A Time to Gather Stones

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


The truth comes out in shadows

Submitted: February 28, 2018

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Submitted: February 28, 2018

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A Time to Gather Stones

By Harris Proctor

 

 

 

She will die.  She will suffer and die.  The thought muscled out all others.  The man sat against the rough wall.  He built the house with his own hands.  Now he felt like he was holding it up with his shoulders.  He couldn’t look at her.  The fire was getting low.  The shadows in the room became gravid.

She didn’t move.  Her back stayed against the front door.  He could hear her breathing from across the room.  His face was in his hands.  His ears ached.  He wanted her to speak even though he couldn’t bear to hear another word.

“Why won’t you say anything?” she asked.

He shook his head.  He searched for the words.  They crawled away from his grasp.  His fingers curled into fists.  He wanted to scream, to run across the room and strangle her.  He listened for the child.  I will not let him walk in on this.

“They will find out,” he said at last.  “They always find out.”  He lifted his head and looked at her.

“No,” she said.  She sat upright.  “They know nothing.  They will only find out if you tell them.”

“How many are there?” he asked.  She didn’t answer.  He put his face back into his hands.  They might find never find out.  But if they did, what becomes of us?  Only one can keep a secret.  “How many?”

“It isn’t what you think,” she said.  “It is not what you think.”  He shook his head.  They would kill her without a pause.  He had seen a woman dragged into the town square once.  He was still just a boy then.  He was not allowed to cast a stone, only watch.  It was wretched.  Worse than anything he would see in battle.  The sound of it stayed with him all his life.  The sound of rocks on flesh and bone.  It echoed in his mind.

“I need to sleep,” he said.  “I’m exhausted.”

“And then what?” her voice was soft.

“I don’t know,” he said, shuddering and fighting tears.  “Pray.  I don’t know what else to do.”  She started to get up.  He put up his hand and shook his head.  “Stay back,” he whispered.  “You brought this darkness into our lives.”  She leaned back against the door, her eyes welling up.  He went into the other room.  The boy lay sleeping in the darkness.  He ran his fingers through his hair, warm and damp.  The fever was broken, but still lingered.  He fell to his knees, pleading again at his bedside.

“Guide me,” He mouthed, not even whispering.  “Help me in my hour of need.  I am blind, Lord.  I am hopeless.”  He pressed his face to the floor.  “Help me!” he rasped.  The man crawled into the bed, fearful of waking the child.  He placed a hand on the boy’s chest and felt his breathing.  He whispered urgent prayers until sleep rolled over him.

*

The boy was a gift.  They had tried for years to have a child.  The woman was young when they were wed.  He was just back from fighting when she caught his eye.  From a low family, they said of her.  He didn’t care about their talk.  He had been enchanted.  The beautiful girl from the edge of the wild.  And he, the hero, had been rewarded with some land of his own.  He built their house.  Every rock that was pulled from the soil went into it.  He built as he had been taught.  His father taught him how to fight and how to build.

After years without children passed, he wondered if the talk of low family had been an unheeded warning.  His older brother was soon to marry off his eldest child.  It seemed the man's nephew would have a son before he.  And so his prayers found desperate passion.  He struggled in his faith.  He pleaded with the Lord to send him a boy.  Hands to work the field with him.  A vessel to carry on the name.  Someone to teach that which had been taught to him.

The priest told him to abide by God’s will.  Nothing happens outside the design of the Lord.  So it always was.  So it is.  So it will be.  Nothing can be done to undo what the Lord intends.  He did his best to heed the priest.  He had done God’s will before.  He found calmness in knowing his purpose.  He had been called a hero.  Now they look upon me with pity, he thought.  As though I am pitiful.  When the swords were gathered I took arms in His name.  I defended the faith and am rewarded with pity.  Darkness seemed to follow him.  Clouds blocked the sun.

Amid his distress came a week of terrible dreams and unshakable sleep.  Strange pains and fogginess filled his head.  Waves of agony rolled in his gut.  The Lord is challenging me, he told himself.  This is some trial.  He didn’t know if he was being tested to determine his courage or if he was being purged of some sin.  Everything he did in battle had been in the name of God.  Every drop of blood was shed for Him.  He could think of no reason for his tribulation.  As the suffering eased, his worry eased with it.  He began to resign himself to a childless life.  He found calmness again.

