The Children out of Night
By: Ayden Moore
…The fire leapt from the ground as he fell backwards on top of the dirt and carrion that was strewn about. The blazing barrier threw amber waves sporadically across the sinewy skin of his face, now stretched with fear. The children grunted and cried out as the flaming wall pursued several of them back into the depths of the cavern. One of the smaller made no attempt to flee, but instead cowered behind the flitting flames crying and writhing as the blaze began to encircle. Galvanized, he shuffled backwards and regained his footing before turning and running frantically towards the surface, it was in doing so that he first noticed us. "Now…here-now," he screamed over his shoulder as he darted out into the night. The cries grew louder and shriller, cutting into the back of his neck as he ran blindly into the night and through the thicket. They found their way deep inside him, resonating within his core, deeper than he'd ever felt any noise, it seemed to pierce his eardrums. He fled throughout the foliage, against barb and thorn, leaving remnants of cloth and skin behind in his retreat. He didn't dare stop till he'd found his way out of the wood and back to his hovel where he finally collapsed, inside-against the door. "How was I to know they were but children, yet to refer to them as such is a perversion of truth and reason. They were without that which is known to be an inherent part of their nature, more feral than innocent. Surely you saw?" Merrill's head fell into his hands as he began to sob. "Though I am not certain of what it is that you expect from me, I do know who you are," he said, his voice breaking. Merrill sat there on the floor with his back against the door for some time, processing what it was that he'd just experienced.
Droplets of blood fell from his grimy skin, lacerated and exposed by the tears in his shirt and trousers; he had several wounds, bites that had pierced skin and opened flesh as well as the scratches taken from the briar during his retreat. The tiny dark pools starkly contrasted the drab blandness which filled his tiny residence, the first significant representation of life to mark his meager domicile in quite some time-since Eleanor, at least. Merrill felt completely drained, the years of grieving had robbed him of a vitality that he'd once possessed, he had no more than submitted to this and closed his eyes when there came a pounding upon the door, traveling down the weathered timber and into his back, jolting him from his momentary malaise. The same fetid musk that he'd first encountered deep within the cave was now sluicing through cracks in the door; it was those execrable children, they'd followed him. He turned and shouted through the door, "Leave me damn you, leave me be!" The knocking upon the door grew louder as it spread and reverberated throughout his tiny shanty. They were all around him, knocking and pounding upon the rickety walls; and there came a crescendo of prepubescent giggling that unnerved him in such a way that he could not tolerate it, but instead covered his ears with his hands. He watched as the commotion elicited a bucking and dancing of the porcelain atop the kitchen table, sending a plate over the edge to shatter against floor. As the plate broke, suddenly everything ceased, the rest of the porcelain was now inanimate; removing his hands there was now nothing but silence. "I don't presume that you can allude to whether or not they have fled?" After a slight pause Merrill picked himself up with furrowed brow and peered out of the window and into the night, there was no movement or noise only the vast obscurity of darkness. The quietude was unnatural and only further agitated him; turning his head he began to speak softly over his shoulder, "This is no doubt why you have arrived at this point and time; forty-eight years you've missed before this. Years filled with youthful merriment and naiveté, then tribulation, triumph, and love; now here you are-for this."
Good sense and laconism restored, Merrill moved a chair in front of the window and sat down to speak no more; tomorrow he'd take the corduroy road to town and inform the constable of what happened. Mayhaps he'd take Merrill's story for the ravings of a grief-plagued widower and dismiss his account altogether, but if he didn't. If he followed him back to the opening and saw the charred youth himself what would he believe, he wondered. Would he believe that Merrill found with his oil lamp, a trail of blood, followed it and the bleating of his sheep to find these abhorrent children ravenously eating at the insides of his ewe within that cave? And that in interrupting the feculent young things was attacked himself. He could present the teeth marks that tore at his skin, but doing so wouldn't prove his innocence for the children could have bit him in defense the constable might say. Still, he had to go he'd decided. The feral creatures might well come back and once his stock had been depleted mayhaps they'd turn upon him to satiate their hunger. Worse yet, mayhaps they'd loose themselves upon the land; there were several nearby townships down the corduroy road, only a few miles from his plot. Merrill spent the remainder of the night in front of the window looking out into darkness; he dare not venture back out till day broke.
