By E. M. Sole
A rumble woke Marten now sitting rigid in his bed. The sound was coming from below, from the earth itself, and it grew louder. His bed, barely more than sticks lashed together with a straw mattress, shook under him. Soon the bed danced across the floor.
The noise grew in volume until it was too painful to bear. Then it stopped.
“Some weird dream that was.” Groggy from fatigue, he laid back into the mattress wriggling slightly to move out of the way of a straw poking into his right shoulder blade. As his eyes closed a new sound started, this one a high-pitched whine, before he could react a wind came up catching the blanket making it billow and fly across the room. His hair blew up hitting his cheeks and getting into his eyes as they snapped open. His hands grabbed the bed frame’s rails like he was never going to let go again. The wind picked the left corner of the bed up off the floor a few inches, dropped it, rocked up and dropped the right corner. Then the bed skittered across the floor of his tiny room banging first one wall then shoved against the opposite.
The wind died as quick as it started, and the blanket, twisted into a lump, fell down from where it had been hovering against the ceiling and dropped on Marten’s head rolled off and landed on the floor.
Marten sat up slowly, eyes searching the dark room, his white knuckled fists tightly gripping the bed rails. The air was still, with no sound, except Marten’s raspy breathing.
The bed lay at an angle across the room wedged against the door. Marten leaned over the edge expecting to see a hole ripped into the floor. However, the dim moonlight coming in his small dirty window showed the narrow boards just like they’d been the evening before only with a few more dents and gouges in the old wood where the bed’s legs had struck during its violent dance.
Marten slowly released finger by finger and eased his hand over the edge of the bed, which was only about a foot high so it was easy to touch the boards. He tried to run his fingernail in the gaps, but they were tight.
His small stool was upside down inside an old crate he used for a desk, its legs sticking out at odd angles. The only other piece of furniture in his room, a large, very old, very battered sea chest that held all of Marten’s meager possessions, hadn’t moved. It was still in its place next to the door caught behind the head of the bed.
Marten rubbed his eyes, and tried to rub sense into his mind. Was it a dream, he wondered. It didn’t feel like a dream and everything was all messed up, but wind doesn’t blow through the floor.
It did blow through the walls of his grandmother’s house where he’d lived after the death of his parents, before Master Tom, the village’s blacksmith, took him in three years ago to be his apprentice. Grandmother’s house was just a shack built of shipwreck wood and tarpaper. It was so poorly made a herd of small rodents could have run into it and back out the other side with barely a change in course or break in stride. But the loft of the stable, where Marten’s little room was, was well built, free of drafts in the worst winter storm and rarely cold, kept warm by heavy blankets and the heat of the horses rising up from the stalls below.
“It couldn’t have been a dream, dreams don’t move things.” His memories of what happened were clear and detailed not the hazy dreams he was used to, but wind doesn’t blow through floors, at least not well made floors. He threw himself back on the mattress wincing as the straw impaled him again just below his right shoulder blade, and lay there staring at the ceiling until he fell asleep, his legs hanging over the edge of the bed. He roused once just enough to scratch an itch on the bottom of one foot with the toes of the other, but there were no more unreal noises or uncanny winds to wake him before morning.
The light of dawn and an itchy nose woke Marten. He tried to raise himself from the bed, but the weight of his body was too much to lift and he sank back down into the straw. The mattress was like a bed of needles sticking through his nightshirt. He lifted his arm. It felt like it moved in molasses. There was a feeling inside him that he should have been afraid, but he wasn’t, instead calmness lay on top of him pushing downward into drowsiness. Marten gave up fighting and let himself be swept into the quiet numbness.
Suddenly, the weight of stupor turned into a lightness almost lifting him up. The room filled with a golden light streaming in the window, like sunlight only more
- His dirty, worn, little room glowed transformed into a glittering palace in the brilliance.
“Marten,” an unfamiliar voice called to him from the hall. It was sweet as honey and as musical as a lark’s song. All Marten wanted at that moment was to hear the voice call his name again.
“Where are you, boy?” called a different voice, the voice of his master, and the golden light went out leaving just the normal, pallid in comparison, sun to light the room. “Marten! Don’t tell me you are still asleep.” Master Tom yelled.