And then she came to him, her hand on her belly.  She said nothing.  Only smiled.  It was a boy.  He felt it in his gut.

He watched the child grow with persistent wonder.  The child clung to his mother.  The man remained patient.  Today he is her baby, he thought.  Tomorrow he will be my boy.  The man left unfinished the wall that marked his land.  A pile of stones lay gathered on the edge of the field so that the boy could help him finish it one day.

There was such light in his eyes.  Such eyes, like a cloudless sky.  Such light is from God himself, he told himself.  A miraculous child, here to remind us that God is with us.  Such light was needed.  There was so much suffering in the world.  And there would be more to come.

*

He awoke and saw her standing over the bed, her arms crossed over her chest.  He sat upright.  The child stirred.  He put his hand on the child’s head.  She stepped back to leave the room, pausing at the door.

“I love you,” she said.

His heart writhed.  What is true?  Does she love me?  Or is she trying to escape her fate?  He knew it could be both.  He said nothing.  He tried to withhold judgment.  What if I were the priestAshen and severe…  If he were sitting in judgment over her, his cold eyes fixed upon this creature, his sentence would be swift.  He closed his eyes, praying God would enlighten him.  His mind could only picture a bloody and bruised body, surrounded by stones, in the town square.  He could hear the cries of pain being drowned out by the shouts from the crowd.  His child’s mother.  Can I take her from him?  Can I let them take her from him?  He curled up beside the boy, trembling.  Sleep didn’t return as easily.  It was as it had been in the campaign.He was calm in the daylight of the battlefield.  The darkness brought fearful thoughts.

*

The child was smart.  Full of questions.  Not a leaf blew by without seizing his curiosity.  Every inch of the world seemed to be under inspection.  When they went to town, the child would seek out the priest for the answers the man did not have.  He didn’t play with other children.  He rarely played at all.  He watched.  He was filling himself with everything he saw.  He was still to young to learn how to fight.  Too weak to help with the work.  He was barely past his mother’s hip when the sickness came upon them.

So many died.  The very old and the very young succumbed.  Though they kept their distance as best as they could, there were still times when the family had to venture to town.  The Lord’s day had to be kept.  There were whispers of an ancient evil walking among them spreading death.  There was talk of punishment coming from the hand of God.  The man soothed himself with faith.  Days passed without sickness.  He thought they had been graced.  He thought they had been kept safe.

Then the boy fell ill.  It went on for days.  The child wouldn’t recover.  They wept and prayed.  Is it God’s will that the boy die?  He stayed by his side.  So did the boy’s mother.  Then came the same spell of dreams and deep sleep.  The old twisting of his guts.  This is not the plague.  This is just as before.  She brought him broth.  Then, weary of the pangs, he feigned eating.  He awoke in the night to hear his wife whispering over the child.  Strange words passed from her lips.  She left, and he rolled over to touch the boy.  Oil had been smeared on his forehead.  The man said nothing. 

The next night he pretended to take her food.  He kept himself awake.  When he heard his wife leave, he rose to follow her.  He didn’t want to leave the child alone, but he needed to see where the woman was going.  He crept after her, as though on a hunt.  She led him through the darkness to a moonlit grove where others awaited her.  Women gathered in a circle, chanting more of the strange words.  One tall figure in the center, in dark robes, the face obscured by a cowl.

The fight rose within him.  He felt the urge to kill them all.  The man turned and ran through the darkness, back to the child.

*

He touched the boy’s chest again.  His breathing was steady.  The rattle in his lungs had gone.  He touched the boy’s forehead.  It was slick with beads of sweat, but the fire had fled his fever.  The child’s skin was fair, like his mother’s.  He bruised so easily.  The man’s thoughts floated into memory.  A time when he was not much older than the boy.  Still a child.  His father brought him into town.  His father has told him that he had to see it.  It would be a lesson he would carry all his days.  He drifted off.  This time sleep carried memory in her arms.

They had caught a witch.