With the sun breaking the horizon Merrill finally allowed himself to rest briefly before saddling his mare and mounting for Turtlecreek. He rode south through Symmes Purchase twice nodding off in his saddle before the road finally converged in parallel with the Great Miami. He dismounted and led his horse to the bank where he knelt to drink. Hunched over, there came from behind him the sound of children's laughter which startled him so that he turned and fell into river. He angrily slapped at the murky water though he was relieved to see that the laughter came from two boys with ribbon-tied rings, running from a young girl who was yelling and pursuing them. I could go the rest of my life without hearing another child laugh, he thought. Once remounted upon his horse he rode the rest of the way into Turtlecreek, his trousers soaked and muddied. Constable Dyer was well liked in town and had a reputation for being very reasonable and possessing a sound mind, but as he approached town Merrill wondered how he'd react to his account, after all it flew in the face of reason. He himself had more questions than he did answers, like where did these things come from and what exactly were they? "Might be that you know what those things were, though I know you will not speak to me."
Merrill recounted everything to Mr. Dyer and was taken aback by the fact that he listened to the entire story without scoffing or questioning his wits. Instead his concerns seemed to lie with the young child who fell to the fire, as he stated that the Blake's only child Ephraim had gone missing two days prior. Mr. Blake owned the gristmill at the edge of town, him and his wife had lived here in the valley since before the Indians were run off. Merrill had seen their son on several occasions when he'd purchased flour from Benjamin, his father. It was hard to imagine that any of the young things that he'd seen could be anyone's child; their fetid stench and feculent tops, the blood about their hands and jowls, the malice in their eyes, the imagery haunted his senses. No, the little one in the fire could not have been Ephraim he would have noticed he told the constable then himself again, silently.
"Best keep the details of what you believe you saw to yourself for now till we can sort this all out. It would not bode well for you to let your tale fall on Benjamin's ears when his grief is still so fresh, regardless of whether or not there's any connection. I've gathered able men to ride the valley in search of their boy; you'll ride with us and show us this cave as well."
"As you wish, is it possible that the boy could have been taken by wolves? Francis Potter has complained about them stalking about his farm recently."
"It's possible, though I'll admit that I don't rightly know what the hell is going on exactly. What with your story and the Blake's description of Ephraim's peculiar behavior, I just can't make sense of any of it. Best if it's sorted out right now."
"Mrs. Blake said that she'd found Ephraim up during the night several times over the past week, staring out the window into the darkness. When she finally asked her son what he was doing all he would say was, 'Paisa, they talk to me'."
"Indian superstition is all… little people of the forest or some nonsense. Saddle up we're setting out. We'll find Ephraim and the truth of all of this; justice will find those who've called upon it, animal-or man."
Merrill walked out into street where he'd tied up his mare, constable Dyer followed behind him. A group of twenty or so riders had amassed outside, some of which Merrill recognized. Josiah Stanton was one of Francis Potter's farmhands and there was Stephen Marsh and his two sons Garret and Leonard, Timothy Melville, Silas Hutchins, and Walter Bowen who was a trader here in the valley. All-in-all the group was comprised of mostly older men and they appeared formidable only in their number and unkempt nature. They broke off into three separate riding parties, one to head south, one east across the river, and one north along the corduroy road through Potter's woods and towards the cave that Merrill had discovered. He wasn't surprised that Dyer rode with him, probably with the intention of issuing him a swift justice should the remains in that cave prove to be Ephraim. Whatever the reason, he was glad that he wasn't alone. They rode throughout the day and as the sun began fade into the horizon they found themselves deep within Potter's woods. It was there that one of the old men in their party called out, "Child here!" The boy was wandering barefoot and unawares through the woods, as they rode up on him Merrill could see that it was indeed Ephraim, praise God, he thought to himself. He'd assured himself over and over that the child he'd seen the night before was not Benjamin's son; he couldn't believe that any of the things that he saw could have been reared from a civilized people, and there was no way that he could have accepted knowing that he'd harmed an innocent child.