Marten hungered for the light. His stomach twisted inside him aching to hear the sound of the voice again. He stood slowly, his body feeling crushed under the weight of a lifetime. The nightshirt slipped over his head pulled by heavy arms. As he put his clothes on they fought against stiff and clumsy hands.
Marten shuffled to the door. The door’s cold brass knob turned harder than he remembered. The stairs down to Master Tom’s workshop were too steep and his knees wanted to give way with each step. Marten found himself gasping by the time he reached the bottom. Usually, he flew down two steps at a time. The singing birds outside the open door to the stable yard made him ache even more.
“What’s with you, boy? You sick?” Master Tom came into sight just beyond the door with a heavy burlap sack over his shoulder. There would be many more sacks, full of oats for the horses, waiting for Marten to carry.
“No.” Marten struggled to get the word out. “I don’t think so.” His voice was weak. “I don’t know.”
Master Tom shook his head, adjusted the heavy sack and walked out of sight.
Marten shrugged as he went out into the yard to where the pile of sacks waited to be taken to the stable loft. The day seemed dim even though the sun was shining down from a cloudless blue sky. Sparrows flitted from rooftop to tree branch singing, but they sounded harsh and empty to Marten. His ears searched the sounds of the rustling leaves and the calls of birds for an echo of the voice calling his name.
Master Tom stood by the stable watching him out of the corner of his eye as he tried to pick up a sack. It slipped through weak fingers. He tried again, but it was so heavy that he couldn’t get it off the ground. Marten leaned against the pile of sacks and ran the back of his hand across his forehead. Master Tom’s arms were crossed across his chest and the hardness in his eyes had spread into a tightness in his face.
“Seems a little heavier than usual.” Marten smiled weakly over his shoulder at Master Tom who shook his head slowly. “Give me a minute and I’ll be fine.” He tugged hard. The sack lifted partway up from the ground but it wouldn’t come up any farther. Marten had to settle for dragging it across the dirt. He had managed three backward steps when Master Tom’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“If you do that you’ll rip it open and ruin it.”
Marten sagged. He knew Master Tom was right and with all the strength he had he tugged the sack until it came off the ground. Marten felt his knees giving out and would have collapsed to the ground if Master Tom hadn’t plucked it from him. The world seemed to be made of jelly and glitter for a moment and the ground moved side to side under his feet as he watched Master Tom carry the sack into the stable.
“Go back to bed.” Master Tom called back as he disappeared through the door.
Marten tried to argue. Then a creeping thought broke through, the voice might be there on the other side of a dream, waiting. His hand fell down to hang limp by his side, and a wave of weakness washed over him.
“Yes, sir.” The words were too faint for the master to hear. Marten walked into the stable and struggled up the steps. Each step seemed steeper and more vicious than the one before.
He was thinking of giving up and sleeping right there on the staircase when a quiet sound filled his awareness for a brief moment.
He didn’t notice walking up the rest of the steps. It was done in a heartbeat and he was in his room falling, still dressed, onto his bed, and slipping into the comforting darkness of sleep.
His room once again flooded with the pure golden light. “I’m dreaming again,” he whispered. Marten couldn’t breathe or move as he waited for the sound of the voice to wash over him.
“Marten, Marten, come out.” He sat up. The voice was coming in the open window, wafted on a breeze smelling of apple blossoms and lilacs. The golden light shone so bright it washed away the sight of the trees outside the window, and made his eyes ache looking into it.
“Marten.” The voice came again, more insistent, sweeter than the sweetest honey. It pulled him to his feet and out the door. His hand slid along the banister as he walked slowly down each step. The old wood was soft and smooth like goose down under his fingers.
Lilting laughter drifted in the door, three different voices from the sound of it, one deeper and full of joy, one soft yet rich as the church’s organ, the third the honey-sweet voice that had called to him. He walked from the steps to the door nearly blinded by the brilliant light and out into the flood of gold illuminating the stable yard. Through his tears, he could make out outlines of familiar things transformed into golden treasures.
The trough’s wood glowed, its water turned to liquid silver shivering in the breeze. The trees were in full bloom with the weight of their flowers bending branches down until they brushed his head tangling his hair. As he ran his fingers through the caught strands a cascade of pink and white petals rained down drenching him in an intoxicating perfume far beyond what any ordinary apple tree could have.