The crowd was gathered in the square by the church.  The ground was soaked from days of rain, but the sun was shining.  As they approached, his father walked with purpose.  He bent and scooped up a stone the size of a dove from a stacked pile and cautioned the boy against taking one.  Not until he was older.  They dragged out a woman and threw her into the mud.  She didn’t look like a witch- at least not how he had imagined them to look.  She cried and protested, raising the fury of the crowd.  The town priest stepped out from the rest and began to read from a scroll in the tongue of liturgy.  When he finished, he gestured to the woman and receded back into the crowd.  At once, stones began to fly.

The sounds were terrible.  The witch shrieked like a lamb being slaughtered.  The stones knocked and thudded against her body.  She writhed, thrashing in vain to protect herself.  Her flesh began to turn red, even where she wasn’t bleeding.  He watched with a strange rapture.  When a stone would miss, he was relieved.  When a stone would hit, he was satisfied.  The witch stopped writhing and made herself as small as she could.  The stones flew on, their paths made straighter as time went by.  Then his father raised his arm and hurled his at her.  It smashed against her skull with the crack of a lightning strike.  Heads turned and nodded in approval.  The priest raised his arms.  At the gesture, a pair of men stepped in and began to build a pyre.

Nobody would touch the body.  The priest raised his voice, demanding that someone step forward and place the corpse on the pyre.  No one did.  At last, his father stepped forward and dragged the dead witch onto the wood.  Again, he walked with purpose.  The priest said a benediction over his father, promising him the blessings of the almighty for his devotion.  The men who had built the pyre set it alight.  Their hands shook as they buried the torches into the nest of kindling.He didn’t know it at the time- people feared the powers of darkness that lingered, even past death.  The day would come when he wondered what curses the witch uttered as she was sent to hell.

*

He knew the stories.  He was raised on them, like everyone else.  Thirteen to a coven.  So it was said.  Pacts with the Devil.  Dark potions and forbidden conjurations.  For years he considered them nonsense.  Superstition. Who was in her circle?  He feared the secrets borne in those shadows.  One of the twelve would be found out.  When they were forced to talk, they would come for all of them.  Come for her.  He feared for her fate.  They would drag her into town and destroy her as the child watched.

They could come for the boy.  If they found out the spells that had cast in the face of God’s will, would they gather stones for him as well?  They could drag the child to slaughter.  The thoughts were crushing him.  He forced the images out of his weary mind.

She could repent.  Bare her soul and find salvation in true faith and pure deeds.  She could be redeemed.  Absolved.  Her wickedness could be washed away.  But not entirely.  Every time a crop failed or an animal died, she would be blamed.  Those who know never forget.  They would whisper about her.  And him.  And the child.  They would always be watched with suspicion.

They could take what they could carry and go.  They could run and find some new place where they would never be found.  They could start anew.  They could find a plot of land to work somewhere far away.  He could pull stones from the earth and build a new house.  But they would have to forsake the land he had earned in faith and battle. They could end up in servitude.  They could starve.  And they could still be found out by men of power.

And what would they be in the eyes of God?  God would always know.  His eyes were always open.  He hungered to have God’s knowledge.  To look into tomorrow.  To see inside her heart.  She had broken the faith, and now he was lost.  The priest had told him once to abide in God’s plan.  He wanted his eyes opened.  Sleep came again.

*

When he awoke, the woman was in the room again.  He cleaved to the boy.

“Will you let me explain?” she whispered.

“I don’t know you,” he said.  “I don’t even know what you are.”

“Yes, you do,” she said.  “I am your wife.  His mother.”

“You are a witch,” he said, turning toward her.  “A sorceress.  A stranger.”

“You don’t understand.  This has always been.  It isn’t evil.”

The child stirred.  The man put his hand to the child’s face.

“Where did he come from?” he asked softly.  She knelt by the bed, reaching across the man to brush the boy’s hair.

“From heaven,” she whispered.

He wanted that to be so.  He pressed his lips to the boy’s forehead.  No matter what, the boy’s life would be spared.  There was no way that they would ever drag him screaming into the square.  God would watch over him.  He tried to picture the priest casting judgment on the boy.  He pictured the cleric’s cold gaze falling on the child.

The boy stirred again.  He opened his blue eyes and looked up at the man.  The man looked to the woman.  Calmness settled over him.  Dawn began to stream into the room.  The man rose and left the house.  He walked with purpose into the light of day.


© Copyright 2019 Harris Proctor. All rights reserved.

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