His pale blue eyes climbed the bald cypress trees, towering overhead like goliaths, Spanish moss swaying from the branches like gray drapes in a breeze. He then looked down to the slithering tail tracks in the mud, evidence a large gator called this riverbank home.
“Where did he say this place was?” Leon asked the man trailing steps behind.
His partner on the expedition, Ray, squinted and rubbed his temples. A blue haint had infected Ray’s eyesight a few days back, and it was causing him the worst of headaches. He wondered if this was the start of color blindness or something more serious. He removed his bifocals and wiped the thick condensation from the lenses. Ray pointed east. “That way. Beyond the boulder with the Injun pictures on it. Not much farther.”
Leon gripped the saber confidently. “Right then. Let’s go slay us a big ole’ monster, huh?” he said gleefully, stomping on the bracken, loud enough to warn any snakes nearby. Ray followed.
“You really gonna use that thing on a monster?”
Leon smirked. “You jealous?”
“Naw, it’s a bit ostentatious, is all. We don’t get paid extra for style. Gun seems smarter.”
Leon stopped, the smirk leaving his face for something more sinister. “Heard you called on my Marie last week.”
Ray’s throat hitched like it was dry, maybe even sore with the start of a cold, and he ran a clammy hand through his short black hair. “C’mon, Leon. Marie and I are just old school friends. You know that.”
“Uh-huh.” Leon fingered the sword’s brass handle. “A twenty-year-old woman looking like Marie with a fiancé don’t have male friends, Ray. You trying to cuckold me?” He stopped and turned his broad shoulders to slim Ray, a full head taller than him.
Ray adjusted his bifocals just in time to see a muscle twitch in Leon’s square jaw.
“I like you, Ray,” said Leon. “I do. Always good to have a smart friend, one with a car and a fancy degree, one who can play the piano at the Governor’s parties while I sing.” He paused and the bayou critters also stayed silent as if waiting for him to finish his thought. But the tension in Leon’s face dissolved into another smirk, and he continued walking. He spoke over his shoulder. “Tell you what? You help me bag this beast, and I’ll let you take Marie out for a ride or two.” He met Ray’s eyes as they walked, and the smaller man looked to his feet. Leon smiled. “What’s a ride or two between friends?”
After trekking a mile east, the bayou gave way to drier woodlands.
“Did we go too far?” Leon asked.
Ray searched, squinting through his foggy lenses and growing headache, and pointed to a boulder the color of sand a hundred yards in the distance. “Nope. That’s exactly the rock we’re looking for.”
Native American petroglyphs were inscribed on the boulder. Worn by time and erosion, the muddy red symbols were too faded to be legible.
“What’s it say?” Leon asked.
Ray leaned in. “Mmm, can’t tell exactly, but looks like a warning.”
“Sounds like we’re close then.”
Ray blinked the blue film from his eyes, uneasiness creeping over his scalp. His hands were empty. “I feel like I should have a weapon. One sword between the two of us doesn’t seem—”
Leon drew the saber from its sheath. “I didn’t bring you along for muscle, Ray.” He eyed the man’s slender frame with contempt. “You’re here to navigate, help carry the carcass back after I kill it. Maybe help me skin it, if that’s even possible.”
They rounded the boulder, the hill inclining into a lip the men walked around. The ground beneath their feet immediately changed. There was no woodland detritus or fallen leaves. No bushes or tracks. A young tree had fallen at one time and was decayed almost to particles, a thick line of debris. Buds of flowers stood next to stiff stems of roses months past dead within the log’s corpse. Ray noticed the white of clean bones of maybe a child scattered in the fallen tree.
Before Ray could draw attention to his grim findings, the sweetest of all sounds filled the air. An angel, a woman, crooned a tune Ray recognized from church. An old bayou gospel floating on the heavy air.
That old-time religion…
It’s good enough for me….
The singing voice, soft as warm butter and smooth as velvet, grew clearer as the pair rounded the hill and faced the open mouth of a cave. The cave opening was the blackest pitch Ray had witnessed at midday, and it was taller than Leon and twice as wide. Just past the radial of sunlight, the ground inside descended quickly, the innards drawing down and in.
It’s good when I’m in trouble…
And it’s good enough for me…
Leon stabbed his saber into the ground and leaned on the hilt like a cane. He turned a skeptical eye to Ray, raptured by the husky voice. “What kind of woman you suppose sings gospel way out here in the middle of cursed Injun lands?”
Before Ray could reply, the woman stopped singing, an urgency in her tone as if she’d come in mid-conversation.
“Are you men? How many are you?” she asked. Leon’s eyebrows shot up, a question forming when the woman suddenly began crying, her voice acquiring a tinny quality in the cave.