“Marten,” the voice called from down the road. He looked, shading his eyes, but the speaker was out of sight beyond the trees. Without a thought he kept going, walking the familiar road by memory and instinct, his mind drugged by the laughter and perfumes. Everything was so familiar, the broken fence of rough-hewn wood, the trees and lilac bushes erupting from grass, the rutted road’s dirt and gravel throwing up the familiar haze of dust, though it was transformed insubstantial and radiant, almost like everything was made of pure light, caught in an instant of perfection.
“Marten,” the voice called, now touched with a sadness that added to its beauty instead of taking away.
He stepped out from under the canopy of tree branches into the pasture he knew was there. It was filled with butterflies dancing among blooming wildflowers shimmering in the light, and sitting nearly hidden by the flowers were three girls. His first impression of them was shining hair. One was blonde, nearly white with a touch of flax, one was red-haired, a deep rich color not the carrot of his younger sister still living in the shack with their grandmother, and in-between a brunette with hair of delicious brown. He could almost taste the color.
The middle girl smiled shyly at him and reached out a delicate hand. “Marten.” Her voice was the one of honey, liquid, sweet, deep. “Please, come here and sit with us.”
He stepped toward them into the grass. It rustled as his leg brushed against it.
“Marten.” Master Tom was yelling at him. Marten looked around. Every direction was washed out, sky and trees faded into the golden light. The girls were looking around, also. They seemed upset. The brown-haired girl started to stand.
“Sir?” Marten mumbled.
“Marten, wake up!”
“Wake up?” Marten stumbled. His body shook uncontrollably. The world turned dim as the golden light faded away, and he was sitting in his bed in his room lit by the dull light of the afternoon sun, being held up by Master Tom’s strong hands on his upper arms. Master Tom was shaking him. “Sir?”
Master Tom let go. “Are you awake?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” Marten rubbed his burning eyes. Without Master Tom’s strength holding him up, Marten sagged back down into the mattress, his arm falling limply across his chest. “I’m so tired.”
“Don’t go back to sleep.” Master Tom’s voice was sharp. “There’s something wrong about this.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Marten said as the golden light flooded back into his vision and made Master Tom fade away. He was once again standing under apple trees heavy with blooms and hearing the girl’s laughter. He followed the sound, his feet moving of their own accord over ground that held no firmness under him. It was like walking on a cloud. The breeze left no coolness on his cheek. Grass and wildflowers parted effortlessly letting him through with no resistance.
“Hello?” Marten called. His voice sounded shallow and lifeless.
A couple more steps and he saw the girls sitting in the grass laughing. The blonde-haired one glanced at him shyly. Her eyes were brilliant green and seemed to see into his heart and soul. “I think he likes me best,” she said as graceful fingers lifted a lock of hair away from her face.
“No, he likes me best, just look at him watching me,” the red-haired girl said leaning back coyly to display her face and neck in a frame of russet red waves. Marten’s heart beat faster when he met her gaze.
“Let’s just ask him shall we?” the brown-haired girl said. Marten turned his eyes to her, her eyes met his boldly, not a trace of coyness or shyness, just a gentle confidence. She ran her fingers down her neck to her shoulder leaving them resting on her collarbone. “Which of us is your favorite, Marten Willow?”
Marten jumped at the sound of his name. His breath grew tight ragged forced. “What?” He choked on the word.
The brown-haired girl smiled slightly at his discomfort. “Choose,” she said.
Marten’s heart pounded against his ribs. It ached. He ached. His legs wanted to run, his arms wanted to grow feathers and fly away, and his head hurt so much his fingers wanted to tear at his temples.
“Choose.” The word was like a weapon sent flying at him encased in her honey voice, an attack on his soul.
He screamed and was back again in his room, dimly lit with bluish late afternoon light.
Master Tom was staring at him eyes wide, half out of the little chair. “Marten?”
“Help me.” Marten said. Tears that felt cold as ice started building in his eyes. He shook from a chill coming from inside his bones.
Master Tom put his hand on Marten’s arm. It was strong and calming. “Father Peter is here, he will know what to do.”
Marten turned his head. Father Peter was standing by the sea chest laying a cross, a bible and various sized and colored vials on it. Because of his height, he was bent as if he was bowing in prayer. The light from the window glowed a pale halo in his brown hair. He picked up a vial and turned to face Marten. The room’s low ceiling nearly brushed his head.