Dyer rode up next to Timothy, dismounted his quarter horse and took the boy by the shoulder. "Are you okay son?" The child was so weak and his frame so small that he almost collapsed under the weight of Dyer's calloused hand.
"They're in the ground. They want that I should come with them-or they'll hurt Ma and Pa."
"Who'll hurt your Ma and Pa son?"
"The children in the ground," the boy said, quivering. His eyes were filled with tears when he finally looked up at the constable. "Oh please… I don't want to go, please, I want my Ma."
"You're safe now son, you don't have to go anywhere. Now tell me have you seen these children?"
"N-no, I…I only hear them, they talk to me at night, but Ma and Pa don't hear em'."
"If this is some jape boy you best tell me and tell me now."
"Aint n-no jape sir, other kids been hearin em' too Mary Bowen said."
"Timothy, you and Arlo ride back to Turtlecreek, you take Ephraim home to his Ma, then you go and talk to Mrs. Bowen and her lil' girl and find out what's going on. Mr. Marsh, you and your boys ride on south and find Benjamin. Tell em' his boy's safe and gone home. The rest of you ride east across the river and find Walter and his posse, tell them to ride back to town. All of you who has young'ns you ask them what they've heard bout' all this when you get home."
Timothy repositioned his slouch hat then mounted his gelding before hoisting Ephraim up behind him. "What about you, aren't you riding back with us?"
"No, Merrill and I have to ride on yet and look into something. I'll call on everyone when I return." With that Timothy grabbed the leather reins and headed off, leaving the constable and Merrill to continue on towards the cave. The sun had completely receded leaving dusk's sanguine sky looming ominously overhead. Darkness would be upon them by the time they reached the mouth of the cave, a realization that Merrill wasn't very comfortable with. What would they find there beyond that opening to the unbelievable, under the veil of night? Would they encounter more of them, returned to feast once again? It was with that thought that his mind turned back to us, why should anyone speak of me, he thought. I know of you and those you speak for, in my motherland you're called erzӓhler, it's said that you share great things with the unseen. A scant few have spoken of you, even less have claimed to have been witnessed by you. I don't know how I know you're there, but I do. I believe that in this country they simply call you, the storyteller. "This won't end well for me will it," he questioned quietly as he stayed his horse.
Jon Dyer noticed that he'd fallen behind, "Is something wrong?"
"I don't think we should continue. Would be best for everyone to leave this alone and forget I think."
"You claimed that the fire from your oil lamp took a child, I can't put that aside. As constable it falls on me to maintain peace in these parts, soon we'll have the truth of all of this and everyone will sleep all the sounder. Ya' know, when I came to my post here some of the townsfolk told me of the late Mrs. Johnson, your Eleanor I believe her name was. Some them' said you'd become tetched from grief--"
"May be some truth in that, but don't change what I saw none. Grief may poison the heart, but not the eyes." And with that interjection Merrill took up the reins once again, moving up alongside Dyer's black quarter horse.
Night was full upon them now as they lit their lanterns and ascended the ridge towards the opening of the cavern. Just past the valley and over this ridge was the stretch of wood and thicket that'd seen to Merrill's lacerated retreat only the night before. Dyer un-holstered his long rifle and laid it across his lap as they approached. Moonlight cut through the thin canopy overhead and with it and the light from their lanterns they spotted several bones and trails of dried blood. The ground leveled out once again in front of the cave, but as they reached it there came a concord of giggling and Merrill's mare reared, throwing him to the ground. He landed flat on his back, the lantern that was in his hand came down behind his head and crashed against the root of a boxelder. The flame found the spilt oil and a small fire leapt from the base of the tree, illuminating its cankerous bark. Merrill rolled to his side and looked back through the flames to see a small figure dart behind a rock. "They're h-here," he stammered, still winded from the fall. Dyer had quickly dismounted to tie up the horses then went to help Merrill to his feet.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, just knocked the wind outta me is all," Merrill replied.