“Is someone out there?” she asked, calmer, and all at once, the blue film in Ray’s sight crescendoed to a flash and he dug the heels of his palms into them. The woman was abruptly crying again, halfway through a great lamentation.
“Please, help, I’ve been stuck here for days, maybe longer! I can’t tell. Time is funny down here…”
“What you think?” Ray murmured. Leon, confused at the unusual one-sided conversation, bunched his forehead together and opened his mouth to speak when she interrupted his next thought.
“Please be quick! It might come back. I never know when it’s coming back!”
Leon pulled his sword from the ground and gripped the brass dick tight, ready for the unseen threat. “Now just slow down, darlin’. What’s coming back? Something trapped you down there?”
“I have money! My daddy is rich! He owns a big plantation south of Lake Charles.” Her voice ricocheted from the different corners of the cave.
Leon raised a confused eyebrow at the erratic nature of her conversation, the way it heightened and altered in pitch and breath. But the corner of his mouth curled up at the magic word, “money.”
“Well, whatchu say, Raymond? Feel like rescuing a rich debutante instead?”
Raymond blinked the blue from his eyes, his throat throbbing sore now, and shrugged noncommittally. Leon snatched his collar, dragging him. “Come on, Brains,” he muttered and crossed the clearing to the cave, stopping at the line of sunshine.
There was a moment, a fraction of a breath where the pair unanimously paused at the cave’s lip like fear was a literal barrier. A precipice. Hesitation was the only sign of weakness from headstrong Leon before he pulled them both past the line of shadow, and they were inside.
An odor, the reek of decomposing flesh, twitched the insides of Ray’s nose. It came from the pitch-black maw of the cave’s guts, and as he reached for his handkerchief, the bright blue light flashed at the back of the cave, searing Ray’s eyeballs like a blinding wave crashed on top of him, a chittering voice flooding his brain.
Ray’s body jerked, falling like gravity yanked him, and both men lay prostrate at the bottom of the wet cave. Confused and disorientated at their sudden position, Ray flinched as Leon shrieked, his mouth now sliced open across his cheek, shredded into flesh-flaps. His attention drew down Leon’s body to a shadow of pitch straddling him, melding with black air. It crouched and sank onto his chest. A line of darkness curled away from the void to expose two rows of neon-white teeth, each tooth dagger-sharp. They begin snipping the air, turning down to Leon’s belly, and began plucking his viscera with the frenzied appetite of a bloodthirsty carrion eater, his three-piece ruined. Ray was paralyzed, frozen, his scream stifled when freezing hands solidified from the shadows and scrambled up his legs.
Two hands. Three. More. Bony fingers, knobby and ice-like, strong, pawing past his warm groin, up his chest, his neck, caressing the stubble on his chin. They searched Ray’s face like a blind man. One crawled onto his lips, a digging grub burrowing past and inside. The callused finger stroked his tongue.
Ray gagged, then bit down hard.
The cold fingers were more bone than flesh. More acid than blood. But Ray gritted his teeth, the fingers wiggling like caught worms. Cold, acrid blood, glowing phosphorescent blue, trickled down his throat. A frost sizzled his nerves and gullet, and the chittering scream echoed in his mind. The darkness eating Leon suddenly had eyes in the middle of its pitch body, two neon-blue jewels appearing above the shadow’s mouth. They turned their ire to Ray. The darkness gasped and blue light engulfed Ray.
Ray blinked, his arms akimbo, unfathomably back atop of the cave’s incline. Hadn’t he just been…? He searched down the hill where he had…once been thrown? Violated? His heart raced, and his mouth tasted sour. Standing with squared shoulders, Leon chortled, his cheek un-maimed. He held the saber aloft.
“Now, darlin’, this ain’t funny. I wore my nicest suit and best smile to come on in here and rescue you. Where you hidin’? Don’t you want us to save you?” His voice trembled. A terrible foreboding clinched Ray’s sore throat when the angel spoke.
“I’m over here, pinned to the floor.” She was unexpectedly close. Both men spun to the cave’s wall where a pair of motionless blanched feet lay, naked and dirty in the soft gloom.
Ray didn’t want any closer, angel or not. He felt on the edge of remembering something terribly, life-savingly important. The back of his throat burned like he just drank glacial water. Leon reached and snatched Ray’s shoulder for an anchor, and the pair approached her.
“I need some help getting up, please…”
In the gloam, the inert feet connected to a naked pair of slender legs, lily-white thighs leading to a naked groin and a tuft of black hair. Ray froze. Above the groin, a deep crevice gouged her belly. Simply blackness, the start of a black hole.