“You have been possessed by evil, Son. I do not know the exact nature of the entity yet, but have faith. No evil can stand before the lord.” Marten felt a weight lift from him at the strength of Father Peter, but his heart ached for the sound of the honey voice and sweet face of the brown-haired girl.
“She cannot be evil,” he whispered.
Father Peter took a sharp breath and paused a moment. “Do not be enticed by appearances, son. Your heart and soul know the truth of things if you just listen.”
Marten smiled up at him weakly, in his ears the echo of a memory called to him and the drowsiness started to wash through his senses, and he wanted it more than anything. Father Peter was saying something but Marten couldn’t hear, all he could hear was the voice, very faint, calling his name. He turned to it and a shaft of golden light illuminated the room as Father Peter touched his forehead leaving behind a hot wetness. The heat grew until Marten cried out, coming back fully to wakefulness and the golden light faded away.
“Amen,” Father Peter said in a solemn tone. He stood with his hands crossing his chest, eyes closed.
Marten struggled to sit. A sound stopped him and he fell back into the straw mattress. It was faint howling like a vicious wind blowing, neither Father Peter nor Master Tom seemed to hear it as it grew in intensity. It became louder until it felt like it would tear him apart.
Father Peter put his hand on Marten’s arm. “What is the matter, son?”
Marten opened his mouth to answer but all that came out was a scream as the wind shot up out of him. Father Peter was forced back his hair whipping around. The wind spun around the room filling it and pushing the two men back away from the bed.
Father Peter tried to follow the invisible wind with his eyes. “Vile spirit be gone!” he yelled holding up his huge cross in one hand and his heavy bound bible in the other. The wind calmed a moment. Then a chorus of screaming took its place. The sound turned into a soft golden light streaming in the window. He sat up, Father Peter was pushed against the wall his face transfigured with terror holding the bible before him like a shield.
“Marten,” the voice of honey called, “Marten, please come. We are waiting for you.” Marten stepped forward.
As he passed by Father Peter, the father grabbed his arm. “No, Son, stay here. Don’t listen to the call of evil.” The father’s voice was raspy and he shook in great tremors.
“Marten, hurry,” the voice pleaded.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I have to go.”
As Marten tried to pull away, a breeze came up the stairs smelling of sweet scented flowers and Father Peter fell back, choking, letting go.
Marten reached toward Father Peter, but the voice called him again, desperate, and he turned without thinking back to the steps and down into the golden light out in the yard where the three girls were waiting.
When he stepped out the blonde-haired girl reached out to him. “Come to me.” Her voice twinkled with laughter.
“No, come to me.” The red-haired girl touched a graceful finger to her lower lip.
The brown-haired girl turned away. Marten’s heart felt like it shattered. “Why do you keep leaving me, Marten?” she said quietly. “Don’t you like me?”
Suddenly, Marten felt like chains fell away from him. “Oh yes, I like you.” He rushed forward, stopping a couple yards away from the three girls.
“Then say you choose me, and you won’t ever have to leave again.”
The words pushed their way up into his mouth and caught there as Father Peter stumbled out the door. He was crouched cowering his eyes darting side-to-side following things Marten could not see.
“No, do not fall into the trap of evil,” he said. A breeze ruffled Marten’s hair. When it reached Father Peter, he started coughing.
“Choose me.” the brown-haired girl repeated, speaking so softly Marten wasn’t sure he really heard her words.
“Yes, I choose . . . no, I can’t. I have to go back to Master Tom. He needs me.”
The brown-haired girl snapped around. Her eyes wide. Her face was pale. “Why would you choose him? He’s so demanding, pushing you to work hard, scolding you. Things are so poor and ugly there. It’s so beautiful here. Stay here with me. I need you too. Say you’ll choose me.”
Marten could hear the father coughing and groaning behind him.
The red-haired girl was biting her lip, eyes downcast.
The blonde-haired girl had tears running down her cheeks. “Please, stay with us,” she said.
“No, I have to go back to Master Tom,” Marten said. He was surprised at the resolve in his voice.
The brown-haired girl’s face warped into an expression of anger. “No! I will not let you go,” she yelled, swinging her arms out wide. The gentle breeze turned into a whipping wind. Dirt flew into Marten’s face. He raised his arm to shield his eyes. When a slight break came in the gusts, he looked over his arm. The girls were coming toward him with reaching hands ready to grasp him. He backed a step nearly tripping over Father Peter who was crawling on the ground. The vial Father Peter struggled to open was knocked out of his hand and rolled away.
