The third village lies ahead of us. Heath points to the desiccated trees fanning out from its centre. The bare branches caress each other in the wind. Dust follows us in a cloud, hiding the flies that pursue us from one village to the next. My hands are still wrapped in rags. They are too swollen for my gloves. I am getting used to the pain. We were all designed as martyrs anyway.
“When no one is watching, that is when they strike,” Heath murmurs. Back on the island, we were warned of the evils we might find in the blandest places. It was not the ancient cemeteries or the sacred monuments we would have to defend. The old ones told us to follow one simple truth about evil’s seed—it does not look like anything. We find it, not in the sewers or the alleys, but in the desolate places. Places without timekeepers or bell towers. Places without signs or ledgers, without coins or recorded pasts. In these places, they claim, it is always the present.
There is no hierarchy. No direction. There is only now.
Heath claims there is a coven in this village. He warns us we may not be able to undo its dark works ourselves. We are here to observe whatever we can. There are no pigs or dogs on these streets. There are no children I can see. No ponds or rivers. We will have to burn everything eventually. I always prefer the water treatment. It is quieter. There are only bubbles.
They saw our cloud coming from miles away. Our entrances are rarely subtle. The churches here still stand tall. There are no marks on their doors. There aren’t even any cats. They might not all be corrupted, but we have no use for trials. It will come down to Heath’s discretion
“I want you two to examine the Quakers’ houses. There is no need to knock.”
I dismount and follow Mitchell down the road. There are no human voices. Even the flies refuse to follow us. No rats or manure in the streets. All the stones seem too clean. No puddles of piss. Our horses huddle together in the main square behind us. They are the only living things around. Mitchell opens doors, but the kitchens and bedrooms remain empty. There are no cellars we can find and the glass in every window is clear. No dust settles on the sills. There are no Quakers here.
We find hats and clothes in closets, but they appear new and unworn. The boots are polished and even our dusty feet leave no footprints behind. Our path seems to come undone behind us, but we continue forward. Small drops of pus fall in my wake, but they don’t last very long under the sun.
Mitchell says all he can smell is my flesh.
I ask him to wave his tail at me.
It’s the horses we hear first. They are shrieking, shrieking like that mare in Philadelphia. We run towards them, but there are no people around. The horses’ hooves lash at one another. Their eyes are pure white. Mitchell and I circle them, but the hooves swing wildly in our direction. They pull at their reins tied to the fence posts. Mitchell’s tail twitches back and forth. Over the noise, I notice the door to the church is open. We draw ourselves away from the horses, their fear rattling in our ears. Sweat runs down their backs, but it seems to disappear once it touches the earth. I push both oak doors wide open and Mitchell clutches the broken cross around his neck.
The pews are polished. Each window sends radiant, coloured beams down toward the altar. The village folk sit with perfect posture. They line every pew in well-ordered families. They are all naked. Their flesh glows white in this light. They make no sound. No one seems to be breathing. Each body has been stripped of its hair. Eyelashes and eyebrows have disappeared. Everything hangs in this light. The dust is trapped above us. It spins, but does not descend.
There is a line of salt down the centre aisle leading towards Heath’s crumpled form. His gloves hide the gray scales of his fists. We inch toward him along the line of salt, averting our eyes from the families, their open eyes watching us and seeing nothing. The altar itself is empty. Heath’s corpse has become a hub within this space. We can finally hear his breath, but when I roll his heavy body over, there is no light inside his eyes. The lids are peeled back, but the pupils do not respond. They are black holes drilled within his face. They are endless portals to some other realm. The broken cross around his neck has become undone from its chain. An empty cup lies beneath his body. There is no fluid within it. I don’t think there ever was. I realize there are no wells in this town. There is no water anywhere.
“Mitchell, grab his legs.”
We pull him along the line of salt, waiting for these hairless bodies to rise up around us. Fire will not swallow these stones. This place no longer wants us here. This was not the place we meant to find. We have grown accustomed to the scent of witches, so we know there is no coven.
The horses are still shrieking at one another when we exit. Mitchell has lost his patience. He leaves me to drag Heath’s husk and wades into the hooves, slapping the animals across their long and sweaty faces. Somehow, we strap Heath onto the back of his beast. We lead the terrified creature between us.
Mitchell will not speak. I stare ahead toward the woods and all the things waiting for us in the dark. Heath chose us to follow him here, to this new land. He never told us how to get home.
This place was prepared for our arrival. It was a test. There are no clocks on their towers. We refuse to turn when we here the buildings begin to crumble. No one will find this place again.
I refuse to become another pillar of salt.
After the third village, I try to sleep. Our fresh salt circle holds what horrors it can at bay. Mitchell heaves about in his sleep. He refuses to discuss the village. He will not speak of the hairless bodies, all their hidden pieces displayed openly in that light. They will not linger for him. Mitchell’s tail grows while he dreams. Soon, it will reach his knees. It will become him.
Heath is gone. Nothing remains. Nothing remains but flesh. We carry his body with us, but it has already begun to smell. I remain unable to sleep. My hands drip. The wet children ask me why and I tell them I don’t know. I ask if I can follow them. I ask them where we are going.
They tell me that is a silly question. They tell me I should know.
Wooden Rocket Press’ Sunday Paper posts new serialized fiction each Sunday. This concludes After The Third Village, but check back in two weeks time for the beginning of a new prison drama by returning series favourite Ryan Adam Murray. In the mean while, check out other stories check out the Sunday Paper archive.
To submit your story for consideration for the Sunday Paper:
e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.