needed a spare broom for clearing cobwebs did Samuel happen to visit the shed and discover their new occupation. 

Ansel, stripped to his drawers, faced the far wall of the cramped structure while Avis hammered welts on his pale thighs and back with strokes of the cane pole. Despite her brutal ministrations Ansel snuffled with sour amusement, derisively reciting the cardinal virtues in time to the blows. His mastery of the words, in other context, would have done the catechism proud. Each twin wore a repulsive expression of glee.

They paused their activity to regard Samuel, who stood agape at their fresh perversion of his discipline. Though Avis was clothed, angry marks appeared under the edges of her garments to show she’d already received her abasement. Silence fell upon the place for a long while, and Samuel withdrew before he’d regained his power of speech.

He couldn’t decide which of two possibilities troubled him more. Possibly the children had staged the travesty expressly for him to discover, watching him in their accustomed way and stealing up the hill to surprise him when he seemed likely to visit the shed. Darker instinct suggested that his punishment had surprised them with deviant joy, and that they’d adopted the pastime regardless of his notice. Thankfully their interest in the game waned once he’d found them out. The snakish, lascivious delight of it had upset his stomach. It was unwholesome diversion for any child, never mind two who were brother and sister in a Christian household.

That night as he and Hannah concluded their evening prayers, he mused aloud with poorly feigned composure.

“I worry over those two. They’ve such flashes of anger and mischief in them at times, even for children. Anyone would think you and I were the first folks who ever spoke up to them about right and wrong, or showed how a Christian’s meant to behave.”

He meant, with his failed slyness, to draw insight from Hannah regarding inborn vices he understood to have plagued her family. At her silence, he blushed. Old rifts, rooted in genetic tendency toward melancholy and dissolution, still pained her. Samuel’s father-in-law had been a man of deeply troubled spirit, leaving his two daughters a sad legacy. Samuel had scant knowledge of the elder sister Verna, likewise of their late mother whose loss was a formless tragedy in Hannah’s account of her sorrows. Not only had she borne a father’s cruelty through childhood, she’d inherited his dangerous thirst.

Samuel and Hannah had met in the county hospital, where he’d been to visit an ailing friend and she’d been brought off the roadside, poisoned with liquor and badly beaten by a man whose name she could not recall. In delirium she’d reached out to Samuel as he passed in the corridor, neither of them knowing that divine will prompted her.

From charitable visitations he’d swiftly grown to love and desire her. She had grown too, in devout and ascetic devotion to the tenets he preached. He admired her beauty and her disciplined heart, privately exulting in her as a practical example of principles he’d long espoused through academic contemplation. She clung to doctrines of contentment and spiritual purity almost as an addict might clutch an opiate, a souse his jug. It gave her a taciturn, sometimes austere demeanor in the presence of others. Her capacity for tenderness became a secret locked to all save a few intimate neighbors and her husband.

Hannah spoke no reply to his abstracted reflections, but laid a hand on his face. The gesture was compassionate to the point of pity, yet when she did not remove the hand he sensed a latent weight. Her caress threatened to turn oppressive and hard, unless he worked out some riddle of the soul to which he had not the first clue.

  1. The Least of My Brethren

More exiles drifted through the county, as though misfortune itself were a catching malady. Samuel faintly dreaded some pestilential descending on his farm once no souls remained among the eastern hills for affliction to find.

The haggard cast of the wayfarers crept over more familiar faces in the congregation. Had they contracted invisible germs of ill favor? Samuel was hard put to distinguish lifelong neighbors from strangers. Hannah’s grave silence persisted. A drastic upheaval seemed to loom just ought of sight. Samuel’s dreams were as uneasy as Hannah’s, forecasting storms.

When the father of men left the garden in disgrace, he found himself writing one Sunday in the notes for a sermon he’d never deliver, there was but one Tree of Knowledge – not wisdom, but knowledge. Now a question: did Adam the new-created nomad, already embittered by that illicit knowledge he’d swallowed, contrive upon his departure to smuggle away pits of the stolen fruit?

Samuel’s pet heterodoxy, confined to daydreams in the cool of evening, held that Eden’s exiles had spread their carnal imprudence by more than the spurt of Adam’s loins, quickly diluted alongside other hereditary faults. He believed they must have aggravated the fall from favor with active sedition, bearing pilfered seeds into banishment to guarantee the spread of enlightened misery. The strain was fertile but elusive, with no telling how many forbidden trees had sprung up in successive ages or how the wind carried their essence. Perhaps the serpent had helped, he who’d forfeited wings and claws to sacrilegious folly but lost none of his fabled subtlety.