The blonde-haired girl glanced down attracted by the movement and watched as Father Peter desperately scrambled for it. He caught up the vial and pulled out the stopper. A faint trail of silver vapor rose up from it. The blonde screamed and darted for Father Peter grabbing his hands. The contents of the vial arced out a stream of silver liquid that struck her face. She clawed at it howling in pain.
Marten was pulled off balance as the red-haired girl took hold of his arm and pulled him toward her. Father Peter lunged at her. A stream of the silver liquid hit her leg. She let go of Marten. The brown-haired girl kicked out at Father Peter’s head, hitting him and throwing him backward. Marten stared at her as she stepped closer to him.
“You will stay.” All the sweetness was gone from the voice leaving behind bitterness. She was lit not by golden light but by muddy red like the light of a dying fire. Around her the flowering trees were gone replaced with skeletal dead things that might have been parodies of the trees of winter.
The ground a boiling blackness of bugs, a solid carpet of them. Marten recoiled as they crawled over his feet. Instead of wildflowers, growing out of the ground were bits of bones. The bugs were crawling over a field of human skeletons.
The brown-haired girl touched his cheek with her long fingers. The touch made him hunger for something – he didn’t know what and didn’t care. All that mattered in that moment was that he knew in his heart, she could give it to him. “Say you choose me.”
Marten’s mouth opened, his lips moving trying to form the words. Nearby Father Peter’s angished groan pulled Marten out of the girl’s spell. He turned to see the vial still clutched in Father Peter’s hand. Marten jerked away from her and reached for it. The brown-haired girl shrieked. Her arms caught him around his chest. Her fingers clawed at him, ripping his shirt, digging into his skin sending pain through his body.
Marten’s fingertips touched the edge of the vial but it was coated with oil and slipped away as the girl jerked him backward. Harsh laughter made a mockery of the sweetness that still rang in Marten’s ears. Her laughter was joined by another, high pitched and grating coming from a girl with a thatch of matted straw on her head. Her body was bloated. Her skin mottled and pale with purple bruises around eyes and a mouth that hung wide. On the other side came another laugh from what seemed to be a living corpse, faded red hair framed leathery skin drawn tight on bones. Hollow eyes stared at him. Withered hands reached for him.
The brown-haired girl tightened her grip, driving the nails deeper into his skin, and a new pain shot through him as sharp teeth bit his neck. The brown-haired girl’s laughter faded into moaning. He grabbed at the hands trying to pull them away, shaking his head trying to force the teeth out of his neck. The brown-haired girl cried out. She backed off. Her hands had lines of silver where Martens fingertips touched, leaving smears of oil from Father Peter’s vial. The silver lines smoked as delicate skin fell away from bone, starting at her hands the wounds grew up her arms. Maggots crawled through gaps.
Marten unconsciously stepped away, unwillingly moved to pity by her crying. His leg bumped against Father Peter who lay on the ground.
Wind started spinning around him throwing dust and debris into his eyes. When it calmed slightly, Marten opened his eyes. He lay in his bed with Master Tom leaning over him with a panicked look.
In the wind’s howling was screaming and a barely audible crying and Marten heard his name called softly.
Marten whispered back, “I’m sorry.”
The floorboards rattled, and the wind slowly died away.
“Father Peter,” Marten said as he struggled to sit. The father was leaning against the wall not moving.
Master Tom took his shoulders, “You’re hurt.”
“No, Father Peter needs help.” Marten pushed Master Tom away. Master Tom nodded and went to the father and knelt down by him.
A shaft of ruddy sunlight came into the room, illuminating it gently. Marten walked to the window leaned out as far as he could and looked at the pink and purple sunset.
“What are you doing, boy?” Master Tom asked.
“Looking at the sun.”
“The sun will be back in the morning. Now you need to tend to your wounds.”
“Yes, sir,” Marten said and he smiled, his heart filling his chest with a lightness he’d felt but never truly experienced before.
E.M. Sole is a proud resident of Nebraska, living there with three Jack Russell terriers and a very confused cat. She was given the gift of the love of literature of all types by her grandmother, a gift that has grown in value through the years. Her short stories have appeared in Mystic Signals, Infective Ink and Liquid Imagination.