Leon murmured, “What in damnation…” He inched closer, dragging the unwilling Ray, who shuffled lest he fall. The gutted stomach connected to sagging, deflated breasts below a neck with a bony hand clamped around it. Ray gagged. The angel was a woman. Once. Her face had decomposed, the edges of her orifices blackened with putrefaction. Milky-white eyes oozed viscous gel and stared at them silently. The hand around her throat twitched, and the mouth muscles moved. Her voice was perfect.
“I’m sorry, so sorry. I can’t leave no matter how hard I try.”
Their eyes followed the hand, connected to a spindly arm, elongated and stretching back to the wall cave, melding into black, rocky grottos.
“I just stepped through and then the door closed and now… Now I can’t leave…”
The long arms towered high, the dead woman still talking. A puppet.
“It’s worse when I’m hungry. I just can’t think, my mind scatters. Time scatters.” Slender shadows on the ceiling of many long arms reached from all corners of the cave connecting to a pot of ink sticking to the roof. The corpse’s vocal cords began crying. “I’m stuck in this cave, all outta time and too much of it.”
Transfixed, the pitch lowered, its shape nebulous and morphing, like it was at all ages of growth and none at all. A black cloud abruptly shrinking, or growing with spindly, numerous legs. It lowered, and Ray imagined the blue jewel eyes he had never seen. The monster spoke through the dead. “It’s better when I’m full though. Hunger is chaos. The hungry world, no matter what world, is always chaos.”
The black cloud congealed, lowering to their eyeline. A petrified Leon finally remembered his saber just as a finger and talon curled around his head, slicing his cheek open. Another three hands plucked him from the hill and down into the darkness. while one more emerged, reaching for Ray just as he was blinded by blue light and time spun him away.
Ray paused a step inside the entrance, sick with vertigo and disorientated. He had forgotten something. Leon stepped ahead, his bravado nearly faltering. The cave’s decline was immediate, the innards were a chasm. Down and through, with no bottom they could see.
The woman spoke, “I’ve been stuck down here for an age.”
Leon mumbled, navigating the hill, “What you doing down here…?”
She interrupted, her voice now positively exuberant. “Oh God, I thought no one would find me. Everyone passes and no one stays. Nothing stays. Even time leaves.”
A breath on Ray’s nape transfigured his feet to steel blocks, a looming awareness of a presence hiding in the dark. When he finally spoke, his voice was strange and held a duplexity to it. “Anyone else down here?”
Leon paused and looked at him curiously.
The woman didn’t reply, as if studying Ray in the darkness, and the sensation of hands, eyes, grew, suddenly interested in Ray. A weight bloomed in his chest, making it heavy, his throat burning from icy-hot liquid he hadn’t yet drank. A monster loomed above them, clinging to the ceiling, he was sure of it.
The woman gasped, “Thief!” just as Ray’s headache flared with the incandescent light, causing him to convulse. Time pounded memories into his slow mind, playing catch-up. The corpse, the monster, blood oozing down his throat, curdling onto his being.
Unthinking, Ray immediately retreated one step into the sunlight, out of the cave’s influence. Out from its unnatural, unworldly, chaotic asynchrony, the voice thief reverberating through the cave like time played it on repeat.
Leon’s smooth brow furrowed at his partner, and he turned his back on the cave’s darkness. Behind him, spindly white hands levitated out from the dark, connected to impossibly long white arms dipped in the black recesses. Fingers snatched Leon’s head, a talon snaring his mouth like a fishhook, and sheared his cheek open. He screamed, the sound falling flat without a mouth. The antique saber clattered to the ground, forgotten. Other hands, white and alien, gripped his body like a blanket of fingers and lifted Leon like a child, submerging him into the cave’s Stygian depths. Leon’s shriek was suddenly cut off.
Blue light exploded like fireworks inside Ray’s head and eyes and brain. He clutched his skull, curling onto the ground, listening to Leon shriek again. Off and on, howling, always severed only suddenly to return. Like Leon jumped through time. Being eaten in the wrong order. Until there was nothing. Silence.
The flaring light slowed in Ray’s brain, the sounds, his panic, his heart, all calming. He blinked his eyes open. His bifocals had fallen and lay on the ground, right next to Leon’s fancy saber. He picked both up as he stood and looked to the cave. A shadow moved in the darkness, watching Ray silently. Ray gripped the saber as if he knew how to use it, his heart starting another race, when a pale, naked body floated within the murk. It was Leon, naked, skin gray and weeks into decomposition, a black hole in his belly, and milky white eyes in his head. The carcass hung limp, suspended by the hand gripping his throat.
The hand and fingers twitched, and Leon’s mouth opened for his silver tongue and charm. His voice crooned in echoes, flowed through time like a river of darkness. The gray corpse, levitating in the dark, sang.
That old-time religion…
It’s good enough for me…
Ray ran, his new saber clutched at his side.
Copyright © 2023 Rowan Hill