Did secret folds of the earth harbor wellsprings of profane insight? What plague of destruction might not a beleaguered Creator cast at such abominations? Evil was the cancer and the crabgrass of the world. Eradication alone could set it right, and throughout history it had baffled all comers.

Peaceful weeks passed, allowing Samuel’s anxiety to abate. Despite troubling episodes he believed his moody godchildren had settled into healthier attitudes, never suspecting that they were engrossed by the barn cat’s habit of hunting mice. When the feline turned up dead, mutilated in perfect parody of its own killing style, the twins had the temerity to beam at Samuel for the cleverness of their joke.

Oppressed in spirit, he sat them down for a lengthy talk. He first read from Colossians and the Psalms on compassion, hoping to shame them. Then he produced a peculiar item — a compendium of inhumanity, assembled from newspaper clippings and essays from the aftermath of war. Granular photographs documented the civil massacres across Europe. A particular image of eyeglasses, clothing and shoes heaped around a mass pyre constricted his heart every time he saw it. He’d undertaken the project partly as a humbling exercise for himself, partly for a series of homilies he ultimately judged too grandiose for his parish. Now he employed it to illustrate what came of scapegoating in societies unguided by godly precepts – destitution, savagery and genocide.

The material stirred Avis and Ansel from their usual indifference, his new line of moral instruction leaving them visibly perturbed. Whether moved or discomfited was the better description of it, they perched in spellbound attention to Samuel’s commentaries.

In the following days they showed a docile demeanor and marked attention to their chores. Samuel couldn’t help his pride in facilitating their newfound perspective.

A parishoner sent word that his elderly mother had fallen ill with little hope of recovery. Aggrieved relations begged Samuel to come and administer final rites. He saddled his mare with needful items for a week in case the invalid lingered, and bade the twins mind their aunt in every respect. Hannah kissed his brow with a whispered benediction. 

Furnished with humble bed and board, the sober minister divided his hours between comforting dialogues with the family and prayerful attendance to the terminal solemnities. The sufferer lay sweating in delirium for six nights before the mercy of death arrived.

On the last night the old woman took a strange rhapsodic fit, seizing Samuel by a sleeve.

“You,” she hissed, “man of God, be plain with me. Has His wrath relented?”

Samuel stifled a gasp. “Relented? What wrath is it that troubles you?”

“Why, holy wrath!” she screeched. “The judging fire what descended to burn out sin. ‘Twas the start of it, and times’ve been pestilent ever since. Can it be the Lord missed his mark? It’s blasphemy asking, I know, but speak truth.”

Despite its impact on his domestic situation, Samuel no longer contemplated the spiritual implications of the fire. More immediate worries occupied him, and having it laid again so stark before him chilled his blood. He’d heard such talk, but it sat ill that one of his flock lay dying in terror of celestial vengeance which had yet to strike its elusive object.

The grip on his arm slackened. “Was the fire for the sinner,” she murmured in dreamy detachment, “or for them what bore witness and kept silent?”

Samuel couldn’t guess the full import of the words, whether they concerned only the mill town or other misfortunes plaguing her afflicted mind. She never spoke again in earthly life.

On his return journey, Samuel was mired in reflection when his neighbor, Wilbur Thorn, overtook him on the road.

“How do, Reverend,” he called with less than his usual friendliness. “Been from home?”

“Afternoon, Wilbur. I’ve been over to the Crandalls all week. Mother Crandall’s gone to rest, I’m afraid.”

Wilbur inclined his head, touching a brusque finger to his hat brim. “God’s grace on ’em. Y’ain’t been home in the meanwhile?”

Worry drew Samuel’s mouth taut. “Is there trouble? Is Hannah well?”

Wilbur frowned. “Far as I know, Reverend. I was only riding over to call on you, and found you going this way yourself. No trouble, exactly, but I come with something to ask you just the same. Us being good neighbors, hardly ever trouble between us.”

“Go on, Wilbur. Speak your mind.”