As he dusted off his breeches the constable holstered his long rifle, lifted his lantern and called out, "You kids come out, any and all of you that I have to catch is goina get switched!" There was no movement amidst the firelight, but there came another concord of high-pitched tittering that seemed to surround them. It was the same unnerving giggling that had followed Merrill the night before and he couldn't help but cringe in response.
"This is our end," Merrill whispered. "That's why they're here." Dyer mistook this reference to us as one anent the children.
"Stow your ravings, they're only children!" He called out to them again and demanded that they show themselves, but what emerged from behind the foliage betrayed his earlier declaration. Eight small figures were now slowly approaching them, figures whose size and stature their only resemblance to human children, save for one.
"Into the cave," Merrill shouted as he grabbed ahold of Dyer's arm. The creatures were all around them, preying on them like a pack of wolves. Retreating into the cave would limit their approach to one direction. Once inside their senses were assaulted by what lie within. There were remains from sheep, dog, chicken, and goat strewn about. The cave floor, a ruddy, bloody nightmare, illuminated by their lantern; the pungent stench of death and decay was so thick that he retched. Merrill's heaving elicited more tittering from the creatures as they slowly began to enter into the cave, walking on all fours. Dyer grabbed him up under his arm and pulled him backwards towards the back wall of the cave, but before their confines could stop them they saw a large and seemingly bottomless hole. Trapped between these things and a large hole to some unknown abyss they'd be forced to turn and stand, there'd be no escape, but through these abhorrent beings or falling into darkness.
"Stop!" Dyer commanded. And as the first of those evil creatures stopped, so did its followers; it stood upright and cocked its head to the side as if in examination. Its head was topped with long matted hair; blood was upon its jowl's, forearms, and hands. The skin that covered its emaciated frame was thin and brown, its eyes completely black and full of malice. "What in god's name?" Dyer cried, "What do you want?" Then in response, the creature opened its mouth and uttered a low guttural procession of unintelligible syllables, the resonance of which completely defied its size. Turning its head, the giggling returned and pushed forward to the front of them was a familiar face.
"Ephraim?" Merrill asked. "H-how can this be, we s-sent you home."
"But how, I saw you. What the hell did we send back to--" Dyer questioned. But before he could finish, the skin of the creature that'd just called out began to change. Then in their disbelief there stood before Dyer and Merrill, not one Ephraim, but two.
"No," Merrill cried out, as much to us as to those who stood before him. Jon had loosed his revolver and leveled it towards the changeling when he fell to his knees, screaming out in pain. Merrill looked down to find one of the inexorable creatures at Dyer's heel, its teeth pulling away at flesh and tendon. It'd been burnt; its skin charred and cracked, "Not like this, not an end like this," Merrill sobbed. He could see many of the creatures now, crawling up the sides of the hole and out of the darkness, like spiders fleeing their den. He turned and ran as they pulled Dyer down into the abyss; he grabbed Ephraim up and kicked at those who stood in the way. He knocked several of them down and smashed one's head against the cave wall as he ran to its exit. He managed to elude them and make it out and to the foot of the boxelder before Ephraim starting tittering. He sat the boy in the saddle and began to untie his mare when he felt them in their numbers upon his back, bringing him down. As much as he willed his grip to hold onto the reins, he was overpowered and fell to the ground. They were all over him, tearing at his clothes and biting at his flesh as he cried out in pain and fear. Merrill lied there looking down the ridge, his warm blood spilling into the dirt. He tried to push away the pain and think only of Eleanor as he began to hear the increasing laughter from below. Through the trees below he could see Mary Bowen, Emery Stanton, Hosea Riggs, and many more. There must have been thirty or more of them, all giggling incessantly as they walked on towards him and those who'd called them. So another's story is told, he thought, it's the end they want.