“It’s that rotten old smokehouse on your north hill. I’m obliged if you’ll stop whoever you’ve been letting use it these last few nights. Fouls the air wherever it blows, that awful stench. My wife liked to come down sick from it. Why, it’s putting off smoke even now!”

“The… my smokehouse, you say?” He’d never dealt with the derelict eyesore, but looking across the pasture he saw a telltale black plume where none should have been, like a malevolent ghost.

“Not to tell a man his business,” Wilbur said, turning his bay nag for home, “but if you can’t clean that relic y’ought to knock it down and build a fresh one. Safest thing, I reckon. Sadie sends her best to Missus Dunbar.”

Arriving home at a gallop, Samuel dismounted his mare in the yard and sprinted for the hill. The funk of burning creosote met him like a noxious wall halfway up. Geography and capricious winds blew the fumes toward unfortunate neighbors, while around Samuel’s farmhouse the scent barely registered.

Having no tool, he kicked and tore decayed planks from the doorway. His eyes fell on two moving shapes, low to the ground. Avis and Ansel, their faces and hands coated in soot, were escaping through a clandestine gap in the rear of the structure. Only curiosity about what they’d been burning checked Samuel’s immediate pursuit. He inspected the smokehouse floor, wishing moments later to unmake his discovery.

Knees buckling, he slumped against the doorframe to keep himself from falling headlong into embers. He shut his eyes once to banish their evidence, but even through a hot spring of tears his vision was dreadfully clear.

It would have been poor consolation had the charred remains, placed and replaced upon the coals, belonged only to some poor beast. Samuel recalled a wretched mongrel dog he’d seen them tormenting once, and yowling tomcats in the night who fell silent without warning. Perhaps creatures of that order had fallen victim to horrid fire rituals as well, but Samuel’s desperate wishing couldn’t form those grey bone fragments into animal shapes.

Avis and Ansel would not be trained or instructed. They could only glean fresh ideas for blighting and bludgeoning the world as they already understood it. They trawled for new tactics to torture creation into patterns that fit their design.

Seizing a rusted fire iron from the wood bin, he stepped into daylight ready to dash the brains from the first head he overtook. The blackened imps, whose appearance caused the mare to bolt in panic, made for the house with diabolical speed to match their temperaments.

Hannah’s grim face met him at the door. She didn’t step back to admit him. Coal-colored footprints trailed past her into the house.

“Let me in, Hannah.”

“Leave them, Samuel.”

“It’s murder this time, cold murder, and they’ll answer for it.”

“Why should they answer? Why only now?”

He cocked his head, unsettled by the question. “They must understand what this means, Hannah. For the good of us all.”

Her expression of weary disdain struck at his resolve. She’d never shown him such a face, and her dire tone was just as alien.

“I’ve thanked you with every word and deed for your compassion and decency to me, Samuel. You’re a kindly man, and pious. But good? It’s a wonder your tongue forms the word. You can’t know good when you’ve never once looked evil in the face.

“I dared hope… I too, Samuel… that when they came to us they’d come free of the dreadful shadow that hounds me waking and sleeping. Then I prayed you’d have the discernment of the apostles who knew unclean spirits at a glance, and summon the fortitude to take them in hand.”

“Woman,” Samuel cried, “stand aside, and I’ll show you what I intend!”

“Intend,” Hannah spat. “A word for dissemblers. Too late, Samuel. I’ve watched your aimless efforts to rear them. You’ll never guide what you don’t understand.”

“And you understand them, I suppose?”

“I know them. What we three grew from… I’ve done myself nearly to death purging it away, and their venom is more concentrated. You haven’t the grit for that in you.”

“For what they’ve done I’ll show them grit.”

She scoffed. “Another bruising? You, gifted with the learning of the Most High… you resort even now to a common whipping? Where’s the expiation in teaching them new variations of violence to practice on each other for sport?

“Did you never ask if they were baptized? I could have told you they were not. Your first Christian duty shirked.”

Samuel parted his dry lips, but she stayed him.

“When you thrash a devil out, like bad blood it must run somewhere. I saw where it ran, for though my father fished me from the creek where my mother lay drowned he couldn’t catch my sister fleeing through the woods. The stain of blood-borne wickedness lay in feeble spatters upon her, biding their time to grow from her issue.

“By water and the Spirit, like must baptize like. Not the sprinkling of your bashful sect, but my father’s baptism. Go from here, husband of blood.”

Samuel went, reeling. Hearing his beloved quote Zipporah’s curse unraveled a great deal of its terrible mystery for him.

Entering the smokehouse, he dropped once again upon the filthy ash-covered floor. He entreated heavenly Providence to assure him that ignorance excused him from blame, even while his hands prickled hot as if drenched in the blood of the guiltless. Countless times he’d prayed with reverence and hope for his moral example to touch the hearts of his corrupted wards. They’d gleaned the most dismal kernel of his lesson, and like everything that drifted into their grasp it became a contorted mockery.

Samuel wept for the orphaned strangers who’d come under his and Hannah’s care so briefly. They’d supped of meager hospitality and fled under cover of nightfall. He recalled the ones, always the small and easily led, over whom Avis and Ansel wielded influence. It was within their power, no question, to beguile the pliable and weak for their base delight.

Samuel had long suspected that the twins, jealous of their fixed household position, drove every rootless child from the premises with torments and threats. Even so, those unfortunates could wander on in hope of the wider world’s charity. If only such unkindness had marked the limit of cruelty and spite in his nephew and niece. They’d found pleasures more unspeakable in a game Samuel had suggested to them unawares.

The proof sat before him, and with a bitter outcry Samuel knocked it from its place by the firebox. It was a large tin bucket, corroded from rough usage followed by long neglect, in which ashes must once have been shoveled for hauling away. Out spilled not only ash but half a dozen pairs of little shoes, all sewn together from scraps of canvas, hide and discarded rope. Rude things they were, but fashioned with true Christian love and care.

Samuel remained prostrate as long as his constitution allowed, praying for guidance while in his heart he was merely stalling to let Hannah deal with the children as her father would have done. Like sickly bile, the idea rose in him that she might take her own life in further propitiation. When he could wait no longer, he set off toward the house to learn what had transpired, scantly noticing the sudden chill and blackness of the sky.

The first hailstone cracked the orbital fixture below his left eye, occluding that side of his vision with a blood-red film.

Bad blood must run somewhere.

He fell forward, the downpour of ice battering his joints until his flesh became one great throbbing welt. They came down as big as river stones.

Nothing more than rats.

Creeping numbness from the scourging made him stiff and sluggish, pain flashing from a dozen fissures opened in his cartilage and bone. He dragged on toward the house in the conviction that he must bear witness to the end. Had Hannah stopped short in her baptism rite and triggered new ethereal fury? Had the monstrous twins dissuaded or overpowered her, or had she faltered in morbid affinity with the taint of her bloodline?

Husband of blood.

He was loath to admit his most insidious fear, that the frozen deluge was meant as much for him as for any other. Fostering depravity unawares on his homestead, even with righteous intent, had he marked himself for annihilation?

“If thy right eye offend thee”, he murmured through cold lips. Thus invoked, a weighty stone smote his forehead, so that shrouded in permanent blindness he missed the massive razor-sharp flagstones of celestial ice falling next. They clawed holes in the roof and gashed the house’s windward wall. The noise of its collapse was a momentary disturbance in Samuel’s ear, swallowed by the thunder of holy extermination which pounded the hills flat. Thus it came to pass that from the end of all hope and joy, there proceeded the end of fear.

Amen, and amen.

About the Author

Dan Fields

Dan Fields

Dan Fields is a writer and musician from Houston, Texas. He has published over two dozen stories with the likes of Hellbound Books, Novel Noctule, Sanitarium, Nocturnal Transmissions and more.  He has released his first full-length story collection, Under Worlds, After Lives and is available at all fine book sellers. 

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Dan Fields

About the Narrator

Graeme Dunlop

Graeme Dunlop

Graeme Dunlop is a construct of his own mind and thus extremely hard to grasp. He has no discernible skills and often wonders how he became co-editor of a respected fantasy podcast, audio producer of a horror podcast, host and co-founder of a respected YA podcast, and IT Barbarian for a podcast company.

In alternate futures he is Muad’Dib, or a drunken bum living in a skip, or reincarnated as a dog, or living happily in the now.

He’s also a voice actor, with narrations for each of the Escape Artists podcasts.

He lives in Melbourne, Australia with his lovely wife Amanda. They have a crazy boy dog called Jake. Graeme has been involved with Escape Artists since 2008 and PseudoPod since 2011.

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Graeme Dunlop